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PPM software helps university prioritize wide-ranging portfolios

Project and portfolio management (PPM) software helped the University of Utah centralize its IT initiatives, prioritize projects and establish useful portfolios. Learn how here.

Many organizations that adopt what they call project and portfolio management largely end up implementing project management practices as opposed to a portfolio approach to IT investing, according to a new survey. And then there are organizations like the University of Utah, which not only has used PPM software to centralize IT projects across its sprawling campus, but has also created project portfolios and multiple layers of governance to guide project priorities.

New reader research on project and portfolio management (PPM) found that only 37% of 304 enterprise organizations define PPM as an enterprise-wide discipline used to select and prioritize investments in different parts of the company, including IT. (The others either use PPM only in IT -- 31%; don't have a PPM practice at all -- 28%; or have one only outside of IT -- 5%.) Furthermore, 42% used PPM software, and of those, 30% deemed portfolio management as a "very important" feature in PPM software system selection.

So when The University of Utah undertook an endeavor two years ago to centralize its IT operations and institute PPM software and methodology campus-wide, it found itself in the vanguard.

"A lot of research indicated you should probably do one then the other -- portfolio or project, or vice versa," said Rene Weston-Eborn, senior IT portfolio manager at the Salt Lake City-based university. "But looking at where we were and what we needed to accomplish, we needed to approach this differently from other organizations. We needed both."

In 2007, university leadership decided it needed to centralize IT initiatives under CIO Stephen Hess. As at many academic institutions, IT was highly decentralized among the academic and administrative departments serving 25,000 students, 20,000 staff and faculty members and 200 IT employees. In particular, one of the university's IT teams, administrative computing systems, was struggling with other functional areas, Weston-Eborn added. "There were departmental silos causing miscommunication and distrust. In addition, there was limited transparency into projects, creating uncertainty and confusion."

As part of the centralization effort, the university created a PPM office and established cross-divisional project teams to ensure that project objectives were inclusive and would be accomplished. Then it decided to use PPM software because portfolio management was crucial to the university's vision of a total PPM program, Weston-Eborn said.

"We knew we needed to implement parallel strategies -- the right people at the right time, working on the right things," she said. "We needed to enhance IT governance and accountability, implement strategic planning scenarios and improve project management, so leaders could make informed business decisions and be better at managing funds from the federal government and constituents."

The university selected software by Planview Inc., including Planview's enterprise portfolio management module, which includes an enhanced IT governance piece that allows managers to prioritize projects and rank and balance investment portfolios, as well as a demand-management piece.

"They had the reporting capabilities we were looking for," Weston-Eborn said. "That was one of our largest business drivers. We wanted to gain IT visibility and have drill-down capabilities to allow high-level administrators to keep an eye on projects." Planview declined to specify what the software cost.

Project portfolios and governance

When it comes to organizing and prioritizing investments, only a third of organizations maintain separate queues for different types of initiatives, according to the research. The University of Utah has organized technology initiatives across the university into 11 investment portfolios (see sidebar), managed by the PPM office. "The portfolios are structured to manage the prioritization of projects and balancing of resources," Weston-Eborn said.

The PPM office provides administration and facilitation duties only; decisions pertaining to project acceptance and prioritization fall to the portfolio team. There is also an "executive portfolio" group, composed of strategic-minded individuals, that provides direction regarding conflicting resources and vision regarding the university mission. The CIO is the active sponsor of this group, although his involvement is limited to oversight, direction and advice, Weston-Eborn said.

In addition, the PPM process is now embedded into the university's culture. University leadership is not going to fund any initiatives that have not gone through the strategic portfolio process. "To have this mandated is huge for us," Weston-Eborn said.

PPM payoff

The entire program, fully implemented in 10 months, has resulted in cost savings and a mind shift, Weston-Eborn said.

"In the last six months, we saw a major shift of users thinking more strategically toward the university's mission," she said. "It's taken some of the emotion out, and moved us toward a more fact-based decision-making model."

Qualitatively, the university has seen cost savings, she said.

"Before, most projects were accepted if they were initiated by management; there were no controlling factors as to the importance, cost or necessity. The natural result of this process was resource and financial confusion," she said.

Now, "this methodology allows for management to see projects from differing perspectives, allowing for financial oversight while highlighting vulnerability."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rachel Lebeaux, Associate Editor

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