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Roles of the External IT Project Manager

IT projects are increasing in scope and complexity, fuelled by intense business competition, ever improving technology, and complex organizational structures and processes.6 In many cases, companies turn to suppliers of IT services – systems integrators, consulting project managers, and software solutions providers – to deliver their tough projects. There are many reasons to look for outside help, including staff shortages, risk reduction, and access to specialized industry or technical knowledge. External project managers are expected not only to successfully deliver against targets, but also to help the organization realize value for money.

To understand how external IT project managers can perform successfully, two questions need to be asked:

  • What roles (beyond those of traditional project management) must external project managers fulfil?
  • How can they prepare themselves for these roles?

We conducted a set of interviews with leading external project managers (see box for details of the study), focusing on those who manage transformational IT projects.

Their answers take us beyond previous discussions of the need for a project team management role and an external business-facing role.

This article first explains the research study (see the exhibit) and then discusses the roles and skills required of today's external IT project manager. Selected quotes from interviewees are shown as italicized text. It concludes with recommendations about personal and professional development for those entering into external project manager roles.

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External IT project managers have always been in the position of having to juggle multiple allegiances. They are employed by a supplier company and have a duty to pursue the company's objectives, whether they are to realize a particular profit margin or to establish a foothold in a specific industry sector. They have a client who is paying for the project and therefore has a claim on them to deliver on the contract. In addition, many project managers feel an allegiance to their profession - to their organization's project management function, to a professional association such as the Project Management Institute, or simply to their fellow project managers.

Our research shows that external IT project managers are taking on three roles in addition to the core role of managing an individual project. These roles are account manager, surrogate sponsor and profession leader. Each is explained briefly here and then discussed in detail with the required skills and knowledge.

Project managers are often asked to take on account management responsibilities because the client has developed a stronger relationship with them than with the appointed account manager. This relationship enables them to identify new areas where the supplier can add value for the client. Project managers take on surrogate sponsor responsibilities when the sponsor is unwilling1 or unable to perform these roles. Finally, project managers take on the profession leader role because it assists in the development of the supplier's reputation in project management.

The figure here is a model of these new roles and the skills and knowledge needed to perform them. We do not mean to imply that the project manager replaces the account manager or the sponsor. The roles are fulfilled by the external project manager to the extent necessary on a given project.

At the intersection of these roles, the effective external project manager contributes value for all parties. At its best, this can represent a win-win-win. At any specific point, a project manager may appropriately emphasise one role over the others. However, failure to juggle them adequately over time will undermine their long term ability to add value.

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New Roles, Skills, and Knowledge for the External IT Project Manager

Account Manager. Traditionally, account managers within a supplier firm act as the principal point of contact for the client, manage the relationship, orchestrate sales, and take responsibility for client satisfaction.7 Today, external project managers are taking on aspects of this role.

Over the last 5 years, the responsibilities of project managers have grown exponentially. ...every year they add more and more of the responsibilities onto the project manager which used to be on...the account manager

As a project manager, you are the lead person in the account.

As reported here and in earlier research,9 project managers are taking on more of an account management role in four ways: winning initial business; maintaining the relationship with the client; selling follow-on business, and managing profitability.

You are involved right up front at the proposal level. They want a Project Manager to be there and provide the estimates.

In addition, the client increasingly seeks not merely quantitative assurance but wants to make a qualitative assessment of the project manager's ability to deliver:

The clients were saying "I want to see if this person can walk and talk and chew bubblegum at the same time. Can I live with this guy for 2 years? Do I want to put a 100 million dollar strategic business situation into their hands?"

Project managers' critical role in their clients' business positions them to win the client's trust and then to identify opportunities for new projects or extensions.

[I now have a role] keeping an open eye for opportunities, building relationships with clients to promote more work.

Supplier organizations have in some cases converted this potential into concrete revenue targets.

I have responsibilities for revenue growth in accounts that I am involved in.

In order to fulfill the account manager role, external project managers have had to acquire sales skills. Typically, these are soft selling skills involving creating situations in which clients want to buy a new service or extensions to the existing project.

Surrogate sponsor. The idea that consultants can be their clients' trusted advisor may be seen to conflict with the self-interested position they have more traditionally adopted.2,3,4 However, as projects have become critical to executives' fulfillment of their role, so project managers have found themselves propelled not only into the trusted advisor role but often beyond it to become a surrogate sponsor. Responsibilities that might normally be thought to belong to the client are passed on to the project manager:

There is a shift towards...supporting the business strategy of clients, helping clients with the business case, or finding justification for the execution of certain tactical initiatives.

Coaching the executive sponsor is not unusual:

I will spend 4 hours coaching the client to give a speech that they present.

In some cases, the project manager takes the place of the sponsor in front of executive management or the Board. At its most extreme, the sponsor calls upon the project manager to take over all his responsibilities:

Sponsors just want the problem to go away, and once they've assigned the PM, in their minds the problem has now been delegated....It's a systemic thing. They come to realize the importance of project management, but as soon as they realize that, PMs become responsible for everything.

In order to fulfill the surrogate sponsor role, the project manager needs business knowledge - both generic knowledge of business management and specific knowledge of the client's business. Networking skills assist the project manager to overcome their inherent disadvantage compared to internal project managers – their lack of contacts and friends to keep them apprised of relevant internal information and an understanding of the power structure. The external project manager must have the skills to rapidly build a network within the client organization and get it activated:5

We might see ourselves as working for, say, the Operations Manager to deliver the project, but actually he is the wrong stakeholder and we have to quickly find our way into the organisation to find out who the right people are to make the project happen.

Armed with both business knowledge and networking skills, the project manager can stand in when necessary for the sponsor.

Profession leader. The third new role the external IT project manager is called upon to perform is that of profession leader. As they become more senior, instead of commanding larger and larger staff complements, they are expected to be more visible, more knowledge producing, and more a role model for others. Where once project managers would disregard any activity that was not directly instrumental to delivering the current project, a broader perspective has emerged. This is necessary to demonstrate appropriate thought leadership and to position the supplier as able to take on ever more ambitious challenges.

Our client asked what we were doing to improve the way we managed projects. That is why I am now examining ways of improving project management competence in our company.

This role can be internally focused:

I'm expected to mentor junior them move up, and share my lessons learned and best practice

Or the role expectations can be externally focused:

I am expected to speak and write and mentor other project managers and participate in PMI chapter events.

The profession leader role operates within the supplier organization and the wider profession. People in this role innovate, invent, and apply new project management practices to address the increasingly challenging environment. Through networking and communication skills, the project manager both disseminates new ideas and techniques, but also identifies and maintains contact with individuals with whom s/he can work successfully on future projects. This adds value for both suppliers and clients at the same time as supporting the project management profession.

Value contributor. The critical change that has enabled the external project manager to become a value contributor has been the shift from short term to long term focus.8 We can use the Prisoners' Dilemma game as an analogy. If the game is played only once, the players obtain advantage in adopting a win-lose strategy. If the game is played over multiple rounds there is greater incentive to pursue a longer term win-win. So, too with projects. Suppliers now anticipate long term engagements with major clients and see advantage in having their project managers develop deep client relationships. If project managers have an entrepreneurial mindset, they can look beyond the boundaries of the existing project and develop new opportunities.10 Equipped with sales, networking, and business skills, they can take a proactive leadership stance that balances supplier, client, and professional interests.

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Recommendations for the External Project Manager

Although this article does not discuss the essentials of project management, we recognize that the new roles are offered only after a project manager has shown the ability to execute. So the basics are critical, as is a foundation of integrity and personal accountability.

Typically, IT project managers come from a technical background and are not always equipped to play management and entrepreneurial roles. However, by crafting a long term self development plan, junior project managers should be able to take on increasing responsibility and visibility within the firm, the client, and the profession. Below is a list of recommended actions to take to support the development of the skills and knowledge needed in the future. Although this list of actions may seem like a daunting one, it is a long term plan. Becoming a great project manager is a marathon, not a sprint.

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1. Berggren, C., Soderlund, J., and Anderson, C. Clients, contractors, and consultants: The consequences of organizational fragmentation in contemporary project environments. Project Management Journal 32, 3, (2001), 39–48.

2. Gable, G.G. Consultant engagement for computer systems selection: A pro-active client role in small businesses. Information and Management 20, 2, (1991), 83–94.

3. Gable G.G. A multidimensional model of client success when engaging external consultants: Influence of third parties on organizations. Management Science 42, 8, (1996), 1175–1195.

4. Gable, G.G., and Chin W.W. Client versus consultant influence on client involvement in computer system selection projects: A two actor model of the theory of planned behavior, presented at 22nd International Conference on Information Systems. New Orleans, LA., (2001), 249–260.

5. Gladwell, M. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown, Boston, (2000).

6. Sauer, C. and Cuthbertson, C. The state of IT project management in the U.K. 2002–2003, Computer Weekly; (2002).

7. Turner, R.J, and Keegan, A. Mechanisms of governance in the project-based organization: The role of broker and steward. European Management Journal 19, 3 (2001), 254–267.

8. Turner, R.J. and Mueller, R. On the nature of the project as a temporary organization. International Journal of Project Management 21, 1 (2003), 1–8.

9. Webber, S.S. and Torti, M.T. Project managers doubling as client account executives. Academy of Management Executive, 18, 1 (2004), 60–71.

10. Winston E. R. IS consultants and the change agent role. Computer Personnel 20, 4 (2002), 55–74.

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Blaize Horner Reich is an RBC Professor of Technology and Innovation at the Administration Simon Fraser University, in Canada.

Chris Sauer is a Fellow in Information Management at the Said Business School and Templeton College, in Oxford University.

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F1Figure 1.

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©2010 ACM  0001-0782/10/0500  $10.00

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