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Available online at www.sciencedirect.


International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565

Making a difference? Evaluating an innovative approach to the

project management Centre of Excellence in a
UK government department
Tim O’Leary *, Terry Williams
School of Management, Southampton University, Hants SO17 1BJ, UK

Received 13 May 2008; accepted 20 May 2008


The UK Government has introduced measures in recent years aimed at improving project delivery capability in government depart-
ments, including the establishment of departmental Centres of Excellence (CoE) of Project and Programme Management (PPM) – ‘super
programme offices’ charged with ‘embedding best practice’.
This paper presents a case study of an innovative approach to the introduction of a CoE for IT-enabled change projects that includes
a central team of highly skilled, experienced managers to intervene directly as required in problematic projects. The positive impact of
this approach is compared with that of a previous conventional CoE focused mainly on ‘best practice’ process implementation, where no
direct impact could be seen.
Taken together with research literature from a number of disciplines, the case study supports the view that the conventional CoE
approach of embedding ‘best practice’ control processes may have little success in improving project delivery. It highlights the impor-
tance of direct intervention using experience-based, context-sensitive skills in improving project performance, and points to the essential
role of organisational power, politics and rhetoric in ‘making a difference’.
Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd and IPMA. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Project management; Centre of Excellence; Project success; Project intervention; Best practice

1. Project management Centres of Excellence tres of Excellence for PPM (CoEs), ‘super programme
offices’ combining the role of departmental programme
1.1. Background management office with responsibility for building PPM
capability and capacity.
A 2003 government report ‘Improving Project and Pro- CoEs were seen as supporting top management in imple-
gramme Delivery: Increasing the Civil Service’s Capacity menting a programme management approach to delivery
and Capability to Deliver’ [1] highlighted the importance throughout the organisation, and providing the informa-
of Project and Programme Management (PPM) in meeting tion for pro-active strategic management of the project
the Government’s objectives for improving public services. portfolio. They would improve project success by ‘embed-
A ‘pivotal’ recommendation was the introduction of Cen- ding best practice’ and providing support to projects

 Processes and toolkits – providing standardised pro-

* cesses, including the standard project lifecycle, tools,
Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 7770 471939.
E-mail addresses: (Tim O’Leary), t.williams checklists and structured guidance so that departments (Terry Williams). can manage their projects ‘‘with greater consistency and

0263-7863/$34.00 Ó 2008 Elsevier Ltd and IPMA. All rights reserved.

Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565 557

rigour”, drawing upon the central guidance of the Office of 7], as well as evidence of low rates of adoption in practice
Government Commerce (OGC), and the National Audit [8–10]. The ritualistic uses of methodologies has been high-
Office (NAO)1; lighted [11], and their role in providing psychological assur-
 Developing skills – providing frameworks, based on the ance and symbols of control [9,12].
above toolkits, and supported by professional accredita- A repeated theme in recent research is the invalidity of
tion schemes, for the assessment, recruitment and devel- the underlying structured model in coping with the day-
opment of staff with the PPM skills required for different to-day reality of projects [13]. Projects are in reality much
delivery roles. more complex and uncertain than is implied by the struc-
tured planning and control models underpinning main-
Detailed guidance issued by OGC in 2004 [2] makes it stream project management prescriptions, and flexible
clear that a CoE is seen as having an advisory and guiding approaches are required to accommodate this reality [14–
role in establishing PPM, particularly at the outset of pro- 17]. Both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ aspects of projects need to be
jects. While monitoring progress and reporting issues to managed, the latter needing different approaches [18]. All
senior management, it is not expected to actively intervene this requires re-thinking the project management paradigm
in projects. Delivery accountability rests with the Senior and developing underlying theory [19–21].
Responsible Owner (SRO – senior manager with project The need to manage different types of project in different
sponsorship responsibilities) and the project manager. ways has been recognised [22] and IT and business change
projects (the main focus of this research) are intrinsically
1.2. Would we expect Centres of Excellence to work? complex and uncertain, largely because of the organisa-
tional impacts. IT implementations are characterised by
The Centres of Excellence approach is widely accepted ‘‘a continuous stream of intervention, bricolage, improvisa-
in government and elsewhere.2 However, the success of tion, opportunism, interruption and mutual negotiation as
the CoE3 approach in improving project and programme much as by regularity, progress milestones, planning and
delivery and building organisational delivery capability management control” [9]. The importance of organisa-
relies on some problematic assumptions: tional, political and behavioural issues in the implementa-
tion of IT projects is a major theme of the IS research
1. that the widespread and consistent adoption of ‘best literature [23–26], and recent work on enterprise systems
practice’ structured methods to management of all pro- [27,28].
jects will lead to improvements in project outcomes; There is also much of relevance in the huge body of
2. that project teams will adopt ‘best practice’ structured research on intentional organisational change, which there
methods through a combination of organisational dictat is not scope in this paper to comprehensively review. Suffice
and improved knowledge and awareness of the tools and to say that the limitations of highly rational management
techniques; models of organisational change based on systems theory
3. that the skills required for successful delivery will be have been long recognised [29–32]. Greater emphasis has
developed largely through training in ‘best practice’ pro- tended to be placed on the ‘people’ aspects, eg leadership,
cesses, and from expert support in the application of team working, managing competing interests, and the emo-
those tools and techniques. tional and psychological response to change [33–36]. The
inherent unpredictability of interactions between human
In examining these assumptions, we can turn to a body beings in organisations is seen as limiting the usefulness
of recent work challenging the assumptions and efficacy of of the cybernetic control model of organisational change
formal project management methods from a number of dif- at the heart of project management theory [37,38]. The gen-
ferent perspectives. Some work takes a critical perspective eralisations essential in a structured management method-
to challenge the philosophical assumptions and power ology, and the implications of predictability, are
implications underlying mainstream project management problematic because outcomes of management actions
[3,4]. There are challenges to the use of structured method- depend upon particular circumstances, context and history
ological approaches or work rationalisation in principle [5– [39], and may even be counter-productive where complex
interactions are not understood. Complexity theories have
recently been used to explore how complex organisational
The OGC and NAO guidance and ‘best practice’ referred to here is change can be better managed [37,40,41].
closely aligned with, and based on the same philosophical and conceptual
assumptions as the various professional project management bodies’
Given this background, the ability to manage complex
‘bodies of knowledge’. projects successfully requires intuitive understanding of
The 2003 paper drew on the KPMG Programme Management Survey both dynamic and behavioural complexity, including sens-
2002 of 134 private and public sector organisations to conclude that ‘‘there ing patterns, improvising and dealing with events as they
is a strong correlation between Programme Office effectiveness/maturity arise, and applying principles in local context [42–46] Effec-
and project success”.
Throughout this paper, we are referring only to the OGC Centre of
tive management approaches in practice are ‘semi-struc-
Excellence, though clearly it may be possible to draw wider conclusions tured’, combining some centralised ‘command and
about similar functions more generally. control’ with a degree of local autonomy and improvisa-
558 Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565

tion. [42,47]. Effective project managers give priority to 1.4. Traffic light reporting
managing key stakeholders, and have the political skills
to ‘play the turf game’ [48,49]. CoEs use the familiar traffic light reporting system to
These ‘craft’ or ‘practical wisdom’ skills of the project summarise project status and to highlight problematic pro-
practitioner can only be built up through experience and jects. Typically projects are flagged as ‘Red’ when they
reflective practice [50–53]. They are learned through ‘com- have serious problems which require immediate remedial
munities of practice’, developing an associated set of val- action, ‘Amber’ projects are giving cause for concern,
ues, norms and mind-set through social processes [5,54]. and ‘Green’ projects are running according to plan.
Social processes of learning in local context also play a Departmental reporting to OGC of the most significant
key role in transfer of ‘best practice’; new management projects (called ‘mission-critical’ projects), further sepa-
knowledge is not simply acquired by codifying new proce- rates the Amber category into Amber/Red and Amber/
dures [55,56]. Green.
We can see therefore that a considerable body of Traffic lights provide a subjective assessment of perfor-
research from different disciplines questions the three mance, though that assessment may in part be based on
assumptions set out above upon which the success of the more quantitative measures of costs and timescales. Traffic
Centre of Excellence is predicated. There are doubts light status is usually arrived at through complex social and
whether ‘best practice’ structured models and procedures political negotiations, which themselves merit closer exam-
are a good basis for achieving successful outcomes in com- ination; these indicators cannot be seen as an unproblem-
plex organisational change projects, not least because the atic objective measure of performance. For instance, an
model is a poor fit to reality. Even if the model is the increase in projects at ‘Red’ status for a period, rather than
way projects ‘ought’ to be, adoption of formal methodolo- indicating a decline in performance may reflect a more hon-
gies is often low in practice, and they usually need to be est assessment, or be a political move to focus attention.
modified extensively in the local context. The skills However, as a broad indicator of the perceived perfor-
required for success are built more through experience than mance of the portfolio over many months, and subject to
knowledge of techniques, are based on tacit knowledge awareness of their limitations as an objective performance
developed in context through practice, and are not measure, the traffic lights have provided in this study a use-
easily taught. Transfer of improved practice in organisa- ful focus for analysis.
tions is by no means a straightforward process of intro-
ducing new procedures. All of this challenges the
assumptions underpinning the notion of the PPM Centre 2. Case study
of Excellence.
2.1. Background to the case study

1.3. Measuring improvements in project performance The case study examines the development of two CoE
initiatives in a UK government department (‘the depart-
The aim of the CoE initiative is ‘increasing successful ment’) over a 3-year period from February 2004. The first
delivery’ of projects in government, and OGC guidance initiative (‘PPMCoE’) is a conventional implementation in
suggests that CoEs should seek to measure the ensuing line with the central guidance; the second (‘ITCoE’)
improvements in project and programme delivery. How- focused on IT-enabled change projects only, takes a differ-
ever, this is by no means straightforward. The notion of ent, more interventionist, approach. The research was car-
project success is itself complex and ambiguous [57,58]. ried out during a period of direct involvement as a
The mainstream view of the ‘iron triangle’ of cost-time- consultant by one of the authors (‘the researcher’) from
quality has significant limitations, and many point to the September 2005, when the alternative approach was first
need for broader scorecards, particularly around stake- introduced, until March 2007. Events prior to that date
holder satisfaction and achievement of business outcomes have been described on the basis of available documenta-
[59–61]. Organisational perspectives can be strongly influ- tion, including intranet pages, plans, status reports, review
enced by history and context, with different perspectives reports and minutes of meetings, together with notes of dis-
of success becoming more dominant according to the cussions with relevant managers. The approach to the case
power of the groups promoting them [62–64]. Further- study from September 2005 onwards is a combination of
more, projects can be seen as moving from failure to suc- action research and participant observation. The informa-
cess and back again over time [65]. tion analysed and interpreted is in much greater depth and
Many of these complexities are evident in our case includes daily notes of meetings and conversations, internal
study. In particular, the dynamic nature of project success documents and emails retained over the period, analysis of
is relevant, as we observe the effect of a number of ‘in- project status reports (summarised in the ‘traffic light’ sta-
flight’ interventions over time. The means of assessing pro- tus), a survey of project managers, and interviews with
ject performance used in this case is the change in ‘traffic managers engaged in or directly affected by the initiative.
light’ status assigned to projects. The paper has also been discussed in detail with some of
Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565 559

the key managers involved to check for accuracy, plausibil- processes and activities, there is little to suggest that project
ity of the analysis, and interpretation. performance, or at least the perception of that perfor-
mance, improved over the period in which the CoE was
2.2. The PPM Centre of Excellence – the conventional model established. For example, a senior management report in
July 2004 indicated:
In response to the central guidance described earlier, in
‘‘The department has a number of mission-critical pro-
February 2004 the department set up a central CoE (‘PPM-
grammes that have high-visibility at OGC and Cabinet
CoE’) which was conspicuously launched through a num-
Office. There is growing concern at the continued report-
ber of communication events. These stressed that one of
ing of RED status against these programmes.”
the three key aims of the new unit (along with guidance
and support to staff, and assurance of project progress)
was ‘‘to enhance and support the use of appropriate PPM It is exactly these kinds of problems that the Centre of
techniques (largely through the provision of information Excellence was seen as addressing. However, a year later
and training)”. A high-quality 200 page ring-bound docu- the July 2005 quarterly report to the Management Board
ment and accompanying CD-ROM (‘‘PPM Toolkit Guid- paints a very similar picture, indicating that 8 of the 9 most
ance”) was issued to all senior managers and project major ‘‘Mission Critical” projects within the department
managers, providing a customized consolidation of OGC were flagged at Red or Amber/Red. This was when the
guidance. Following the central guidance, the new unit PPMCoE had been in operation for 18 months and,
set up functions aimed at progress reporting, the develop- according to the independent progress reviews, close to
ment of standard documentation templates to support maturity.
the processes, communications, advice and support on In the period over which the PPMCoE had been estab-
PPM to projects, and training for senior and project lished, therefore, while awareness and visibility of the prob-
managers. lems may have improved, there appeared to have been no
By the end of 2004, the unit comprised some 24 bright, improvement in the department’s ability to deliver projects
capable and enthusiastic staff, knowledgeable in PPM who and programmes successfully.
tackled the task in a very professional fashion. They were Nonetheless, by early 2006, the PPM rhetoric was as
subject to a series of independent reviews by the OGC, powerful as ever. The Minister gave the keynote speech
all of which were positive about progress and approach. at a PPMCoE event for departmental staff, and senior
In February 2005, the OGC review said the unit was ‘‘well management made frequent reference to the importance
placed to contribute to the effective delivery of the top strate- of better project and programme management, associating
gic programmes and projects by providing varying levels of that implicitly with PPM. Establishment of PPMCoE was a
help support and guidance as required on specific pro- key action referred to in the report to the Minister to dem-
grammes”. This review lists 60 milestones on the set up onstrate a credible improvement plan. Continuing prob-
plan, with good progress reported in most areas. A subse- lems in departmental project delivery, rather than
quent report concluded in September 2005 that ‘‘The CoE providing a challenge to the CoE approach, served to rein-
has reached maturity in the department”. In terms of imple- force its perceived importance.
menting the elements of the CoE as envisaged in the origi- But doubts were growing on the ground. Numerous
nal policy, it would seem that the department’s informal conversations (from September 2005 onwards)
implementation was a model of how it should be done. with project managers and teams indicated concerns about
The new unit was widely supported at senior manage- the real value added by PPMCoE. Projects repeatedly com-
ment level, with frequent reinforcement of its role and of plained about the reporting demands from the unit. They
the value of ‘‘PPM” evident in senior management commu- claimed that little apparent use was made of the extensive
nications and submissions to ministers. The initiative pro- information required from them, and some (particularly
voked much interest from staff who saw the development the larger projects) saw PPMCoE as a bureaucratic over-
of project skills and experience as an important contribu- head rather than a source of assistance in delivery. In Jan
tion to their career development. Training courses and 2006, PPMCoE training workshops for SROs had to be
communication events were well attended, as was initial cancelled because of lack of attendance. However, the
training for SROs. PPM orthodoxy itself as represented by PPMCoE was
widely accepted as something that was not easily chal-
2.3. Assessing the performance of PPMCoE lenged. A senior programme director, on being asked the
impact of PPMCoE on the business, replied ‘‘Business
PPMCoE undoubtedly raised levels of awareness of impact? (laughs) Well, I’ll have to be careful here. . .”.
PPM across the organisation, drew attention to problems In discussions some 2½ years after the unit was set up,
and issues, and was a powerful symbol of the increased senior managers in PPMCoE saw the department’s contin-
concern with project delivery. However, despite the profes- uing project delivery problems as resulting from a failure to
sional way in which the unit was established, and its dem- adopt the PPM processes properly. They were exasperated
onstration of successful introduction of the required by a perceived lack of support from senior business manag-
560 Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565

ers and SROs, many of whom they saw as paying lip-ser- was set up with a full commitment to implement ‘best prac-
vice to PPM, pointing to a culture of ‘robber barons’ and tice’ PPM processes, in effect ‘taking over’ the work of
general resistance to corporate standards. In looking at PPMCoE with respect to IT projects. The significant
continuing project delivery issues, they felt that they had departure from the conventional model, however, was the
done what they could in repeatedly highlighting issues introduction of a central ‘hit team’ of around 12 ‘delivery
and risks to the Board. It was clearly not their role to inter- managers’ working directly with projects, brokering resolu-
vene in projects, and they felt they did not have the remit, tion of issues, and putting troubled projects back on track.
the credibility or the resources to do so. It was the right to Team members were almost all external contractors, each
intervene directly in projects that distinguished the subse- with 10–20 years successful project and programme
quent CoE implementation for IT projects which is management experience, and essentially ‘hand-picked’
described in what follows. from personal experience of the IT director and researcher
It is interesting to note in corroboration of what was on previous large projects. They were highly credible
observed here that the National Audit Office [66] observed individuals with impressive CVs and good interpersonal
(while recognising that the data were ‘‘difficult to interpret” skills.
p. 47–48) that over the period of the introduction of CoEs,
the percentage of ‘mission-critical’ programmes and pro- 2.4.3. ITCoE programme of work
jects rated ‘Green’ had shown no improvement. This is The ITCoE was operational in early 2006 and engaged
consistent with the conclusions from the research referred on an improvement plan, in three main areas:
to above and the findings of this case study.
 Project reporting – building properly informed views of
2.4. The IT Centre of Excellence (ITCoE) – an alternative the state of projects within the portfolio. In some cases,
approach this relied on delivery manager direct involvement rather
than on standard project reports, leading to some ten-
2.4.1. IT in the department sion with projects about the correct status traffic light.
The department’s IT provision had been outsourced,  Project recovery – developing, with agreement secured
leaving the IT department playing the role of an internal from the Board following the political moves described
‘intelligent customer’ function to manage the contractual in Section 2.4.6, a support plan for recovery of red-light
and commercial processes with the supplier, and provide projects, and assigning delivery managers as required.
a service management and delivery assurance function. This was a substantial departure from the IT depart-
Within the ‘intelligent customer’ model, the expectation ment’s previous role, and indeed the conventional role
was that delivery accountability for IT projects, as for all of a CoE. This work began in late 2005, and was most
of the department’s projects, would rest with the business intense in the first quarter of 2006 leading up to a major
directors commissioning projects from the supplier rather re-prioritisation of the whole IT portfolio as escalating
than the IT department. costs were identified in project reviews.
From mid-2004 until September 2005, a small pro-  Project standards – developing and implementing the ‘IT
gramme office function within the IT department was project lifecycle’, providing a stage-gate framework
responsible for exercising the CoE function with respect around which assurance and approval processes could
to IT projects, working as a ‘‘satellite” of PPMCoE. be built. It is important to note that this conventional
In September 2005, a new IT director was appointed, CoE activity was seen initially as at least as important
with a successful track record in operational management, as the intervention activity. The Lifecycle remained the
change management and IT project delivery. Forceful, ‘flagship’ of the new function’s mission, and featured
charismatic, and highly skilled politically, he was passion- prominently in management communications. Project
ate about public service, getting things done and ‘making standards and the Lifecycle were the central theme of
a difference’. From the outset he took an intense personal a launch conference held by ITCoE in March 2006,
interest in addressing the department’s project delivery attended by around 60 of the department’s project man-
problems. As one of his early initiatives, he commissioned agers. A pilot was initiated, and a target set for all pro-
the researcher as a consultant to set up with him new man- jects to be using the IT project lifecycle by September
agement arrangements to improve the department’s IT 2006.
project delivery capability.

2.4.2. ITCoE – design and rationale 2.4.4. Progress with the IT project lifecycle
One of the IT director’s first actions was to create in According to internal management communications,
effect a new Centre of Excellence for IT projects (‘ITCoE’). progress with introduction of the IT project lifecycle was
The organisation design included a standard Programme good. A Board paper in April 2006 reported:
Office along the conventional CoE lines, responsible for ‘‘The design of the lifecycle is now complete. . . It will be
monitoring and reporting, and implementation of a struc- adopted for new projects immediately, in full alignment with
tured IT project lifecycle methodology. As such, the unit the new Approvals process for IT projects.”
Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565 561

A review of the function by internal audit as late as Feb- projects for a short period to address particular issues and
ruary 2007 concluded ‘‘we recognise that significant pro- then move on to other projects, thereby sustaining a central
gress has already been made, specifically with the intervention capability. In practice, this did not happen:
introduction of the project lifecycle”. once they had become involved, most delivery managers
However, the situation on the ground was rather differ- were not subsequently released by the projects, rather being
ent. In February 2007, when a second conference was held drawn into ongoing roles within projects. Furthermore,
for project managers, ITCoE was still presenting plans for budget pressures from April 2006 onwards meant that
the imminent roll-out of the lifecycle almost a year after it ITCoE found it difficult to retain the budget cover for
was declared as in use for all new projects (and 2½ years the pool of resources, which were increasingly covered
after first being agreed to be necessary). Privately, ITCoE out of projects’ own budgets. This in effect led to a gradual
managers accepted that the lifecycle was not being used attrition of ITCoE’s intervention capability, so that by
in any substantive sense, and it was clear from detailed October 2006, ITCoE had a much-reduced capability to
reviews of project documentation that it had little impact assign highly skilled resources to projects in the way it
on actual project work. had done in late 2005 and early 2006.
Nevertheless, a survey of the 35 project managers
attending the conference showed high levels of positive 2.4.6. The politics of intervention
awareness of the lifecycle, with a surprising 48% claiming The IT director’s role with respect to IT project delivery,
that they were already using it, although this was evidently and the role of the delivery managers were both problem-
not the case from reviews of project documentation. Com- atic with respect to existing governance and accountability
mitment to ‘best practice’ processes appeared to have a arrangements. While the IT director did have some kind of
symbolic value and rhetorical force not just for senior man- overarching responsibility for IT delivery (including
agement but for the project managers also. accounting to Ministers for problems and progress), this
was hitherto exercised indirectly through reporting, advice
2.4.5. Delivery management intervention and guidance, and through management of the outsourced
Involving delivery managers in troubled projects supplier. Delivery responsibility for projects lay with the
required considerable political skill and sensitivity. They business sponsors, not with the IT director, who therefore
needed to be introduced with the full support of the busi- had no remit to intervene except on invitation. The effective
ness area’s senior management, usually following discus- set up and functioning of the ITCoE therefore required
sions involving the IT director, and their precise activity intense political maneuvering. Key factors in the success
subsequently negotiated with the project team. This pro- of this political activity were:
cess was significantly expedited by control of the IT budget,
and the IT director’s readiness to carry the costs initially.  administrative control of the department’s IT budget (as
The delivery managers’ role and accountability was often part of responsibility for commercial management of the
seen as unclear, which was sometimes raised as an objec- outsourced IT supplier);
tion at the outset (and highlighted by an internal audit  the personal charismatic leadership and delivery skills of
report in February 2007). However, they were (in all but the IT director;
one case) able to establish themselves as making a positive  exploitation of the dominant rhetoric of PPM, and the
contribution on the basis of their personal experience and department’s history of delivery failure, to overcome
had the interpersonal skills to gain acceptance. objections;
What delivery managers actually did varied from project  the quality, experience and political skills of the delivery
to project. In some cases, they effectively replaced the pro- managers.
ject manager. In others they carried out a brief review, and
identified a series of actions for the project to put in hand. One example of political tactics was the way in which
In others, they focused on a particular problematic issue, the IT director moved quickly to intervene personally in
such as agreeing the scope between stakeholders, develop- some problematic projects, commissioning a review of
ing a revised plan, or challenging supplier costs. It is evi- one, and, after intensive lobbying with senior stakeholders,
dent from their regular reports that they were not announcing that it was to be cancelled. Another important
concerned with the introduction of ‘best practice’ pro- signal was the introduction of a weekly project issues
cesses, focusing far more on resolution of the immediately group, chaired personally by the IT director, replacing
pressing issues. There is not scope in this paper to examine the previous far more junior monthly project progress
this in detail, but an in-depth review of one of the projects meeting. In this way, the IT director and his newly acquired
suggested that progress was achieved not so much by tak- team injected very visible pace and urgency, highlighting
ing different kinds of actions from those already taken project issues, initiating and driving through corrective
(reviews, escalation, renegotiation, etc.) but by the persis- actions.
tence and intensity with which the action was taken. The IT director also offered his personal support directly
The intention of the organisational model described in at the most senior levels, e.g. dealing forcefully with under-
ITCoE plans was that delivery managers would work with performing suppliers with an aggressive style untypical of
562 Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565

civil service managers. He also freely provided expert 60% 35

Delivery Management resource to the business managers,
%R-A/R 30
initially paid for from the IT budget. 50%
No of projects
A powerful weapon in the political maneuvering was 25
exploitation of the PPM rhetoric, already promoted by
PPMCoE. While progress on the IT Lifecycle methodology 30%
on the ground was minimal as we have seen, its alignment 15
with PPM was important in legitimising the overall role of 20%
ITCoE, including the novel right of intervention. For
example, objections to the ITCoE proposals raised by a 10% 5
Board member were responded to as follows: 0% 0
Jan- Mar- Jun- Aug- Sep- Oct- Nov- Dec- Jan- Feb-
06 06 06 06 06 06 06 06 07 07
‘‘What is proposed here is accepted good practice in
project management, in line with central government and Fig. 1. Trends in project performance during period of intervention.
[PPMCoE] guidance, and formed the core of our
response last September to [Minister] on improving deliv-
tions, reinforced by comments in the IT department’s
ery of IT in [department]. I judged that [Board] would
customer survey in April 2006, indicated that senior man-
not wish to have detailed chapter and verse on exactly
agers felt the IT director and ITCoE was ‘making a differ-
how these principles are to be applied in [department]
ence’, comparing it favourably with PPMCoE (focused
before supporting them.”
now on non-IT projects). At a senior management plan-
ning workshop in June 2006, one Board member remarked
Through a number of these opportunistic and politically that PPMCoE should look to what ITCoE were doing as
skillful organisational tactics, the IT director was widely ‘‘ITCoE seem to be doing the right sorts of things”.
seen as ‘beginning to make a difference’. Objections in prin-
ciple to central interference and unclear accountability con- 2.4.8. Interpreting the trend in traffic light status
tinued but had little impact. Through a combination of Judged on the basis of the traffic light reports, the intro-
personal charisma and effectiveness, conviction and deter- duction of ITCoE with its drive to improve project delivery
mination, a compelling story, use of the PPM rhetoric, can be seen as ‘making a difference’ over the period
and lack of concerted opposition, the IT director gained observed. This contrasts with the earlier implementation
legitimacy for a new interventionist remit for the ITCoE. of the conventional CoE model, where despite high-quality
This created the opportunity for skilled and experienced implementation and expressed top management support,
project and programme managers to directly influence no improvement in project performance was evident over
actions in projects, rather than relying on the promotion a 2-year period or more.
of ‘best practice’ processes. Both implementations included the introduction of ‘best
practice’ PPM processes. The substantive difference
2.4.7. Assessing the impact of ITCoE between the two implementations was the central provision
As a means of assessing the impact of the ITCoE’s work, of highly skilled, experienced managers to intervene in
traffic light status for more significant projects (‘Tier 1’) of troubled projects ie to contribute directly to the actions
the project portfolio were tracked. Fig. 1 shows the trend in taken to manage the projects. The impact observed in the
traffic light reporting for January 2006–February 2007.4 case of ITCoE would seem most plausibly to come from
This clearly shows that the proportion of projects flagged this direct intervention rather than from the introduction
as Red or Amber/Red (%R–A/R) declined from April of ‘best practice’ processes in the form of the IT project life-
onwards, coinciding with the period of intervention, and cycle. Even if the Lifecycle methodology was beginning to
then began slowly to increase again, coinciding as discussed be used as claimed by October 2006 (and we have seen that
with a decline in the intensity of the intervention. The chart this was not substantively the case) the improvement trend
also illustrates the reduction in the number of Tier 1 pro- in traffic light status had already flattened out. It can also
jects. This resulted from a prioritisation process to main- be noted that the greatest impact was observed following
tain the programme within the available departmental a period in late 2005/early 2006 which involved the most
budget once the true costs of completion of projects had intensive intervention activity led personally by the IT
been identified through more direct intervention. director. As the distinctive ITCoE intervention capability
This trend was reinforced by observations of organisa- was gradually eroded for a variety of reasons, the trend
tional perceptions of impact at the time. Private conversa- in improvement declined and even began to reverse. This
also coincided with (a) a reduction in the attention directed
to projects by the IT director personally once he was satis-
The first four data points are from quarterly reports, subsequent data fied that the situation was under better control, and (b)
are monthly. withdrawal of key consultancy resources from ITCoE.
Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565 563

The above interpretation of the story is reinforced by These are only some of the specific contextual and his-
interviews in May 2007 with several business stakeholders torical factors which may affect our interpretation of what
on their perceptions of the impact of ITCoE throughout has been observed in this case, and consideration of the
2006. These all saw the function as having an impact early extent to which this experience is relevant to other organi-
on but saw little direct benefit on their projects from the IT sations, or indeed this organisation at a different time.
project lifecycle methodology. Each identified the most
direct impact they had felt from the set up of ITCoE as 3. Conclusion
being the IT director’s personal assistance, and the provi-
sion of high-quality resource (the delivery managers) in What we have been able to observe in this case study is
support. the marked difference in impact between two different
implementations of a project and programme management
2.4.9. Some cautionary reflections (PPM) Centre of Excellence in the same organisation. The
The case study demonstrates that this is a highly com- first implementation (PPMCoE) was well-implemented in
plex environment where conclusions about cause and effect line with central government guidance, and its design relied
must be tentative and subject to a number of different predominantly on the introduction of, and training in, ‘best
interpretations. practice’ structured PPM processes to achieve improve-
The measure of outcome used (traffic light status) is itself ments in project delivery. The second implementation
subjective and determined through a complex social negoti- (ITCoE), while sharing similar objectives of introducing
ation process between the projects and ITCoE, and was ‘best practice’ processes (the IT project lifecycle), involved
therefore not an independent measure of ITCoE impact also the introduction of a central team of highly skilled,
on project performance. The improvement trend was experienced project managers (‘delivery managers’) to
broadly confirmed by the views of business stakeholders assess status and to intervene directly as required in prob-
referred to above – but it may be that we observed a change lematic projects.
in organisational perceptions of ‘making a difference’ rather On the basis of traffic light reports of the project portfo-
than actual improvement, based on interpretations of some lio, it seems that the first implementation, with no remit or
symbolic gestures, and demonstration of ‘doing the right capability to intervene directly in projects, had no observa-
kinds of things’. Here the researcher’s own stake as a con- ble impact on project delivery performance over a 2-year
sultant in demonstrating a successful outcome for the period. The later intervention-oriented approach showed
organisational change needs to be acknowledged. a clear impact on project performance within a few
It may also be that changes in perceived performance months, which reduced as the intervention activity reduced.
were generated by independent changes in the context In both cases, it appeared that the apparent organisational
and were partly coincidental. The funding shortfall, which commitment to, and promotion of, ‘best practice’ PPM
provided the imperative opportunity to make the project processes led to few substantive changes in the way project
portfolio more manageable, was very significant. This fac- activity was actually conducted or to any improvement in
tor arguably may have been enough on its own to generate the capability of project teams.
the observed improvement in project performance (though Our interpretation is that the observed improvement in
it is worth noting that the scale of the shortfall was influ- performance was achieved through the active involvement
enced by a clearer view gained through more active inter- of experienced project managers directly influencing day-
vention). Funding issues can also plausibly be seen as the to-day project activities, under the direct leadership of a
cause of the increase in the proportion of ‘Red’ lights personally powerful and highly committed individual (the
towards the end of the 2006 financial year, as projects IT director), skillfully exploiting a specific organisational
became concerned about funding availability and more context. We see the attempts in each case to introduce ‘best
ready to accept ‘Red’ status. practice’ processes having no observable impact on project
History and timing were also important. The organisa- outcomes. However, we observe that the PPM rhetoric was
tional narrative of a long history of project failure made very dominant, and maintained even when those promot-
certain actions more acceptable in 2006 than they were in ing it were evidently not following PPM in practice. This
2004. And while the PPMCoE did not appear to drive tends to obscure the lack of impact of the introduction of
improvements in project performance directly, it was an PPM processes on project outcomes. For instance, the rhet-
important agent in the promotion of the PPM rhetoric, oric was used in the ITCoE case as a powerful lever in gain-
and thereby supported the eventual more direct interven- ing legitimacy for effective interventions that might
tions. Another crucial factor was access to resources. The otherwise not have been possible.
centralisation of IT budgets that was agreed in 2005 for We see our findings as consistent with the findings from
an entirely different purpose as part of the IT supply agree- previous research across a range of different disciplines. As
ment, provided the IT director almost accidentally with a discussed in Section 1.2 of this paper, this research chal-
lever and symbol of legitimate authority, and with the abil- lenges the assumptions upon which the conventional Cen-
ity, at least for a while, to buy in the skills required for the tre of Excellence approach is based; in particular, the
delivery manager role. universal validity of the ‘best practice’ process control
564 Tim O’Leary, Terry Williams / International Journal of Project Management 26 (2008) 556–565

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