Computing Applications Technical opinion

How -niversity Professors Teach Project Management For Information Systems

Determining where project management education fits into the overall curriculum.
  1. Article
  2. References
  3. Authors
  4. Figures
  5. Tables

There is a reported crisis of quality in the software industry where only 20% of large software systems are implemented on time and, of those, approximately two-thirds experience cost overruns approaching 100% [4]. A major contributor to this problem is inadequate project management [1]. The most recent model IS curriculum developed by a consortium of industry and educational professionals advocates increased emphasis on project management (PM) and even includes an entire course emphasizing PM concepts and practice [2].

The recommendation calls for learning units on: 1) project planning; 2) project organization management, principals, concepts, and issues; 3) work breakdown structures and scheduling; 4) project staffing; 5) project control; 6) managing multiple projects; 7) management concerns; 8) controlling project scope; 9) project tracking; 10) project close-down; and 11) software project management. (The numbers correspond to the bar-chart labels in the figure here.) The IS ’97 and IS 2002 Model Curriculum and Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems include these learning objectives in progressively more rigorous forms throughout the course schedule of the model curriculum [2, 3].

How has the academic community reacted to and embraced this recommendation since the original model curriculum recommendation was released in 1997? To answer this question, we surveyed IS faculty across the U.S. using a Web-based survey. Over 200 faculty members responded to the survey and reported they are teaching PM components in various courses, with just over 25% teaching an entire course dedicated to PM. The table here illustrates the extent of coverage reported by faculty according to the courses they taught. The table shows that, while PM is discussed in a variety of courses, its coverage is highest in dedicated PM classes and in systems analysis (SA) classes.

Many respondents indicated their curricula do not allow for a dedicated course in PM. The biggest reported obstacle to implementing a separate PM course was the lack of available course hours. Most college and university programs have heavy general education and other core course requirements. This leaves little to no room to add additional subject-area courses such as one dedicated expressly to PM.

Fortunately, the lack of available course hours merely challenges but does not stop dedicated academics. Instead, survey respondents report that when they are unable to implement a dedicated PM course they add PM content to other courses. The amount and breadth of reported coverage by course name are documented in the table.

It turns out that the SA and design course carries the majority of the burden for covering PM topics. Over half of the faculty who did not teach a separate PM course reported covering 10 of the 11 PM learning units in their SA course. Faculty who taught both SA and separate PM courses typically did not cover as much PM material in their SA courses as those who had no separate PM course, as evidenced in the figure here. Is it reasonable to say that “Where separate PM courses do not exist, faculty use a portion of the SA and design course as a surrogate PM course?”

Further analysis demonstrates the differences in types and levels of coverage to be statistically significant, thus reinforcing the notion that, in the absence of dedicated PM courses, faculty primarily relies on the SA course to serve as a surrogate PM course.

The only learning unit not achieving coverage by more than half of the teaching faculty as depicted in the figure was managing multiple projects. This finding was not surprising given that this is one of the more advanced PM learning units. Yet, even this advanced topic was covered by 30% of faculty in the SA and design course. The more fundamental PM topics enjoyed much greater coverage within SA and design courses. Project organization management, principals, concepts, and issues (label 2 in the figure) was covered by 95% of faculty in their SA and design course. After the SA and design course, advanced level (junior and senior year) managerially oriented courses are most likely to contain PM instruction.

Interestingly, the authors of IS ’97 and IS 2002 did not appear to envision a great deal of PM coverage in SA courses. Although PM-related topics are listed for these courses in their recommendations, the IS 2002 developers placed more emphasis on PM coverage in the DBMS course and in a course titled Physical Design, which encompasses software engineering, advanced programming, and object-oriented topics in addition to PM skills.

Almost no evidence (see the table) suggests PM is covered extensively in DBMS courses. Physical Design courses were not reported by survey respondents but we believe respondents may have used the Advanced Programming or Web Development category instead. Not only for these two course categories, but in general, reported PM coverage was lightest in technically oriented courses and heaviest in courses emphasizing management and people skills. Given that PM requires organizational and managerial skills such as identifying and organizing the many tasks comprising a project, allocating resources to complete those tasks, and tracking actual against expected resource utilization, the finding that most PM coverage occurs in courses emphasizing those types of skills should not be surprising.

Is the PM topic coverage sufficient to provide the focus on PM skills necessary to improve software implementation cost and timeline overruns? Successful PM, much like programming, is not a skill that students will master from a single course of instruction. Successful software projects convey a blend of careful objective evaluation, adequate preparation, continuous observation and assessment of the environment and progress, and adjusting tactics. Senior managers usually make this environmental assessment mentally. They construct mental models for the project, problems, and opportunities under investigation. Next, they scan their mental experience repository for adequate actions to be taken against problems or to explore opportunities.

This capability requires a combination of technical, human resources, and management skills coupled with on-the-job experience. It is possible that PM may lend itself to being successfully taught in concert with technical, human resources, and management skills. We believe the seemingly dismal finding that universities cannot seem to find the hours to teach PM skills in a separate course is not all that bad. If, instead of adding new courses in PM, faculty can successfully integrate PM instruction into SA and design courses, they should also be able to integrate PM instruction into human resource and management courses. If this occurs, new PM courses are unnecessary. We will educate IS professionals that possess more than a technical understanding of the personnel and management issues surrounding successful project management. These professionals will be more effective project managers who are able to reduce project implementation delays and cost overruns.

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UF1 Figure. Faculty teaching only systems analysis vs. faculty teaching both systems analysis and project management.

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UT1 Table. Level of project management coverage by course.

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    1. Cusing, K. Why projects fail. Computer Weekly (Nov. 21, 2002).

    2. IS 2002 Model Curriculum and Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems; www.acm.org/education/is2002.pdf.

    3. IS '97 Model Curriculum and Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems; www.is-97.org/rev/Review1.asp.

    4. Jones, C. Patterns of large software systems: Failure and success. Computer 28, 3 (1995), 86–87.

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