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SPRING CONFERENCE: Project Management Is Rocket Science

An astronaut reflects on similiarities between space missions and business-technology missions. Also, Eli Lilly's Dunbar speaks; and Hilton's $50 million gamble.
As an astronaut, Andrew Allen found that the quiet moments he experienced before being blasted into space atop several million pounds of rocket thrust were a good time to reflect on the people, processes, and technology that put him there and that would bring him back home.

Today, as a manager of ground operations at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Allen sees NASA's space missions from more of an organizational perspective, and he's learned even more about preparing for the unexpected and managing risk.

"You think about everyone who touched your vehicle," Allen said Sunday in a keynote address that kicked off InformationWeek's 2004 Spring Conference. "You can't help but think about all the things that could go wrong."

Ultimately, the success of a mission comes down to preparation, a willingness to take risks, and even a little faith. Allen, a veteran of three space shuttle missions in the 1980s and 1990s, said, "If you take care of people, they'll take care of you."

Astronaut Andrew Allen

Former astronaut Andrew Allen said it's important to weigh risks but to think big. The difference between fact and fiction is time, he said.
Allen, who manages more than 4,000 NASA contractors as associate program manager for United Space Alliance's Ground Operations team, lauded NASA's recent Mars mission and urged organizations and businesses to be motivated by the quest for success, rather than the fear of failure.

This mindset begins with leaders who have integrity and loyalty, not just to their superiors but to their subordinates as well. "Leadership is critical to optimization," he said.

Upcoming Conference Events
Roy Dunbar, intercontinental region president for Eli Lilly & Co., is likewise no stranger to leadership or to taking risks. Dunbar leads off the InformationWeek Conference Monday with a discussion of how businesses can get the most out of their technology investments.

Dunbar, who had been Lilly's CIO for four years, last November was placed in charge of the company's operations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, Brazil, the Andes, and Central America. The IT group under Dunbar was instrumental in a number of knowledge-management projects, including the Molecule Library, bringing together the company's many different sources of information to increase productivity.

The Molecule Library enables researchers to more easily access and search information about chemical compounds in the company's pipeline, cutting the length of searches from three or four hours to three or four minutes. Dunbar estimates the tool saves the company as much as 480 work hours a day.

Hilton Hotels CIO Tim Harvey and Tom Keltner, president of brand performance and franchise development, follow Dunbar's keynote Monday with a discussion of how companies can stay profitable in the increasingly competitive global hospitality industry. Regardless of industry, profitability is a universal challenge given the investments that must be made in business technology and staff training.

One of Hilton's most ambitious projects has been its $50 million OnQ system, a platform that provides every one of the 2,100 Hilton hotels worldwide with identical views of business information and customer data. OnQ, which went live last year, tracks business functions such as front-desk transactions and reservations, and was designed to simplify the plan to add more than 100 hotels a year to Hilton's portfolio.

Another aspect of business that's getting expensive is compliance, whether it's in the financial, health-care, or utility industries. Bill Cook, chairman of law firm Wildman Harrold's business-continuity and security practice, and Julia Segars, CIO for Southern Company, an Alabama Power subsidiary, will participate in a panel Monday to discuss the benefits and challenges of compliance.

Also Monday, Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter will give a talk titled, "Human vs. Machine-Based Information Management." Gelernter's teaching and research focuses on such subjects as expert databases and information-management systems. He has co-authored textbooks on programming, and written popular books on science and social history such as Machine Beauty: Elegance And The Heart Of Technology and 1939: The Lost World Of The Fair.

Just as every NASA mission's success must outweigh its risks, so, too, must businesses weigh investments in people, processes, and technology against returns on those investments. And it doesn't hurt to find people who are willing to think big. After all, NASA's Allen said Sunday, the difference between fact and fiction is time.