Allstate Technology and Operations is tasked with supporting one of North America’s largest insurance companies, and recently was recognized by Celent for excellence in IT management. INN spoke with Linda Honour, program management office lead, about the creation of the centralized project management office and the company’s massive effort to increase its ability to deliver projects on time and on budget.

INN: What is the program management office, and how did it come to be?

Linda Honour: Our new CIO, Suren Gupta, came in three years ago and has focused on strengthening disciplines in four major areas: testing, release management, availability management and program management. Prior to two years ago, project and program managers were dispersed across all of Allstate Technology and Operations. Suren created the central function and put all of program management together; that’s where the program management office fits into the bigger picture.

INN: How is project management at Allstate different or better than before?

LH: It’s been about 18 months, and we approached the improvements in terms of people, process and technology. We now have a common recruitment process to ensure we find people with the right skills. We did some industry benchmarking with the Corporate Executive Board about what makes a great project manager (PM) and validated what we knew intuitively: entrepreneurial skills, judgment, influence and risk management skills set great project managers apart. So we revamped our interview process to focus on those. And, for the existing team, we redefined job descriptions to reflect industry standard requirements and created a job training boot camp where we retrained everybody on common standards.

INN: What were the common standards?

LH: We want people to use MS Project in similar ways across the organizations, for example, and that required retraining all of the project managers around how to consistently identify and record issues and risks. This greatly improved the portability of our resources; if all of our people do things the same way, it’s easier to move them from Project A to Project B. And it allows us to aggregate data from an individual to a portfolio perspective, which we couldn’t do if every PM used our basic tools differently.

INN: How do you use the aggregated view?

LH: Now we can see across this big portfolio of projects, and we’re able to show business stakeholders snapshots of projects and evaluate their projects’ health. It’s much easier to identify what projects might be in red status and need senior assistance. Now I’m able to see that without having to ask 25 people. And it makes communications better between IT and the business.

INN: What technology did you use to create this proj infrastructure?

LH: This first stage of our work around the portfolio level is aggregating a number of different sources. We leverage SharePoint, Excel and Java to create a common repository we call My Source. It’s an intranet app but it houses all of the templates and the standards we trained everybody on, so it’s easy for a PM to see an example of a filled-out MS project plan, or what a charter looks like.

INN: Is this a strategic advantage or is it an accumulation of tactical benefits?

LH: I look at it as a holistic approach, and the technology is the least important of the changes we’ve made. The focus on people and process has yielded far more benefit. The tools are enablers, but they are not the major drivers. Improvements in project management are about improving cycle time and making us more efficient and effective, which allows us to deliver improvements to our customer base more quickly and flexibly.

INN: How do you measure the improvements related to this approach?

LH: We measure on-schedule and on-budget; on-time increased 11 percent over the course of the year, and on-budget increased 15 percent.

INN: What would you do differently?

LH: I would keep the major components, but would have trained everybody earlier. It took us a little bit to realize we couldn’t just change the standards and then roll them out. The only way to do it is to put all the PMs through the same rigorous training, which took four days; it was a significant investment, but it’s paid off.

INN: What are the next steps?

LH: It’s a journey; we’re continuing to improve and fine tune. We’re going to keep the people, process and technology focus. We have to do some more work on other methodologies. We’re also looking at how to have more consistency around our large programs and how we run them. We’re looking at continuous improvement and upgrading our skills base and hiring. On this kind of a scale, our success is based on a broad vision; thinking big and then figuring out how to take small steps that will lead us in the right direction.

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