Decision Support Project Management
by Dan Power
Originally published January 22, 2009
Since the early 1950s, much has been written about project management. This literature prescribes generic steps and issues associated with a broad class of projects. In general, a project is a discreet, goal-oriented task or endeavor. A decision support project has a broad goal of supporting decision making, but there are many ways to do that using a variety of technologies. A decision support project varies in terms of what decisions will be supported, what decision makers will use the system, when and how it will be used, and what type of decision support will be provided. Also, the technology solution may be poorly understood. Decision support system (DSS) projects are often hard to structure and manage. Moving from an informal exploration of a suggestion for a new DSS to a formal project is an important step.
A senior manager who is interested in a decision support concept such as having access to business intelligence information should designate a project manager or push IT management to assign an appropriate project manager. The project manager is expected to achieve project goals and objectives on time, within budget and at an agreed-upon quality level. Project managers also attempt to optimize the allocation, use and integration of inputs including staff, technology and software.
The initial tasks of the project manager include diagnosis of the decision-making situation, a feasibility study, and a definition of the objectives and scope of the proposed project. Once these steps are completed, the executive sponsor needs to choose to push the project or postpone any further work on it. Depending upon the scope of the DSS project, an executive sponsor may be able to directly fund the project or funding may be budgeted as part of business and information systems planning. The larger the scope of the proposed project, the more important it is to receive widespread agreement and sponsorship of the project. The objectives of a large-scope DSS project must be strategically motivated, should have strong executive support and must meet a business need. Large scope projects may benefit from having co-project managers, for example: 1) a business unit manager and 2) an IT manager. If co-managers are designated, clear authority and responsibility guidelines should be established.
Once a decision support project is approved, then a methodology and project plan need to be developed, and a project team needs to be assembled. If the project will be outsourced, then a process needs to be developed for creating a request for proposals and then evaluating proposals that are received. If the development will occur in house, then development tools and technical issues need to be resolved. The feasibility analysis should have determined if it is appropriate for the project to be completed in house.
User requirements need to be specified in some detail. For large projects, the DSS architecture must be specified and any changes or additions to the information systems and information technology (IS/IT) infrastructure must be planned. Once these crucial preliminaries are completed, then systems design or prototyping can occur. The project tasks will not be completed in a simple, linear sequence, and the project manager must be actively involved in managing the project. Whenever possible, the project manager and, in some cases, a co-project manager from the business area most affected should consult and work with potential users. The project manager must keep the executive sponsor informed. If problems are occurring or might occur, the sponsor needs to be alerted in a timely manner. The rule is "no surprises" for the project sponsor.
The project manager should identify tasks that must be completed, resources that are needed and project deliverables. Deliverables are especially important for monitoring the progress of the project. Milestones or important project events are also often identified to help non-technical managers monitor a project. The chief information officer (CIO) of a firm and one or more business managers should be monitoring the progress of a large scope or high visibility DSS project. Ultimately, managers will expect measurable results from a DSS project. Understanding and meeting the expectations of managers who will use a DSS is the most important and most difficult part of a DSS project manager's job.
The DSS project manager defines project plans and manages the daily activities associated with the project. The project manager coordinates project resources, the project budget, status reporting, changes in requirements and tasks, relations with vendors, and relations with sponsors, skeptics and IS/IT staff. A DSS project manager may come from the information systems group or from another functional department. In general, a DSS project manager needs strong technical skills, outstanding people skills and knowledge of the business.
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