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Methodology First, Tech Second

Successful project management depends more on discipline and communication than on a particular set of tools or systems.

Successful project management depends more on discipline and communication than on a particular set of tools or systems.


Robert C. Ingram III

Senior Vice President, USAA Information Tech. Co. (San Antonio)

Michael R. Sarlin

VP, Application Development Services, The MONY Group (New York)

Patrick Durbin

President and CEO, PlanView (Austin, TX)

William Levine

Executive VP and CIO, AXA Client Solutions, LLC (New York)

Laurence J. Best

VP Retirement Inv./Insurance Grp., American Management Systems (Roseland, NJ)

Sarah Ablett

Analyst, Meridien Research (Newton, MA)

Q: Project management is not new. Why are so many insurance executives interested init now?

A: Michael R. Sarlin, The MONY Group: Recently, insurance executives have come to realize that project management is a set of skills that can be applied to building computer systems. A project manager does not need to have programming or systems design experience. Executives also realize that a project manager who adheres to his discipline can deliver predictable results, whereas, historically, projects managed by technical people produced mixed results.

A: Robert C. Ingram III, USAA Information Technology Co.: While project management is well proven in other industries, the IT industry operates at roughly a 35 percent success rate. For every dollar invested in differentiating a company relative to its competition, 65 cents is lost due to overruns, not achieving intended objectives, project cancellations, etc.

A: Patrick Durbin, PlanView: Management is becoming more savvy about the importance of projects and tracking IT resources. Delivering IT services to define and support insurance products has moved from "nice to have" to "critical for success." Insurance executives now hold IT management accountable for performance and its impact on the success of the company.

A: William Levine, AXA Client Solutions: Technology projects comprise a large portion of a firm's budget, so their performance significantly affects ROI. Project management helps us stay competitive by introducing new products faster, with lower cost, higher quality and the elimination of surprises. As projects consume a greater share of resources, many firms are finding "projectizing" the organization a more efficient way to run their businesses.

Q: Is project management a set of technologies or a strategy? What are some of the principles of successful project management?

A: Sarlin: Effective project management involves the use of several key principles: Identify a project sponsor that understands the business drivers and can direct resources from various parts of the organization; gather the requirements for the project and then verify that you have matched them to the right people; develop a project plan, including cost, resources and timeline estimates; break the project into manageable deliverables; execute the plan, and communicate progress and problems on a regular basis.

A: Ingram: Our initial focus was on project management as a discipline. This was initiated by our CEO and involves every employee working on our projects. The project management process is common across every department. While a disciplined process is essential, successful managers will tell you no project goes according to plan. Our best managers spend time anticipating problems, communicating, and making decisions to stay on schedule.

A: Durbin: Project and resource management are a set of processes and a culture, which can be improved with technology. The processes define, first, how work is prioritized, projects are structured and resources are assigned, and then how to measure success. The basic principles of project management include both science and art of the practice. The science is the planning, scheduling, and tracking. The art comprises communications, risk assessment, morale building and politicking.

A: Levine: Project management is a core competency and a professional practice area of our business. Ultimately, project management is simply another way to organize and manage work. Critical success factors on each project include executive sponsorship, an experienced project manager, clear and measurable objectives, and stakeholder involvement. If each of these factors is achieved, then the probability of project success increases.

A: Laurence J. Best, American Management Systems: Effective project management requires a broad array of personal qualities, including leadership, influence and presence, judgment, communication skills, vision and command of detail. Ultimately, superior projects come from superior project managers, not superior project management technology.

A: Sarah Ablett, Meridien Research: Project management is very much about discipline and strategy and very little about the actual technology. This is not to say that technology does not play a role in the advancement of project management, but we are firm believers in methodology first, technology second. Successful project management, which is ultimately all about risk management for an institution, can be broken down into four major principles: knowledge management, scope management, resource management, and, finally, time management.

Q: Do the same principles apply to all projects, or do different types of projects require different approaches?

A: Sarlin: There may be slightly different or additional steps, such as timelines, but the principles don't change. E-business projects typically have short delivery cycles (e.g., 10 to 90 days). A claims administration system will have a component that is Internet-based and a more logic-intensive piece of process code, which can take longer to develop. Delivery could take longer, but, if so, would typically be divided into smaller deliverables with short time frames.

A: Ingram: Our profession has learned that a methodology is not a cookbook, but a framework that can be customized to the characteristics of the project. Our e-commerce experience taught us the value of time-to-market. Out of competitive necessity, we learned how to complete a full Internet project lifecycle in six months or less.

A: Best: AMS leverages multiple specialized approaches under a common framework. Project management involves a common set of issues, but their relative impact can vary among project types. These issues include technology maturity, complexity, scope, required controls, time-to-market considerations.

A: Ablett: The same underlying principles of project management apply to all projects, but different projects definitely require different approaches. The emergence of high-intensity, high-speed e-projects over the last several years has translated into needs for greater flexibility, collaboration, and communication across project teams and institutions. Because project management is not "one-size-fits-all," it is crucial that institutions develop a broad set of best practices and processes upon which their project managers may draw as appropriate.

Q: Are there any emerging tools or concepts that could be useful to insurance companies?

A: Sarlin: Important concepts that have recently emerged involve the use of short development times and manageable deliverables. This helps to ensure that the outcome of the project will still have value when it arrives. In the area of tools, there are project tracking and reporting programs. There is also sophisticated decision-making and priority-setting software.

A: Ingram: We are making an investment in integrated project management tools, replacing several internal, custom-developed systems with standardized commercial software. We have monitored the marketplace carefully over the past several years and now believe the tools are mature enough to support our business requirements. We place special emphasis on collaboration, dynamic resource scheduling, and performance reporting.

A: Levine: Technologies that help facilitate team collaboration based on document management, workflow and messaging are growing in popularity. Other technologies integrate comprehensive project management, resource management and knowledge management functionality across multiple projects. This class of technology, called enterprise project management systems, is still in its infancy, but promises a single consistent means to manage and report on an entire portfolio of projects and resources.

A: Ablett: The tool market is very exciting. Spurred by ERP and EAI initiatives, many institutions and solution providers have made leaps and bounds in their project data collection and integration capabilities, which can only improve the benefits to be gained through project management.

Peggy Bresnick Kendler has been a writer for 30 years. She has worked as an editor, publicist and school district technology coordinator. During the past decade, Bresnick Kendler has worked for UBM TechWeb on special financialservices technology-centered ... View Full Bio

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