Sri Lanka must master PM skills

Wednesday, 16 January 2013 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As per the latest data, Sri Lanka will invest over a billion dollars on infrastructure development in the very near future even though the debt to GDP ratio is at 82%. Whilst this may sound alarming, a school of thought which has logic is that for a country to be a 100 billion dollar GDP from the $ 42 billion that it was around two years back, one has to invest in key infrastructure such as roads and bridges in a country.

The second argument is that whilst the debt to GDP ratio can be high as at now, in the next three years when the economy expands, the ratio will reduce and thereby make this ratio acceptable to global norms.

Importance of PM

In this background, we see the importance of the key skill of making such large investments be efficiently managed – Project Management. The most recent thoughts from specialists is that unless one masters the skill of Project Management in today’s business environment, a country’s growth agenda can get affected as well as personally one’s career path can become stunted.

What is PM?

In the outset it must be mentioned that Project Management (PM) is a discipline and not a profession. The logic being in today’s competitive business environment it does not matter if you are a marketer, an accountant, or a legal expert, you are called to sit on project teams in a usual daily routine at work. This means that PM has today cut across professions and become a general Management Skill rather than a business function in the commercial world.

I guess that’s why PM is defined simply as allocating money, time and people in a way to achieve a predetermined objective. The predetermined objective can be the launch of a new brand like Velvet soap that has beaten the iconic brand Lux soap or the acquisition of the company by Dialog. Or it can be the construction of a bridge like Salapiya, which is essentially the first arched bridge in Sri Lanka.

This clearly highlights the need for this new business skill be mastered by a modern day executive if they are to fast-track their career path, be it in the public or private sector. However, it must be pointed out that in a typical Project Management organisation there are functional experts called Project Managers who are called upon to manage specific projects that are somewhat different in nature. Let me confine myself to a conventional business organisation that I discussed earlier and the overriding principles of Project Management.

PM – a way of life

When an economy is on high gear at a growth agenda of six per cent plus a company has to be competitive to capture the opportunities in the market place. This makes a company work on the Project Team approach, which is one reason that PM is fast becoming a way of life in modern Sri Lanka not only in the private sector but also in the public sector.

However, a point to note is that the reality is that in many of these project teams it is just an extension of the current skill set as most business programs do not teach this subject Project Management and nor does an organisation give any insights to the Project Management discipline to the team, which is the key issue.

Project Management – practice

The first stage in the PM discipline is called the Basic level. Here a typical Project Management team has an initial understanding of what the project is about and what the content are which is where many project management teams operate in.

Then comes the Advanced Stage of Project Management when risks are identified which are associated with the project and the team recognises that complex techniques like change management are required for the successful implication of the project — for example a 360 degree customer care program that you want to launch in a company.

If one wants to really master PM then it must come up to Expert Skill stage where the team gets involved in negotiating business considerations, factors in legal implications and also users sophisticated estimating and tracking mechanisms, to drive key projects in an organisation. Finally comes the Speciality Skill stage of project management where most meetings happen electronically and usually the team members are scattered across different areas geographically.

I guess the challenge is for an organisation to determine at what stage each project is in and to what extent of complexity does a typical project team needs to function is in for the timely delivery of results. Hence the onus lies on the senior management of the company to make this call and infuse this new skill into a company.

PM – business skill

But, from the recent CEO survey-2013 what has been revealed is that many organisations might not actually be using technical terms like Project Management in the day to day business operations there might be calling them cross functional teams that keep sprouting up across the organisation given the challenges Sri Lanka has been up against last year and especially in the first quarter of 2013. Which means the first task of senior management is to instil this technical change to teams and sensitise them to the discipline Project Management, even though working in teams is a way of life in today’s business world.

Once PM becomes an integral part of the organisation then comes the challenge of how one can master the required new skill set that can drive a business executive of today to higher performance in a company, which is why PM is today termed a business skill.

If PM is accepted as a business skill in some organisations we see that in certain key projects, board members are appointed into the Project Team and the team directly reports to the board on the progress made. This is where one can say that Project Management has achieved a very high degree of maturity in a company. But for this to happen a sense of appreciation by CEOs or MDs must take place that will drive the team to practice this new business skill that is coming into play in Sri Lanka.

Certain blue chips and multinational organisations practice this already which infers that to some extent there has to be a structure of operation if one is to use Project Management as a competitive skill

Agile PM

Given the many economic shocks that Sri Lankan organisation in the private or state sector are getting exposed, from financial crisis to the war on terror and then to the recent flood that has devastated the east of Sri Lanka, we see a emerging development called Agile Project Management taking form. This is essentially when a company is operating in a highly volatile environment and a typical PM team will demand special skills which are technical in nature. But speed happens to become a key factor that is essentially a multiplier.

Some of the key skill which are required are managing frustration in the delivery of projects due to bureaucracy and the teams having to demonstrate a high degree of maturity given the political environment that country operates in to name a few. In some situations an Agile PM team might be required when working in unsafe environments, which means that the environment plays an important role in this kind of structuring of PM teams which I guess we must be aware of.

Expert on PM

Now that one has a fair share of knowledge on this science of PM, I guess it’s important to understand how this new business skill can be mastered. When examining organisations that practice such skills effectively, how they have reached this degree of excellence has been, by on the job training but also combining some off site education training which is of technical nature.

The key goal of an organisation is that PM must evolve from a basic skill to possessing expert skill so that it can reflect a better chance of predicting obstacles and then working around them so that delivery of the project happens at the targeted time lines. This is the most important aspect to remember. There is no point mastering the skill set of the delivery of the project is off the time target.

Why PM fails

This takes us to the area of why PM fails in a company be it private of public sector. According to Standish Group that conducts global surveys on this area it has been revealed that only 17% projects ultimately gets delivered on time. Almost 50% of the projects are forced to change their targeted delivery dates whilst 33% of the projects get cancelled.

In the United States alone last year it has been valued that the cost of non delivery of projects on time has been a staggering 80 billion dollars that gives us an idea on how important this skill is in today’s environment. I guess it’s important for organisations in Sri Lanka to do a similar exercise so that it tells us how important it is that every business executive of today must be Project Management savvy.

One reason why projects fail is due to clear demarcations not being agreed at the outset. Poor leadership is when one has to be clearly appointed formally, and finally the non availability of funds at the right time. I guess in Sri Lanka the latter is very real especially in the public sector but in the private sector it has more to do with non allocation of funding for core activity.

The logic being that until a project is completed there is no revenue coming into an organisation — take for instance the project team that delivered the new brand Kik Cola as an example. Until the brand was launched to the market place, the revenue mechanism was not in operation, which means that every activity is a cost. Hence the only way out is to accurately budget the planned expenditure and stick to this cash outlay so that it does not become a stumbling block for the project team’s performance.

PM – ethical issues

Ethics is all about morality. Sir Francis Bacher refers to morality as a trait that tells an individual if a certain activity is right or wrong. Given that most projects are to do with large values there has to be a high degree of delivery on integrity. Some argue that corruption and development goes hand in hand but that does not hold ground in the strictest sense of PM.

It is also important to note that ethics do not change with time and the society that it operates in, which is why the selection of the leader plays an important part in the overall delivery projects in today’s world.

Next steps

1) Organisations (private and public sector) must identify all the project teams that are operating in a company.

2) An audit must be done on the current performance based on delivery of tasks based on time lines agreed.

3) Identification of training gaps and careful skill training must be invested by the company.

4) The delivery of projects must be broken down to responsibility of the team and this must be included into the performance appraisal of the individual.

5) Highlight the importance of PM as a business skill for a new age business executive.

6) The Project Management process must be linked to a web system so that intelligence and leadership skill development techniques come into play.

(The writer is the Global Leadership Award recipient of the Association of Business Association/Global CEO forum and World Education Congress in 2012. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Boston.)

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