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Soft Skills Software Assistance

When project management software is presented by their vendors these days, we tend to hear the ‘core’ subjects: critical scheduling, portfolio analysis, resource capacity planning, risk analysis, inter-project reporting and so on.  If you’ve not been in one of these demonstrations before, you’re missing something.  They’re a sight to behold.  The software sits up on its hind legs, barks and then runs out to get you a cappuccino.  Ok, maybe not quite.  But these enterprise project management system presentations are pretty impressive.

I’ve been in the background of preparing such demonstrations and I can tell you that an enormous amount of work goes into them.  It’s easily understood.  The software vendor doesn’t want to show what the software will look like when it’s delivered, they want to show what it will look like after it’s been adopted, used, updated, personalized and is delivering the great results the client is hoping for.  To be fair, that’s what the prospective client wants to see too.  They want to see a finished product looking like it would if they had completed their implementation.

To prepare such demonstrations an entire fictitious organization must be created.  It’s not enough just to imagine some tasks because, just like a real organization, all kinds of data must relate to all kinds of other data and this means assembling a story.  Once the story is written, the data must be created to match it and then installation and configuration of the software has to happen.  There are also reports, views, filters and such to be created, so that the prospective clients can see how everything fits together.

I bring all this up because what often happens during these presentations is that the prospective client gets very excited about the delivery of a solution that will solve all their problems; the “silver bullet” solution (of Lone Ranger fame) which will always reach its target no matter how far or how small.

The truth is, some of these answers are hard to come by.  I’ve found over the years that the most requested solution by organizations seeking an enterprise project management solution is “Resource Capacity Planning”.  This is unfortunately the first thing (and sometimes the only thing) they ask for and it’s almost always the last thing I can deliver.  It’s not that I’m being difficult, but creating a resource capacity planning solution implies a lot of underlying assumptions to be resolved.  First, you must have 100% of the resource availability. Next, you must have 100% of the resource load which must be organized by task.  These two items are just the collection of the base data required for a resource capacity analysis.  These items alone are so daunting for most organizations that just overcoming the cultural challenges required to get all the data will overwhelm the project.  If we overcome these, we’re still not done.  We need a prioritization process that identifies which work should get first access to restricted resources.  We need a process that will have everyone update the resource availability and requirements on a normalized basis.  We need analysis and reports that make sense of what may be an enormous volume of data.  We need metrics to determine what the reports mean and, finally, an action plan which fits into our process to take the appropriate action where the metrics indicate.

Whew!  I know… It’s daunting, isn’t it?

In a mid-sized organization, delivering this kind of EPM solution can take up to two years or more.  Some results can be produced much faster but there are some much more interesting aspects to software deployment in the enterprise project management context when we look outside of the core project scheduling functionality.

First of all, there is a huge range of online training in soft skills.  You can take courses in leadership, negotiation, assertiveness, communications and dozens of other subjects.

If we take a look at communications for a moment, the whole domain of online collaboration is a huge area of benefit.  You can use Microsoft’s Windows SharePoint Services to create online portals for project work.  Windows SharePoint Services is included as part of Windows Server and includes the ability to create event lists, lists of contacts, tasks, file sharing, document management and more.  If you’d rather not install software, you can look at services like Google Groups.  On Google, you can create a private group for your project team and store up to 100MB of files, start discussions, make announcements and share information no matter where people log in from.  You can tie Google Groups with Google Documents and Google Calendars to share a wider range of information.  If the group is small, the functionality may suit you rather well and you can’t beat the price.  It’s free.

If you’d prefer to do something a little more involved, there are a number of content management systems such as PostNuke, Joomla, Drupal, DotNetNuke, and  These systems can be installed or hosted almost anywhere, and provide a rich environment for creating a communication and collaboration environment.  Data of almost any kind can be stored and, when it’s your own system, you can tweak it and customize it and even add on to it to your heart’s content.

For some the key is managing documents and there are a number of solutions for this challenge as well.  If the requirement is for a small team, both Google Documents and Google Groups offer a lot of functionality for no cost.  If you’re keen to go a little deeper and host the solution locally, you can do basic document management with Windows SharePoint Services.

There are also a number of free document management systems (dms) available for download which include a much richer level of document management functionality.  Examples would be OpenDocMan, Epiware (which also includes tasks and a Gantt chart!) or DocumentManagementSystem (on

If what you really need is a centralized location, where all your research can be compiled and added to and updated by different team members, then creating your own Wiki is the way to go.  Made famous by the Wikipedia folks, you can install your own Wiki software.  There are dozens of free versions.  Just search for “Free Wiki Software” to see the most current.

These aspects of your project management environment may seem like ancillary functionality but make no mistake about the potential for these aspects to deliver a tremendous impact.  Implementing an effective communications process where there was none before can seem like the difference between night and day. Introducing a collaborative commitment tracking system can deliver instant focus to a team that might not be co-located.

One of the most powerful things about these aspects of the enterprise project management environment is that it can be very, very fast to deploy compared, say, to resource capacity planning.

We’ve talked a range of alternative software systems for working on aspects of your project management environment that are outside the core scheduling capabilities but of course much of this kind of functionality can also be found woven within the major enterprise project management systems on the market today.  If you’re evaluating whether to use these commercial systems to work on these other aspects of the project management environment, then make sure the benefits of these areas can be delivered without first getting all the core scheduling organized as part of the same exercise.  Some EPM systems are schedule-centric.  They were designed around the notion that the schedule would be the key element around which all other data and all other functionality would be tied.  No centralized scheduling for these systems means no centralized anything.

There are many paths to delivering effectiveness in your project management environment.  You don’t have to settle for the most obvious.  With so many different tools and services available immediately, it is within your power to make an impact in a very short amount of time.

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].

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