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Posted by on Oct 7, 2014

The Value of Project Management Skills and Roles in Federal IT Projects

ComputerDespite the technical improvements made in many Federal IT programs, the Federal IT workforce often still lacks the foundational project management skills necessary for project and program success.

Time and again, we see large-scale projects fail. However, with the right project management training, skills, and tools, IT projects can yield effective results. Leadership, communication, understanding of contracts, and the balance of schedule and cost are necessary for project participants to move beyond their assigned tasks and work to solve project-level challenges and achieve overall project success.

Skills That Are Fundamental to Success

First and foremost, to increase the odds of success, Federal IT staff need a set of foundational project management skills that extend beyond each individual’s own technical proficiencies, including:

  • Project Management: The ability to manage complex projects, lead project teams, develop strategic plans and identify, validate, and manage the business and system requirements of a project.
  • Leadership: Being able to effectively motivate oneself and others to achieve optimal results to move the organization beyond the status quo and achieve goals.
  • Communications: Thinking independently in strategic, systemic, conceptual, creative, and critical ways to offer innovative solutions and make more effective decisions.
  • Financial Management: Understanding how to work more effectively across functional areas and improve accountability, transparency, and performance.
  • Acquisition and Contracting: Learning relevant and practical content on government-wide acquisition and contracting regulations and best practices to improve project performance.

These skills are not intrinsic to the technical competencies that Federal IT employees possess. Thus, additional training is often needed.

A Case for Project Management Training
A willingness to understand and work toward the strategic (not just operational) mission is important to achieving a project’s initiatives. This can be nurtured through comprehensive and effective training.

In 2011, the Federal Government CIO Council surveyed the Federal IT workforce with over 12,000 employee respondents. A summary of that survey shows that current top skills of Federal IT employees don’t always align with the individual and organizational training topics needed to succeed. According to the survey, current skills included desktop applications, systems support and helpdesk, network operating systems, and information management. In contrast, network security, contracting/procurement, administrations management, and leadership were among the training needs that were lacking.

The data showed that insufficient training in communications, analysis, and procurement (all part of a foundational IT project management curriculum) is detrimental to an IT project. It is the collective skillset of the project team that can ultimately determine the project’s success.

Bringing It All Together: The Role of the Executive Sponsor
Another significant key to success is the involvement of an executive sponsor, yet they are not always present on every government program.

As Jordan Sims argued in a recent Federal Times article, programs fare better when there is an active and engaged executive sponsor who supports project and program managers in aligning objectives to the organization’s overall strategy. According to PMI, there are five critical actions of an executive sponsor:

  1. Remove roadblocks.
  2. Help the team understand the alignment of the project or program to the organization’s strategy.
  3. Champion the project or program.
  4. Add resources when appropriate.
  5. Act quickly to resolve issues.

These actions ultimately result in the creation of an environment where project and program managers are empowered to manage and lead effectively and dynamically.

One example of the power of an executive sponsor is the creation of the VA Acquisition Academy (VAAA) at the Veteran’s Administration (VA). VA Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould recognized that good project and program management, coupled with strong executive sponsors, are the keys to success. To that end, The VA Acquisition Academy (VAAA), was formed to train program and project managers within the specific context of the VA.

As a result of this training, there have been many recent VA successes. With a culture of project management and executive sponsorship, the VA has increased accountability and created an environment where program managers can effectively manage and lead, directly benefiting veterans.

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