Centrelink lays off old project management ideas

A new approach to project scheduling has reaped rewards, but change hasn't been easy.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

The sheer size and breadth of Centrelink's operations has always meant project management there is a Herculean effort. Taking a new approach to its people and project scheduling has improved the situation dramatically -- but change hasn't been easy, as David Braue explains.


source: Centrelink

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Centrelink administers $63 billion in annual benefits to 6.4 million customers serviced through more than 140 government social support programs including unemployment benefits, sole carer pensions, disaster relief and many others.

It's well known that driving cultural change through an organisation can be extremely difficult -- but in an organisation the size of Centrelink, which is managing more than 120 projects worth $186 million this year -- the magnitude of the problem increases dramatically.

For the past nine years, Centrelink has been working on ways to improve management of its massive IT spend, and an ongoing enterprise project portfolio management (PPM) initiative for Centrelink has in recent years delivered major improvements in resource scheduling. Years down the track, however, Centrelink is still wrestling with the challenge of driving change and consistency throughout its massive structure.

PPM is the latest in a series of project management initiatives that stretch back to the 1997-8 financial year, when Centrelink -- a 25,000-strong Department of Human Services agency that manages some $63 billion in social support payments through over 100 different programs -- recognised the need to formalise the way it ran increasingly expensive, complex and mission-critical IT projects.

That year, the introduction of Primavera Systems' Project Planner and SureTrak Project Manager system was a shot in the arm for the newly established Centrelink Project Office (CPO), which was created as a centre of gravity for the agency's massive IT development and project management practice. CPO was complemented in 1998-9 with the formation of an investment decision-making body, and by the end of 2000 Centrelink had added further structure to its process revitalisation by introducing account management support.

Towards a new project view
With so many projects are going on at once, matching the skills and availability of technical staff with the projects that needed them was a full-time effort managed by more than two dozen dedicated employees. Those employees worked with project managers to track project progress so they could anticipate when skilled application developers, testers, debuggers and other staff would become available for other projects.

Jonathan Toze, Centrelink

Although narrowly focused tools like Microsoft Project offered a view of the resources assigned to projects, scheduling staff still had to keep on top of competing demands for resources between different projects. In many cases, they had little choice but to rely on approximations from project managers who were themselves scheduling their projects on little more than gut feel.

The result was, as Jonathan Toze, manager for enterprise scheduling with Centrelink, puts it, "essentially inappropriate planning" that was regularly causing resource conflicts. Staff were often double-booked or simply unavailable for complex projects plagued by frequent scope changes and deadline slippage.

Those problems soon motivated the project office's staff to look into PPM -- a top-down approach in which resource scheduling is managed using a holistic view that stretches across the breadth of the project portfolio rather than myopically focusing on individual projects.

Recognising the need for change, in 2002-3 Centrelink considered how a push towards PPM, and related initiatives that could improve its project management culture and supporting systems. A partnership with the University of New England laid the foundation for a professional development diploma in program management that Centrelink project managers are encouraged to undertake, while technical staff worked to evaluate PPM solutions and introduce the technology across the organisation.

"As an organisation, our standard of [scheduling] maturity was at a zero level," says Toze. "An effort was made to improve the management of our investment decision making, and to gain some visibility of the work commitments and formal decision making. This change represented a significant change to the way Centrelink undertook its investment decision making, and it has been undergoing a maturing process ever since."

We now have very well-defined scheduling standards that are endorsed and supported by the executive, but cultural changes haven't necessarily caught up with the standards we have set.

Jonathan Toze, Centrelink

During the 2003-4 financial year, the team introduced the Primavera TeamPlay collaborative project management system. This environment allowed Centrelink to structure its program management efforts around specific job roles, making it easier to split responsibilities among staff and to juggle the many competing demands on available resources.

As it was progressively implemented throughout Centrelink, the organisation gradually came to apply best-practice rigour to many of its biggest pain points: investment decision making modelling, portfolio governance, resource planning and management, benefits planning and management, change management and the construction of a formal competency framework to guide and measure its activities.

Formalising project management processes has delivered profound improvements on the way projects were previously managed. Under PPM, resource scheduling responsibilities have been redistributed to individual project managers, for whom scheduling tools have replaced the previous dedicated scheduling staff by letting them see through organisational boundaries to evaluate holistic demand for resources.

Subsequent work has also integrated the Primavera environment with the financial management module of Centrelink's SAP R/3 environment, allowing the linkage of project resources and costing information. That connection has brought financial metrics to the PPM initiative by giving project managers financial metrics to back their resource allocations. Benefits of this include better tracking of labour and project expenses, improved availability of resources, automatic cost recovery based on time sheet information, and the ability to transfer actual project costs back to the Primavera environment for improved reporting.

"The transfer between Primavera and SAP has been of great benefit," says Toze. "It has given us a state of the art toolset and fantastic capabilities in terms of adding value, and Centrelink now has the capacity to undertake detailed analysis on any of the projects it is undertaking."

Standards-driven change
PPM tools and financial linkages have provided better control of, and metrics about, Centrelink's project processes. However, the real challenge has come from the organisation's efforts to change its development and management culture to take advantage of its new capabilities.

A major change requirement was the development of formal, standardised processes for project scheduling. These processes would both address necessary procedural issues, and set down mandatory data structures for tasks such as describing individual employees' skills.

Such standardisation is essential for PPM to be consistently applied across an organisation, and is critical if meaningful reports are to be produced. To ensure the standards are consistently applied throughout the organisation, Centrelink worked them into a formal scheduling maturity model (SMM) -- a governance framework that lent procedural weight to the requirements of PPM.

It's a long way from process to compliance, however, and Toze says recent years have seen a concerted effort to inculcate the SMM into everyday work processes. Despite the availability of vastly improved scheduling tools, however, many employees are still taking their time to fully embrace the PPM principles around which the tools have been built.

"We now have very well-defined scheduling standards that are endorsed and supported by the executive, but cultural changes haven't necessarily caught up with the standards we have set," Toze concedes. "There's a requirement for adherence to the standards, but that adherence is not necessarily coherent across the whole organisation. There are pockets of excellence, pockets of good compliance, and areas that need support."

Despite variation between individual users' project portfolio management sophistication, however, Centrelink's epic journey towards PPM has delivered significant cultural and procedural benefits. General understanding of effective project management and scheduling principles has increased significantly, with many teams already seeing projects running much more smoothly thanks to reductions in resource scheduling conflict. Managers, too, are benefiting by having a much clearer view of their relative performance and position within Centrelink's vast project portfolio.

Such major change never comes easily, however, and the sheer extent of its PPM-driven organisational change challenge has forced Centrelink to extend its timeframe for project portfolio management maturity, which was initially expected to be completed by December 2005. "We're certainly well along the journey, but we're not even close" to PPM maturity, Toze concedes.

Still, he says, it's important to recognise the value that has been delivered so far. "Back in 2004, there was no planning being undertaken; it just wasn't happening," he explains.

"But we have gone from gross overestimates, and what was essentially inappropriate planning occurring, to good, accurate planning across the portfolio. Where we had too much work across the portfolio for us to undertake, Centrelink is now acting on [PPM] information to make better investment and portfolio management decisions as to what we can actually do."

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