Hi-tech inward investment on course to create 200 jobs

SCOTLAND has won an international contest to host a cutting-edge operation which aims to transform the way companies run major projects around the world and is expected to create about 200 jobs at an iconic site near Glasgow.

The groundbreaking inward investment on the site of the former Black & White whisky operation at Stepps near Glasgow, a landmark high-rise named Buchanan Tower after the distiller which produced this blend, is being made by French company Altran. It represents a significant boost fpr the scottish economy in these recessionary times.

A raft of potential locations, including Germany, Singapore, and India, were considered by Altran for what it is calling a "project factory" but is in essence a hi-tech hub.

The centre at Stepps will employ innovative software to help manage major projects for companies around the globe.

This software aims to enable companies undertaking major projects, from construction to workforce reorganisation, to avoid falling into the common traps which result in failure to meet objectives. Crucially, it aims to allow companies to ensure key milestones in projects are being met, and make the key people aware of what steps must be taken next.

Steve Boyle, chief executive of the Altran CIS consulting and information services division in the UK and architect of the project factory concept, highlighted the part which Scottish Enterprise chief executive Jack Perry and officials at the economic development agency had played in securing the project in the face of international competition.

Boyle noted he had several years ago, as a member of the international Globalscot network established by Scottish Enterprise and the then Scottish Executive to promote Scotland's interests, introduced the development agency chief to senior bankers in Germany. Perry had seen the early pilot version of the project factory concept and shown interest.

"They have played a very smart game here, " said Boyle of Scottish Enterprise. "They have just got us on the hook to think about Scotland. They have never really let us off the hook."

Altran will receive nearly GBP250,000 of regional selective assistance funding from the Scottish Government, over three years. Boyle put the headcount number on which the grant funding is based at about 30.

However, he emphasised this was only because he was cautious about over-promising, and highlighted potential to increase the workforce to about 200 in coming years.

Boyle told The Herald: "Internally, we have big ambitions for this. We think this could lead to a couple of hundred jobs relatively quickly, notwithstanding current market forces making everyone cautious."

This ambition is demonstrated by Altran CIS's move to arrange an option to take additional space at the former Black & White site, beyond that which it is leasing initially. Altran CIS's investment in the project factory amounts to more than GBP2m.

Boyle noted his hope of creating 200 jobs was in keeping with Altran's plans to boost its worldwide workforce of 18,000 by several thousand.

Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney is expected to join Altran executives for the official launch of the operation at Stepps next week.

Boyle said the centre at Stepps represented a move to "industrialise" the "backoffice" part of projects, leaving the "subject experts" free to focus on the areas in which they could contribute most.

He put this industrialisation in the context of renowned Scottish economist Adam Smith's view of the importance of "division of labour" in economic growth.

Boyle cited human resources processes, data centre builds, construction, technological change, audit and compliance work, and management of corporate real estate portfolios as the type of projects which could be handled by the team at Stepps. He highlighted the expectation that project factory clients will come from a broad range of sectors, going beyond the financial services arena which has been a key plank of the Altran CIS business in the UK.

Boyle also highlighted the global potential for the Stepps venture, citing interest from Altran's operations in the likes of Italy and Brazil to direct clients to the project factory.

Explaining the rationale for creating the project factory, Boyle said that analysis of projects which had failed showed there were usually "three or four fundamental reasons" why things went wrong.

Typically, senior management of a company was given a detailed plan when a major initiative was being launched which gave it the confidence to go ahead with a project. However, the detailed plan was then sometimes "put in the bottom drawer and never looked at again".

Software which tracked the plan, and forced people to stick to the details, should therefore produce a better outcome.

Another problem identified by Boyle was that there was a tendency for people working on projects to want to report back good news, for example indicating that a particular part was now 90per cent complete.

However, he noted that a milestone had either been met or not. If it had been met, evidence of this achievement should be available.

Achievement of project milestones can also be tracked by the software developed by Boyle and his team, and the next steps to be taken by those involved highlighted.

Another problem identified by Boyle in projects is failure to implement actions agreed at meetings. He noted the project factory at Stepps could, by capturing minutes of meetings and building actions automatically into the "toolkit", ensure that actions were closed.

Boyle said firms could use the project factory at Stepps on a "pay per use" basis. They could therefore pay only as they hit certain milestones.

Highlighting the potential for firms to save a "massive amount of time" by outsourcing the "back-office" parts of project management, he said of the project factory: "It takes all of the disciplines of chasing down the milestones, chasing down the actions, keeping track of the documentation, reminding people of what they are doing next."

Boyle said Stepps had won out as a location over an Altran site at Frankfurt in Germany, where the prototype project factory was established by him and his colleagues Frankfurt, he noted, had been a "frontrunner".

Singapore had also been looked at from a cost perspective, as had India and Eastern Europe. Russia and Dubai were among the other locations considered. Macclesfield in Cheshire, where Altran has a base, had been another possibility, as had Paris and Marseilles.

Boyle highlighted the pound's fall against the euro as one significant factor which had swung the decision in favour of Scotland.

The RSA funding had also helped, and Scotland's large output of graduates had been another important factor.

Boyle highlighted the need to employ software experts, as well as people with good understanding of the mechanics of projects and governance processes, at the Stepps project factory.