Filed Under:Technology, Tech Management

Ducks in a Row

Finding the right software sometimes can be the easy part. Getting a project off the ground requires a project manager who can lead IT, the business unit, and, yes, the vendor to a successful implementation. Veterans who have gone through the process preach adaptability as well as any number of methodologies.

By Robert Regis Hyle

Remember the good old days of assembly lines where everyone had a single task to perform and at the end of the day a car magically was built? Todays business world, thanks in great part to technology, has meshed many of the tasks employees perform so there is more of a reliance on what co-workers are doing. This interdependence holds true for the tools employees work with and the need to implement those tools effectively. To achieve a successful implementation, project managers have taken the forefront in bringing all sides IT, business, and the vendorsinto the same room.

Project management is definitely a joint venture, says Adrian Brown, CIO of Canal Insurance. Its a marriage. If you dont implement a project correctly, youre not going to have something anyone is going to use. It could be the best product in the world, but if you dont implement it correctly, it wont fit your needs.

Project management offices are taking shape within insurance carriers, usually with a single person responsible for technology management, according to Kimberly Harris-Ferrante, research director for Gartner. Project managers primarily are coming from the IT side and report to the CIO. [Theyre] usually senior IT people who know more about the business side than what you may have seen in the past, she says.

The push behind project management comes from a combination of proj-ects getting too far out of hand and companies realizing they dont have a lot of money to throw away on a failed implementation. There is a great need not to waste money and to make sure you are on target with being successful more than ever before, adds Harris-Ferrante.

Project management needs the commitment of senior management and everyone involved in a particular project to be successful, believes Bob Green, director of information technology with Health Net. There is a lot of reluctance to commit to a project because [employees] silo their activities to protect themselves from anyone coming into their space, he says. To achieve project success, Health Net involves business-side people, IT staff, and consultants for certain jobs. You need to be able to recognize who is available across all of those entities, he notes.

Method to the Madness

Project management involves more than just theory, according to Green. The most prevalent project management tool in the market, particularly in the IT space, he suggests, is Microsoft Project. There are other tools out there, such as Workbench, as well as project portfolio management tools, such as PlanView, which Health Net currently is using.

Most insurers are starting to move in the direction of project management, states Harris-Ferrante. As part of this, carriers also are talking about quality assurance and quality practices, particularly around some of the popular methodologies, such as Six Sigma, Lean Management, STOMP, and others.

Methodologies also are gaining importance among carriers because of their proven success. As methodologies become more widespread, it is easier to find people who understand and are knowledgeable in their use, Harris-Ferrante points out. Carriers are beginning to seek more from their vendors than just the software, she contends, focusing on project management. If you are a company with a lot of experience in one of these methodologies, you are going to be viewed more positively, she says. If a vendor is working with carriers that adhere to [a certain methodology], it is going to be hard to win [the carriers] trust if [the vendor] doesnt have knowledge in the methodologies the carriers support.

As for methodologies, Brown prefers Rapid Application Development. The probability of getting really perfect specs is slim, he says. You meet, listen, get back together in a week, and show them what youve got to try out.

The best quality methodologies bring to projects, though, is the addition of structure to the process. When you go into any project, whether it is a little one or a long-term one, you need structure to keep you focused, Brown says. Especially if its a nine-month project as our claims project was. The temptation to wander off to the woods is almost overpowering.

The structure keeps everyone focused. But Brown cautions the danger in structure from a methodology is it can encourage people to feel it is more important a project follow a certain methodology than the project be successful. [The methodology] becomes a life form of itself, he says. I know people who use [methodologies] to keep from having to put their own stake into the total project working correctly. The methodology gives you boundaries and a comfort level, but it shouldnt become a life form of its own. Brown compares such dependence to a high-school science club operating under Roberts Rules of Order. The purpose of science in high school is to blow things up, he says. Its not to have a Roberts Rules of Order meeting. Sometimes methodologies be-come Roberts Rules of Order.
Solutions provider Guidewire looks for implementation people who are adaptable and wont get into religious wars about methodology, according to Alex Naddaff, vice president, implementation services. We tell our people you have to be able to adjust, he says. If [the customer] wants advice on Six Sigma or something like that, its fine to give it, but our mission is customer satisfaction and successful implementation of our software. Were not selling methodology. If the best method to [a successful implementation] with any given customer is Six Sigma, thats great. The last thing we want is to be arguing with people for three months on how we should work together as opposed to moving forward. Its not worth the time.

A successful implementation is im-portant to all sides, but when the project is complete, it will be the carrier using the product, not the vendor. Customers dont need for me to put a redundant project manager in there to tell them how to work, says Naddaff. What you end up doing is focusing on the theory of project management as opposed to the action of getting the project implemented. Were trying to avoid that battle.

Where Is Everybody?

The biggest issue facing Health Net is improving resource utilization, according to Green. We have a large IT organization, and obviously people are working on more than just one or two jobs, he says. We need that visibility to make sure we have the available skills and the resources to work on very large portfolio projects that are being requested [by the business side].
The challenge today for many companies such as Health Net is determining the available capacity of personnel if the company takes on additional demand, Green believes. We dont even know at times where were going to be short on certain skill sets six months out, he says. Thats where an integrated project portfolio kind of solution is going to provide that visibility. Its a matter of preparing to do [projects], and therein lies the real challenge with many organizations.

Vendors can send out good facilitators to manage their end of the project, but Brown maintains the facilitators have to know the insurance industry, as well. You can have really good facilitators, says Brown. They can promote discussion and ask penetrating questions, but they also can miss something really major. The biggest problem you can have on a project is people focusing on their particular areas. You have all these people with tunnel vision.

That is why Brown advises project managers have to look at the bigger picture. If they dont understand your business, they are going to miss something, he says. They are going to listen to all the individuals, and they can be intuitive or sharp people, but if they dont know the industry, they can miss something that is just so obvious.

As an example, Brown mentions a claims project and a discussion that took place on how the carrier defines a loss. Even though property/casualty companies have tremendous similarities, there are variants within there that sound really close but have radical implications for your claims department and how you process things, he says. Someone who doesnt know your business might not think it sounds like much, but it really is. You can have a really good facilitator who doesnt have tremendous business background, but for project leader you need someone whos got [the background].

Solutions providers such as Guide-wire have to go through a balancing act of their own, points out Naddaff. Guidewire has established a solid project methodology of its own, he notes, but when the vendor goes to a customers site, the vendor is there as a software company, not a proj-ect manager. Were consulting to install our software, he says. What we do is try to adapt to the customers methodology and the customers program office. Any tools the customer uses, we adapt to them. Weve worked with Six Sigma, weve worked with companies that had program offices in place, and weve worked with companies that had very informal project management.

Guidewire looks at its own project manager as an assistant to the customers project manager. The actual tools Guide-wire uses for project management, Naddaff explains, are designed to set up a contract between parties involved in the projectsaying what their responsibilities are, the mechanisms to schedule those responsibilities, and action to be taken if something goes wrong. Youre trying to detect problems as early as you can so you can take action on them, says Naddaff. Projects are complicated things to do. No matter how well you plan or whatever you do, you are going to run into some problems. The key is to have a group in place that knows how to deal with problems and can take action.

The Real Issue

Capability Maturity Model is another methodology prevalent in the IT engineering area that Green supports. Its used to determine the maturity of the project management or software development in an organization, he explains. Quality is a real issue today as is the ability to repeat processes. Most people will tell you at the end of the day most of what we do is repeatable but only if we are able to identify the repeatable steps and build that into the overall project management life cycle.
Green doesnt believe IT professionals have been successful in helping the business or the customer to understand the information life cycle. I dont think weve done a very good job of educating the business side on the steps you need to go through for its involvement and commitment, he says. Thats been one of my disappointments of the last five or six years. Were trying to redefine the whole information engineering framework. Its not just project management. You have to look at other areas.

Health Net is a product of acquisitions, says Green. We brought together a number of companies, and obviously each of the companies came with its own baggage, as you would expect, he continues. Were trying to tear down those barriers and get everyone on the same systems development life cycle. Politics, culture, and stubbornness are three factors that hinder organizations from overcoming the acquisition ob-stacle. Its going to be extremely critical for us to get our hands around all these projects, adds Green. The company basically is asking: Why does it cost so much to do IT? And we dont have an answer.

Insurance carriers are starting to pick up the same project management trends Gartner is seeing outside of the insurance industry, according to Harris-Ferrante. Just because they are in insurance doesnt mean their systems are different and their projects will be different, she says. The best practices to which carriers are starting to adhere arent specific to the insurance industry.

Typically, a company would want to have the same project management processes address either small or big proj-ects, suggests Harris-Ferrante. However, there are more protocols, particularly when you get into some of the large global companies, and you have more standards if [a projects cost] is over a certain dollar amount. When you reach that point you have to have more members of the executive team look at the projects to secure the funding. You have a little different discussion when you reach that level.

Vendor Friendly

The relationship between the carrier and the vendor is critical to any projects success, Brown maintains. At the front end, make sure you are comfortable with the [vendors] people, he says. You have to get a high level of comfort, or you are in a world of hurt.

IT people need to participate in the business side of the discussion, comments Brown, and be able to demonstrate from previous applications how something would have been done. Sometimes your people are wrong, but a lot of times theyre right, he says. If you get your IT people in there with the claims people or other business people, they all have to know this project has to work. No one gets to say, Well, I did my part, and walk away. Its all or nothing.

Naddaff believes the things that are critical to a projects success are a strong sponsor and a team thats aware of its progressso it knows when its going off trackand very adaptable. The framework that can make that happen can involve any of the methodologies that companies work with, he says. Working with Canal, Naddaff describes the management of the project as much more informal [than other projects] because Browns philosophy is to have an adaptable team that is small and can move quickly. When you work within Canals environment, you end up putting a team on site that should be very adaptable, says Naddaff. When you work with another carrier, you might end up putting a team on site that is much more structured and works within a major methodology.

Dont Blow It

Development time always was critical for yesterdays projects because it took so long to implement tools, the cost of proj-ects was so high, and the technology was so rigid. If you blew it, you blew a multi-year effort, and for companies that did that, it was devastating, says Brown.

Today, carriers can do incredible things within the enterprise in a short period of time. Now, we can bend the systems around the people, he concludes. For a while there people were bending around the systems because the mainframes were such massive investments and you had to optimize [that investment]. Well guess what? Today, people are your biggest investment. You better optimize them now.



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