Why Project Managers Should Get to Know Their End Users' Business

Project managers: Get in the trenches and get in touch with users' needs.

Recently, a CIO asked me to look into why his organization's enterprise resource planning implementation turned into such a challenge. The most troubled deployments -- a total of seven projects -- involved sales, fulfillment and customer support.

A review of the organization's project management governance process revealed that there was a functioning project management office and a methodology. Of the 18 project managers working on these initiatives, six had obtained professional certification. The development plans of these seven projects didn't expose major shortcomings.

Next, I looked into the project implementation plans and interviewed end users, and the reasons for implementation problems began to unfold: Project managers didn't truly understand customers' business processes. While technically efficient, the resulting systems lacked intuitive human-to-machine interactions, so they were cumbersome to use and required workarounds. Screen navigation quality ranged from acceptable to downright appalling. In the final analysis, these projects didn't solve business problems.

I then interviewed the five project managers responsible for these projects and discovered that only one had substantive knowledge of the business. Two managers smugly announced that they didn't like corporate politics. And when asked, "How did your project change end users' business processes?" one project manager replied, "I don't know. I just work here." Based on these interviews, I recommended that the company's CIO focus on the following areas:

The company project managers keep. Project managers must take the time to understand how their organizations conduct business. Each project manager with responsibility for a complex project should be assigned a mentor from the key business area who can educate him or her about the business. Such a guide helps the project manager learn the inner workings of the business and how to manage in its political environment. I also recommend holding an open forum every three months in which project managers and business stakeholders discuss how technology can be leveraged to create business value.

A reading list for project managers. Far too few project managers read business publications. They tend to read technical books and magazines. A simple way to share knowledge about business issues is to set up an article exchange program among project managers and their business users.

Walking the walk. Though valuable, book knowledge goes only so far in educating project managers about the actual workings of the business. It's imperative that project managers be required to do "field duty" and get in the trenches with their business customers. This hands-on experience -- including riding on delivery trucks, answering help desk calls and responding to users' emergencies -- shows project managers how the systems they build are used and how these systems can help or hinder their end users. Another form of field duty is for project managers to participate in the meetings and conferences their end users attend. In doing so, project managers can further develop their business knowledge.

All these activities serve a dual purpose: They equip project managers with the necessary knowledge about the business, and they demonstrate to customers and end users the degree of the IT department's commitment when it comes to creating maximum business value.

In sum, my advice to project managers is this: Go forth and mingle.

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification. To comment on this story, email ProjectExpert@ciodecisions.com.

This was first published in February 2006

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