Business at Oxford | A history lesson in master planning

Business at Oxford | A history lesson in master planning
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First Published: Sun, May 18 2008. 10 47 PM IST

Janet Smart
Janet Smart
Updated: Sun, May 18 2008. 10 47 PM IST
Janet Smart
The history of India is replete with major programmes—including many of the structures and tourist sights of which the country is most proud.
Consider the Taj Mahal. It took 22 years to build, involved 20,000 workers, and cost Rs3.2 crore when it was completed in 1653. It was international in its delivery, requiring expert craftsmen from Delhi, Kannauj, Lahore and Multan,?and from Baghdad, Shiraz and Bukhara.
Two kilometres northwest of the Taj Mahal stands the great fort of Agra. This was built between 1565 and 1573. The fort’s double walls are 23m high and measure 2.5km in circumference, are encircled by a moat and contain a maze of mosques and palaces which form a small city within a city. Four thousand builders worked on the fort each day, completing the walls in eight years.
Now, the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort are UN World heritage sites. Their builders achieved a transformation of their local economy that has lasted for more than 400 years, and that will continue to amaze and impress visitors for centuries to come.
Illustration by: Malay Karmakar / Mint
The original purpose of the fort was to defend the people who lived there, display wealth and power, and impress all visitors. The Taj Mahal had a different purpose—as a memorial to a lost empress—but the clarity of that vision sustains the identity of the building.
Apart from their architectural marvel, these major programmes were accomplished through the vision of the leaders who decided the programmes should be initiated, but their vision was enabled by, among others, the master architects and builders, the armies of construction workers, an extended supply chain and the accountants and financiers. The society that was able to achieve these feats was skilled in many ways—architecture, engineering, planning, management, communication, accounting, subcontracting foreign craftsmen, etc. And a huge workforce had to be fed and housed.
To have these skills available, there had been investment in education and research to understand what worked and how to repeat success. As a result of these skills, the architects of 450 years ago were able to develop a grand design, and then manage and measure progress against their goal. And there were no computers, no telephones, no spreadsheets.
Fast forward to the present day, and the issues in managing major programmes look very similar. Many characteristics are still the same. International consortia of skills-based organizations collaborate to achieve a visionary, transformative goal within a time-scale and budget. Lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, planners and managers must still communicate to manage the workforce and supply chain.
But, rather than being funded by the Mughals, these days, taxpayers are often required to put up the cash for new infrastructure projects, and global mass communication pounces on mistakes, failuresand delays.
In the UK, recent programme failures include the recent opening of the new terminal at Heathrow, T5, which was plagued by problems with baggage handling. Many government IT systems are reported to be late, expensive and not achieving the intended purpose. The procurement of complex defence equipment is notoriously prone to similar problems.
For India, the problems are acute. Any developing economy needs its infrastructure to grow at an even faster pace in order to meet demand but, for India, past under-investment in infrastructure makes the problem even more challenging. Failure to deliver infrastructure projects on time, and to budget, can seriously impair the ability of the economy to maintain its levels of growth.
Looking back to the lessons from major programmes in the past, we should consider the investment in skills that will be needed to enable modern major programmes to be delivered. The traditional professional skills are still needed, but new skills are becoming necessary to manage modern programmes. The modern manager of a major programme needs to be able to work with a team made up of engineers, lawyers, accountants, financiers, and project managers and so, needs to be acquainted with their professional strengths and competencies. The many stakeholders in the project need to be considered, whether they are the workforce, the media, the government, suppliers, contractors, local residents, users, consumers, voters, etc.
The programme manager also needs to be able to grasp the complexities of dealing with a multinational consortium, which may be affected by different legal systems, different customs and practice, and widely different expectations.
And this paragon should be able to stay aware of emerging developments in the field of management, and be encouraged to give something of their wisdom and insights back to the emerging community of knowledge in this rapidly evolving field.
Oxford University has recently established a programme of teaching and research which will contribute to the development of individuals such as these. Established together withBT Plc. (British Telecommunications), the BT Centre for Major Programme Management at the Saïd Business School is launching a new MSc course in October.
BT had identified the global skills shortage in major programme management (MPM), and were keen to link their global vision with Saïd. The course will be taught over a period of two years as eight one-week residential modules on core topics, with a further two modules chosen from a list of electives.
Students will be encouraged to take the lessons from the modules back to their host organizations, and apply those insights immediately, resulting in benefit for the employer or sponsor straight away.
The course will be kept relevant and up to date by inputs from academics and practitioners, who will be drawn from BT and other professional organizations working in the areaof MPM.
Students will be expected to contribute to the development of the field of MPM through a 10,000-word dissertation, based on original work. Topics could include a cross-sectoral comparison of best practice, an analysis of the impact of programme failure on the corporate reputation of a major contractor, an analysis of project or programme management practices within their own organization or sector.
There will also be an active programme of research and dissemination at the BT Centre. Three research fellows are being appointed to work on theoretical, practical and analytical models of programme management. A series of public lectures will draw in Oxford students and faculty, corporate organizations and potential students.
The world has moved on from the days of the Mughal emperors Akbar and Shah Jahan, but the investment that they made in skills, as well as construction, continues to pay handsomely.
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First Published: Sun, May 18 2008. 10 47 PM IST