Microsoft® Project™ is, without a doubt, the world's most popular project management software.  It is THE industry standard when it comes to an automated, project management software package.  This is evident by the fact that 1) At least one person using Microsoft® Project™ can most likely be found in any project-focused organization, and 2) every day, it seems, new software applications spring up as the “next great alternative” to Microsoft® Project™.  Mimicry is, of course, the greatest form of flattery.  As we are seeing a mainstreaming of project management with it being taught standard in business school, masters degree programs being offered, and more and more people adopting project management processes, Microsoft® Project™ continues to the be the software that most new project managers cut their teeth on.  Is it the best solution out there?  Well, there are numerous opinions on that, just like there are for everything.  One thing is for sure, it's not going anywhere and will probably continue to be the standard. 

Of course, calling it a project management system is a misnomer.  As any good PMP will tell you, project management is much, much more than just creating and managing a schedule.  But that's what Microsoft® Project™ does really well, create and manage schedules.  Some of the many benefits that Project™ provides you include:
Robust scheduling tool with task dependencies, baselines, and critical path where you can automatically calculate timing of your project and associated deliverables based on input.  You're able to quickly re-calculate in order to meet deadlines, changes in scope, etc. 
You've got a Tracking Gantt, PERT chart, and other tools that allow you to keep your schedule in line and provide updates to stakeholders.
Standard templates allow you get a head start on building your schedule
a number of tools within Project™ allow you to perform some very complex algorithms for things like filtering the tasks by various criteria, crashing the schedule, moving dates, dealing with contingency, etc.
With Project Server™, you can do all of the collaboratively and share enterprise projects across the organization.

So, given all that Microsoft® Project™ and Project Server™ do, how would you improve upon that?

The Best Laid Plans...
I'm sure everyone has used something like Google® maps at some point to get directions.  I love Google® maps.  I can enter a starting address and an end address and it can chart a route for me.  I could even use the street view and find landmarks to help me find my way.  I just plug in my addresses, get the approximate time it's going to take me, get in my car and go.  It's great.  I know exactly where I'm going, all of the streets, exits, and turns I need to make to get me there, and how long it's going to take.  

And so off I go....  And then I miss an exit.  A road is closed.  Traffic is really backed up.  Now what?  I've got my Google® maps route printed out, but that was essentially rendered useless when someone decided to send a text message doing 65 down the highway bringing all traffic flow to a stand still.  I will most assuredly miss my appointment if I continue on the route I charted through Google Maps.  And calculating the percent of my trip I've completed so far is helpful, but it won't get me around traffic.

Now, if I was using a GPS navigation system, it'd be a whole different story.  Not only do I have the power of a charted route using mapping software like I did with Google® maps, but now, my plan is living.  If I miss my exit, take a wrong turn, or run into traffic, it will recalculate my route and let me know what time I'm going to get there so I can still make my appointment.  My plan now becomes an evolving one that helps factor in the variables that I was not able to account for by just using Google® maps.  Because my arrival time is also being calculated, I can call ahead and give a relatively precise estimate of when I'm going to arrive as soon as I know.

When I talk about taking Microsoft® Project™ or Project Server™ to the next level, I'm  talking about taking it from a map to living navigation.  All of the cool things  that Microsoft® Project™ does like Gantt charts, PERT charts, resource tracking etc. become significantly less useful once the project gets going because you're not able to compare what is actually happening and use that to modify the  plan to achieve the end goal of getting your project completed on time, or within budget, or within scope, wherever it is you need to go.

Mapping A Route
How do you take Microsoft® Project™ from being a map to giving you turn by turn directions to project completion?  Let's talk about some ways.

1.  Connect with Actuals - A successful project management process requires doing two things very well: tracking the progress of your current projects, and estimating your future projects more accurately.  Both need accurate information about time spent on projects.  You need to be able to track how much time is being spent on the tasks within your projects along with how much longer it is going to take to complete.

Project managers are responsible for keeping scope, budget, and schedules on track. Yet how
can you achieve this if you don’t know how many hours it takes to accomplish a task, or how many hours remain in the project? Not only that, but the management team is constantly asking project managers for status reports and accurate information on projects so they can make critical decisions.  The whole point of working on projects is to bring in a good return on investment (ROI). The only way to understand project profitability is to understand true project cost, which mainly involves the cost of labor. Tracking time to projects and tasks is therefore an inescapable requirement for measuring project ROI.  This goes beyond just looking at percent complete, but tracking actual work.  If 10% of the allocated budget has been spent and only 5% of the project work has been completed, there is a problem. Project managers who track employee actuals and find this out early in the project have a fighting chance of recovery. Those who don't will find out much later on that their projects are over budget. This is just one example of how real-time data enables project managers to fix problems before they start and ensure a good return on investment.

Integrating your project plans with actuals (actual work, actual costs) will help you monitor and control your project progress.  You need to have an easy and user friendly way for your project team members to see what their assignments are, track their actual time to those assignments, and communicate how much longer it's going to take to complete.  Your team members should also be able to record all of their time in one place, their organizational time, g&a, non-project time, time off, etc.

Many people feel that it is enough to track project progress on a percentage complete basis. But this is just not effective as it doesn't tell an accurate or complete story.  This is also not consistent with established methodologies, which suggest that the only accurate measure of progress is tracking work effort (i.e.,time).  Remember, I can see that I'm 65% done with my trip to my appointment, but that doesn't help me avoid traffic.  If I call my appointment and say “well, I've got another 35% of my trip to go”, well what does that mean?  What I need to be able to say is “I've got another 15 miles to go and it should take about 22 minutes to get there”.  Tracking actual time, cost and completion estimates helps me do that with my projects.  Remember, you can't control what you don't' measure. 

2.  Connect with Resource Management - Project teams are made up of people who are categorized by skill types or job functions. For example, a project team might require developers, team leads, project managers, architects, or database analysts. Finding the right resource to assign to a project or task, making sure that person is available, and communicating the assignment to them can be some of the most challenging problems confronting a project organization.

In every organization, there are always the “star players”; the handful of people who are overbooked.  Everyone wants these resources on their project. Every time one of the resources takes a vacation or becomes ill, the organization groans. Now, on the other hand, there are other people who are underutilized.  Even when project managers understand resource availability, it changes. They might run around and get all of the vacation schedules recorded in a big spreadsheet, only to find that a week later it has all been moved. Project managers need real-time access to team member schedules, tasks and available time in order to assign people to tasks more effectively.

Microsoft® Project™ will show you resource usage, but it is often incomplete or silo-ed, meaning it is not a complete picture.  You need to have complete visibility and insight into resource availability.  Which means you need to be able to see not just what projects a person is working on, but also factor in organizational initiatives, non-project work, overhead, vacation and leave.  When you are scheduling a task, you need to be able to quickly find the person or people you are looking for, understand if they are available, and easily assign them to that work.  

This not only allows you to assign people to tasks, manage their allocation, and minimize time on the bench, but it also allows you to have insight into your capacity.  That big project you've got coming up next quarter, do you have the available resources to take that work on?  By effectively managing your resources and gaining that valuable insight into resource availability, you'll be able to know.

3.  Effective Status Reporting - No one wants to take time from their busy schedule to sit around and discuss what they are working on, how much is left, and how it is going. They just don’t. Yet this is necessary data for the project manager.  If you have a way to have accurate data right at your fingertips, you can avoid the “endless status meetings” and everyone can focus more on actually doing work and less on meetings.

It is impossible to make effective decisions when you don't know what people are working on or how the projects are doing. Additionally, strategic projects must have priority for critical, scarce resources.

As Project Managers, we just want to know what's broken or about to be broken. We are problem solvers, and we cannot succeed with bad, late or incomplete information.  “What's wrong and what do I need to address?” is usually the first question on our minds at the start of every day.

You need to be able to have a “one pane of glass” view into all your projects and resources.  By having some sort of dashboard or some other visual status indicators you can easily and quickly see what you need to be concerned about.

You also need to be able to extract and analyze data.  The easiest way to do this is to have some sort of centralized reporting mechanism where each person can organize their data the way they want and produce the analytics they need in order to make effective, informed decisions.

What About Microsoft® Project Server™?
Many may ask, what about Microsoft® Project Server™?  It has time tracking, resource management, and reporting.  That's true.  And you might be able to accomplish all of this using Project Server™ or EPM™.  But let's go back to our GPS Navigation analogy for a moment.  There are many navigation systems that will plot a course for you and give you turn by turn directions.  When you come upon a closed road or traffic, you can re-route to your destination.  However, there are some navigation systems that will actually give you real-time traffic and road closures.  I've even traveled with someone in Europe that had one that pointed out speed traps.  Unfortunately, I haven't seen that feature in the Sates yet.  All of these things not only help you react to the unexpected, but also greatly increase your ability to avoid the problems all together.  Adding the above features, actual time and cost tracking, resource management, and real-time reporting in a way that enables you to factor in additional variables such as vacation, time off, small projects, service requests, non-project work, etc. can enable you to extend Project Server™, helping you avoid problems all together. 

Let me share a story of a company I was working with.  They were using Project Server™ to manage their projects.  They could see resource allocation, they could track their actual time, they could even entered their vacation.  At the same time, they had a lot of small projects that they called initiatives.  These were the 3 day 3 person projects.  They had service requests, and some other projects that were not part of their strategic project process.  All of these things resided in their Lawson® ERP system.  Of course they needed to track time to these as well, so they did that in Lawson.  They also needed to track vacation and holidays in Lawson® because this was the system of record for that information.  Tracking it in Project Server™ only gave them information as to when people would be out and unable to do their assigned tasks.  And of course, most of their employees worked on a combination of formal projects in Project Server™ and the organizational work and initiatives in Lawson®.  They had two time sheets!  Most people don't get excited about having to track their time to begin with, having to do  it twice is really asking too much.  And these two systems did not talk to each other.  There was no resource tracking in Lawson® and what was in Project Server™ was incomplete as it did not take into account what was in Lawson®.  Reports had to be pulled out of each system and them manually combined and the data massaged.  So in this company's case, Microsoft® Project Server™ worked well, and did everything it was supposed to do.  But it did not give them the full picture.  Neither did Lawson®.  Their solution was to have one system to enter their actual time, costs, and completion estimates for all their projects, both those in Project Server™ and those in Lawson and integrated to both systems.  This also gave them one place to view true resource availability.  If they went to assign someone to a task from Project Server™, they could see that they were fully allocated on a project from Lawson and therefore unavailable during that time.  Previously, they would be seen as “available”, get the assignment, and actually be over allocated.  The whining would then begin, and for good reason.

So the answer is yes, Project Server™ can address many of these issues, but you really need to take a hard look at it.  Make sure you're able to get a big picture view and able to see everything holistically.

So to bring it all back together, there are many reasons for tracking the activities of your knowledge workers – payroll processing, resource planning and allocation, billing and invoicing, project estimation, and more. Unfortunately, most off-the-shelf solutions only provide support for one of these functions, resulting in data re-keying and duplication, ad-hoc integration with existing systems and inconsistent support.  Microsoft® Project™ and Project Server™ are great tools for planning your projects, but it is very difficult to enter, track, and manage work time actuals, and get a true resource allocation view with any level of detail.  Things like configurability and adoption to your environment and culture, reporting, auditing and compliance, and workflow are also things that will come into plan and may or may not be adequately addressed using Project™ or Project Server™ by themselves.

Detailed scheduled and Gantt charts are pretty, but altogether useless if you don’t know some important facts, such as:
  • Who is available to do the work? Do they have the right skills?
  • Are these estimates and deadlines realistic?
  • Has the team member completed this task or is he still working on it?
  • Have we spent 30% of the budget and only completed 15% of the work?

Integrating Microsoft® Project™ and Project Server™ with some sort of solution that gives you actual time and cost tracking, completion estimates, resource management and detailed reporting provides you with this information. Don’t just look at a picture of how you want the project to be. Get a view of how it really is, so you can step in and fix things when necessary.  Don't just use a map, use navigation.
Extending Microsoft® Project™  by Bryan Peterson