Tools can’t take politics out of project selection

Portfolio management software has not delivered on its promise to take the wrangling out of budget allocation

A few years ago, when portfolio management software and techniques first came into vogue, many IT executives remarked on how the tools would remove politics from IT project prioritisation debates. They envisioned IT steering committees that would objectively rank the value of proposals by calculating their expected return on investment, strategic impact and other quantifiable criteria.

However, IT managers attending the recent IT Financial and Asset Manage­ment Summit West conference in Las Vegas say that vision hasn’t come true.

“IT portfolio management techniques don’t help you get past politics,” says Becky Hamilton, an information management director at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a commercial seed producer.

Sam Coursen, CIO at Freescale Semiconductor, says when it comes to discussions on IT project prioritisation, “I can’t imagine any tool would remove organisational dynamics”. Coursen, who like Hamilton was a speaker at the conference, says Freescale’s executive committee has a dollar cap that “forces the group to focus on the top 20% of projects that are expected to deliver the most value.”

IT portfolio management tools “won’t de-politicise anything,” says Bernie Donnelly, vice president of quality assurance at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. Instead, he says “it’s about having a rigorous process around prioritising IT projects — that’s what works.”

IT managers interviewed by US Computerworld during the past four years have often maintained that IT portfolio management techniques and software would short-circuit the politics that tend to surround discussions between IT and business executives about which IT projects to fund. That perception arose because the tools can calculate and rank the projects expected to have the greatest impact on an organisation, using metrics such as net present value and internal rate of return.

But, in hindsight, the belief that objective rankings would defuse the political jockeying around budget discussions was either naïve or misguided, several conference attendees say.

“To be a successful CIO you have to learn not to take sides in the budget battle,” says Russ Finney, vice president and CIO at Tokyo Electron America.

Finney says he needs to listen to all sides of a discussion about which IT projects to fund — and about the drivers behind them — before he can make an objective decision. That’s particularly true when it falls upon him to break a deadlocked vote, he says. Still, he acknowledges that the budgeting process at Tokyo Electron “is very political. That’s why we only do budgets every six months — if we had to do them every quarter we’d be at each other’s throats.”

Still, one IT executive at the conference sees an upside to the situation. Michael Blake, vice president of finance for IT at healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente, says “some of the tools are pretty slick and some of them enable conversations to happen” between IT and business executives about which projects to fund.

“I’m a big advocate of conversations and we can use these tools as a vehicle to drive those discussions and make those decisions,” he says.

The International Quality & Productivity Centre organised the conference

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