Making bigger ideas work

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From the £12.4bn ($24.7bn) digitalisation of Britain’s National Health Service to the 2012 Olympic Games, with an estimated budget of £9.35bn, the UK has in recent years seen a proliferation of major projects. These initiatives – in both the public and private sectors – are large-scale, expensive and complex, and have a profound impact on the way millions of people live their lives.

Yet, despite the increase in such programmes, there remains a nationwide dearth of expertise in major programme management. The chaos that marked the opening days of Heathrow airport’s £4.3bn Terminal 5 served to illustrate the lack of competent managers of multi-billion pound initiatives in the UK and, with the possibility of another runway, the need to train more.

“It is vital we start thinking more critically about the management of high-profile projects,” says Hans Pung, a director at Rand Europe, which has undertaken research into key issues for the 2012 Olympics.

He adds: “There is a huge need for a strong evidence base with regard to the Olympics, and it gives birth to the opportunity to use one major event to shape the future of public policies.”

A survey carried out by the Saïd Business School at Oxford University in the UK, of more than 100 UK-based project and programme managers, supports his views. It revealed that 48 per cent of programmes were incorrectly bid for and fewer than 50 per cent had any formal audits scheduled.

To date, there has been limited academic research in to programme management. Of those managers surveyed by Saïd, 60 per cent believe the present educational provision in the field is inadequate for their needs.

This is set to change, however. Saïd Business School in partnership with BT, and the UK’s Cranfield School of Management in partnership with EDS, the global IT-services provider, have both recently launched research and education centres dedicated to programme management: the BT Centre for Major Programme Management and the International Centre for Programme Management (ICPM).

Janet Smart, director of the BT Centre, sees the growing interest in the area as an “acknowledgement within the project management community that programme management is different”. The BT Centre defines a major programme as a suite of projects that together last more than five years and have a budget that approaches $1bn. “A programme involves transformation,” explains Ms Smart. “It’s not just building a building, it’s transforming something about the way a business or a community or a society does things.”

Major programmes are highly complex. Managers must be able to co-ordinate multiple projects simultaneously, as well as manage the entire life cycle of the programme from start to finish. This not only involves expertise in risk and organisational management, but knowledge of areas as diverse as finance, IT, engineering and law.

Benchmark

“Programmes are often more alike to each other than the field they represent,“ says Patrick O’Connell, co-director of the BT Centre and managing director of BT Major Programmes Practice and Health. He believes that “certain factors are critical to programmes across sectors”, and it is these common traits that the BT Centre aims to explore.

At Cranfield, Harvey Maylor, director of ICPM, believes that a key similarity between programmes is that they are “more focused on benefits and value” than projects. Whereas projects are generally assessed according to traditional outcome measurements, programmes require continual assessment throughout their life cycle, argues Mr Maylor.

In order to test this theory, Cranfield and EDS developed a set of 78 indicators that they believe will provide a benchmark for assessing what constitutes “world-class programme management”. Using data collected from managers within 11 programmes, they identified “process indicators” that can be applied to programmes across all sectors to quantify past and future success.

This study is the first in a series of research from ICPM that aims to advance programme management as an academic discipline by working in partnership with business. “We want to effectively develop the theory and the practice of programme management together,” comments Mr Maylor.

Cranfield and EDS have formed the joint governance board of the ICPM, and are recruiting six other “core partners” from different fields to collaborate in the research, with the intention of expanding further.

Partners will contribute by giving Cranfield access to both hard facts and managers’ impressions and insights from programmes. Results will be analysed in the centre and the findings passed on to partners in quarterly feedback papers. However, the “day-to-day collaboration is always between the centre and the company” in order to neutralise any conflict of interest, explains Tom Kilkenny from EDS.

Mr Maylor believes the centre will help to give programme management greater credibility in academic circles.

“This is something of huge commercial importance and the more people we have working on it the better,” he says. He hopes to publish the research and data from the centre will provide fodder for Cranfield students.

Diverse

Researching programme management is not only about raising its profile as an academic discipline. Both the ICPM and the BT Centre see their research as imperative for improving the UK’s ability to manage major programmes in the future.

“We need to have people who can understand how to do this, and how to do it properly. That’s why the research and teaching have to go together,” says Ms Smart.

Subject to confirmation by the University of Oxford, the BT Centre will launch the first MSc in Major Programme Management in October. It will be aimed at professionals drawn from international companies that specialise in fields such as finance, engineering, IT, law and communications, as well as dedicated programme managers.

Given the diverse backgrounds of the students, Ms Smart says collaboration will be an integral element of the course. “Their engagement and understanding of what a major programme is and why it’s different from a project will contribute to the development of the field of major programme management,” she says.

It is likely that most of these MSc students will be sponsored by their employers and, because the programme is part-time, they will also be able to apply and develop what they learn directly in the workplace. Ms Smart believes this will be beneficial not only for the course, by allowing students to analyse the impact of their research on programmes directly, but will also benefit employers and the field of programme management as the centre’s research will have an immediate influence on major programmes in action.

The MSc will also place a significant emphasis on the international nature of programmes. “Businesses and the world in general are moving towards larger programmes that are more geographically distributed,” says Mr O‘Connell. This “changing business landscape” makes understanding differences in culture and business practice a vital element of the course and there are specific modules dedicated to globalisation and international contract law.

Ms Smart hopes Saïd’s strong track record of recruiting international students will also help contribute to a more global perspective on future programme management.

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