For much of the public sector, the NHS included, project management is only an emerging discipline- despite the size and scope of many development projects. As Nick Saalfeld finds out, there is a skills gap in the project management discipline, but plenty of training on offer in order to bridge the divide. Project management needs a better press. In an NHS where the media perception is that there are too many bureaucrats; project managers need to shout about their contribution.

Rather like quantity surveyors (“I counted four…”), it’s tempting to think that project managers contribute rather little. That couldn’t be further from the truth – and the role of the Project Manager (PM) is only going to grow, thanks to a renewed government focus on value. The Office of Government Commerce recently analysed the performance of major public sector projects (not just in IT, and not just healthcare, either) and tried to identify the reasons for the failure of big projects. At number 4 on the list was “Poorly trained project managers”. There are two points hidden in those four words. Project managers need to be adequately trained to do their jobs – and they need to be project managers in the first place.

Vince Hines of project management consultancy, Wellingtone, says “60% of projects are run by people who have never run a project before. Traditionally that means a line manager, or a subject area expert. So we have lots of projects headed up by people who are unaware of the formal tools and techniques of project management.

Furthermore, subject area experts will naturally focus on ‘their’ area, because it’s what most interests them; meaning other aspects of the project get forgotten.” “A good project manager, meanwhile, when they find slippage on a project, will immediately look to recover it and get it back on track. To do that, you need to have a logically linked plan in the first place, with a lucid understanding of the dependencies involved. A good PM is logical, recognises the benefit of progressing the project plan, has the skills to evaluate its progress against a baseline, and also the people-skills needed to get people in over the weekend if he has to!”

The Project Management skills gap
“Unfortunately, many projects don’t even get to the ‘logically linked plan’ stage.” Why is this? Independent research for Microsoft suggests that over 90% of major projects are managed using Microsoft Project (Server or Desktop editions), but Hines says that a lack of training means that many PMs – particularly those many first-timers – are ill-equipped to use it effectively or even scratch below the surface of its functionality: “I wouldn’t expect you to use Word if you couldn’t read and write”, he says, “Yet we give Microsoft Project to people who have no formal project management training, and there’s a fundamental flaw with that. PMs need the training both in basic techniques and the software to see real results.”

Industry-acknowledged Project training from Microsoft
Microsoft’s Bob Walker says there are three tiers of training on offer to Project Managers and the technology teams which support them. Advanced courses are available for Project Server users and administrators, but the Basic training course (Managing Projects, MCTS 70-60-0) is fine for managers of individual projects. He says “The basic MCTS Desktop course is ideal for a standard Microsoft Project user on a standalone desktop PC. It gives an organisation the confidence that a PM – who often will have been brought in for the specific project – has reached a level of aptitude measurable across everyone else in the organisation.” “It’s also worth mentioning that MS Project is highly configurable, and that means that working practices can change from job to job. At a time when all too many MS Project users are self-taught, MCTS Desktop training is not just a benchmark for the employing organisation but also means that their PMs will use Project as the organisation would like it to be used.”

A good career move
Hines’ company, Wellingtone, also recruits project managers for contracts in both the private and public sectors, and says that Microsoft qualifications like MCTS Desktop are recognised and respected in the marketplace. “Microsoft qualifications are considered formal training in the marketplace, and mark a candidate out for consideration. Above all, it proves that the candidate has the right knowledge and competence – rather than just saying ‘well, this is how I did it at my last job’. It’s the difference between mastery of the formal techniques of project management and just having a bit of experience.” Walker agrees, and believes that the NHS is a good home for aspiring PMs. “It’s still early days. Today, project management is recognised as a formal discipline within IT, but we’re starting to see the NHS pick up on Project Server and its applications elsewhere in NHS management; because trusts want to see better project reporting. They rightly want to tackle new regulations and the major infrastructure projects that lead to funding and changes of Status from a position of confidence, and there’s now an understanding that effective project management supported by EPM systems gives trusts more agility and deeper understanding.” “Proper project management – from properly trained project managers – will give you an essential component of the information you require to make the right decisions. The finance team, for example, might give you good figures, but the project management discipline will add validity to those forecasts and ensure they are realistic. Especially in the NHS, where priorities are ever-changing and resources at a particular premium, project management brings together clinical, finance, policy and regulatory considerations for a realistic view of what can be achieved.”

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