In these interesting times, project managers are increasingly being asked to do a greater amount of work with fewer people and in a shorter amount of time.  Often, company initiatives and focus can change faster than the projects supporting them can be completed.  Therefore, it's becoming even more important that companies not only make greater efforts to complete projects on time, within budget, and to scope as planned, but also to constantly reevaluate the focus and ensure they are working on the projects that are most productive, most profitable and most in line with the company’s overall strategy and mission.  More and more, this work is requiring team members with a variety of evolving skills who are often geographically dispersed.  I'm seeing these challenges existing for information systems departments, research and development departments, and professional services providers, as well as departments that supply their own technical services, software providers, system integrators and more.

These challenges we face today are numerous.  How do you find and retain qualified and productive project team members?  How do you get the right team members aligned with the work that they are best qualified and available to do?  How do you measure status, performance, and health across projects, products, and clients?  How do you ensure that the data you are using to measure this is as accurate and up to date as possible? How do you, as a project manager, be as efficient and productive as possible and contribute to the overall performance of the business?  How do you ensure your team members are?  The old adage has always been true but especially in today’s climate, change is the only constant and there is always more work that the organization can do.

I've seen a number of studies from various analysts that show on average, companies have between 30% - 45% of their focus on the wrong projects.  So given these challenges, how does an company or business unit select the right projects to focus their limited, and often shrinking, resources on?  How are these projects going to be effectively organized and managed? How do you estimate and prioritize the work so that it again can be done as efficiently and productive as possible as well as contribute to the overall performance of the business?  With projects competing with one another and the pool of resources becoming more and more scarce, how are the workloads and availability of these highly demanded team members managed?

Many software applications have attempted to address these challenges.  However, software is only a part of the solution.  Applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and project portfolio management (PPM) have attempted to provide answers to the above questions, but with their high cost of ownership, lengthy implementation times, large resource demands to support and maintain, and low rollout and adoption percentages, these applications seem to have failed to enable organizations to become more efficient, malleable, and competitive.  That's not to say that organizations have not gotten value out of these solutions.  On the contrary, there have been many organizations that are infinitely better for having successfully implemented these software solutions and they work really well for them.  However, it seems like there is a higher percentage of  companies who fail in their implementation, or only get a certain part of it rolled out, or just don't see the value that they expected or hoped for. Organizations in today’s economy are not just looking for solutions; they are looking for results. Real, tangible, measurable, and valuable results.  Results are going to incorporate processes and people in addition to software and technology.  Addressing, managing, and integrating all three of these elements is the only way to effect lasting and transformative change.
PMO Managers, and even project managers, are having to balance a limited workforce against many variable projects and initiatives, most with changing priorities along the constraints of time, scope, budget, quality, and resources.  Some projects are time sensitive, so a missed milestone will invalidate all the work. Others have high security or high quality requirements.  At the same time, project managers are having to estimate schedules, costs, resources, and deliverables on a variety of projects based on incomplete information, leading to unrealistic and inaccurate project plans and misalignment of priorities.  As many of these projects and initiatives are key to the organization’s overall goals and strategy and critical to the competitive position, managers are held accountable for their project schedules, cost, and resource availability like never before.  This makes the  need for more accurate and up to date progress and status information even larger as this information becomes more critical in determining an organization’s direction and priorities.  Part of the answer is an integration of these critical business processes from end-to-end so that managers, stakeholders, and executives have the right information to make the right decisions.  Automation and data coordination are important tools in creating an effective, integrated solution.

Successful project management requires doing three things well: managing the schedule, managing resources, and communication.  The bulk of activities that most PMs do can be rolled up in to at least one of those areas.  In turn, this leads to not only tracking and managing the progress of your current projects, but also estimating your future projects more accurately.  All of this requires accurate information about time spent on tasks and projects, schedule updates, estimated time to complete, who is responsible for the work and how the work is done.  Its people that actually get projects done.  So, managing and getting the most effective and productive use out of your “Portfolio of Resources” is critical.  To get this information, people sometimes use a time tracking feature included in their other software, such as an ERP, PPM, payroll, or other application.  Later, they realize that there are many other reasons for tracking employee time and activities – payroll processing, resource planning and allocation, and billing or invoicing are just a few.  DCAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, or other regulatory requirements may dictate specific time tracking processes.  Unfortunately, that same project time tracking feature usually fails to meet these other critical business needs.  Unable to ignore the need for complete time tracking, companies often resort to data re-entry and ad hoc integration with other business systems.  It should be noted that some people tend to measure project progress by only updating percent complete.  This is not the same as measuring progress with actual work.  While I'll save the discussion as to why for another time, I wil say if you are only measuring progress by percent complete, you should consider tracking actuals.

All too often, what what we get when measuring project progress and status is inaccurate time data, inefficiency, and inconsistent results.  Many of us are in organizations that have a variety of projects and initiatives.  Some long term, capital projects require very detailed schedules and planning.  Others may require very light schedule and resource assignment.  Still others may not require a schedule at all.  Unfortunately, many systems are designed to address only one of these types of projects.  In an attempt to move projects out of their individual silos, evaluate the focus and ensure they are working on the projects that are most productive, most profitable and most in line with the company’s overall strategy and mission, companies find themselves asking: Is there a way to track project time and progress effectively, integrate all of our project data, have updated status and decision making information across all projects, and have a single system that works for the whole company?

To further streamline processes and improve efficiency, an effort reporting system must be integrated to existing business systems, specifically Project Management and Financial systems.  Integrating information from the time, accounting and resource management system to other systems in the organization will help achieve new levels of efficiency and productivity.  By tracking time with rates and expenses on all projects as well as non-project work, understanding complete direct costs and allocating indirect and semi-indirect costs, then integrating that data with Project Management, CRM or Accounting and gaining revenue and benefit data, you can obtain per-person, per-project profitability.  Integrating your project schedules, your people, and time, allows you to more effectively manage the schedule, manage resources, and facilitate communication.

So how do you do that?  In which direction should you go?  Well, there are a number of software solutions that addresses these areas to varying degrees, and some are not as expensive as you might think.  The thing to do is make sure you find the right solution for your specific organization that will produce the specific business results you are after.  Don't rely solely on the software.  Remember to integrate your processes and people into th equation.  You want to make sure a software solution will enhance and integrate into your existing processes.  You want to make sure it's going to empower your people and make their jobs more effective, productive, and ultimately easier.  For example, if you aren't collecting actual project work time, then implementing a process and technology to collect this is going to be a culture change.  Don't let that scare you, just be smart about it.  Understand that no one likes to track their time.   So if it's going to be done, it needs to be easy, intuitive, and not be a big intrusion on your team's day.  And there are software solutions that do just that.  This also brings up another key point.  Whatever solution you bring in is going to represent change.  It is important to understand how much change the organization and team can take and be mindful of that.  Some solutions will require you to take out what you're doing today and replace it with that solution.  That might not be bad thing.  Others will be less of a “rip and replace” solution; adding on to and enhancing what you're currently doing.  

Once you've identified the results and the scope of software  you're after, here are a few things to keep in mind while you're in your evaluation.  1) Make sure that you can see, beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt, that the software can do what you're expecting it to do.  In other words, don't fall for a deceptive demo.  Make the vendor prove it to you, using your data structure, to your environment, etc.  2) Web-based is better.  Not a client application that is web enabled or has web connectivity.  Rather, one that is accessible through a browser, with no plug-ins or browser limitations.  Even better is using an on-demand or Software-as-a-Service approach where the application is hosted for you.  This enables you to remove your internal IT from the equation and just pay for what you need.  3) Make sure you're not going to be dependent on any technology that could become obsolete.  This is not as common as it once was.  However, the organization could decide to standardize on a specific platform, database, or browser.  Will you still be able to use the software? 4)  Look for flexibility.  Perhaps your needs today are met, but are your potential future needs met?  Could the solution expand to other parts to the organization?  Can it potentially handle that?  5) Is it truly going to make the organization better?  Will this solution be able to be implemented and adopted and provide a way to track project time and progress effectively, integrate all of our project data, have updated status and decision making information across all projects, and have it work for the whole company?

Remember that in the end, there is no “one size fits all”.  Something that worked for one company may not be a good fit for another.  Only you will know whether you need a heavy or lightweight application;  what will and will not be adopted by the organization; how much cost in terms of money, people, effort, and time the organization is willing to spend in comparison to the potential return.  Ask yourself, does the software need to be perfect? Just good enough?  Somewhere in between?  The right intersection between technology, people, and process can give you greater results than you imagined.   Work with your people so that not only will the application provide lasting value, but that your people will have the solution integrated into their processes and really transform your company and effectively execute projects.
Project Software in Today's Economic Clilmate     by Bryan Peterson