Why Project Management Can Make Education Better

The technology coordinator knew that implementing a help desk call-tracking system could increase teacher satisfaction and cut costs. He bought tracking software and had it installed and configured. He modified the telephone routing system and hired new staff to work the help desk. Everything seemed to be working well.

When teachers called for help, they spoke to help desk staff or sometimes left a recorded message. Their requests were queued and resolved in-turn instead of being addressed according to perceived urgency. A knowledge base was being developed based on common problem types. These were all helpful and logical strategies, yes?

For the district, it was a disaster.

Teachers resented their inability to call their favorite technician for help, and their tone of voice no longer affected the speed of the resolution. IT staff hated having to document each problem resolution in the database. When staffers called the Superintendent to complain, she knew nothing about the new initiative and stormed into the IT Department demanding an explanation.

The process was working as planned. However, a simple but vital step had been overlooked: "Buy-In." The district hadn't convinced anyone that it was a good idea before they went ahead and implemented it. Sound familiar?

Does IT Know Something We Don't Know?

Anyone who successfully transitions from the world of business to the realm of education can tell you that one of the most glaring deficiencies in the sometimes stagnant education environment is an overall lack of adherence to established business practices and procedures. Does your district have a written backup and restoration plan? What is your documented Email retention policy? How compliant is your software licensing?

Lets face it: educators, in large part, are not trained to be businesspeople, and those who find themselves in a business or IT role have often grown up "in the system." They have never had the opportunity to hone the skills that big business has been perfecting for decades.

As educators, why not take time to glean from our IT "brothers and sisters" those areas where process and procedure can be applied to our daily work? In the long-term, this should increase efficiency, allowing us more time to do what we are actually here to do: teach kids.

Project Management: What is it?

The IT industry, among others, is abuzz with the concept of structured Project Management. A quick web search on the topic will return acronyms such as PMI, PMP, PMBOK, Project+, and a host of unfamiliar terminology such as Statements of Work, Deliverables, and Work Breakdown Structures. What does it all mean?

Mark Mullaly of Gantthead.com defines Project Management as "the exercise of responsibility and decision-making about a project, the authority to execute within the boundaries of the project, and the accountability to deliver the results of a project in the context of agreed-upon customer expectations, commitments, and constraints." But, if you ask me, that's all a bunch of gibberish.

In short, we are talking about a system of breaking an initiative down into digestible pieces, documenting each step, and delivering an on time, on budget, and high quality end result.

How Can it Benefit Me?

Most of us have experienced situations when a critical step in a new project was neglected or simply forgotten. If the fictional district above had taken the time to obtain buy-in by helping all affected parties to see why the new system would work for the staff and not against them, the first day of school would have been a success.

Your vendors are probably already using Project Management. Have you been asked to sign a Statement of Work before a product or service could be delivered? Has one of your partners forced a Software Implementation Plan or Work Breakdown Structure down your throat? Have you seen projects broken down into tasks and subtasks? The world is getting the message: Time spent planning means time saved playing catch-up.

A successful project looks different. It is well researched, well documented, and well implemented. Project Management can't prevent all failures, but its application usually means that we can predict failure much earlier and take swift steps to circumvent disaster.

Do projects fail in the world of business? Certainly! And there are many examples of colossal Project Management failures. The big difference is that when Project Management has been applied, we know exactly why the project failed and what problems we must address in order to help it succeed next time (or even this time, if you catch mistakes early enough).

Without Project Management, the blame game ensues: The network wasn't ready; the software stinks; the teachers were poorly trained; and nobody really knows fact from fiction. In Project Management, the objective is not to avoid blame; on the contrary, we should strive to identify our weaknesses and find ways to improve them.

How Do I Get Started?

Check out web sites for: PMI.org, Gantthead.com, and BaselineMag.com.
You'll find enough free reading material at these sites to keep you occupied for weeks, and some offer subscriptions to their hard-copy periodicals and Email newsletters. Another site, Pmforum.org, includes a comprehensive glossary of Project Management terminology. Also, simply search the web for "Project Management" and you will find yourself thoroughly inundated with information.

You may even want to consider membership ($30 to $350) in one of these organizations, which will make you eligible for additional resources and research materials. In view of the benefits, association with such a group could be a worthwhile investment.

Is Certification Necessary?

Nah. PMI (the Project Management Institute) touts PMP (Project Management Professional) Certification. CompTIA (yep, the A+ Certification folks) endorses Project+ Certification. These are excellent programs — an industry has been spawned — that could help any organization refine their techniques, but they are probably not necessary if you are just implementing the fundamentals. Don't let a lack of expertise discourage you; anyone can plan better with a little effort.

Get Moving!

So, what are you waiting for? You know your projects can benefit from some extra attention and planning. Start by writing a simple Statement of Work (templates are available all over the web) for your next small project, and look to improve from there.

The concept of Project Management is but one example of many tried-and-true business initiatives that can be applied to education. It is one of the few, however, that can be implemented slowly and tentatively with minimal cost and the potential for maximum gain.

Let's embrace what the rest of the world is learning; don't ignore it. If IT has invented a better mousetrap, let education be the first to place the cheese!

The following example applies the Six Principles of Project Management as defined by Keane, Inc. to the task of implementing a vendor-supplied, Web-based, daily student attendance application within a short time frame.



1. Define the job in detail

What is inside and outside the scope of this project?

  • Does it include hardware installation?
  • …software installation?
  • …train-the-trainer?
  • …individualized user training?
  • …implementation at one building or multiple buildings?
  • Will we use the "bells & whistles," or is this a basic implementation?

Is success contingent on any assumptions?

  • That staff possesses adequate PC skills for the undertaking?
  • That our current hardware infrastructure is adequate?

What risks could adversely affect the project?

  • Severe hardware failure?
  • Unrealistic software expectations?

2. Get the right people involved

  • Who must be a member of my project team in order to make this project a success? How often will I meet with them, and how much time will this project require of them?
  • Who is my project "sponsor," to whom I report status, and how often will we meet?

3. Estimate the time and costs

  • How long will each task take, and how much will that time cost us?
  • Remember to include the cost of people as well as the cost of goods (hardware, software, etc.).

4. Break the job down

  • Divide the project into bite-sized tasks, each of which will take no longer than two weeks to complete. This way, we can never be more than two weeks behind before someone notices that a task is past-due.
  • Assign each task to an owner, or owners, who will be responsible for seeing it through to completion by the estimated completion date.
  • Organize tasks into major groups or milestones. Be prepared to present a "deliverable" (a concrete something such as a report or other documentation) at the completion of each milestone.

5. Establish a change procedure

Work with your administration to create rules for change and be sure they are committed to following those rules.

  • If the Superintendent decides to add a building to the mix at the last minute, what sacrifices is she prepared to make in order for that to happen?
    …an extended schedule?…higher costs?…lower quality?

6. Agree on acceptance criteria

  • Define exactly what must occur in order for this project to be considered a success. If we don't know, we'll fight all day about whether the project was a success.
  • "If we don't know where we're going, any road will get us there."

Email: Justin R. Grenier