Program Management Reduces Risk in Network Upgrade

The plan: The right people and the right strategy can save time, money and headaches when managing your distributed environment.

We all know the story about technology projects. They always overshoot their budgets and timetables and rarely deliver what was promised at the outset. It’s no wonder that upper management becomes nervous when a major technology undertaking is proposed. Of course, it generally doesn’t make business sense for management to simply shy away from these projects, since effective use of a company’s data and Information Technology (IT) infrastructure has emerged as the number one competitive differentiator in the 1990s.

The problem is that highly competent technical employees are often charged with managing these major, complicated, enterprisewide programs when they have neither the training nor experience to do so. The ability to successfully oversee the evolution of an IT infrastructure is a strategic management function, and the ability to deliver against high-level management objectives requires a solid program management foundation. Organizations must prioritize these high-level business objectives, and implement structured program management practices to ensure that their infrastructure investments pay off.

As organizations across the nation scramble to enhance their communications and IT infrastructures, they are becoming more aware of these realities and have begun deploying structured program management methodologies to ensure a rapid return on investment. Of course, the revolutionary pace of technology progression creates a uniquely challenging environment for program management. Considering that a complete product life cycle can be as fleeting as six months, the program management professional faces challenges in implementation, deployment and incremental capability enhancement on a large scale, whereas in the past, it was possible to upgrade the infrastructure by incrementally adding compatible resources.

The new requirements are now demanding re-evaluation of installed technologies, often driving a major paradigm shift – such as upgrading pieces of the network or the entire network from ISDN or Frame Relay to ATM. Furthermore, due to the integrated characteristics of today’s communications infrastructures, these projects are no longer discrete undertakings that only impact the operations of individuals or small groups.

Typically, these upgrade projects involve the entire IT and telecommunications infrastructure. Organizations are finding that the process involves much more than installing technology – rather, it involves broad, complex change, and significantly unstable user requirements. If not managed correctly, these upgrade initiatives can become the project that never ends – at great cost.

Upgrade Drivers and Challenges

It is critical at the outset that organizations recognize and plan for the complexity of an upgrade project involving multiple internal goals and objectives. These projects may be driven by a number of factors. One example is the impending Year 2000 date conversion, which many organizations are using as a good reason to move from a mainframe to a client/server environment.

As organizations abandon Novell’s waning NetWare and retreat from UNIX complexity for all but some high-end enterprise applications, they are focusing on the blocking and tackling maneuvers associated with standardization on NT as their core organizational platform. Obviously, a decision with such broad-reaching implications, such as introducing a new operating system, demands enterprise-level program management planning.

The move to NT is driving new application and legacy integration initiatives. These activities make it necessary for organizations to undertake rigorous testing to ensure that the new environment will deliver against target functionality and performance objectives. In many circumstances, legacy mainframe platforms are being re-deployed as data warehouses or enterprise servers, raising questions about how users will access the mainframe from the NT environment.

Many organizations are simultaneously analyzing their hardware and communications infrastructure topologies. This may involve upgrading all of the hubs connecting the PCs, upgrading from shared to switched services and upgrading connections from the hubs to the computer rooms. For example, many organizations are upgrading from 10MB downlinks to 100MB downlinks.

Upgrade undertakings of this scope often involve in-house technical personnel, as well as hordes of contractors and subcontractors – not to mention the users, for whom mission-critical business applications are being affected. Within these complex environments there is room for confusion. Strong program management is critical at this point for organizing, prioritizing, scheduling and managing budgets and deliverable dates across these numerous decision centers. Without the kind of visibility provided by program management, projects or constituent sub-projects may slip off-schedule, driving a domino effect on the organization’s ability to meet deliverables. The impact on the bottom line can be significant.

Many organizations do not have a need for full-time program management expertise, or for the skilled staff required, and elect to bring in a program management consultant. This important partner should have the basic technical understanding of the upgrade process, as well as knowledge of core program management disciplines ranging from basic planning and scheduling to assessment, risk management, contingency planning and resource management.

Unless an organization is prepared to free its management from day-to-day operational responsibility, it makes sense to bring in dedicated program management expertise to assess requirements, define a project plan, track task progress and manage contingencies – to deliver an on-time, on-budget program.

Scheduling

Often the most significant challenge at the beginning of a major IT project is working with all of the various stakeholders and participants to build a realistic project schedule, and obtain the necessary details. Initially, a program management expert will meet with the various technical personnel to establish the project leaders within the organization. Their intentions and goals are assessed, from which intermediary goals are established. From this information, an initial project plan is developed.

This is, however, only the beginning of schedule development. A project plan is a dynamic structure, and must be sent back and forth continuously for verification and updates. Complex tasks are boiled down to short, measurable time frames. These time frames serve as a means to measure if a task is complete – the durations are established for the task and all related subtasks. All interdependencies are diagrammed.

Project leaders are often reluctant to nail down dates and the relationships between the dates, as these dates will define their personal success or failure. While it is important not to overburden the technical people with reporting requirements, the organization must define a certain level of detail in order to assign accountability, track progress and ensure movement toward goals.

Resource Analysis

In an environment that is "human-capital" intensive, a thorough resource analysis can be extremely difficult, but is absolutely critical. Personnel are pulled in many different directions, working on new development as well as routine maintenance, user support and training tasks. These undertakings are neither predictable nor repetitive. Proper planning, including reassignment of daily tasks for key project personnel, is a must. Whether dedicated to the project full time or not, involvement in a new undertaking will require time away from routine work. If program management professionals are put in place, the shifts in existing tasks can often be minimized.

Cost Analysis. Enterprisewide network upgrade projects are a significant investment for any organization. The overall budget for such a major undertaking must be broken down to a level of detail that can be tracked, and then broken down into each of the project components. Long-term goals and intermediary goals are established and baselined, and progress is measured against the baselines. The cost analysis should provide immediate visibility of any area that is exceeding the planned budget, and enable the organization to make adjustments before an overrun in one area causes other schedule, resource and budget problems.

The Management Process. The program management process builds in periodic reviews, designed to keep all key stakeholders involved and contributing to overall program direction. Networked diagrams are created that indicate tasks and dependencies, so that project leaders can validate the task relationships and ensure that the plan is an accurate reflection of the program they are undertaking. This baselined plan is agreed upon by all key parties, and is then used by the program management expert to help project leaders measure progress against the plan.

At the program management reviews, key stakeholders check task progress on a regular basis in the context of the overall program. Status reports provide visibility of the hot spots, and this information is reported back to the project leaders so that appropriate actions can be taken – including re-allocation of resources, re-prioritization of goals, milestone management or the allotment of additional resources.

Executive Information System. The program management infrastructure can and should be used as an executive information management system, providing a high-level view of overall status, highlighting trouble spots and any open issues to focus executive attention on matters that need to be addressed.

Databases will be developed to capture issues and track for trends. Tasks that were not included in the project plan can be brought up and addressed in a systematic manner. A database provides a mechanism for tracking issues, ownership and progress towards resolution. Dates are assigned for a response time on each issue, and the information serves as a "lessons learned" data warehouse for future use.

Without systematic program management methodologies, a network upgrade can become a disaster that never ends, actually disrupting existing capabilities and failing to deliver bottomline business impact. Initiatives that were designed to boost productivity have the potential to spiral out of control, undermining existing network capabilities and damaging productivity.

Furthermore, failure to logically map costs and provide metrics against business objectives will drive significant future challenges for securing budgets and funding for similar projects. Program management provides the critical safety net, ensuring that the work undertaken supports high-level goals and that progress is made toward delivering those objectives.

About the Author: Lou Metcalf is a Project Management Consultant with Robbins-Gioia (Alexandria, Va.). He can be reached at (800) 663-7138.