A Project Management Primer

To project managers, the words project management conjure up visions of data entry, Gantt charts and long hours spent trying to guess how much money they will need to beg from management to accomplish the job. Add to this mix the notorious reputation IT projects have for running behind schedule and over budget, and it is enough to overwhelm any project manager. Project management tools can be a tremendous help, but only if they are selected and applied properly. Tools should fit the firm’s business practices, be easy to use and be able to track the details that are important to your organization.

Before purchasing such a tool, an organization must iron out the bugs in its project management policies, practices and procedures to make sure they are sound. Simply automating project management practices will only make things worse. This means examining how projects are currently run, revising practices so that they are more effective and efficient, and training project managers and staff on the new approach.

Barry Calogero is executive vice president at Robbins-Gioia Inc., a project management consultancy in Alexandria, Va. Few companies are proficient at project management, he said, and most fail to follow any kind of best-practice approach. According to Calogero, the majority of organizations do not spend enough time doing the following:

  1. Defining requirements. Requirements form the foundation on which to successfully build new technology. While most organizations do not seem to have enough time to invest in doing it right, they seem to have the time to do projects over and over again when the original great new idea fails.
  2. Managing change. After requirements definition, this is easily the second biggest reason that IT projects fail. In an age when technology is evolving so rapidly, changes to solutions are inevitable. Many organizations lack a flexible, responsive and comprehensive process for assessing cost, schedule, technical, functional and programmatic impacts of change, which leads to missed commitments and a failure to deliver.
  3. Obtaining executive-level buy-in.
    If leadership does not demonstrate support, then projects fail. It is important that a “focus” exist and that it is consistent with the delivery of projects. Many companies do not stay focused long enough to get the value out of their investment initiatives.
  4. Setting project timelines based on realistic goals and priorities. Most organizations are date-driven, rather than event-driven. While it is important to shorten the time to value in the current e-business world, focusing solely on dates without a plan to get to that date will result in an inefficient development environment and compromises in quality or functionality.

    Using a date as a target and then building a plan to get to that date is a talent few organizations demonstrate.

  5. Solving project management problems with a technology silver bullet or training. It is amazing that any company will invest years to build products, services and culture, yet assume that a piece of software or a two-day training course will be a solution to a major problem. It takes commitment and a holistic approach to change existing organizations and to improve products, services or culture. Any ERP or CRM project that does not have business process integration, education and implementation plans is doomed to fail.

According to Calogero, there are also five things that many firms do not do at all, which ultimately leads to failure. These are:

  1. Establish or define baselines.
  2. Have a defined project control function. Management usually takes a group of IT people and simply adds the “task” of project management to their workload.
  3. Offer formal training. Many companies use the “sink or swim” approach when assigning managers.
  4. Take the time to define repeatable processes (risk management, cost, schedule management). Not defining processes can retard the communication process.
  5. Correctly estimate how difficult or complex a program is. Organizations wind up not putting enough people on the project, and do not allot enough time and resources.

Many readers will see their own companies in these two lists. In fact, nearly every organization has significant project management problems. So why do companies keep making the same mistakes? Calogero said part of the problem is turnover: People who have this knowledge move on and take that knowledge with them. Also, most organizations do not encourage an environment in which mistakes are discussed and understood so that they are not repeated. Without feedback, organizational learning suffers and people tend to bury mistakes. This inevitably hurts the future productivity of the organization.

Choosing your PM tool
Just like any other software tool, project management tools must fit the problem, said Calogero. For example, if the project is simple, then Microsoft Corp.’s Microsoft Project might suffice. If multiple IT projects need to be managed, then TeamPlay from Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based Primavera Systems might be more suitable. If it is a large, enterprise requirement, then Artemis Views from Boulder, Colo.-based Artemis Management Systems might be what is needed.

The important thing to remember is this: The more complex the environment, the more significant the tool required. Also keep in mind that greater complexity in a project management tool requires more experienced project control. It is a major risk to assume that the tools and processes required to support more complex projects will be the same as those used for a simple project.

There are many potential benefits to using project management tools. They can bring a sense of discipline to the project process by helping managers to track details, and see potential time and budget problems as they evolve. Project management tools can also be used to share information among team members, keeping everyone up to date on what is happening and allowing individuals to track their progress against project goals and objectives. And by providing facilities for quickly entering and viewing project information, project management tools can save managers time in calculating completion dates and budget variances.

Project management tools also let managers see how hours are utilized over workdays, which can be a critical cost-saving device. Many project managers do not know the difference between working hours and elapsed time on projects — in short, they estimate without adding in down time.

Project management tools also let firms enforce the use of standards, review procedures, recommended techniques and documentation. This makes it easier for a company to define objectives in terms of the quality desired, to define quality in terms of deliverables, to establish success criteria, and to develop and manage accurate cost and schedule estimates. By integrating project management tools with other software, organizations can also establish a method for collecting software productivity data. To be effective, however, collection methods must be simple and require relatively little staff effort.

Praxair Technology Inc. is a global Fortune 500 company that produces or supplies atmospheric, process and specialty gases, as well as surface technologies. Until recently, the firm used disparate systems to manage its projects around the world. Each region had its own systems and processes, but these were seldom integrated to provide consistent information, according to Jerry Becker, project leader at the firm’s Tonawanda, N.Y., offices. Generating reports for higher management meant an exhaustive process of gathering and consolidating data, which resulted in incomplete and out-of-date information. Visibility of project performance was poor, and it was difficult to manage projects effectively. The firm decided that it needed a complete solution that would provide Praxair’s management with timely, accurate information that would properly analyze project performance.

Becker said Praxair chose to integrate the Artemis Views suite of project management tools (ProjectView, CostView, TrackView and GlobalView) with JDE OneWorld (finance and transaction application), from Denver-based J.D. Edwards & Co. This approach enables a single point of entry, said Becker, which results in more consistent and accurate information.

The core of the solution is ProjectView, which is used for portfolio management, project planning and global resource management. CostView assists in cost and cash flow management, as well as earned value computation for project performance measurement. The product’s ability to handle multiple rates and currency is a plus, as most Praxair projects require resources from different parts of the world. Engineering hours for projects are submitted using TrackView, and then integrated with JDE OneWorld for billing purposes. With GlobalView, Praxair project teams can consolidate data from around the globe and drill-down to access project information. This lets team members make more effective business decisions. Online briefing books can be created to provide consistent and timely reporting and analysis.

Praxair expects to reap productivity gains with the new software, as redundant data entry is no longer required, said Becker. Team members can now focus on planning and managing projects, rather than on data collection for reporting purposes.

If you are going to formally implement a project management tool throughout your organization, it is worthwhile to measure the return on investment from the implementation. Some basic measurement criteria for project management software include: improvement in estimating accuracy; improvement in information sharing and status reporting; ease of use and required training time to proficiency for software users; budget control improvement; percent of projects completed on time and within budget; and overall productivity of product managers.

However, implementing a project management tool can cause significant cultural changes. Developers may feel constrained by the additional structure placed on the project process through the use of the tool. Users may feel that project managers spend too much time “playing” with the software and not enough time communicating. The key to avoiding these problems is careful management of organizational change associated with the implementation of any new software and/or project structure.

The future of project management tools
Project management tools have evolved from simple spreadsheet products to sophisticated, Web-based project information portals in a very short period of time. The obvious trend in project management software, as with almost everything in information technology, is a move toward Web-based systems. Most project management tools can be accessed via browsers, and those that do not currently have this capability are moving in that direction. One product that allows users to take non-Web-based project management tools and to then bring the data to a Web browser is mesaVista from Mesa Systems Guild, Warwick, R.I. The product acts as a portal development tool that allows firms to view information from products such as Microsoft Project over the Web (for example, an organization’s intranet). These project management portals are becoming more common as the collaboration capabilities of project management tools improve.

Another trend is the move toward hosted project management applications. For example, users can outsource project management to product/service offerings such as from Inc., Morristown, N.J., or WorkLenz from Métier Ltd., Washington, D.C. is an Internet workspace that allows users to share and manage information associated with projects and their related tasks. WorkLenz is a software application that serves as a virtual project manager with intelligent agent features. Offered via the ASP model, WorkLenz manages a customer’s projects and provides real-time alerts of issues, inefficiencies and problems, and even recommends solutions.

All of the cautions and potential problems that apply to any hosted application also apply to project management tools. Major problems could occur if a product manager could not use the software for a period of time because of Internet link problems. In addition, there are certainly security considerations with any hosted application.

Project management tools continue to evolve in terms of capabilities and user interface. The general direction is toward more integrated process and knowledge management systems, and user interfaces with a “Webby” look. Project management tools are gradually becoming integrated project information repositories and portals, with capabilities far beyond simple project tracking and reporting.

As the sophistication of these products continues to grow, however, so too does their complexity. It is important for project management software vendors to keep things simple and easy to use. Project management tools should not become the focus of a project manager’s life or add time to project activities. If project managers have to spend too much time learning a product’s features, their ability to actively manage the project process diminishes — totally defeating the purpose of the tool. 1

Representative project management tools
Vendor Web address Product

ABT Corp.
New York, N.Y. ABT Workbench 5
Artemis Management Systems  

Continuus Software Corp
Irvine, Calif. Continuus
for Microsoft Project

Métier Ltd.
Washington, D.C. WorkLenz

Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash. Microsoft Project Inc
Morristown, N.J.

Pacific Edge Software Inc
Kirkland, Wash. Project Office

PlanView Inc
Austin, Texas PlanView

Primavera Systems Inc.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Concentric Suite
and TeamPlay

Montreal, Quebec PMOffice

Tufan Inc
Mountain View, Calif. Aspirian
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