Great ideas not supported by effective project management usually fall by the wayside. To graduate the most capable undergraduate business school students possible, project management skills need to be covered. A Standish Group study on information technology projects found that the average cost overrun was 43 percent, and 71 percent of projects were over budget, exceeded time estimates and had estimated too narrow a scope. Although computer and construction projects receive the most documented attention, all businesses face the ongoing challenge of effective project management in their day-to-day operations.
Undergraduate business school curriculum needs to assure that all students, regardless of their major field, receive practical exposure to project management topics. Some business major fields including information systems and operations management often touch on these topics but even their coverage is seldom real-world and extensive enough.
Knowing that this valuable exposure is unlikely, Iattempt to incorporate these project management skills into every business course. For every new course I teach there always is a logical way to integrate the following tools into lecture content and weekly assignments:
- Gantt Charts and Critical Path
- Request for Proposals (RFPs)
- Action Plans
This article is the first post on the importance of integrating real-world project management skills into undergraduate business school curriculum and covers Request for Proposals. The second post is entitled, “Business School Curriculum Needs to Incorporate Project Management: Gantt Charts and Action Plans” and covers the two other tools.
The value of students learning these skills is best acknowledged through two student emails I received after teaching a Marketing Management course:
First Student: “I cannot express how much valuable, real-world knowledge I learned in Heller’s course compared to other management classes I have taken. As a student, I work part-time at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Following our class assignments on project Gantt Charts and RFPs, I approached my boss and explained that I had acquired a new skill set that might be valuable for some of our office projects. She was immensely impressed by my knowledge and assigned me to two new projects. Students certainly value their education when they recognize that the knowledge they are acquiring is used in the business world; Heller always tried to parallel classroom knowledge to actual business applications.”
Second Student: “RFPs are a constant fixture in professional business. Before this class, I had almost no understanding of what one even was, but I knew that I needed to learn it. I am glad that we spent time on it. That you backed up the material with personal experience, that you provided real-world examples, and that you highlighted common pitfalls….Thanks for a terrific semester and we will undoubtedly stay in touch.”
Teaching Basic Application “Manually” First to Assure Concept Retention
In developing project management lectures and assignments, it is vital to balance manual concepts with the immediate temptation to use the extensive technology available on these topics. Introducing technology products too quickly can interfere with students understanding the basic concepts. I have the students develop uncomplicated Gantt Charts and Action Plans before introducing fancy and sophisticated online applications. Students construct Gantt Charts by hand on ancient graph paper and develop Action Plans on a simple Excel worksheet for weekly assignments. As extra credit the students can automate their manual Gantt Chart on a free, very-user friendly, online service called Viewpath. Viewpath has a very good video tutorial.
Teaching Approach for Request For Proposal
Acquiring various types of products and services effectively is a vital skill in any business. Spending time exposing students to the Request for Proposal (RFP) process is very relevant. I divide the RFP process into two areas: major items and professional services.
Request For Proposals – Major Item Acquisition
Developing a consistent form for bidders to respond to is vital in being able to compare apples versus apples. Too often when purchasing numerous major items a company doesn’t specify the exact response format and it makes comparing bid submissions difficult and time consuming. By spending quality time upfront developing a very structured chart for bidders to complete, the evaluation process weeks later becomes very straightforward. A standard chart format should be provided to bidders that have columns that typically address: item name, detailed description, unit price, quantity, extended price, shipping and delivery, availability, warranty coverage included, and additional cost plan options for both parts and labor.
The assignment I’ve typically used is to pretend that the student is the university Purchasing Director and needs to requisition a new classroom of supplies (tables, chairs, computer and projection equipment, dry-erase board, etc.). See Premium Attachment for actual assignment.
The students develop this Classroom Items Listing including detailed specifications (dimensions, sizes, manufacturer name/SKU number, color, etc.). Except for the name, detailed description and quantity, the other columns are left open for bidders to complete. The students then draft a cover letter as if they were the Purchasing Director of the university that references the Classroom Items Listing and addresses some important issues:
- Encouraging bidders to suggest lower price alternates to specified items provided that quality is not sacrificed. However, bidders must include prices on what is specified in addition to any alternates.
- Explanation that bidders do not necessarily have to bid on all the items. The selection process may involve multiple bidders.
- Other issues including references, tax exempt handling as appropriate, time frame and logistics on bid submission, order placement and payment.
An example of a RFP – Major Items Weekly Assignment is available as a premium attachment.
Request For Proposals – Professional Services Acquisition
Examples of this would include hiring an outside firm to implement a computer system, conduct market research or complete a feasibility study. Professional fees with consultants, attorneys, accountants, etc. can skyrocket unless one carefully bids these services in a competitive arena. Students become knowledgeable on appropriate terminology including:
- Project scope, deliverables and exclusions/boundaries
- Payment approaches: Time and Materials versus Fixed Fee
Bidding All Phases Upfront
We cover the extreme importance of bidding all phases upfront versus allowing bidders to convince you to bid on an initial phase and submit a bid for later phases. I share actual situations and the associated financial pitfalls where bidders attempt to convince you of the following:
“It’s too difficult for our firm to bid on the entire project initially as we can’t properly price out later stages as cost effectively as we would like. Let us bid on Phases I & II and we will provide costing on Phases III-V at completion of Phases I & II.”
Students are provided a skeleton Request for Proposal that must be modified for their specific application. The structure of this RFP is as follows:
I. PROVIDED BACKGROUND
- Your Company Background and Situation
- Project Scope
- Scope Confirmation and Charge Exclusions Issue Statement
- Submission Timetable and Logistics
II. REQUESTED INFORMATION FROM BIDDER
- Firm Background2.
- Project Resources, Fees & Target Completion3.
- Professional Ending
Providing Strategic Language As Certain Topics are Very Involved
I find that the RFP topic is too involved to have students develop the entire document without major assistance. Therefore, in certain sections students are typing in portions where I have provided specific, strategic language. After numerous semesters of using this approach I have found it very effective in accomplishing the learning objectives desired. An example of this teaching approach is in the “Scope Confirmation and Charge Exclusions Issue Statements.” Below is the assignment explanation and specific terminology provided.”
In this section you want to assure the company doesn’t “nickel and dime” you on charges that they were not upfront about. You also want bidder(s) to confirm or modify Project Scope accordingly upfront. You don’t want them providing a price, and then once engaged, explaining that Project Scope is not adequate enough and additional fees will be involved. These additional fees will be on a more expensive Time and Materials basis rather than portion of the bid price where competition existed. The following wording (appropriately applied/modified) can effectively accomplish these two issues:
Potential Project Scope Omissions and Associated Fees
“We have taken significant time to identify the appropriate Scope involved to complete this project. However, based on your experiences you may recommend modifications to the Scope. Be very specific to identify any Scope modifications. Add these Scope steps to II. Requested Information From Bidder - Project Fees with separate line items and providing cost detail consistent with schedule.
Any and All Other Potential Fees and Charges
“It is vital for bidder to disclose any other potential fees and charges that could arise associated with performing this project. Client will not consider paying any fee charges unless adequately identified in your RFP response.”
Avoiding Bait and Switch Bidder Tactics
At times professional firms win projects based on the professional resumes and project write-ups of individuals that will have very little day-to-day involvement with the project. Many of these individuals are located outside the intended office performing the project with little intent to involve them except for upfront credibility to win the bid. Many large firms have sophisticated national databases that allow them to identify projects completed by any office where keyword relevance is found. In class we discuss the various ways bidders introduce and camouflage this practice and the appropriate safeguards to be exercised.
Propelling Business Degree Curriculum Forward to Incorporate Project Management
Dr. Malcolm Wheatley of ProjectSmart astutely summarizes the importance of project management:
Project management as a management discipline underpins much economic activity. In industries as diverse as pharmaceuticals, software and aerospace, projects drive business. And in the public sector, it is effective project management that translates politicians’ promises of new roads, schools and hospitals into gleaming new constructions that improve everyday life.
Business schools can improve the productivity of its graduates as they enter the workplace by incorporating project management topics as a basic element of undergraduate curriculum.