What Ever Happened to Project Management?



April 2009

What Ever Happened to Project Management?

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Project Management used to be a hot topic in technical publication circles. My Project Management workshop was long our most popular offering, along with sales of my 1994 book,Managing Your Documentation Projects. But, since the focus has turned to content management systems, topic-based authoring, and reuse strategies, the interest in project management has waned, along with the sales of my 2006 new edition, Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People. The most popular workshops are now Minimalism, Structured Authoring, and the DITA Boot Camp.

Some organizations appear to have their project-management processes well in hand. At the 2007 Best Practices conference, Michel Uyttendaele and Len Simmons delivered a first-rate presentation on the metrics they developed at SWIFT to measure the quality and the success of their projects. I am also working with an organization to create a custom version of the Dependency Calculator to accommodate the unique aspects of their work. We will use the Calculator and an accompanying project database to create estimates for all projects and compare the estimates with the actuals at the end of the project. The comparison will allow the managers to refine their estimating practice and ensure that estimates are as realistic as possible. Given the great diversity in their deliverables for their internal customers, better estimates will make everyone happier.Yet, project management is still a critical part of any information-development life cycle. We need to know how long projects will take to complete and how much they will cost, especially when every expense dollar is scrutinized from on high. We need to have sound project plans in place to ensure that the content our team members create responds well to customer needs because we cannot afford to create content that no one wants. We need to know what causes some projects to run smoothly and arrive safely at the planned destination while others crash and burn, taking far longer than expected and ending with less than satisfactory results.

You’ll find the sample Dependency Calculator at http://comtech-serv.com//index.php?main_page=index&cPath=26_103. Decide if the 10 dependencies are still relevant to your organization.

Since my first book was published in 1994, many changes, due to new technology, changes in publications department organization, and changes in audiences have affected the way we manage projects:

  • Teams are more fragmented, with more people working independently at remote locations
  • New methods, like Agile development, introduced in the product-development environment make writing projects more difficult to estimate and track
  • Content is translated into many languages, vastly increasing documentation costs
  • Having far fewer staff members requires that each individual handle many more projects at one time, making time tracking more difficult
  • Staff members do not recognize the negative repercussions of failing to track their time
  • Managers are not held accountable for costs at the project level

Yet interest in project management has declined!

Despite all these changes, if you are developing a business case to support a move to content management, single-sourcing, topic-based authoring, or any new technology that requires an upfront investment, you would be well served to understand exactly what your projects cost today. Many times, when I help teams to develop their business cases, they cannot account for current costs. Without information about time and costs spent on projects before the technology investment, it becomes difficult to show precise savings after the investment.

In one business case, we wanted to estimate the savings we might expect in the translation costs. We found that almost no solid information existed about the cost of translation. Various business centers managed translation projects and distributed the costs among many product lines. Some projects were handled by remote sales organizations who bundled translation costs into other general line items in their accounting systems. One group paid for translations as part of their typesetting and printing costs. We had to create a “fictional” estimate based on several reasonable but unsubstantiated guesses. The guess gave us a rough estimate of $40 million dollars per year for translations—a substantial sum that had escaped scrutiny from the finance people. In fact, they didn’t believe our estimate at first until we explained the process we’d used to arrive at the number.

The company now has detailed costs for every translation project handled by the technical publications team. It appears that our promises of Return on Investment have not only been realized, they have exceeded expectations. By one accounting, they are saving 90 percent of the original cost of translation because of content reuse.

Without sound, detailed information about your projects, it becomes difficult to understand where savings might occur or whether changes to technology or process result in process improvements or only in processes differences.

Clearly, I am suggesting here that project management has enormous value to you as a manager and to your organization. Project management allows you to

  • Assign projects properly so that each staff member has a proportional share of the work to be done
  • Track progress toward the project goals so that you know when to change course or request more resources, more time, or a reduced scope
  • Measure the impact of change on the time and cost of your projects
  • Ensure that you know exactly what projects cost when senior management asks you to reduce costs
  • Know which projects result in higher costs and what drives the cost increases

I could list many more advantages of strong project management but they would all focus on the importance of knowing more about each project in your organization than you might know today.

I hope that we can revive the focus on project management in CIDM. I propose that we institute a project-management panel at the next Best Practices conference. If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know. If you think that project management is no longer an important topic, I would like to know that as well.