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'Guerilla' project management anchors a city's IT transformation

Project management is the linchpin of a $7.5 million multi-system IT transformation under way in the city of Nashua, N.H.

John Barker, IT director for the city of Nashua, N.H., had one big thing going for him when he was hired to lay the groundwork for an IT transformation approved by city officials two years ago.

"The existing [legacy] system was so difficult that they all agreed that anything would improve it," said Barker, who came aboard as the city's IT director in 2006. "We probably had four high-probability risks that could take down the city at any point."

But anything proved to be everything. Nashua's 30-year-old legacy system was used for the city's financial applications in departments ranging from planning to public health to fire and police. "This tool was a hammer and everything was a nail," Barker said.

Finding a replacement for all of those "nails" has proven to be a massive undertaking, not to mention a high-stakes juggling act. Dubbed NGIN, for Nashua Government Innovation, this IT transformation entails the implementation of three major IT systems: Enterprise resource planning (ERP), a geographic information system (GIS) and an enterprise document management system. It will take some five years to complete and cost an estimated $7.5 million. "Essentially everything will be new. It will not resemble anything we have now," Barker said.

Six months into the estimated 18-month implementation of the city's new ERP platform (from Lawson Software Inc.) -- the biggest piece of the IT transformation, comprising about 70% of NGIN -- the anchor in this whirlwind of change, according to Barker, has been a commitment to project management. Make that "guerilla project management," a John Barker combo of formal project management processes run by a contracted professional project management team and a stripped-down mode practiced by his IT staff of 15.

"In something like NGIN, you need these very structured, formal processes, because it is a big animal. But with so many moving parts, there is a vast amount of work which can't bear, nor should bear, all the trappings of project management," said Barker, a certified project manager and former national project manager for Agfa-Gevaert N.V., a Belgium-based distributor of imaging systems.

"I'm not a big believer in form for form's sake, so I focus on what it takes to get the job done," Barker added.

Plus, in his view, budgeting for a professional project management firm was the only fiscally responsible route to take. "We saw too many examples of where very expensive projects started to fall apart because individuals were expected not only to participate as a subject-matter expert and do their regular jobs, but also to be responsible for the scheduling of logistics, copying paperwork, sending out all the emails," he recalled. "With our 15-person staff, who already do the work of 30, it was not sustainable."

In addition to the ERP implementation, NGIN also calls for:

  • New systems for licensing, permitting and code enforcement that integrate with the city's existing records, including its GIS and the financials handled by its new ERP system.
  • An enterprise document management system to tie into all of the above.

There are a lot of moving parts. As the ERP implementation unfolds, project managers have discovered that components of the document management system originally slated last on the docket need to be completed in tandem. A SharePoint portal keeps everyone abreast of the progress.

Project management no longer 'one-size-fits-most'

The Barker approach actually dovetails with the latest thinking about project portfolio management (PPM) from many of the large IT consultancies. In a 2011 predictions report on PPM published in November by Stamford, Conn. consultancy Gartner Inc., analyst Audrey Apfel makes the case that project management "is evolving from a 'one-size-fits-most approach' to a spectrum of approaches tuned to optimize various internal needs." 

Project management is a contact sport. A lot of human interaction is necessary.

John Barker, IT director, city of Nashua, N.H.

Organizations take on significant projects to drive business change, Apfel points out. She predicts a new era for PPM typified by a diversity of roles, tools and approaches – and, above all, leadership. She said that PPM leaders (a group that includes a project management office lead, program managers and project portfolio managers) should function, first, as PPM "change agents," using a "toolbox of approaches to fit particular work streams."

Mary Gerush, who covers project management for Cambridge, Mass.-based analyst firm Forrester Research Inc., said that next-generation project managers still must have a command of project management best practices, but they should also "have updated soft skills focused heavily on people, team building and collaboration -- and they understand how and when to adapt processes, practices and communications based on context," she said in an email.

Cautionary notes to building a project management team

If you're thinking of hiring a project management team for an IT transformation on the scale of Nashua's, Barker has some cautions. "Project management is a contact sport," he said. Many of the firms vetted, for example, wanted to handle the project management remotely, an approach that did not jibe with his own experience managing big projects. "A lot of human interaction is necessary," he said. Firms that insisted their processes were sterling and could be done from elsewhere were "put aside."

Other firms he interviewed were, in reality, recruitment outfits, or "street brokering" for expertise. "We wanted somebody who had a strong commitment to the firm and to us," he said.

The other big disqualifier was his insistence on project management professional certification.

"I am a firm believer that the entire project management methodology and paradigm is almost never applied properly," Barker said. Not all of it may need to be applied, he said, harking back to his earlier point, "but somebody has to understand the big picture."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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