Despite the involvement of personnel from various ministries and public or private enterprises, only a few have the authority to implement the project end-to-end. The follow-through is simply not there in practice because of lack of a nodal agency with enough authority to make things happen or due to the lack of cooperation and collaboration that is required among the various parties involved, laments Dr. Srini Srinivasan, Regional Managing Director, PMI South Asia.
To begin with, allow me to ask you why project management is critical for the timely execution of infrastructure projects in India?
Public infrastructure projects in India are either delayed, stuck or haven't gotten off the ground. That being so, the realisation has perhaps finally dawned on several senior leaders that one of the key aspects that have either been missing or not given enough attention in the past is to have formal project management. Technically, in most infrastructure projects, a project management plan is put in place. However, thereafter, very little actual focus is given to applying project management principles to ensure implementation. The sheer number of projects that are either late, delayed or have underperformed just in the public sector, involves a staggering amount of money, which can feed several small nations! According to a report released earlier in 2020, escalation in cost of some projects currently under implementation is expected to cost the country Rs 2.18 trillion.
What is the reason behind the lack of implementation of project management principles? Is this due to some kind of an overarching mental block or a simple lack of awareness?
That depends on the project as it would not be right to paint them all with the same brush. Generally, in our experience, we find that this is mainly because of the involvement of a large number of stakeholders. Yet, despite the involvement of personnel from various ministries and public or private enterprises, only a few have the authority to implement the project end-to-end. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but they are either cooking different dishes or not cooking any dish at all. Notwithstanding the good intentions, the follow-through is simply not there in practice because of the lack of a nodal agency with enough power to make things happen or due to the lack of cooperation and collaboration that is required among the various parties involved. Lack of political will or change in some ground realities may cause a project to go off-track.
You used an appropriate analogy of there being too many cooks in the kitchen. So, how can project management help in ensuring cost optimisation in the infrastructure sector?
Fundamentally, it is about two key things. Firstly, it is discipline and the other is to follow a process with specific steps. For instance, you are responsible for a major infrastructure project. I would then visualise you like an orchestra conductor. By roping in various musicians and instruments together at the right time, at the right place and the right moment, you can create a beautiful ensemble. But what is required is having a plan, and the discipline to adhere to that plan. Secondly, it is about managing multiple stakeholders, whether the project is in the public or private sector. The project manager or the project management office is the only entity that pulls all the various stakeholders together and manages their demands and expectations to provide them with proper feedback. Here, the image that I visualise is that of an air traffic controller. The air traffic controller watches the entire radar for all the flights that are in their territory and spaces them to be to avoid mishaps. Therefore, the three aspects of discipline, process and stakeholder management are the key and only a good project manager can pull it off efficiently.
Regarding the second analogy shared by you, do you think there is now greater awareness about a project manager playing the role of a Yehudi Menuhin and Zubin Mehta in driving cost optimisation?
No doubt! There is a new national programme on project management in the policy framework being enacted by the Central Government. It is being spearheaded by the NITI Aayog and the Quality Council of India. This is, perhaps, the best indicator that the government has finally woken up to the fact that unless you have professional project management at the centre of these projects, you will continue to exhibit the same lack of results. The Indian economy had started witnessing a slowdown even before COVID-19 struck. And the pandemic has resulted in a major economic collision. As most economic experts will tell you, the Indian economy is among the worst affected globally, today. And when you think about the multiplier effect, the Minister for Roads & Highways and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, Nitin Gadkari, has often spoken eloquently about the fact that India cannot replace China as a manufacturing hub unless we have good infrastructure. You may have a manufacturing facility, but you won't be able to get raw materials into your plant or get finished products out.
The realisation now is that effective project management is required to shepherd a project towards completion. This would also result in an appreciable uptick in the economy. The fact that the government is calling for a policy framework deeply encourages us. I expect one of the by-products of the policy to be some standards by which public sector managers would be certified. There would be training for upskilling and reskilling of project and programme managers. There is likely to be a lot more focus placed on managing risks and other key aspects coming out of this policy framework.
What will be the role of technology in driving efficiencies in the area?
Technology will tremendously aid professional project management. It will ensure that projects are by and large more successful than they have been before. Technology can aid in creating a live dashboard of progress. At any given point in time, using your mobile phone or laptop you could check on the status of a project on a real-time basis. Digitalisation will help in boosting the success of infrastructure projects.
Technology will also give you the ability to induct tools like artificial intelligence (AI)-based software that can take over repetitive administrative tasks performed by a project manager. For example, setting up meetings, sending minutes, coordinating between various stakeholders in terms of time availability and so on, and checking on a project's status. All of those tasks can be taken over by an AI platform. That will enable a project manager to focus on more pressing issues that are required for moving a project. Another benefit of technology is that it automatically moves towards reducing cost and time and, thereby, ensure that the project execution is far more efficient than if it was all done manually. Therefore, more technology will have to be welcomed and encouraged as part of the project management process. The beauty is that we have a lot of small start-ups already working in the area. We need to take cognisance of them and not look overseas to meet our requirements.
Do you think this is a good time to look at project management as a career in India?
Of course, the timing is perfect for a young person to look at project management as a career. You started this conversation by pointing out the heightened awareness in project management and its potential in reducing costs, time and making project execution successful. Especially during the pandemic and post-pandemic situation you are going to see a greater focus by senior managers in both the public and private sector on getting projects completed on time and within budgets. There is a lot of pressure now on contractors to produce and perform than ever before. Moreover, things are a lot more open with nobody having the luxury of taking cover behind an excuse. Project management is a life skill that a young person can use both in their professional as well as personal life. In the latter case, for example, planning a family vacation or wedding! From a professional standpoint, it is a skill that will be useful throughout their career. As they move up the ladder, each one of the new roles will require strong execution ability.
- MANISH PANT