Instead of thinking of a list of great features that are available in some of the more popular EPM packages, let’s think about what it is we want to do with the system.
First of all, it’s almost a guarantee that project management is already underway. Project management is hardly new. If you’re in an organization that delivers projects regardless of whether they’re internal or external, you almost certainly have some kind of project management going on. What do we need to do in a modern project management environment?
Well, one of the most obvious things is to create a schedule. A structured list of what you’ve got to accomplish broken down into measureable tasks is a huge step forward in our enterprise project management system. “But wait!” I hear you say. “How is that ‘enterprise’? You’re right, so let’s put enterprise access to our project schedules on our list of challenges we must meet.
Every project gets accomplished by people. So it would follow that it’s important to have some kind of resource management plan. For many organizations, resource capacity planning across all resources is one of the most powerful reasons to design, purchase and deploy an EPM package. So, let’s put that on our list of challenges we’d need to overcome with whatever solution we come up with.
Project Progress and Timesheets
Timesheets have become such a challenging area for project management environments that some kind of timesheet or task statusing functionality is now virtually always required in an EPM package. Let’s add this requirement into our list of things we’ll need in our EPM system.
These days, communication and collaboration are a huge aspect of successful project management. This can include everything from ensuring the team members are able to communicate with each other to ensuring that announcements, a calendar of events and other key information pieces are disseminated to all team members in a timely fashion. Let’s get communication and collaboration into our list too.
This has become a significant point of leverage for making a project environment effective and to eliminate risks. In fact, while we’re at it, let’s add managing lists of issues, decisions, deadlines, risks as well as contract and design documents in here.
That’s quite a list of challenges and virtually all the brochures and marketing collateral of the EPM software vendors speak to these challenges directly. Any sane person would obviously run out to purchase one of these systems right away, wouldn’t you? While the answer for some organizations is certainly, yes, as I’ve often said, deploying a true EPM package requires a pretty significant management commitment, and a bunch of effort.
Well, instead of doing that, let’s see if we can make this vehicle out of the parts lying around the shop. Let’s take each of the challenges above and see what tools might be commonly available for us to use.
Scheduling. Tthe obviously solution is to ask what project management desktop tools are already in use in the organization. Microsoft says there are over 20 million copies of Microsoft Project sold and that’s a lot of Critical Path Methodology analysis available. Now our requirement above stated that we want to make the list of tasks available to others in the organization, but there are many ways to access Microsoft Project data. First of all, a print out of certain reports could be done to an Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file. This file could then be made available on the corporate Intranet as a report to be read or even printed out by anyone. In fact, with Microsoft Project 2007, we could also create a Visual report in Excel which could then be saved as an HTML web file. This could even be automated from within Project as a Macro. With a bit more work, the list of tasks could be saved from Excel into a SharePoint list and, using SharePoint, you could deliver automated email alerts for any changes in the schedule right to the Email Inbox of each resource.
Resource Management. Resource Management is a trickier conversation until you take a step back and look at what is driving resource constraints. In high-tech, white collar projects (like IT or R&D) typically we schedule resources right down to the named person. This is because the skills of each person in the organization are virtually unique. And yet, if we look at a resource pool of, say, 100 people, typically all the resource constraints can be narrowed down to a tiny group of key resources of perhaps four or five people. I’ve been doing this a long time and the number of key resources even in a very large pool rarely exceeds a dozen people. When you start looking at how projects work, all work revolves around the schedule of these key people. Take a look in your own organization and see if this is true. Are the bottlenecks within a small group? If this is so, here’s a radical idea: Just manage the key resources. Create a small project that has just the tasks of your four, five or six key people and manage that. Let the supervisors and everyone else work around that schedule and leave the scheduling of everyone else to team leads. This almost always works and it tends to work very, very, very quickly. Using this technique can bring relief to a constrained organization within a day or two in most cases. You can publish this project just like we described above and there’s very little analysis required. After all, resource leveling individuals doesn’t make much sense. They’re going to work 8 hours a day every day.
Project Progress and Timesheets. This one’s a little tougher. If you’re just looking to progress the tasks, your project managers can get a good read on this in regular weekly task updates. But, if you need to track the time for other purposes such as billing, R&D tax claims, payroll, activity based costing etc. then it’s possible you may need to go out to look for a commercial timesheet system. If you do, look for one of the several timesheets that link directly to desktop tools like Microsoft Project or Primavera or Open Plan or whatever desktop tool you’ve got already.
Communication. There is a plethora of freeware portal and collaboration tools out there but one of the most obvious is Windows SharePoint Services. It comes free with Windows Server 2003 or higher and has all kinds of core capacity for managing lists, calendars, alerts and more. In fact, the free portal software would be a great place to publish the schedules in PDF or Excel/HTML formats that we talked about earlier.
Once it’s up and running, maintenance of SharePoint is pretty reasonable.
Document Management. SharePoint also includes document management capabilities, and if we look at the list of things we also wanted to manage here, issues are a list, risks are a list, deadlines are a list of events. It’s true that Microsoft Office Project Server includes these lists already formatted within SharePoint but for a bit of work you can create these lists yourself. If you need a little more in the area of document management, you can always look at one of the document management packages on the market or you could enhance your Windows SharePoint Services to include some basic workflow.
This approach of creating your EPM system out of the parts available to you isn’t appropriate for everyone. You’ll need to balance the benefits of having little change in the tools people use against the benefits that would come from a complete overhaul of the project management process and tools, and the enhanced capacity of working with a large centralized tool. But that being said, you’ve also got to balance the reduced cost of using tools that are already in use within the organization against the challenge of changing a corporate culture, and the user resistance that can result, when a large centralized tool is deployed.
So, can you make a car out of parts? Of course you can. They do it in Detroit every day.
Chris Vandersluis is the founder and president of HMS Software based in Montreal, Canada. He has an economics degree from Montreal's McGill University and over 22 years experience in the automation of project control systems. He is a long-standing member of both the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the American Association of Cost Engineers (AACE) and is the founder of the Montreal Chapter of the Microsoft Project Association. Mr. Vandersluis has been published in numerous publications including Fortune Magazine, Heavy Construction News, the Ivey Business Journal, PMI's PMNetwork and Computing Canada. Mr. Vandersluis has been part of the Microsoft Enterprise Project Management Partner Advisory Council since 2003. He teaches Advanced Project Management at McGill University's Executive Institute. He can be reached at chrisv@hmssoftware.