Lessons in IT Resource Management from the ACA Website Fiasco

By RP Siegel
Credit: David Castillo Dominici via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The problems associated with the somewhat disastrous launch of the Affordable Care Act website serve as a sobering reminder of the challenges involved in the oversight of large and complex software projects. Companies that use effective resource management can avoid the kinds of catastrophic schedule slip that afforded too little time for testing the ACA website.

A representative of one of the contractors responsible for developing the site called the software program “unprecedented,” noting that it was the first time any site has combined the process of enrolling and selecting health insurance with determining eligibility for government subsidies "all in one place."

Be that as it may, the requirements were known at the time the job was accepted, which calls into question the project management expertise that was brought to bear in its deployment.

It is well known that software projects are uniquely difficult to manage because of the interdependent nature of the various tasks. Brooks’ Law states that adding more programmers to a task will not accelerate a program’s delivery any more than getting nine women pregnant will yield a baby in one month. In fact, studies have shown that adding more resources could end up in prolonging the effort due to the increased communication overhead as well as the time required for the most skilled people to train the new team members, taking them away from their real work.

So what are some ways to improve the management of IT resources?

Rob Lee writes in Datamation that the emphasis needs to be on advanced planning rather than simple resource tracking, which seems to be a holdover from legacy practices. Managers need to be looking at the road ahead, not in the rear view mirror. Otherwise, they end up with a very reactive management style that could send them spinning off towards Brooks’Law. It’s also important that resource management be integrated with budgets and schedules, preferably in an automated manner. His recommendations?

Start with management support. This is probably true for any initiative that departs from business as usual. It needs to be given more than lip service. Tie it to executive bonuses. Then a business can start to see broad participation.

Adopt a hybrid tops down/bottoms up approach. It’s like digging a tunnel under a river -- start at both ends and meet in the meet in the middle. That way, both the desired progress (tops down) and the actual (bottoms up) are given equal visibility. As the project moves forward, these two views of the world should more closely resemble one another.

Aggregate all IT demand. IT personnel will have other demands on their time, such as helping to keep internal operations running smoothly. Do not push these non-project activities under the table or the company will begin to see unexplained divergence between actual and desired state. Always maintain a realistic picture of resource availability and avoid wishful thinking.

Don’t over-engineer early efforts. Too much administrative overhead can overburden a project in its early stages. Plus, there needs to be a certain amount of wiggle room as the effort becomes established. Basic staffing profiles can be used to forecast how to meet demand. Once the project is up and running with a process that works, the reporting structure can mature along with the effort.

Automate resource requests. By automating the request, assignment, and approval process, decision making can be expedited and human resources better utilized. This has been done effectively using resource pool managers, or by integrating with automated workflow systems.

Measure and communicate -- early and often. It is crucial to provide timely feedback and reinforcement as milestones are achieved. Provide real time dashboards to maintain a high level of awareness of progress against objectives. Be sure to highlight accomplishments.

In closing, Lee emphasizes the use of technology to provide a “complete picture of all the demand placed on your organization as well as your capacity to meet this demand.”

In a white paper, Innotas, a resource management software company, emphasizes the importance of automated tools for maintaining alignment between IT and other lines of business. Citing a Gartner Group study, they point out that less than one-third of IT spending is devoted to strategic projects.

Two-thirds of organizations surveyed have no work visibility policies or tools in place and 7 percent have no IT resource management process at all. Gartner further estimates that some 60 percent of organizations do not adequately address IT capacity planning.

Innotas recommends the following best practices for IT resource management:  

  • Plot out resource capacity.
  • Allocate resources to meet proposed project demand
  • Match internal resources with tasks that lead to best results
  • Focus on team dynamics
  • Encourage employees to manage their own performance

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