Monday, 15 October 2007 04:25

What to Expect From Your New Project Management System

Written by Adrian Pierce
You have heard about project management (PM) software. You are aware that many companies use it, but that those who do are typically large IT companies, or perhaps large construction companies. You might be wondering: “Would it fly in our place?” The answer is: Perhaps it would.

I remember many years ago, when I was a rather newly minted project management software instructor, speaking with someone who had attended a course that I had delivered approximately six months previously. He was working for a federal government department that had decided to push a certain scheduling tool out to all managers with the instructions “get some training on this tool – you are now all project managers.”

I asked this individual how he was doing with the software since the training. To paraphrase, he replied “Not so great. I thought this software was supposed to mean less work for me. Now, I have to build these schedules, think about the activities, how long they take, what order they must be performed in, who is working on them, track progress… etc. It’s a lot more work than I was doing before.” I asked him, “Were you not doing any of those things in any form before?” “No.” What this person had not understood prior to the training was that he was now expected to manage his project using the discipline of project management. He did not initially see that the tool’s job is to facilitate and automate a process that would be extremely cumbersome to manage otherwise.

“What about the benefits of all this work?” I replied. “Are you better able to anticipate workloads on your team? How about your ability to meet deadlines? Has that improved?” “Well – yes,” he replied. “Very much!”

Project management software: more than just a tool

The single biggest challenge to implementing a project management system is not the technology itself, but rather the discipline of an organization changing from a functional management process to a project management process. You may have heard some people say that project management software is simply a tool. If unused, it is merely a disc or two.

I recently purchased a sliding compound miter saw. I love this tool. I enjoy working with it, and I find myself looking for projects that require me to use it. I purchased it shortly after starting a crown molding project using a table saw. When it came down to the fine details, I just couldn’t get my table saw to easily do what I required of it. To get the job done right, you need good tools.

The same can be said for PM software. With the right tool, many organizations have embraced project management simply because the tool has allowed them to plan, execute, monitor and control their projects infinitely more efficiently than they could ever hope to otherwise.
The real benefit of PM software is that it automates what would otherwise be very difficult and time-consuming to perform manually. Just as a word processor does not guarantee a good novel, project management software does not guarantee a good plan, but it does set you on the road to building a better one. With good scheduling principles applied, it forces you to think about what needs to be done, how long it will take to complete, what order tasks must be performed in, whether you have the resource base to perform it within a limited time frame, and what it will likely cost.

Picking the right tool

You might find some applications easy for the average person to use upon startup but in the end limiting, when it comes to accounting for all of the reporting requirements that arise over time. When it comes to selecting a project management system, be careful in your selection process. Make sure that it does all the things you need it to do. Knowing what it needs to do requires that you take a good hard look at what you are doing now, and how your current methods fall short of your management requirements.

So what are some of the key requirements you may want to consider when looking for project management software? As a first consideration, you might want to examine whether you need to manage programs, or simply projects in isolation. The latter option is often employed by construction companies. Many of these firms are simply interested in developing a schedule of tasks over a given timeframe, often without the use of “resources” to plan and track who or what is required to complete the work.

Other organizations take things to the other end of the spectrum: managing programs of interconnected projects, resources and their related work assignments with associated project costs, all in a single database repository, accessed by windows-based and web-based client tools.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, consider that an application that stores all data in a single database will provide a better vehicle for maintaining consistent processes, reports, and data structures, such as a resource pool. It means that upper management can be provided with information from attributes that are made common to all projects to answer questions such as “How much are our West-coast projects doing as compared to our East-coast projects?” or “What division has the greatest return on investment?” For middle and line management, it can mean answering questions such as “What projects are my engineers working on?” and “Do we have the staff to complete our objectives by year end?”

When it comes to selecting a project management system, be sure to get some advice from those who have implemented their systems many times before and know the ins and outs. The implementation of these systems is not rocket science, but it does demand a process, and there are plenty of things to do wrong. Just ask a rocket scientist if he or she would dare to launch a rocket without the use of a good project management system. The key to the success of any system ultimately is in the hands of those who use it. The software itself may be filled with many features, but features are only valuable if they are put to use. Good and rigorous training is the key to this.

Project management software differs greatly from other desktop-type applications such as word-processors or electronic spreadsheets. If, for example, you choose to learn a word processor by yourself, you could probably start by simply typing a letter on day one, and then learn how to perform a mail-merge a month later, without losing any of the work you did on day one. On the other hand, with project management software, you really need to understand the basic mechanics of the entire system prior to using it. Your data should be defined with the correct level of detail, and in such a way that the system is able to carry out it’s most basic function: that is, to calculate activity dates. This is something that is typically not evident when a new user starts using a scheduling tool.

Get the right training

Training should typically come in three forms: initial tools training, which should cover the basic mechanics of the system; what it can and cannot do; customized training; after configuration, how the system is to be used in your organization, and finally, follow-up mentoring. This last step is where many organizations fall short. As an instructor of project management systems, I have met many individuals who completely understand the system during the initial training sessions, but soon forget the information in the months that follow due to lack of post-training practice.

In many software courses, each feature is typically taught once, with its functionality reinforced perhaps a second time during a follow-up exercise. This is often all that is required to understand a feature by itself; however, when combined with 30 to 60 other features over a three day course, many students are likely to feel slightly overwhelmed. Nobody ever walks away from a project management course ready to teach it to the next person, but with a bit of practice and familiarization with the system, most participants report within a few weeks that they are comfortable with, and enjoy using the system.

A final word of advice: if possible, establish a project management office (PMO). The members of the PMO typically provide support to the rest of the organization by standardizing and maintaining project management processes and procedures, as well as managing the system. These individuals usually become the system “gurus” who ensure that data structures are maintained, technical issues are dealt with efficiently, and that management is able to rely consistently on the information as being accurate, relevant, timely, and valuable. In short, a PMO will allow you to expect good things of your project management system.

, is Director of Product Knowledge with Project Management Centre and has been training and implementing project management systems since 1994.

 


Adrian Pierce, B. Com., PMP
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