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Distributed Project Management: A Proposal For Change

Major changes within this organization over the past few years has lead to significant problems arising from the management of certain information systems development projects. It has been identified that these problems can be directly attributed to the dispersion of team members across a number of locations throughout the country.

Given that this situation is likely to be compounded with the introduction of vendors in other countries, it is timely that an investigation is conducted to expand on the problems of the past and to collect information on issues related to distributed project management. Amongst some of the findings, it became evident that most problems could be condensed down to three main issues: time, location and cultural differences.


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Each of these issues makes a significant impact on how a distributed project should be approached. The tactics required to deal with these issues will need to be well understood by all involved in any future projects. The most effective method of ensuring this is to document how these issues will be addressed within the confines of the project plan. In addition to this, it is expected that a project management software application will assist in minimising the effects of time, location and cultural differences.

1. Introduction

In recent times, it has become evident that the traditional approach to project management in the area of information systems has not been entirely successful. It is well documented that certain projects have consistently failed to meet their requirements, are not delivered on time or within budget. This situation has been compounded by the recent shift by this organization in outsourcing major elements of its IT functions to outside vendors. Clearly, a change is required in the way this organization undertakes the management of its IT projects.

The purpose of this proposal is to outline some of the options that the organization must adapt to better manage future IT projects and to achieve more positive results. However, it has been identified that at the heart of past problems has been a misunderstanding of the current nature of project management efforts in the organization. Recent changes have to lead to project teams being more dispersed throughout the country.

Future changes will see this dispersion extending to a global level. Therefore, the major issues arising from managing projects in such a dispersed or distributed manner is needed. The final step will be to provide detail on how these issues can be addressed. The success, or otherwise, of these options is still highly dependent on there being a shift away from thinking of project management in the more traditional sense. That is, the organization must shift its thinking away from past concepts of traditional project management and begin to incorporate the ethos of distributed or global project management.

2. Distributed Project Management

2.1. An Evolving Problem

To begin to understand what distributed project management is, one must first understand how distributed project management came into being in the first place. That is, what was the catalyst for organizations to head toward distributed project management? The answer lies in both the increase and spread of technology, and in the rise in the IS/IT outsourcing (Haywood 1998, p.3). Dallas and MacAulay (2001, p.1) have stated that the nature of IS/IT development projects has been greatly impacted by the increased sophistication of communications media and the relatively inexpensive options of advanced technologies to a wider market.

The outcome of which has been a shift towards organizations establishing project teams that are no longer co-located. That is, members of a project team may be separated by distance, operating in different locations, sometimes even in different time zones. A situation which Fritz et al (1998, p.8) describe as the emergence of the “virtual office”. The other major impact that has been felt by organizations is the outsourcing of their IS/IT functions.

Marcolin (2002, p.246) indicates that, over the past decade, organizations have turned to outsource as a “legitimate management strategy”. Seeking both to place a greater emphasis on their own core competencies and in an effort to reduce costs. Lee et al (2000, p.6) further clarify this by stating that organizations see outsourcing as an opportunity to gain access to other organizations which are specialists in the field of information systems and technology. However, as McFarlan and Nolan (1995, p.20) indicate, by adopting an outsourcing strategy, an organization must be aware that greater emphasis will need to be placed on managing the relationship between themselves and the vendor.

This will be particularly important if both organizations operate under different management structures. As such, each organization may have conflicting organizational processes. McFarlan and Nolan (1995, p.22) point out that an awareness of this issue is best handled by setting in place “mechanisms for identifying and handling more operational and tactical issues”. Indeed, Haywood (1998, p.2) states that a number of questions may arise when considering the management of a project between organizations.

Typical questions related to the roles and responsibilities of the members of a project team. For example, in a client/vendor relationship, the members of a project team will consist of employees from both organizations. Therefore, clear lines of authority, duties and responsibilities are required prior to the commencement of any joint project. Another issue raised in relation to outsourcing is the geographic location of both client and vendor.

It would be rare for both client and vendor to be co-located. In fact, as Carmel and Agarwal (2001, p.22) state, many organizations have sort offshore outsourcing contracts, with vendors located in different countries. This vast dispersion adds to the complexity of coordinating and controlling projects (Carmel & Agarwal 2001, p.23). However, time and location are not the only central issues (Dafoulas & MacAulay 2001, p.3). The issue of organizational differences was touched on previously. However, this can be extended to include other differences.

Dafoulas & MacAulay (2001, p.3) describe differences between organizations as “cultural differences”. These differences can extend to include:

National culture – “defined as a collective mental programming of the people of any particular nationality (Hofstede as cited in Dafoulas & MacAulay 2001, p.5).

Organizational – and organizations “management and communication styles” (p.5).

Functional – the “norms and habits” of sections within an organization, such as finance, human resources and information systems (p.5).

These differences will impact the most when organizations interact with each other. This will be especially true of national culture. For example, different national cultures have different “styles of communication” and perceptions of time (Dafoulas & MacAulay 2001, p.9). Gezo et al (2000, p.3) provide cases where the perception of time in different countries can lead to problems in even the simplest of tasks. For example, organizations in Brazil have a tendency to start most meetings late, sometimes up to thirty minutes late.

This perception of time by Brazilian organizations is in direct contrast to American organizations, where meetings generally start at the prescribed time. Therefore, as well as time and location, organizations must also be aware of how cultural differences might impact on the managing of a distributed project. However, just being aware of these issues is not enough. Organizations must translate knowledge into action. That is, an organization must adopt certain tactics as part of their framework for developing future project plans.

2.2. A Tactical Approach

Gezo et al (2000, p. 1) state that the most important process of managing a project is integration management, and that this process manifests itself in the project plan. With the project plan being the guide for managing the project. Developing an effective plan in a distributed environment will require an even greater effort by the organization. Not only should the organization be aware of the issues of time, location and cultural differences, but they must also ensure that appropriate tactics are adopted to minimise the effects of these issues.

A number of researchers have identified communications as a key element in overcoming these issues (Gezo, Oliverson & Zick 2000, p.6; Sarker & Sahay 2002, p.4; Carmel & Agarwal 2001, p.23; Haywood 2000, p.59). Each presents a variety of tactics that could be incorporated into the framework of the project plan. Carmel and Agarwal (2001, p.26) state that, where a national cultural divide exists, that the client organization should seek to have individuals from the vendor organization assigned to the client’s own location.

Therefore, this individual(s) would act as a “bridgehead” between the two organizations, and that this “face-to-face interaction [would reduce] miscommunication between client and vendor”. However, the individual(s) in question must be highly experienced and “culturally assimilated”. That is, they must have an awareness of the unique nature of both cultures.

Sarker et al (2002, p.4) extend the notion of cultural awareness to include the entire project team. The two approaches they put forward are an attempt to avoid “breakdowns due to language use and unfamiliar style of carrying out conversations”. The first approach is “to give the benefit of the doubt”. That is, the members of the team must understand that other team members do come from other cultural backgrounds and may have unique or different methods of communicating. The second approach is to avoid using “language/expressions that remote [team] members [are] not familiar with”, or which may be misinterpreted.

Haywood (2000, p.59) provides a list of key points in relation to minimising the effects of time and distance. One, which takes into account differences in time zones, is to “allow enough time for the actual transfer of deliverables”. That is, it should not be expected that information is transferred and understood in “zero time”. Adjustments in expectations must be made by the team members. A second point is to “arrange some overlap in working hours”. This may require some adjustments to standard working hours, but it may be necessary when conference calls are to be held. Perhaps the most important point that is raised is the need for periodic face-to-face meetings (Gezo, Oliverson & Zick 2000, p.6; Maznevski & Chudoba 2000, p.473).

This is especially true at the commencement of a project. The intention is to build and establish relationships between the team members. However, it must be stressed that an over riding factor in providing face-to-face meetings will be the cost, especially if team members are located in different countries. Therefore, there needs to be balance in the timing of face-to-face meetings, with consideration given to the outcomes of such meetings. Audio and video conferencing facilities and email can be used as a supplement to face-to-face meetings (Carmel & Agarwal 2001, p.27; Gezo, Oliverson & Zick 2000, p.6). However, these methods do have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, email can be an inappropriate means of communication where a fast response is required (Carmel & Agarwal 2001, p.27).

To assist in determining the most suitable media, Maznevski and Chudoba (2000, p.485) have proposed a set of guidelines. Essentially they propose that if the message to be communicated is highly complex, then a “richer” form of medium is required. Where the “richness” of a medium is described as the “ability to [effectively] convey knowledge and information”, with the “richest” form of medium being face-to-face communications and “email as a relatively lean medium” (Kock 1998, p.296). However, there still exists the need for a greater level of coordination and collaboration in a dispersed team. Gezo et al (2000, p.6) state that the capabilities of a dispersed team can be greatly enhanced through the use of collaborative tools, such as project management software applications.


3. Software Tools

3.1. Requirements

The selection of any project management software tool will require an outline of a basic set of requirements. However, technical and functional requirements should not be guiding. The focus should first be on satisfying the business objectives (Schmaltz 1990, p.8). Clearly stating business objectives, such “[lowering ] long-term maintenance [development] costs”, may lead to different sets of technical and functional requirements.

Some of the proposed objectives will be to minimise communications costs through the use of existing infrastructure and to reduce the incidence of rework caused by incomplete documentation. Combining these objectives and elements of the BBRI Software Evaluation Checklist (Shtub, Baird & Globerson 1994, p.573), a basic requirement was developed (see appendix B).

3.2. Options

A search of available project management packages which might meet the proposed requirements was conducted using the Internet. Before applying some of the requirements, the choices were narrowed by selecting those sites which information online, including case studies, technical documentation, software demonstrations and white papers. Some of the short-listed options, and the information that was found, included:

mySAP Product Lifecycle Management –

Brochures & White Papers, including an overview on how the application works and its benefits.

Demo. Online demonstration and evaluation of the application.

Customer reviews. Broken down by industry, including pdf documents and streaming video.

Projectrak Project Manager –

Screen snapshots of the applications various menu options.

Online support, including a helpdesk, an FAQ page and knowledge-base.

Case studies and client list.

PMOffice –

Articles on the application and on distributed project management.

An overview of the processes behind the application.

GigaPlan –

An overview of the application, including the processes and screenshots.

Downloadable trial version.

To further assist in the evaluation process, it is helpful to seek independent advice or reviews of the selected options. For example, Fiona Powell’s (2001, p.32) review of GigaPlan and a presentation given by Ajenstat and Benchimol (1999, p.1) review on PMOffice, as part of their investigation on enterprise-wide projects management applications.


4. Conclusion

A final evaluation of the proposed applications is not within the scope of this proposal, as the purpose was to present and discuss some of the issues in relation to distributed project management. Outlining these issues is actually more important than selecting any tool. As Gammack and Poon (1999, p.1) state, introducing a tool does not always guarantee success. A number of “non-technological issues such as user acceptance, trust in joint operations and overcoming cultural differences” must also be dealt with.

Therefore, it will be imperative for the organization to formulate processes to deal with these issues. In particular, the issues of time, location and cultural differences will require the most attention. How these issues are addressed will impact on the successful coordination and collaboration of any future efforts in managing a highly dispersed or distributed project. However, by understanding the issues of time, location and cultural differences, this organization is well on the way to success in managing any future projects.



Ajenstat, J. & Benchimol, J. 1999, ‘NSS in Project Management Enterprise-Wide Technologies: The Case of PMOffice™’, in Proceedings of the 32nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, pp. 1-9.

Carmel, E. & Agarwal, R. 2001, ‘Tactical Approaches for Alleviating Distance in Global Software Development’, IEEE Software, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 22-29.

Dafoulas, G. & MacAulay, L. 2001, ‘Investigating Cultural Differences in Virtual Software Teams’, Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Systems, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 1-14.

Fritz, M. B. W., Narasimham, S. & Rhee, H.-S. 1998, ‘Communication and Coordination in the Virtual Office’, Journal of Management Information Systems, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 7-28.

Gammack, J. & Poon, S. 1999, ‘Communication Media for Supporting Distributed Engineering Design’, in Proceedings of the 32nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, pp. 1-7.

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Haywood, M. 2000, ‘Working in Virtual Teams: A Tale of Two Projects and Many Cities’, IT Professional Magazine, vol.??, no.??, pp. 58-60.

Kock, N. 1998, ‘Can Communication Medium Limitations Foster Better Group Outcomes?: An Action Research Study’, Information & Management, vol. 34, pp. 295-305.

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Marcolin, B. L. 2002, ‘Managing Operations’, in Information Systems in Practice, 5th edn, ed. Sprague, R. H., Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

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McFarlan, F. W. & Nolan, R. L. 1995, ‘How to Manage an IT Outsourcing Alliance’, Sloan Management Review, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 9-23.

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Sarker, S. & Sahay, S. 2002, ‘Information Systems Development by US-Norwegian Virtual Teams: Implications of Time and Space’, in Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, pp. 1-10.

Schmaltz, D. A. 1990, ‘Simply Seeking Software’, Journal of Systems Management, vol. 41, no. 8, pp. 7-9, 18.

Shtub, A., Baird, J. F. & Globerson, S. 1994, Project Management: Engineering, Technology and Implementation, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

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