Workplace Learning to Improve IT Project Management: The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Uses Integrated, Strategic Training to Mature Its IT Management

Article excerpt

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The Department of Defense and private sector have reaped the benefits of standardizing project management tools and techniques for many years. Improvements in the way projects are estimated, scheduled, monitored, and completed have dramatically improved organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Large sums of taxpayer money are invested in complex projects, so federal, state, and local government agencies have begun to take a keen interest in institutionalizing standard project management practices. When these practices are not institutionalized, inconsistencies and variations in project manager and staff knowledge, skill, and experience can lead to mismanaged, overbudget, and, ultimately, failed projects.

Instituting new rigor and formality in project management is rarely associated with improved morale and job satisfaction. In reality, implementing a comprehensive project improvement initiative results in multiple benefits--from improved communications and less risk to better value for the dollar spent--especially when an organization can strategically integrate project management principles and practices across the entire enterprise.

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (DMH), which serves about 10 million residents in California, is the largest mental health system in the Unit ed States. It has faced a tremendous increase in demand and workload over the last few years due to program growth following the passage of the Mental Health Services Act. This growth prompted the department to embark on an integrated, strategic approach to maturing its information technology (IT) project management capabilities, which now serves as a model for other Los Angeles County departments and agencies.

Speaking the Same Language

When managers look to improve their project management team, too often, they simply look at the skills and experience of individual project managers without much consideration for the extended team members' involvement in developing a project's charter, work plan, or acquisition strategy. They attempt to close skill and knowledge gaps by sending individual project managers to training delivered by various sources that advocate a variety of methods, tools, and techniques. Inconsistent or isolated training events usually fail in the end because a project management team is only as strong as its weakest link.

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A new trend in project management training takes into account the entire project responsibility life cycle (Figure 1), including team members from the business analysis and acquisition communities. This approach recognizes that business analysts, project managers, and contract managers (procurement) work on a project continuously, yet they are engaged in various capacities and at various intensities during the course of a project. Along with the customer (the end user, who has a stake in the ultimate success of the project), the project team needs to have an understanding of how their roles and responsibilities overlap and fit into the larger picture.

New integrated training techniques and programs focus on blending skills across the project team. Integrated approaches ensure adequate multidisciplinary training to perform consistent and effective project execution. IT project managers, for example, understand their part of the project management life cycle and the details of IT. However, the transition from gathering requirements to setting up the actual project team and developing the project plan often doesn't happen smoothly. Business owners often communicate their wants and needs from their perspective without a full understanding of the impact the project may have on other projects or the enterprise. The IT project manager usually has a broader perspective of the organization's infrastructure and the potential impact for change. In the requirements analysis phase, the project manager must learn how to ask questions that elicit the business owner's desired project outcomes. …