Chapter 2 Human Factors in Project Management – Core Concepts of Project Management

CHAPTER 2

Human Factors in Project Management

Key Points

  • The role and definition of the job of a project manager
  • The importance of communication in projects
  • The importance of establishing and maintaining project scope

A great deal of the effort involved in making a computer software project work is to get the project development team to work together. This is often difficult, because many computer software developers view life much like engineers and scientists. Their emphasis focuses on getting computers to work. Computers have no feelings, and do exactly what they are told. This environment leads to those people sometimes using a rather abrupt and curt mode of communication. Their ability to communicate effectively with humans is occasionally curtailed. Effective management of teams of software developers requires understanding both their personal tendencies and those of users, usually a quite different personality type.

Information systems projects involve the need to coordinate the efforts of a diverse group of people. One of the most difficult (but also one of the most lucrative) jobs in the world right now is information systems project management. These people have very high-pressure jobs, with a lot of demands upon them, and they tend to have a lot of turnover. However, project managers with experience are paid very well.

Information Systems Project Features

Information systems projects promise a great deal of benefit to organizations. There are many kinds of information systems projects. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are very large scale, possibly centralizing all information systems support for an organization. ERP systems can be built in-house, but usually are purchased software systems. Installation of an ERP is a very large project, often involving interorganizational elements (including vendor and consultant personnel), but little systems development and programming. Web systems are at the other extreme. They are a very useful means of implementing e-commerce and e-business (and other e-whatever), but usually are small scale, and can be turned over to one specialist who does everything. (There may be good reasons to have a team specialize on developing many websites, and there is a definite need to work with users.) Conventional information systems projects often consist of a series of development activities, referred to as a waterfall model (see Table 2.1) because if all goes well, results of prior stages spill down to the next stage. (In reality, a great deal of looping back is encountered.)

Table 2.1 Waterfall model of software development with systems personnel

Stage

Personnel

System feasibility analysis

Systems analysts, users, finance

Software plans and requirements

Systems analysts, users

Product design

Systems analysts

Detailed design

Systems analysts

Coding

Programmers, testing

Integration

Systems analysts, programmers, testers, systems administrators

Implementation

Systems administrators, testers, users

Operations and maintenance

Maintenance

Source: Information systems personnel titles in bold.

Systems analysts have the job of identifying what the needs of the system are, and then designing an appropriate software product. This involves the need to understand business problems and to talk to business users, as well as the ability to understand the technical domain and to talk to computer personnel. Programmers are usually specialists who talk to computers, and make them function. They can do a more complete job if they talk to humans as well, but some specialize. Testers are very important personnel who try their best to find flaws in systems. Sometimes testers obtain character traits reflecting this critical attitude, but to do their job well, they need to be very meticulous. Systems administrators have the job of implementing software on server systems. This tends to be even more computer-centric than programming. Maintenance personnel are responsible for fixing bugs that are encountered, as well as keeping systems up to date with hardware and software system changes.

There are other information systems job titles as well. For instance, there are workers in database management, in providing help to users, in linking networks together, and many other specialties. Some of these may well be involved in specific projects. But generically, Table 2.1 lists the primary information system specialists found in conventional information systems projects.

Working in this environment, regardless of job title, is very interesting and can be very rewarding. However, it can also be very frustrating. There is a need to not only be technically competent, but also to be able to work with a variety of types of people. There is a need to work with users, who have problems that computer systems hopefully will solve. There is also a need to work with technical people, from systems administrators through coders and testers.

Individual characteristics are the result of different personalities, of individuals with different demographic backgrounds as well as education and experience. These different people find themselves in different organizational roles, with different status levels. Individuals also have different psychological make-up, in the form of needs, interests, and goals. Within information systems project teams, a specific type of personality tends to predominate, focused on technical matters. But members of these project teams need to work with users, who tend to have psychological characteristics more common to the general public, focused on dealing with people, with a broader organizational focus.

Being part of a project team can lead to conflict. The degree of conflict is expected to depend upon team size, heterogeneity, and leadership. The larger the team, the more likely for some conflicts to arise, although it can be possible for antagonists to avoid each other in larger teams. The more diverse the team, the more likely conflicts are to arise. Within information systems teams, there tends to be a common technical focus, except for those whose specialty is training. However, sometimes having too many shared interests can lead to conflict, as there can be different opinions about how to proceed technically, and individuals may feel that other people are not competent, whereas in actuality they may simply have a different technical approach. Team processes can play a role in conflict, through the ability to communicate efficiently, and through the relative degree of participation encouraged. Team history may well play a major role in conflict. Working together in the past is usually viewed as a positive factor in conflict, but can be the worst case if personalities clashed in previous project efforts.

Characteristics of projects can also lead to greater levels of conflict. A major factor is time pressure. Some people thrive under pressure, others react adversely. Projects often involve pressures. They also often involve constraints, in that the ideal level of resources may not be available. Some people find that unacceptable, and refuse to proceed with project efforts. Others cope somehow. The more flexible approach is usually more productive. Other factors include success criteria (expectations) and top management support. Without top support, projects tend to be starved for resources, making the work environment difficult.

Organizational characteristics can also be important. Matrix organizations (to be discussed in Chapter 3) involve a very hectic kind of environment, highly suitable for information systems projects. However, it may not be suitable for specific individuals. In matrix organizations, there is a need for actors to quickly adapt to new circumstances, and to deal with new people, new responsibilities, and in general, be able to prosper in a highly dynamic environment. If this is not the type of working climate desired by a specific individual, that individual should find one of the many other professional fields to work in.

Interpersonal conflict can manifest itself in at least four levels. Interdependence is the process of people working together, realizing that their success depends on the cooperation of others. This is the form of team unity most desirable in an information systems project team. There will always be disagreements that arise. This is healthy, and reflects thought and effort applied by team members. (If there were no disagreements, this is an indication that some of the team members do not care.) The process of interpersonal conflict becomes disruptive if interference results, from disagreements escalating into actions taken to force one position at the expense of another. A higher level of conflict arises when negative emotions arise, as in heated arguments.

There are a number of different management styles available for team leaders to cope with interpersonal conflict. These styles include problem solving, compromising, asserting, accommodating, and avoiding. The appropriate style depends upon circumstances. Only by understanding human behavior can team leaders learn which style is needed. This selection can be an important factor in project success, system success, individual performance, and effective organizational performance.

Conflict and Performance

Conflict management is essential in obtaining positive information systems project outcomes. Conflict can be useful, in generating better solutions, but harmful behavior is counterproductive in any environment. The bottom line of this result is that it is better to avoid interpersonal conflict in the first place rather than rely upon project leadership ability to mitigate it. Features that might improve information systems project success include:

  1. Project scope and objectives communicated to all of the project team

    Management often feels that once a project is officially adopted, everyone should automatically rally behind it. They therefore omit a detailed explanation of what the project is designed to do for the organization. This often leads to some resistance to the project by those who were not consulted in the decision, especially those who feel that their input would have been important.

    A related issue is the scope of the project. If the project scope is not clear to everyone, those who make decisions related to the project will not be in a position to make the best decisions. Additionally, user requirements need to have assurance that they are feasible. This is easier to assess if clearly stated acceptance criteria are present. Every requirement should include a definition of what makes system performance acceptable.

  2. Business rationale for undertaking a project disseminated

    The business reasons for adopting an information systems project usually are not disseminated. This is often the case because there are no sound business reasons for adopting such projects, especially those in time-constrained environments. (In Chapter 3 we will argue that business cases are very difficult, because they require estimation of impact that is nearly impossible accurately.)

  3. Accurate project budgets

    In rushed projects, budgets may not even be created. Even if they are, it is very common for such budgets to overlook, or grossly underestimate, some key factors. Budgets, however, are important tools for project control.

  4. Project support present

    Rushed projects never have unqualified support. Some organizational members may continue to oppose such a project long after its adoption by top management. This opposition can manifest itself through open opposition, or simply by small means of uncooperative behavior to delay the project or to reduce its likelihood of succeeding.

  5. Project control firmly established

    Within organizations, there are always issues concerning control. Good project team unity is the best way to deal with such issues. In rush projects, personnel should be selected considering their ability to work under pressure. In information systems projects involving vendors, related issues often arise. Vendors have their own agenda, with the client organization’s welfare rarely taking top priority. Control of vendors (and consultants) is key to project success where vendors (or consultants) are present.

  6. Rules not changed during project execution

    A common feature of project environments, involving specialists assigned on short-term bases, is vanishing resources. Vanishing resources refers to assigned personnel who are often unavailable, especially during key periods. Project manager efforts to complain to the permanent managers of such resources often lead to hostility and greater lack of cooperation. Timely and accurate feedback throughout the project is a way to overcome this potential problem.

Political aspects of information systems projects can be very important for project success. This is complicated by the fact that there will always be those who feel that their own interests are furthered by project failure. Human aspects of information systems projects are very complex, and tax the ability of project participants to get along with other people, and to gain progress individually as well as for the benefit of the organization.

Another obvious key need in making a project work is communication. Without clear and accurate communication, project members cannot be expected to know what they are to do, and whom to contact for information.

Project Managers

It has been reported that over 30 percent of new software projects are canceled before completion, and that over half are more than 180 percent are over budget. A commonly cited reason is poor project planning and management. At the same time, there is a shortage of qualified, large-scale project managers.

Project management involves getting work done through outsiders. We will see in Chapter 3 that projects often involve dual lines of authority. Project managers are not in as powerful a position as managers in other forms of organization, and therefore they have to rely on influence and persuasion to get people to work toward project ends. The survival of a project manager depends a great deal on the strength of the alliances that the manager can make with powerful stakeholders and the success in competing for resources within the firm. The project manager’s mission is to integrate diverse activities in a highly dynamic environment, to produce technical deliverables with a team whose members are temporarily assigned from different parts of the firm and therefore have other loyalties. This must be done within the constraints of a budget for cost and for time, and meeting quality specifications.

The project manager has to make decisions and provide a sense of direction for the project’s organization, and serve as the hub for project communication. The ability to take on a number of roles is required. The project manager must be an evangelist, to keep everyone believing that the project will work. He or she must also be an entrepreneur, getting the necessary funds, facilities, and people required for project success. The project manager must also be a change agent, orchestrating diverse activities and facilitating these efforts to ensure project success.

The project manager has the responsibility of all managers, to get the job done on time, within budget, and satisfying specifications. The job also includes planning and organizing, dealing with groups representing the owner, and subcontractors. In addition to people skills, the project manager must understand enough technology to realize what is possible and what is not, and to recommend project termination if things are not working out. The project manager needs to be personable, to use a leadership style capable of motivating diverse people who do not work directly for the project manager. The project manager also needs to be able to understand budgeting.

Comparison: Functional and Project Managers

Project managers have to operate in a very turbulent environment. Table 2.2 shows that there are many differences between the jobs of a project manager and a functional organization manager.

Table 2.2 Comparison of managerial features

Functional manager

Project manager

Clear chain of authority

Quasi-permanent relationships

Can direct

Often operates in matrix structure, with low authority

Temporary, shared relationships

Often must motivate positively

Established organization

Developing and changing organization

Long-term relationships

Short-term relationships

Directs a small set of skills

Directs a diverse set of skills

The selection of a project manager should be based on a number of characteristics. Project managers need flexibility, leadership, confidence, and organizing skills. They should be generalists rather than specialists. They need to communicate well, and to be able to build trust and team spirit. They need general business skills, as well as technical understanding. Project management requires a well-rounded individual.

Team cooperation is critical in projects. Matrix organizations involve high levels of conflict, in large part due to the dual chain of authority found in matrix organizations. Project managers operating in that environment need to function without the authority often found in functional organizations. Within projects, compromise and dealing with conflict in a positive way are usually associated with reduced conflict intensity.

While not always given direct authority, the project manager has control over some resources. The primary source of authority, however, is often the respect gained from professional expertise, and sometimes charm and personality. Professional expertise can be gained from technical knowledge and administrative competence. Some have suggested that project managers try to appear powerful to workers, so that they maximize their influence.

Project managers can be found either inside or outside of the organization. From within the organization, someone with experience and the right specialties is often impossible to find. Therefore, project managers often need to be found from outside the organization. However, this is also problematic, because it takes time to establish alliances and to ­understand an organization’s needs. But usually people with better organizational skills and experience are available in the broader market outside of an organization.

Summary

Information systems projects are very important, providing valuable computer technology for organizations. There is a wide variety of such projects. Web projects tend to involve many similar projects of a short duration. This makes project management easier than the typical kind of information systems project, which may involve a range of time from a month to years, and tends to involve more variety. The largest-scale information systems project is often the installation of an ERP system. This third type of project may be quite short if it simply involves the adoption of a vendor product. However, it can involve many years for global firms revamping their entire information systems support.

Human issues are very critical to the success of information systems projects. Interpersonal conflict may arise due to individual characteristics, team characteristics, project characteristics, or organizational characteristics. The role of each of these areas and how problems in each factor can impact projects was reviewed. Successful project completion requires careful management of each of these factors.

The impact of conflict on performance was reviewed. A little conflict is healthy, reducing the likelihood of complacency and urging us to do more and better things. However, conflict can quickly become counterproductive. It is especially difficult to manage conflict in information systems projects, because there are so many diverse people involved, many of them specialists who deal better with computers than with people.

Projects bring together diverse specialists to work on them. This creates a need for effective communication within project teams. IS/IT projects often involve working with outside organizations, such as vendors and consultants. The need to communicate is the same, but crossing organizational lines can impose additional communications barriers. More formal communication can assure better understanding in this case. There also is a need to communicate with the users that are to be the beneficiaries of IS/IT projects. Communication of all three types needs to be frequent to assure shared understanding in the highly dynamic project environment common to IS/IT projects.

The project manager is central to controlling the project. The project manager must integrate diverse elements to bring projects in on time, within cost, and with satisfactory performance. The project manager needs to be an individual capable of operating with diverse people, and capable of understanding both technical and administrative aspects of the project.

Glossary

Functional manager. Manager of a permanent organization.

Individual characteristics. Result of different personalities, of individuals with different demographic backgrounds as well as education and experience.

Interdependence. People working together, team effort necessary to make projects work.

Interpersonal conflict. Difficulties encountered by people in getting along with others without friction.

Programmers. Information systems job title responsible for building systems.

Project manager. Individual assigned the responsibility of organizing and managing a project.

Project scope. Statement giving project aims and constraints.

Project team. Group of people charged with accomplishing the project through the coordinated efforts of diverse skills.

Systems analysts. Information systems job title responsible for identifying systems needs and designing the software product.

Waterfall model. Prototypical list of systems development activities usually present in an information systems project.

PMBOK Items Relating to Chapter 2

The project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.

Project managers have the responsibility to satisfy task needs, team needs, and individual needs.

Project managers accomplish work through the project team and other stakeholders.

An organization’s culture, style, and structure influence how its projects are performed.

Organizations are systematic arrangements of persons and/or departments aimed at accomplishing a purpose, which may involve undertaking projects.

Project management success in an organization is highly dependent on an effective organization communication style, especially in the face of globalization of the project management profession.

Organizational process assets are the plans, processes, policies, procedures, and knowledge bases specific to and used by the performing organization.

9.4 Develop project team

9.5 Manage project team

10.1 Plan Communications Management—process of developing an appropriate approach and plan for project communications based on stakeholder’s information needs and requirement, and available organizational assets.

10.2 Manage Communications—process of creating, collecting, distributing, storing, retrieving, and the ultimate disposition of project information in accordance with the communications management plan.

10.3 Monitor Communications—ensure that a process providing accurate transfer of information is in place

Thought Questions

  1. What are key differences between the job of a project manager and that of a manufacturing plant manager?
  2. Identify project success from Gartner Group reports (www.Gartner.com).