Strategic planning of Information Technology (IT) is essential if Information Systems (IS) are to meet real needs of the organisation concerned, and not be insufficient, superfluous, or quickly outdated. In this paper I will be considering concepts and issues of Project Management in regard to IT. Rather than general concepts of Project Management I will consider some special requirements of the project life cycle to suit the needs of various types of IT projects.
Over five sections I will consider characteristics of successful IT projects, some key issues, required skills for a project team leader in IT, and possible consequences arising from these issues. Most of these could be applied to IT Project Management in any setting. However in considering possible consequences these have been applied particularly to an educational setting, although some of these too could be applied across a variety of projects.
A short definition of IS
A computer based information system is composed of five sub-systems - Data Processing, Management Information, Decision Support, Office Automation, and Expert systems. Each sub-system goes through a process called a system life cycle consisting of the following phases - Planning, Analysis, Implementation, and Operation and Control. Major projects can be undertaken to meet objectives, and minor projects can be aimed at specific problems.
What areas must be considered in the planning stage?
€ Defining the scope of the project
€ The recognition of potential problems areas
€ How tasks are to be sequenced
€ The provision of a basis for control
Comprehensive IT project management (indeed any project management) must address the following key elements to ensure project success:
€ Identifies the personnel resources required, both in quantity and skills and brings these resources together into a project team where individual responsibilities and goals are well defined.
€ Defines a complete project plan where all the tasks have been identified, the inter-relationships of the tasks have been identified, and the expected duration of the individual tasks has been documented.
€ The conducting of appropriate status meetings and providing comprehensive project reporting so as to ensure all parties are fully aware of the progress and issues associated with the project.
€ Continuous monitoring of institution requirements to ensure that all objectives (both actual and quality) are being achieved.
€ Monitoring of the project budget to ensure that costs are being managed and that the institution will receive maximum value for their investment.
€ Matches the structure, management tasks, processes, culture and special needs of the institution.
What characteristics should all successfully completed IT management projects contain?
€ Completion within the original expense budget
€ Completion by the originally set date
€ All of the defined requirements and expectations of the institution have been met
It sounds simple but a large percentage of all management information system (MIS) projects fail to achieve these goals. One of the major reasons is the lack of proper project management. The project focus is quite often centred around the technical elements of a project, rather than the genuine needs of the organisation.
The goals of an IT project for an institution or organisation should be:
€ to improve cost-effectiveness
€ to increase potential (business growth, educational outcomes, etc.)
€ to automate or augment decision making
€ to help gain a competitive advantage
A brief overview of some issues
There are just far too many issues that can be dealt with in depth in such a short paper. Such issues can include:
€ evaluation procedures
€ a review of manual systems (by systems analyst)
€ design of the new computerised system (by systems designers)
€ special requirements of the project life cycle
€ the naivety factor
€ quality procedures and evaluation
€ legal issues (such as copyright and formal contracts)
€ the need for software/hardware updates (technological evolution)
€ project timeframes
€ 4th generation tools
€ the role of system integrators
€ risks and precautions in data management (security)
€ appropriate location of the IT. infrastructure
€ special demands on project infrastructure
€ centralisation v decentralisation of hardware
A closer review of four key issues
The importance of security
The conflict between maintaining robust, secure and efficient information systems, whilst providing information for decision making purpose has often compromised the relationship between the IT department and other users. Any project Manager will need to ensure that the planned IS contains properties that facilitate security - Integrity, Auditability, and Controllability. Information security is important because if the ability to obtain information is lost there may be no physical system left to manage and decision making can be erroneous.
The application of IS in settings where security is an issue raises the question of how can it be ensured that the complete system is "correct". A project manager will need to explore what "correctness" might mean in the context of the project and look at some of the ways in which the correct information systems might be built. This is because there may be a major gap between the sort of systems available or perceived, and the security needs of the institution.
There is also a problem with the fact that the system may interact with a continuous world rather than a discrete one and there could be a further "gap" between what one can model and reason about and the reality. In it's current state the internet is effective in presenting information but it lacks security features, tight message integration, and work-flow options.
Sometimes an organisation will have accumulated many systems, which are not integrated, thereby requiring IT project managers to effectively marry the systems together. The project manager must look at the associated issues with ensuring that the designs that will eventually be implemented can be tested in a satisfactory way, ensuring that the correct design becomes a correct and secure system. This will probably of necessity see the implementation of at Database Management System, plus Risk and Control Matrices.
Included in this assessment is software applications. The wrong choice of software or the modification of an off the shelf product can be fraught with danger, and should be avoided because of the inherent security risk. Environmental Control, Facilities Security, and Disaster Planning are also areas to be carefully considered.
Evaluation and quality
While the promise of investment in IT is great, there will be a crucial need to quality review each stage of the project, the actual impact of the infrastructure as it unfolds, and after completion the ongoing effectiveness of the IS. When discussing IT planning in schools, Perry and Anderson concluded that,
"All aspects related to planning and implementing the plan ought to be scrutinised - vendors, training of personnel, the reward structure, incentives, equipment compatibility, curriculum infusion, resource materials, professional development, public relations, administrative participation and support, auxiliary services, special needs student services, architectural requirements/modifications, networking, and financial/budgetary matters."
First, the planning process should receive evaluation. Project Team members should evaluate their effectiveness and should undertake an evaluation of the process through which they went to arrive at the implementation phase. At various points throughout the project a Quality Evaluator will need to formally review outcomes, using pre-determined criteria. The IT project should be evaluated from numerous vantage points. While the planning itself should be scrutinised, activities surrounding the plan deserve perpetual evaluation (informally) and periodic evaluation (formally).
Post-implementation reviews will also be needed to determine the extent to which the project is satisfying performance criteria. These evaluations should be repeated regularly throughout the systems life span. These criteria can used to ascertain if the project has achieved it's goals, to identify unintended negative consequences, and to acquire information that can help staff increase their effectiveness. As network technology enables the participation of people, agencies, and resources that traditionally have not been accessible from the classroom or office, it will also automatically collect data on the extent and nature of their participation and subsequent effectiveness.
By routinely monitoring on-line information about participation, patterns of access and use, and user reactions, staff can follow the impacts of their initiatives and modify the design and features of their projects. Evaluators can use these data to document the breadth of impact on the traditional system and the extent to which program activities are coordinated with and supportive of any other reform efforts. Subsequent reviews must take into account any recommendations that have been made during precedent evaluations.
The naivety factor
A computer project is the means by which an automated version of an existing system is realised. A good strategy in information systems and it's resulting policy should determine the same in an organisation's IT infrastructure. A ten year plan is not an option because of the rampant pace of technological development. A system that was at the forefront of IT just a couple of years ago could now virtually be a dinosaur.
Mecklenburger stated that,
"Administrators must understand both the capabilities and limitations of technology. Only then can they plan for, budget for, purchase carefully, schedule adequately, distribute appropriately, and replace systematically the electronic technology best suited for their needs."
Naivety can allow an organisation to (wrongly) focus on the technology rather than strategic planning and improving overall effectiveness. Indeed the right choice of software should ensure that the management culture of the organisation is supported, rather than dominated by it. Taking current systems into account, an assessment of the capabilities of the technology chosen must be drawn on its flexibility. Choosing the wrong software can prove to be a disaster in waiting.
Five questions should be answered:
€ What is the purpose of the implementation strategy?
€ How is that purpose realised?
€ How does the IT selected contribute to that
€ How should the IT architecture be implemented?
€ What are the business applications of the IT architecture?
It's important to take a very broad view because changes intended for one purpose can impact in an unanticipated way in that area or some other. IS has the potential to change staff relationships and roles to an extent that is not envisaged in the organisation's vision of IT. Hence the organisation's intent, perceptions, and current practice must be carefully examined in the first stage of the project before moving to the next. It's also important to identify constraints before work begins. Many of these are imposed by the organisations management but some can come about by such factors as the environment or government regulation.
Legal issues in I.T. Project Management
This can be related sometimes to the naivety factor (as above). It may be only late in the course of a project that the full sophistication and meaning of the existing (possibly manual) system is understood. The consequences to a project of not fully understanding as such are often severe. Projects which are bound too tightly to initial analysis of the system are unable to benefit from improved understanding of it. Hence it may give rise to legal complications if a conflict arises due to misunderstandings in this area both before and after completion of the project.
In most commercial and educational IT projects, the only realistic framework for managing the competing interests is excellent planning and a formal contract. It is important to discuss and document the relevant legal rules, and to indicate clearly if these rules may cause inappropriate development strategies to be adopted. An alternative legal framework which may be in the best interests of all concerned should be considered if difficulties are foreseen. Of necessity this should also include post-completion issues such as the access and use of copyrighted material, plus the use and licence of various software applications.
Definition of required skills for Project Manager/Staff/ Coordinator(s) in IT
The subject matter experts needed for:
€ design and specification
€ quality review/quality assurance
€ project management committee
€ quality review committee
would need to include technical (computing) specialists to ensure that the standards applied to a custom built application were of a standard commensurate with the layperson as a user.
Leadership is about 'why' and management is about 'how', and because they are inextricably linked a good project manager needs liberal doses of both - along with a strong shared vision. They are a team player with an understanding of the many and varied approaches that could be undertaken in IT projects.
A good project manager will possess knowledge of appropriate integrated software (spreadsheets, communication, security, groupware, etc.), and systems (management information, data processing, decision support, etc.) for the organisation in the completed project. It is all too easy to be pressured by companies extolling the virtues of their products. He/she should also be familiar with software use in project planning (Microsoft Project, MacProject, etc.).
A project team specialising in IT could also be specialists known as system integrators, translating problems and initial specifications into IT solutions, thereby minimising system initiation risks to the organisation. Systems integrators are usually employed by organisations with specific requirements. The systems integrators will then design an IT structure that provides technology solutions for the organisation needs and/or problems.
Upon completion of the project it would bode well to appoint overseer(s) of the new IS (say in the form of an IT committee), because,
"...research points overwhelmingly to the effectiveness of an on-site support person, but hotlines to a central co-ordinator or program office, extra time for staff to meet and discuss ideas, and electronic support systems linking staff to each other have also shown to be effective."
Links to consequences for staff and institution
In any IT project there will be enormous consequences for the staff and institution involved. Presented here (in no particular order) are some possible consequences (both negative and positive) as they would apply in an educational setting.
When beginning a new IT project in a small setting with little outside resources (such as a medium size school) the project manager would need to choose his/her team carefully, ensuring that input is considered and not the sharing of pooled ignorance. The consequences of such actions need no explanation!
In introducing any technology which is new to a school (even if the technology in itself is not new) there are always risks. These risks must be evaluated, relative to any benefits to be gained from the new technologies, as a basis for making decisions on the most appropriate learning technologies, albeit with an acceptable degree of risk.
IT Project Managers may be able provide a plan structured to a specific school but, a) may be too costly, and b) not in touch with the 'real world' processes of everyday teaching and learning. Yet if school personnel are appointed to the project they may be restricted by time. Additionally if staff leave or are promoted after beginning an IT Project it may take several months to regain lost momentum. Follow-up funds (as well as personnel) are also important to maintain the system once is up and running.
Cross platform client portability is critical to many K-12 educational systems because of the mix between Apple and PC work stations. Teachers and other staff need to have portability for their home computer as well. Hence, no allowance in this area could seriously impede the work of staff and/or be a source of serious discontent for those who view it with some notion of inequity.
Personal schedules can block out time for required meetings. Through the use of appropriate communications software data can be sent and accessed that will not only improve efficiency of many aspects of administration, but also build a collaborative work environment. Networked electronic diaries will also save on paper and printing.
Perhaps the biggest consequence of the introduction of IT into educational settings is resistance from older staff who are uncomfortable. Some educators may consider that IT threatens their influence. In this scenario important aspects of education may compete against, rather than complement, each other. Here on-site assistance in the form of both technological and pedagogical support is essential.
Likewise innovations can be introduced, "...without giving sufficient attention to the teachers who will implement them", which in turn can have a destabilising effect as teachers, "...experience disequilibrium in the transition from past to present". The change process can take some time, and barriers can arise causing an interruption to successful implementation.
However, whilst the introduction of MIS into a school can constitute, "...a sharp change in the school's technical sub-system", it can also bring many benefits at clerical level (saving manual work, lessening dependence on others, etc.), at management control level (assisting decision making, providing follow-up tools, etc.), and at a strategic level (planning, resource allocation, etc.).
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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1998, "Strategic planning of Information Technology for schools", www.klarbooks.com/academic/itm.html, + date accessed