Tuesday, 16 June 2015 10:18

How to Determine the Right Project Management Software for Maximum ROI

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Project and portfolio management software (PPM) is essential for any successful company. PPM software helps you plan and strategize to obtain the optimum result for any project. The software enables you to control your internal processes from project generation through workflow and approvals to a successful conclusion.

Over a period of time we recognized we needed a project management solution at RCGI, but none of us knew anything about it. We didn’t understand project management was a discipline and most of us didn’t even know PMI and PMP existed. These are the steps we used to evaluate and choose the best project management software for our company and you may find them useful for meeting your own company’s unique needs.

Finding the right solution is challenging

We quickly discovered there was no easy road to finding the best project management solution for our company. It wasn’t a matter of picking a couple of names, evaluating their offerings and making a decision.

The process was more complex than we anticipated as we faced the daunting task of evaluating more than 150 different software packages, each with its own lineup of features and benefits, strengths and weaknesses.

Moreover, there were no guidelines, no how-tos, to give us a framework for decision making.

Through trial-and-error, educating ourselves, common sense and hard work, we eventually created a system that led us to the right choice.

Background

To understand our decision-making process you need some background on RCGI.

We grew from an amalgamation of three small consultancies. As a result, our project management occurred on a somewhat ad hoc basis. Initially, we performed a large amount of business for a very small number of clients, and our resources were organized into teams.

We used a variety of solutions to manage our projects including BillQuick, Excel, email and QuickBooks. Unfortunately, they were not true project solutions and were poorly integrated.

As the number of clients increased, and the number of projects increased dramatically, we needed expertise that could be shared throughout our company. Under these circumstances, our team approach proved inadequate.

Eventually we reached our ceiling - we couldn’t grow much more without losing the quality of our work.

Business challenges

We faced many of the challenges growing companies encounter. We:

  • Had difficulty tracking resource availability and utilization.
  • Lacked documentation and backup for client commitments. Getting communications for clients was time-consuming because we had to extract information from individuals’ Outlook folders.
  • Lacked a centralized platform to store project data and communications because individuals had different Excel spreadsheets and didn’t do them the same way.
  • Could not execute projects in groups to achieve efficiencies, especially projects based on sites that were geographically adjacent. Clients were always looking at this, which put pressure on us.
  • Suffered inefficiencies because of our manual processes. As a result, occasionally projects fell through the cracks. We also didn’t know when to notify clients or when we needed formal or informal acceptance.
  • Had limited scope control on projects. We weren’t always clear who is in control.
  • Lacked sufficient project planning and costing.

First step: Assessment

Since we knew little about project management, we brought in consultants from an outside firm called MHPM to provide preliminary training and to make initial assessments of our workloads.

We identified a group of four key individuals who focused on evaluating project management software. This was a key step in our organization. We moved control of projects out of the hands of the original partners, who also happened to be some of the top technical experts in our company, to others on the team. This allowed them to focus more on their technical contributions.

The group of four started working on their PMP designations. They also standardized our ZPM-related tools for use across the company.

Still, our project management process remained manual and disjointed.

  • As CFO, I was very dissatisfied because I had no idea what was coming down the pipe.
  • HR was dissatisfied because they didn’t know if we needed more people or we had too many people.
  • Client managers never knew if we had room for more projects, especially large batches of projects. We often get hundreds of projects at a time, and we lacked the ability to access whether we could take them on.

Second Step: Analysis

We began with an analysis of our current processes and teased out the requirements we intended to address, adding project management features to our “wish list” as we went.

In the end we established a list of mandatories—features any project management software must have to be considered as a candidate—such as:

  • Ease of use
  • Scheduling and forecasting
  • Resource allocation
  • Real-time data
  • Document management
  • Transparency
  • Customization
  • Price

In reality, the perfect solution doesn’t exist (unless you’re willing to pay $100,000s for a truly customized solution). This may require some hard choices when it comes to choosing among several vendors. For example:

  • Will you forego integrating your current budgeting process in exchange for a more transparent collaboration?
  • Will you accept a barely adequate approval process in exchange for superior document management?
  • Are you willing to pay for a host of features you’ll never use to get the essential features you must have?
  • Can you operate without some key features to get software you can afford?

Answering these questions was part of our challenge.

Third Step: Evaluation

We researched the internet and compiled a list of about 150 software systems that claimed to assist in project management. Many, of course, we easily discarded as being clearly inadequate or overly costly.

Based on ratings from review sites, we purchased two project management software offerings for 30-day trials: Clarizen and Genius. We looked at them from the perspective of our own requirements, which may not apply in your case.

Our project managers worked through our requirements in a structured fashion. Using common generic criteria, we rated the two packages in comparison to BillQuick and generated the following summary using the standard red/amber/green project management terminology to get a quick visual evaluation.

lalonde Img01Both Clarizen and Genius were powerful on the project definition and management side, but were poorer on time and expense tracking. Overall we decided they didn’t provide everything we needed.

Fourth step: Evaluation criteria

We were now faced once again with evaluating over 100 project management packages, each claiming to solve our problems. How could we get a closer fit to our requirements?

We examined other “Top 10” review sites, but frankly we developed a jaundiced feeling about them. Many of the things the sites said Clarizen and Genius did, they didn’t, at least according to our definitions. Because of our lack of trust in these sites, they were not our first choice.

We decided to work on an exception basis. We identified six criteria that had two common attributes:

  1. They were very critical to our requirements.
  2. They seemed to be uncommon among the candidates reviewed.

This is the quick check list we created:

lalonde Img02Any candidate that failed this short list was immediately eliminated, some in as little as two or three minutes.

Fifth step: Decision matrix

When we whittled down our list to a few candidates, we developed a more detailed matrix. It is based on key functions our committee established after carefully analyzing our current processes and requirements. Our current software was used as the basis for comparison. The committee then evaluated how well each vendor met our criteria.

Again, we used the standard red/amber/green project management terminology to get a quick visual evaluation.

This is where our paid evaluations became useful because our project managers now had a better idea of what project management software could actually do.

lalonde Img03Based on this matrix we selected Project Insight for several reasons. They:

  • Included more features we wanted than other packages evaluated.
  • Provided excellent support for cross-project dependencies. This was very important for us because we have to schedule projects in groups, especially for field use. We also discovered this feature is quite rare in other software.
  • Provided decent time & expense support (though pricing was a bit of an issue).
  • Offered adequate invoicing support (which many packages didn’t), though we had to move our time over to some other package.
  • Included decent integration capabilities with QuickBooks.
  • Demonstrated good performance and a consistent, logical user interface.
  • Operated on any browser-equipped platform such as cell phones, tablets and PCs. This is especially useful in the field.
  • Were willing to customize their package to meet our pricing and budgeting requirements.

NOTE: I’ve named names here to illustrate the process we used for overcoming an arduous task of finding the best project management solution out of 150+ possibilities. This in no way is meant to disparage the packages cited. Although they didn’t meet our requirements, they may be the best solution for your unique situation, needs and requirements.

A final consideration: Customer service

Tech support is a given. It may be included in the price, or you might have to buy a tech support plan. In either instance the plan should spell out exactly what services are available, how often and for how long.

A step above technical support is total customer support in which the vendor will help you grow your business by ensuring:

  • Your software is installed properly
  • You receive ongoing training
  • You receive expert help in customizing your software
  • You are alerted about potential problems

Putting it Together

Choosing the right project and portfolio management software is an important factor in determining whether your company can grow and remain competitive.

It is something that requires time, a dedicated team and a careful analysis of your strengths, weaknesses and where you want to go.

Once you have made what you consider the best decision, a free-trial demonstration should reveal whether the reality meets your expectations.

Don't forget to leave your comments below.

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Marc Lalonde

Marc Lalonde is Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Remediation Consulting Group Inc. (RCGI), an environmental services company based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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