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The Real-Time Project Management Myth

Oct_6_New_cropped“But the timesheet will update the project scheduling system in real-time, right?” says the project manager.

It’s a question I’ve heard many times before.  It’s not that unusual for me but then, I have a company that publishes timesheet software for the project industry so perhaps I hear it more than others.  The question isn’t at all uncommon for me but it’s also a question I dread hearing because the answer is inevitably much longer than the question and is rarely what the questioner wanted to hear.  The notion of “real-time” project management has been around a very long time.  Many publishers in the project software industry have used the term to entice clients who dream of “one-button” project management and “instant-feedback”.  Before we can even start to answer the question posed to me, we need to look at what Real-Time Project Management is and its implications:

First of all, what is Real-Time Project Management?

The expectation of some managers is that as individual project resources complete their tasks or report on progress as the day advances, they will be able to see the sum total of all projects progressing.  Individual project managers might envisage little red bars turning green as tasks get completed throughout the day.

Is this even possible?

Sure. Modern day systems can move data as fast as you like.  It’s not complicated to have a task updated by a user somewhere in the organization flag an update in the summary of the project.  In fact, some vendors go out of their way to make this possible.  It makes for a lovely demonstration of these “real-time” capabilities which is, after all, what those managers are hoping for.

Sounds good so far! Is there a problem?

The problem comes in terms of the assumptions we make when we look at project data.  When we look at a GANTT chart or report of any kind in a project schedule, we have a few basic assumptions.  It’s not obvious but think about what you take for granted in the data you’re looking at:

  1. You assume that the data is complete.
    Particularly when we look at a task’s schedule or at the task’s resource information, we assume that all information that relates to that task has also been updated.  In a project schedule, almost everything is related to everything else.  Missing even one task’s update information or one project resource’s update information may mean that the schedule you’re looking at is completely inaccurate.  So, is the data all here?  In particular when we talk about timesheet data (as that question to me was) finding out if we have all the timesheet information is essential.  Did everyone submit their timesheet?  Were they all approved?  Are there any timesheets still outstanding or still stuck in the approval process?   It’s no surprise that one of the most popular features of our TimeControl timesheet system is the “Missing Timesheet Report” and “Missing Timesheet Email notification”.  Getting 100% of the data collected can be a big challenge.
  2. You assume that the data has been approved
    When a manager looks at project data, they make a natural assumption that the information they’re looking at has been approved by someone.  Senior management won’t expect that they need to go to every individual project resource to determine that the schedule information is accurate.  They expect that they can go to the project manager and have that project manager stand behind the data.  Project system information is, after all, a synthesis of a lot of individual pieces of data that is analyzed and then presented in a particular way.  Senior management assumes that the data that they’re looking at in their dashboard or in that management report has gone through some kind of approval process.  This is particularly interesting as when we point out to management that they desire instant real-time feedback but also expect that the data has been approved in advance, that the two desires conflict.
  3. You assume that inter-related data has been updated as well
    This is an easy one to miss.  There are numerous potential elements of related project data but here are a couple of examples.  If there are interrelated project schedules where the task of one project can push the schedule of another, we assume that this has been updated too when we look at our schedule.  Or, if we’re looking at a related risk management table, we assume that it is up to date when we reference it from the schedule. 

All of these assumptions carry implications.  It’s certainly possible to create an automated project system that identifies when data is incomplete and show that on a dashboard or on a project report.  But, in the excitement of imagining our soon-to-be real-time project system, it’s easy to overlook what we’d need to do in order to make use of the concept.

First, we’d need to be able to ensure that all data was collected hour by hour so that data was complete all the time.  This is a herculean job.  Anyone who has collected timesheets each week and ensured they’ve all been collected can attest to how much work it can be.  Now imagine that you’re going to do that work twice a day to get project updates every four hours.  It may well be impossible.  If you don’t have 100% of the updates, are you prepared to use the resulting project data knowing that it may be incomplete?  Perhaps the 20% of task updates you’re missing represent 80% of the schedule delays.

Next we’d need to be able to ensure that data was all reviewed and approved.  Again, this can take an extended effort by the project manager or project scheduler each week.  To do approvals like this twice a day could easily take longer than a half-day to accomplish for some projects.  In environments where project schedule data must be updated shift-by-shift such as in a short-term shut-down/turn-around schedule, such efforts are done full time by a dedicated team of staff.  The results are entered in the next shift for viewing a shift later. In almost any other environment, the organization won’t find the effort to update that frequently provides enough return on the investment to make it worthwhile.

When I’m approached by management and asked if I can provide real-time project management dashboards or real-time project management reports or, when I’m asked “But the timesheet will update the project scheduling system in real-time, right?” I ask a couple of questions in return:

“If I give it to you, what will you do with it?  Are you ready to do real-time project management?”  By that I mean, “Are you ready to take action all throughout the day as data would be presented to you?”

And, “Are you ready to put in all the effort it will require to collect, validate that it’s complete and approve the data before you look at it?”

When most people think about it, they put the idea of real-time project management onto the back burner… for now

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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]