The CIO's Role in Project Management

By Thomas Hoffman  |  Posted 09-24-2009

The CIO's Role in Project Management

As is the case with many CIOs today, Dennis L'Heureux's IT organization is being tasked with more projects than it can handle.

"We have so much demand we can't meet it," says L'Heureux, who for the past 14 years has served as CIO of Rockford (Ill.) Health System. "I have to keep telling business managers that their demand exceeds our capacity."

His experiences reflect the tremendous pressure CIOs feel: too many projects, tight budgets, shrinking staffs--all while the business expects IT to deliver, and deliver fast.

"Business leaders are interested in results; they are not interested in why certain applications are running into problems," says Gregory Balestrero, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute. "The CIO is going to have to talk about the results and the scope of the projects and programs they're trying to achieve." So if a CIO needs to provide an update on an ERP initiative, for instance, he or she must be able to talk about the project's benefits in business terms, explains Balestrero.

To help keep the physicians, nurses and department managers aware of his IT organization's project constraints, L'Heureux meets frequently with organizational leaders who participate in an information management advisory services steering committee. This committee reviews the inventory of projects being worked on, the resources being applied to them, and the pros and cons of pulling back or pushing ahead with certain projects.

To help put some structure and discipline around project management efforts at Rockford Health, L'Heureux created a project management office (PMO) about a year ago. A PMO officer recommends who should be placed on various project teams, while L'Heureux lobbies senior management for the staff needed for different projects, as well as to determine the timeline for utilizing each of those people.

L'Heureux describes his role in project management as a careful mix of art, politics, and identification of resources and staff availability. "It takes some bobbing and weaving," says L'Heureux. "We have business managers identified as the project leaders, and I shadow them. If they fail, I get hung. If they succeed, I get glorified."

L'Heureux's experiences are partly a reflection of how CIOs need to set the standard for establishing discipline around project management while communicating their objectives and status effectively with line-of-business peers in terms they understand.

The CIO also plays a critical role in the governance processes associated with project management, says Andre Spatz, former CIO at UNICEF. While in that position from 1997 through 2006, Spatz made sure that he co-owned every project with the business leaders whose organizations were responsible for the results of those efforts. In other words, they had skin in the game.

"That feature was critical because I didn't want to have sponsors," says Spatz. "I wanted owners who were fully accountable for the investments and attached to those investments."

Setting Priorities

Setting Priorities

When establishing project priorities, the CIO's role is "to make sure the priority process happens and to be an enabler, making sure those decisions get made," says Bob Benson, a senior consultant at Cutter Consortium.

The CIO also has to be ready to put his foot down, says Bill Hagerup, a senior consultant with Ouellette & Associates. "The CIO has to be firm enough to say, 'We can't do everything at once; we don't have adequate resources for that,'" says Hagerup. "It's easy to say 'yes' at the top when you're not doing the work at the bottom."

Much as Spatz did in co-owning projects with business leaders, Georgia Aquarium CIO Beach Clark has taken a collaborative approach to establishing milestones. "Because we're such a small company, we tend to work on projects together," he explains. For instance, Clark and the director of the aquarium's husbandry department are teaming up to establish and track project goals for a new animal records implementation.

Although L'Heureux also sets project milestones with the business, he's learned that he has to be the heavy when it comes to setting expectations. "My job is to make sure we have that discussion, to set expectations as to what a reasonable timeline is," he notes.

He's also learned the importance of building some slack into project milestones, since the project schedule often depends on a variety of extraneous factors, including regulatory requirements.

Speaking in Business-ese

Speaking in Business-ese

Beyond effectively delivering project updates to other executives in business terms they understand, CIOs need to tutor rising IT staffers to be able to do the same.

"I really like the idea that the CIO mentors the project management group or PMO in how to deal, in a businesslike fashion, with clients and how to communicate effectively and see things from other people's points of view," Hagerup says.

Of course, the style that each CIO uses to communicate with C-level peers on a project's status will vary depending on the nature of the relationships. The Georgia Aquarium recently completed a corporate dashboard that is used by its CFO and COO to examine such statistics as year-to-date revenue and visitor figures compared with prior years. Since the COO had been Clark's boss before being promoted, Clark speaks to him frequently. "We're able to get away with an informal method of communications," he says.

In many instances, of course, the CIO will need to drive the discussion. During L'Heureux's tenure at Rockford Health, the company has had five different CFOs. During those times when he felt that project management wasn't getting the attention it deserved from top management, L'Heureux, at its senior-level systems operations council meetings, would produce a list of the top projects the company was working on to ensure that the business leaders were aware of the various projects' status and milestones.

Says L'Heureux: "Sometimes I feel like Gen. Patton in my organization."

Back to CIO Insight