Using SaaS Project Software to Drive Growth and Value: A Forbes Media Case Study

By Mykolas Rambus  |  Posted 2008-09-02

When I joined Forbes Media as CIO in 2007, we had little visibility into the portfolio of IT projects and no consistent process for selecting or completing projects. Our IT staff was handling 30 to 40 projects at a time, with a turnover of about 10 projects a month. Projects were managed and tracked in Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, which primarily noted whether projects were active or completed.

Most importantly, we did not distinguish which projects were strategic to the enterprise and which ones were just maintaining the current infrastructure. For IT to consistently deliver business value through return on investment (ROI), we had to start with transparency, so we needed a mechanism to better predict and monitor IT project success and value creation.

In addition, we needed greater predictability of success in delivering IT projects, so we could provide superior account management services to our customers, the functional departments of Forbes Media. Finally, we wanted to boost collaboration between project groups by ensuring that everyone was working from the same template and doing the same level of business analysis for each project.

As a company, Forbes has always supported business technology tools, so we turned to portfolio management to help us more closely align IT projects with strategic business objectives that drive growth and value for our company and our customers.

At its core, portfolio management is about how enterprises make investment decisions, and the activities they undertake to generate the highest possible returns. It ensures that our company’s discretionary spending (including IT) is allocated in the most capital-efficient manner possible, while doing so in the least volatile way, so the fruits of our efforts become highly predictable.

Just like an investment portfolio, a project portfolio should be managed to ensure the highest possible ROI, while mitigating risk. In sum, portfolio management is about delivering a predictable series of results to the company. This is a make-or-break issue for our IT organization.

Many IT leaders are familiar with the practice of project portfolio management as something to be dreaded, requiring a large capital investment in software and outlays in consulting services, in return for a great deal of complexity and an unclear ROI.

We knew we had to get up and running quickly, without incurring huge upfront costs, and to realize returns in weeks, not months. As a result, we looked for an on-demand solution that uses the software-as-a-service approach to help accelerate the process for the IT staff and our internal customers.

After looking at a number of portfolio management tools, we selected the on-demand software solution from Innotas. The software is hosted, and the implementation took just over 30 days from contract signature to the go-live date. Innotas’ dedicated account manager helped speed up the implementation.

Not long after implementing the software, we learned that deploying a portfolio management system requires a high degree of project management rigor, and that crystallized our IT project managers’ strengths and weaknesses. So we invested time and money in articulating our project managers’ capabilities and potential, and also in filling their skills gaps with an internally developed classroom training module based on general project management principles. We focused on senior project managers, because they have the most impact on project success and knowledge sharing.

Today, some 55 active projects are tracked by the on-demand system. Nearly half of IT’s staff members—including project managers, senior project managers and directors—use the software daily. They have access to real-time dashboards, enabling them to manage resources continuously and effectively. We track the usual on-time, on-budget and within-initial-scope metrics, and all these measures have improved since we implemented the on-demand software. Innotas provided us with a standard template and best practices for collecting and analyzing project requests and data across the enterprise. Because everyone works from the same template, it’s easier for IT project teams and their customers to collaborate.

Forbes Media: Driving Growth with Projects

Soon after implementing the on-demand project portfolio management solution, we learned that more than 75 percent of IT resources were being spent on infrastructure maintenance, and less than 25 percent were dedicated to business growth. Our biggest success has been our ability to reverse this trend: We now focus the majority of our resources on projects that drive business growth, such as key product-development initiatives.

Project portfolio management gives our IT organization several powerful tools. The first is transparency into all our projects, all the time. With our project portfolio growing by the day, we need the ability to drill down, much as a sales vice president does when investigating the status of target sales accounts.

We also have peace of mind knowing our system is helping to enforce and audit a process designed to deliver predictable project results. Most important, portfolio management provides us with a strategic view of our IT investments, so we can fulfill our primary goal: delivering earnings to Forbes Media.

Predictability is another key benefit. Delivering IT projects in a predictable manner is “table stakes” in today’s enterprise. Imagine the fallout that would result if CFOs said they weren’t sure if they could close the books on time each month or whether they could properly implement Sarbanes-Oxley.

Project portfolio management software delivers a predictable series of results when combined with a project management methodology that is in tune with an organization’s political, cultural and capability environment. Our methodology, which is customized to our requirements, governs how we handle project postmortems, communication with stakeholders, documentation, change orders and everything else we do.

One example is our way of ensuring that we get the highest ROI on IT investments, while mitigating risk. Market conditions can have a severe impact on projects that last more than three months. Consequently, we always aim to deliver value in three-month increments or less, dividing project deliverables into quarters, even if the total time for the project is 12 months.

Delivering Business Value

IT can deliver value in two ways. The first is by enabling business functions to do what they do—but better. The second is by taking advantage of the unique position IT holds (being able to look across the organization, in terms of people, processes and information) to identify trends, risks and opportunities that we can capitalize on.

Some IT executives find it difficult to transform IT from a vehicle that “keeps the lights on” to one that drives value for the organization. The first step is always operational excellence. With technical operations working well at Forbes, our focus is on constant optimization, rather than on break/fix or uptime. We devote the bulk of IT projects to revenue growth, instead of infrastructure and maintenance. These projects are more valuable and visible, and have more impact than our historical portfolio could ever have.

A large percentage of our IT staff is dedicated to working with our clients to come up with innovative ways to enhance their businesses. Our most-senior staff members focus on “game-changers”—opportunities that are disruptive, in the best sense of the word, to Forbes’ current business environment.

A great example is product development. In the media business, that’s all about connecting customers with content. Forbes Media has print, online, television and events businesses, among others. Several recent IT projects have focused on using business intelligence and data mining to understand the company’s assets and connect them with customers. This can lead to developing a new magazine or a specialized Web site, or to repurposing existing content for a new audience.

By enabling us to see the big picture, Innotas has put IT in a strong position to connect dots across the enterprise. For example, prior to implementing portfolio management, IT might have had five separate projects that added functionality or tools to customer-facing Web sites, with no ability to coordinate or prioritize the various threads. Now we can give senior leaders the data and transparency to determine which projects—or combinations—will deliver the highest ROI.

Forbes Media: Providing Project Transparency

We provide transparency for senior management through monthly reports generated by Innotas. They include financially intensive and overview data: What are the operational objectives and expected results? How much will the project cost? How long is it expected to take? What is the expected ROI/ROE (return on equity) and in which quarter(s)? The reports are easy for non-IT executives to digest in business terms that matter to them.

Since frequent communication with business groups is key to generating value and aligning with business goals, we hold quarterly meetings with each of the 16 customer groups to discuss where IT can partner with them to bring in cost savings, revenue growth, efficacy and innovation. When meeting with the various business groups, our position is that of a business partner and consulting arm that they can leverage to achieve their goals.

Technology is not discussed during these conversations; we simply have a dialogue about their business plans. The talks include members of the IT organization who are qualified to speak the customer’s language. The conversations are semistructured to ensure that IT achieves its planning goals, while also providing an opportunity for creativity.

These conversations are made more articulate and granular by our portfolio management program, which provides a structure and the tools for discussing projects and IT’s capacity to handle them. In fact, implementing portfolio management has led us to realize that we need to move toward a type of sales account manager structure when working with our clients. For example, we recently assigned an account manager to the finance department to leverage the portfolio management software in order to communicate about finance’s IT needs across multiple initiatives and projects, and to provide greater insight into what that department will require in the future.

As IT has evolved its project portfolio management program, our business customers have had to evolve as well. Our customer education activities have involved conversations and socialization regarding how IT decisions are made, how resource conflicts are resolved, how to ensure that business problems are well-articulated and how we’re solving problems.

The portfolio management approach has refined the thinking of our customers. Some have even canceled their initiatives when they can’t make a business case for them. Customer engagement with the portfolio management process is vital to our success and will be an area of investment in the future.

Our on-demand project portfolio management solution provides powerful tools that help our business groups operate even more effectively. These tools also enable us to take advantage of IT’s ability to view the entire organization and capitalize on opportunities for value creation.