News Stay informed about the latest enterprise technology news and product updates.

Desperate CIO finds IT project portfolio management tools in the cloud

Cloud-based IT project and portfolio management tools offer relatively quick and risk-free visibility into IT projects and priorities. But don't expect miracles, cautions one CIO.

In a perfect world, CIOs looking to improve IT project portfolio management should answer a number of hard questions before choosing a tool or delivery mode -- starting with a detailed analysis of the problem they're trying to solve.

In addition, the organization's level of maturity in project and portfolio management processes, the size of the user group, the level of managerial support and the IT organization's likely resistance to a system that tracks time, people and money are all important to understand before making a buying decision.

But reality has a way of trumping deliberation. Just ask Russell Goldammer, CEO of Central Technology Services Inc., the IT subsidiary of Central Bancompany Inc., a Jefferson City, Mo.-based holding company with 13 community banks. For him, the overriding question was how fast he could get some kind of IT project and portfolio management (PPM) tool up and running. "We were flying blind," he recalled.

PPM tools open up visibility

When Goldammer joined the company 18 months ago, his centralized IT team of 220 people had a sizeable backlog of projects, many of them mission critical. Unusual for a company its size, the bank's internal team of Java developers had built and was responsible for maintaining the proprietary Internet banking system and deposit system used by the banks. In addition, the 100-year-old, family-owned bank holding company had recently made several acquisitions requiring IT integration. Amid all this activity, senior officers had little or no visibility into where the $27 million annual IT budget was going -- a frustration for them and for Goldammer.

"I could not tell anyone what we were working on unless I went around the building and asked everybody," Goldammer said. "My first priority was to beef up project and portfolio management."

Goldammer opted to go with a cloud-based solution from PPM vendor Innotas rather than the time-consuming process of developing proposals for and deploying on-premise software. In addition to saving time, he figured that a cloud-based solution would be a less risky investment for an organization with little or no project and portfolio management processes.

"I am sure we could have brought in a quarter-of-a-million-dollar package and gotten a lot more functionality, but that wasn't our goal. Our overriding goal was to get something up and running so that we could build a process and inject the discipline that we needed," he said.

Goldammer's instinct to go with a cloud-based PPM solution was probably spot on, according to Gartner Inc. In its latest take on PPM, the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy finds that companies with the need for a fast PPM deployment (and small PPM budgets) are driving a push for Software as a Service (SaaS)-based PPM systems. The subscription-based solutions also allow IT organizations that lack formal PPM processes to get their feet wet in PPM without too much risk, according to Gartner's research.

"Potential customers new to PPM disciplines or low in PPM maturity can use SaaS as a way to test organizational commitment, assess the potential impact of adopting PPM en masse and evaluate the organization's adaptability to PPM in terms of people, process and technology," advised Gartner analyst Daniel Stang, author of the Magic Quadrant for IT Project and Portfolio Management .

A subscription model also enables CIOs to assess their readiness for PPM with less financial risk, Stang noted, specifically the "exponentially higher costs" of the licensing fees, consulting services and maintenance contracts associated with on-premise implementations.

Workarounds aplenty for PPM problems

Don't expect miracles from your SaaS PPM tool, cautioned Central Bancompany's Goldammer. Even with his extensive experience in project and portfolio management processes from past jobs at other banks, Goldammer found the deployment challenging. "You always underestimate how long it takes to get people on board and trained and get the tool up and running," he said, noting that his first step was establishing and staffing a project management office.

It was another four months before his organization was ready to walk through a test case with Innotas. Two months ago, the team finally got the entire IT portfolio up on the Innotas system.

I could not tell anyone what we were working on unless I went around the building and asked everybody. My first priority was to beef up project and portfolio management.

Russell Goldammer, CEO, Central Technology Services Inc.

One of the drawbacks of a cloud-based solution is that it's difficult to make changes to the template, said Goldammer. Matching his organization's IT processes with the capabilities of the Innotas tool required many workarounds. An example: The system does not easily account for time off (i.e., vacation). In order to build that type of time into the Innotas reporting, Goldammer's team had to create a phantom project and then ask each programmer to assign his time to a task within that project. "It works, but it is a pain," he said.

American Fidelity Assurance Co. CIO Kim Fisher, another Innotas customer, agreed that understanding how to populate the PPM tool "was quite a challenge." Fisher oversees a staff of 210 IT employees at American Fidelity Assurance, the nation's largest privately owned insurance company with 1,500 employees. But, like Goldammer, she said the painstaking up-front effort to populate the tool proved worth the effort. "We've made tweaks, but no big changes," Fisher said, adding that the Innotas customer service was "head and shoulders above" the standard -- an attribute corroborated by Gartner's review of the vendor in its report.

Another caveat? Both Goldammer and Fisher said that getting reports out of the system isn't especially intuitive, but the vendor is addressing the issue in upcoming releases. And apparently Innotas isn't alone among PPM providers, SaaS or otherwise, in this regard. Gartner's Stang noted that after seeing more than 30 demonstrations of IT PPM applications, "it is safe to say that the reporting services provided by IT PPM products are generally in need of an overhaul."

Quibbles notwithstanding, Goldammer said the tool is already paying dividends. A dashboard published monthly alerts bank executives to the status of IT projects. For the first time, his IT organization knows how much time it's spending on maintenance, data that will help inform some "tough decisions" going forward. Just getting all requests for IT projects to go to through one system and a set of standardized gates has been a "tremendous help," he said.

"The flow of questions -- 'What happened to my project? -- has pretty much dried up, because everybody knows what we are working on," he said. "To me, that alone has been worth it."

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

Dig Deeper on Small-business IT strategy

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.