15 Sep Steering a project portfolio takes more than expensive software
Practically everybody knows that ERP isn’t the rude noise somebody makes in a meeting after too many donuts and soda. And most of that savvy population also knows that Enterprise Resource Planning isn’t some silver bullet solving your company-wide functional problems with a single check to a vendor.
I’m not out to shoot that duck in a barrel today. What is apparently less obvious is that ERP systems don’t equal portfolio management. I’ve run into several situations recently where portfolio-management initiatives got stuck by turning too quickly to software. ERP is one of usual suspects, but so are the various more targeted enterprise project-management tools.
If you’ve read some of my other columns, you won’t be surprised to see me climbing up on a soapbox about software not being the solution to significant organizational issues, and that goes double for portfolio management. What surprises me is that folks who don’t bite on that bait will go hook, line and sinker for the idea that a class of software can be their problem definition.
I suppose ERP started this line of thinking with the idea that you buy ERP systems and adapt your processes to fit the models they bring. The wreckage of various ERP implementations has raised some doubts about this approach, but it must have been a lucrative marketing approach because I’m beginning to hear the same gambit applied to IT portfolio management and IT program management. Don’t bite.
Before you’re ready to go shopping for software to help you manage your project portfolio, you need to be sure your organization is ready for portfolio management. There are any number of maturity or capability models out there for project management, including a good one under development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I don’t know of a single one that starts out at portfolio management. Without competent project managers and a culture that values and supports their work, all the software in the world isn’t going to make your projects more efficient or better at adding money to the bottom line.
Many companies start on this journey by giving senior technical staff or functional managers a part-time title of project manager. Everybody has to start somewhere.
As they become more sophisticated in handling their projects, they create full-time project manager positions and standardized processes for project definition, selection and assessment, and they develop a project governance structure. Somewhere in the course of all this organizational work, they probably begin buying software tools to help with planning and tracking of individual projects. All of this is necessary pre-work for portfolio management, and almost none of it has to do with software.
The couple of local companies I know of that have made progress with portfolio management started from well-established project management practices. In both cases, it wasn’t just a “next step” in their development. Despite having clear governance and business case processes, direct ties to strategic planning, and an established base of software tools, both companies took a step back and did significant organizational assessment and requirements gathering before trying to move forward with formalized portfolio management.
Don’t get me wrong. I make my living by getting up close and personal with technology in general and systems in particular. I wouldn’t want to attempt a significant project without good software tools to help with everything from the original business case through the minutiae of task tracking to effective testing and rollout.
But I also know from sometimes painful experience that the best, most sustainable improvements rarely begin by writing a check for software.
Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and program-development consulting firm in Madison, Wis. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at 608/345-3958.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.