The Zen of IT Portfolio Management

Charles T. Thompson, Sr. is the CIO of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida, the twelfth largest district in the state serving 179,000 students.The rapidly expanding district selects and manages its initiatives using a business-world methodology known as IT portfolio management. School CIO recently caught up with Thompson to find out how portfolio management works in K–12.

Q: What is your definition of IT portfolio management?
A: Simply put, IT portfolio management is mapping the district’s overall business needs to the specific programs, initiatives, and projects within IT. A program for us means a multi-year initiative. A project is a one-time event with specific outcomes.

Q: How does this process work?
A: We manage initiatives using an application available on our Intranet. Any office in the district wanting to initiate a project has to log on, submit a “request for project,” and provide details around the initiative. The executive cabinet prioritizes the projects and votes on what gets done. Everything must be tied back to the superintendent’s strategic goals, which are academic achievement, operational efficiency, employee professionalism, and constant innovation. Each major division in the district has an integrated business plan (IBP) that’s tied back to the vision and mission of these goals. Any initiative [you propose] must support your IBP, and performance is evaluated against this plan on a quarterly basis. Here’s an example. We wanted to improve home-to-school communications. IT worked with the communications department and we built a business case for a parent notification tool. We posted information on our initiative management application. We went to the financial folks and the board and said ‘here’s the finances behind it; here’s the business case; here’s the cost over a three-year period.’ Once the board approved it and the funding fell into place, we then executed the plan.

Q: Which initiative management application do you use?
A: It’s an internally written app—not commercial. You can log onto the application and see which initiatives are pending, approved, or finished. There’s also information about the scope and financing, which stakeholder is promoting the project, which executive cabinet member is sponsoring it, the timeline, and deliverables. During the process, the initiative management application gives monthly ticklers from our project management office asking about the status of the project. It’s an iterative process with feedback mechanisms and has the ability to ensure projects meet their intended goals.

Q: How is IT portfolio management in K-12 different, if at all, than IT portfolio management in the private sector?
A: In K-12, there are a different set of metrics for success. It’s not about revenue. It’s about being able to do what I call cost shifting—shifting costs to those things that add value and support the strategic goals of the district. Before, I used to say we wouldn’t do anything unless it had a direct impact on teaching and learning. Now I would add, in a district like Orange County that’s such a huge operation, the importance of indirectly supporting instruction—achieving greater operational efficiency by consolidation of key services, for instance.

Q: What is your current IT portfolio? Do you try to balance low-risk with higher-risk projects, just as you might do with a stock portfolio?
A: We’re working on five main IT initiatives. Four deal with enterprise-wide projects: enterprise resource planning, student information, Web portal governance and home-to-school communication. The last is specific to the division: planning a server consolidation and upgrading our data center. The prioritization process is not that scientific. It has to do with how well the executive cabinet representatives bring recommendations to the table. There’s a lot of coalition building and lots of discussion. As is true in the business world, projects fail if they don’t have an executive sponsor.

Q: What's the payoff? What benefits have you seen at Orange County?
A: We’ve seen improved alignment between the superintendent’s goals and the integrated business plans. And because there’s governance that’s clearly defined up front, I think it’s increased the quality and consistency of projects. It’s also allowed us to consolidate or shift projects but I wouldn’t say it’s saved us money—in districts you have a finite budget. Yet cost shifting and alignment do take place.

Q: What’s your advice for other districts interested in IT portfolio management?
A: First, figure out the governance of projects—who does what, how decisions are made, the methodology for evaluating and delivering projects. Second, if you’re going to have a project or initiative, make sure you have someone who takes ownership at the executive level. Finally, the goals of the district must be aligned to the outcome of the initiative; otherwise, no one’s ever going to fund it. A good place to start in terms of project management methodologies is the Project Management Institute.

Amy Poftak is editorial director of School CIO.