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For many years, one of the challenges with technology was to think of software ‘packages’. This pervasive way of thinking inevitably brings us to thinking of software as a collection of features. We even compare one product to another by listing the features on one side with the features on the other.

The idea of having software as a series of interrelated parts that could be made into plug-and-play components of a larger system often meant we would need to do lots and lots of programming of the interrelating software. Our company has focused on solution selling for years, so for us we’re used to asking a client for the problem before we list the solution. But it does make us think around here of software more as a vehicle for creating a solution, rather than a list of features that the client might find attractive.

In the last couple of years, however, there has been sufficient movement in the software business towards more common standards that we can start to think of technology as a “stack” of functionality, and interact with it as the potential for a solution, rather than the fixed list of what can be delivered on the first day.

I recently presented some project management software to a rather large company with a worldwide brand name. This company certainly has extensive project management experience but in the particular division I was interacting with, project management had always been an ad-hoc or project-by-project notion rather than centrally organized. The division’s volume of work has recently increased, however, and the complexity of that work has grown by an order of magnitude. It’s time to make project management a more formal process.

So, I showed them this software, which was rather well received. I showed the software as I often do, after extensive conversations about what the company is attempting to accomplish. Once I’d done the presentation, I turned off the projector and told a story.

“Imagine,” I said, “having to create a new project. You wouldn’t turn on the software we’d just shown you. Instead, you’d click on a link on your corporate intranet portal. The link would present a web-based form for new projects. You’d fill in this form on your terminal. You wouldn’t need specialized project management experience. You might not need to know how to create the schedule and establish the dependencies between tasks, or what a lag is, or that CPM stands for Critical Path Methodology. You’d just fill in this form.

”Depending on who you are, the form might look different. If you were a senior executive for example, certain parts of the form for approvals might not appear. Other parts of the form might only appear depending on other data you’d enter. If the project details you entered had, for example, a place for the cost of the project and that value was, say, more than $100,000 then another part of the form might instantly appear with additional fields of information required to start a project of that value.

“Now, imagine once completing that form that you click on the ‘Submit’ button and depending on who you are, and the data in the form, it is automatically sent to the person in your organization who needs to approve new projects. That person would receive an email in their Inbox. They might see the whole form there or click on a link to the form online in their browser. They would see what you had typed in but they might also see other information. Perhaps they can see right on the form, for example, the value of the project you typed but also the total value of the budget that has been allocated so far for this year. They would see different buttons on the form such as ‘Reject’ or ‘Request more details’ or ‘Approve’ or ‘Forward for approval’. They would click on the ‘Approve’ button and several things would happen. First you would get an email saying that the project is now approved. In your Enterprise Project Management system a new project would instantly appear. It would have the data from the form that you filled out. There might even be a very high level schedule of milestones if those were required in the form for new projects. The stage for the stage-gate methodology would be set to “initialized”. Other key people might be triggered by that event to create certain project documents and so on and so on.

“Now we can do the same thing with change management, budget approval, resource allocation etc.”

There was nothing on the projector. It was a story. But the story was compelling.

“That’s just what we need,” said the representative of the organization.

All of this has become possible and not just with one tool. In fact, if you wanted to make my story into a solution, there are several tools you’d go to look for. They might come from the same vendor or from several vendors.

You’ll need a server-based enterprise project management system of course. That’s a good starting point and there are a number on the market.

You’ll also need server-based workflow engine. Again, there are several on the market that are quite excellent and can be configured without having to be a programmer.

You’ll need a forms-generator for online forms to be able to create intelligent forms that can take actions in the background. Most workflow vendors have such forms-based tools embedded in them or attached to them, but most workflow tools can work with numerous forms tools.

This interoperability is all thanks to the ubiquitous presence of the Internet and the movement from older client-based systems to server-based centralized systems. This has prompted more and more vendors to open their technology. We hear more of the terms “Software as a Service” (SaaS) or “Simple Object Access Protocol” (SOAP). The movement towards Software available as a Service means that whatever functionality is available can be used by different interfaces to create blended functionality. The standard of SOAP and other such protocols means that everyone has a standard syntax and grammar for communicating between products. The end result is the potential to combine the functionality from where you can find it into the solution where you need it, and that’s all possible today.

That’s all the good news.

I know. You were waiting for the bad news weren’t you?

The challenge is what’s implied in my story. The workflow sounded wonderful to my client but, if I want to implement that technology, we need to know what the workflow is. That implies a standardization of process that everyone in the organization agrees to. As I’d mentioned earlier, this particular organization had managed projects in a very casual ad-hoc manner. So getting consensus on what the new project process might be will almost certainly take some work, and consensus is key. Also, we can, in theory, proceduralize almost anything, but the law of diminishing returns takes effect in here somewhere. There will come a point where making a formal automated process of one more procedure rather than leaving it to be managed casually won’t produce any more efficiency. There needs to be someone central to make the decision on what that point is.

Who will make the final decision on what to proceduralize? Who will have the final say on what a particular process will be? What will be the process to change or add to the process? If the processes we’re discussing will touch several departments (such as Finance, or HR) instead of just project management, then who will be the liaison for those departments? Who will be the keeper of the process? What is their authority in the organization?

This is why, when I talk about enterprise project management and what’s possible, I inevitably talk about it as a change management project rather than as a technology project. At its core, we’re asking the organization to change how it works and possibly how some core aspects of how it works. That change is always going to be a bigger challenge than the technology required to deliver the solution.

What’s important to know? That it’s now possible to blend these technologies together and as a result bring the project management process to levels of the organization that will never see or need to understand a GANTT chart or a PERT diagram.

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 [email protected]. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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