You can't always get what you want
BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY
PHOTOS BY JEROEN BOUMAN
scarce resources and time-constrained tasks, global project managers often press work plans and deadlines to their limits, trying to squeeze a quart from a pint jug. However, the consequences don't have to be slippage, budget hassles and overruns. By improving the allocation of resources and maximizing the intelligence with which resources are identified and consumed, an organization can extend its finite skills and capabilities further than ever before.
For example, look at Getronics N.V., a global IT powerhouse with operations in 30 countries. In 1887, the Dutch founders of the company, then Groeneveld Van der Pol Elektrotechnische Fabriek N.V., couldn't have conceived that their small control equipment venture eventually would become a multinational services business. Growth from a localized business in the utility, construction and shipbuilding industries toward IT services hasn't come without resourcing headaches.
Because Getronics’ work is extensively project-based, the company standardized resourcing with Microsoft's enterprise project management tool earlier this year, says Maarten Karnekamp, a project manager based in Amersfoort, The Netherlands. Implemented worldwide, the system has improved project planning significantly, he says. “We can clearly see the availability of the resources that we need. Project planning is not only faster, it's better.”
But one problem hasn't been eased, according to Mr. Karnekamp. “Project managers always want the best expertise that they can get, and they want it when they want it. Because we all know from experience who the most skilled individuals are, that means that everyone wants the same key people,” he says. “And of course, when we can't get them, we have to either flex the timescales or hire extra expertise.”
➜ Although the best resources are scarce, you can use simple techniques to overcome issues.
➜ When determining your human resource needs, think skills, not numbers.
➜ You have to trust your team to work with what they have to deliver the best project possible.
There's no magic bullet, but by keeping a closer eye on how and when resources are allocated, worthwhile gains are possible.
Feast or Famine
It's often worth stepping back and considering whether the apparent scarcity of available resources actually is either timeframe induced or a genuine capacity constraint—in other words, whether the shortage is real or illusory.
“A lot of times, projects come up, and there's a sense that they need to be started tomorrow,” says Bob Woodruff, director of operations at Robbins-Gioia, Alexandria, Va., USA. “But not every project is a top priority, and not every project has to be started immediately.” By recognizing the real priorities, project managers can understand which efforts can be pushed back, how far they can be pushed back and how many seemingly constrained resources are made available as a result, he says.
A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
PROJECT MANAGERS ARE WELL ACQUAINTED with the proverbial rock and hard place. What can you do when the team says it needs certain resources, you think it needs less and the budget prompts even fewer? One thing's certain: It's pointless to even think of requesting extra budget unless you know that the team's estimate is correct.
Step one is to validate methods and calculations. “Experience gives you a sense for this type of issue,” says Bob Woodruff, director of operations at project planning specialists Robbins-Gioia, Alexandria, Va., USA. “You develop a relationship with people, and you can tell if an estimate is fact or fiction.”
You must distinguish between low-level grumbling and a genuinely significant resource shortfall. Sometimes you just have to be firm and tell the team to endure, regardless of their perceptions, says Ian Mitchell, chief executive of project planning company Projxsoft, Aldershot, Hampshire, U.K. “The message has to be, ‘Here's the budget, here's the timetable-now get on with it,’” he says. “Some people can find it a tough message to deliver, but it must be said.”
|WE CAN CLEARLY SEE THE AVAILABILITY OF THE RESOURCES THAT WE NEED. PROJECT PLANNING IS NOT ONLY FASTER, IT‘S BETTER.|
Even after projects have been started, they may consume resources unnecessarily. For example, global semiconductor manufacturer Intel used an IT governance system to increase its IT resources-developers, analysts and other specialists by 12 percent. The software, made by Mountain View, Calif., USA-based Mercury, identifies the value that each ongoing IT project delivers.
As a result, Intel discovered that at least 20 percent of its ongoing IT projects were not delivering any value to the business—and so could be shut down without any impact. The business processes that they supported no longer were necessary, says Roger Gilheany, Mercury's London, U.K.-based IT governance market development manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Yet Intel hadn't seen the inefficiencies before it began monitoring the alignment of its project portfolio with its business needs. “Projects tend to have lives of their own. They are kicked off, but the ongoing need for them is not always reviewed,” Mr. Gilheany says.
Of course, free resources can be reallocated to other projects that are more closely aligned to enterprise objectives. In Intel's case, the impact was considerable, says Martin Curley, the Dublin, Ireland-based director of IT innovation at Intel Information Technology. In the case of one long-running project, “if we had used the governance solution earlier, we could have reduced the implementation time from five years to 18 months.”
Looks Are Deceiving
Perception also plays a role in resource planning and allocation. Apart from physical assets, such as building space or machinery, project managers generally understand the word “resources” to include “people,” according Eugene Blaine, founder and managing director of Atlantic Global. The Cleckheaton, Yorkshire, U.K., company provides program and project planning software.
But the two aren't always interchangeable, especially in larger organizations, Mr. Blaine warns. From a project manager's point of view, it is important to get a handle on people's skills and capabilities. Yet organizations structure themselves around people, geographies and functions. The result: blurred vision. “Companies can create a single view of all their projects and the resources that are attached to them, but typically can't look at a single view of all their resources and skills against outstanding project commitments,” he says. “It's not unusual to find suitable people from another part of the business or country that are being underutilized, while contractors are bought in to fill an apparent gap. Can you imagine a scientist working on a revolutionary new cancer treatment ever using a tool like Microsoft Project? You can't: There are simply too many imponderables. But you can very clearly imagine that same scientist saying, ‘I need people with particular skills to help me. Where can I find them, what is their availability, and what will it cost me?' That's a much more practical proposition.”
In other words, Mr. Blaine says, what's required is a virtual resource pool and skills base, dynamically linked to the current and future project portfolio, providing a single view of both project requirements and the resource base. That's certainly an argument that convinces Jim Robinson, head of program delivery at Virgin Mobile, a cell phone provider based in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, U.K. Based on his extensive prior exposure to a portfolio- and resource-planning tool called Corporate Vision at London, U.K.-headquartered LogicaCMG, Mr. Robinson pushed Virgin Mobile to implement it. He says the tool identifies and allocates resource commitments into the future. “It's one thing having a very clear short-term view of what our people will be working on, and quite another six months or a year out,” he says. “And if you don't know how many developers will be free in six months’ time, it's difficult to know if you can take on an additional project then. In theory, you have the time to hire more people—if you only knew you had to.”
Skills for Sale
Yet hiring functional experts, because of the permanence of hiring, remains an uncomfortable option for many businesses-especially in uncertain or difficult economic conditions. Some project managers become frustrated when management turns down requests for additional staff, only to authorize contractors costing perhaps twice as much as a direct hire's salary.
Even so, that doesn't mean that businesses are ready to write a blank check, says Raees Lakhani, London, U.K.-based director of client services at Resources Global Professionals. “In the real world, even though every project might be important and necessary and urgent, companies are still going to look at the bottom line every month,” he says. “Cost-effectiveness is paramount.”
Cost-effective approaches to the supply of contract labor are gaining ground. For example, Resources Global Professionals offers retains a pool of seasoned professionals with 12 to 15 years’ experience, Mr. Lakhani says. It's certainly a recipe that's proven attractive to the top 70 of the Fortune 100, he adds, citing a roll call that includes oil giants BP and Shell, Kraft Foods, Unilever, Southwest Airlines and Goldman Sachs.
The bottom line: When resources are constrained, project managers have several worthwhile options to explore before pressing the hire button. Even then, it's possible to shop around and get equivalent expertise at a discount, stretching those project budgets even further. PM
Malcom Wheatley is a U.K.-based freelance writer who writes for CIO, CSO and Manufacturing Business Technology magazines.
PM NETWORK | DECEMBER 2005 | WWW.PMI.ORG