Make Interoperability Part of Your Project
With CRM being this month’s focus area, making all your systems interact with each other is a key part of being able to get the data you need to feed your CRM system. Your project, therefore, if it has anything to do with IT, systems or data, probably needs some kind of interoperability approach in order to make it possible to pull relevant bits of information out when they are needed.
Think about it for a moment. If you design and build something that is completely standalone that’s good for a short while. But when you need to create a single view of the truth – a single customer record or report showing various data points – you will have to merge data from that system with data held in other systems. Which one is the master data? Even something simple like a customer informing you of a change of address becomes a problem if the systems aren’t linked.
What is interoperability?
Interoperability is that link between systems. This includes things like programming languages. When you are designing a product, think about the environment in which it will operate, who needs to use it and how it will link to, provide data for or send data to other systems. It’s often easier to think about information or data flow rather than the systems themselves, as these can be mapped on afterwards.
Using common standards and programming languages for system builds can save money and make it easier to find technical team members to work on your projects. Using open source tools, for example, is one way to build interoperability into your systems, but of course this will only work if your other systems use the same protocols.
Why is it important to your project?
No project is really standalone. Including interoperability in your design specifications as a non-functional requirement builds in future proofing. It also simplifies making links with other projects and systems which is especially important if your project is being carried out as part of a programme.
How do you get it?
You can’t design in interoperability yourself, although it doesn’t hurt to know that you need it! Involve your firm’s technical architect or, if you are using commercial off the shelf packages, talk to the supplier. A business analyst can help map processes and explain how the business users will actually use the system, so they can be really helpful when it comes to showing where the data comes from and how individual records are used and updated.
The best advice is to look at the big picture from the start of the project. Consider how things connect and consider what might be asked of the system or the project in the future. Of course, you can’t always predict how your new IT package will be used, but you can have a good guess. And you may find that users are already suggesting technical and functional changes that you are having to put into a bucket called ‘Phase 2’ for assessment and analysis later. These features may give you a good idea about the sort of things users will be asking for in the future so you can build in (or at least not shut any doors) for them.
Interoperability is probably already in your company’s technical strategy, so that’s a good place to start if you are building up your project requirements or including constraints in your project initiation document.
It isn’t the most glamorous of project requirements, but if you want your product – be that CRM or something else – to be useful and to be used, then it is worth considering from the outset.
Microsoft Project 2013 gives you a number of ways for handling resource costs including standard rate, overtime rate, cost per use and another field to let you accrue resources at a cost. Let’s take a look at these and see when you might want to use them.
If you use resource costs in Microsoft Project at all, this is the cost field that you will find the most useful. It’s, as you would expect, the normal pay rate for someone or something over a time period. For people, Project will default to a per hourly rate but you can use a different unit of time if you want – just change the setting. Or you can work out their hourly rate based on their monthly or weekly rate and enter that if you want to keep everyone standard by calculating hourly rates for all your resources.
Non-people resources are not calculated on an hourly rate. Instead, they are worked out by price per unit. You’ll have to work out what units you want to use. Use the Material Label field to record what unit you have set. For example, if you are hiring a software testing lab at $1500 per day, you can use the Material Label field to record ‘daily lab fees’. Then Project does the calculation for you – quantity multiplied by standard rate.
Cost per use
Only use this if you have certain resources where you only pay each time you use the resource, and it’s a flat fee. An example would be a call out fee for a plumber for your new office conversion. Each time you call on the plumber, Project will calculate the hourly rate plus the call out fee. You can also use this for delivery charges.
Another field that does exactly what it says, but it doesn’t apply to non-people resources. Leave it blank unless you pay your team members overtime for hours worked above and beyond their contracted hours. If you do want to use the overtime function, you’ll have to assign overtime hours to the resource, otherwise Project will assume they are either salaried and don’t get any extra payments or that they earn the same amount regardless of how many hours they work.
Of course, you don’t have to use Project to calculate overtime payments for your team, and it can get quite complicated to keep on top of what’s an overtime hour assignment and what’s normal working time. But if you are expecting Project to calculate your total project budget for you, you’ll need to make time to record all this data otherwise your expense figures will be out.
This field is only useful if you are bothered about when the money is spent. On many projects, this won’t make any difference at all, as your project sponsor will only be interested in the overall budget and estimate to complete. But there might be times when you need to know if you’re paying out the money in advance or after the job is done.
You’ve got three choices here:
They are pretty self-explanatory. ‘Start’ means the cost goes at the start of the task, so you’ve paid upfront. ‘Pro-rated’ means it is spread out across the duration of the task. And ‘End’ means you pay when the work is completed.
It’s fine to record this level of detail in your project plan for expense tracking purposes, but you’ll need to know how to read the reports to interpret it! That’s beyond the scope of this article. But hopefully this has given you a flavour of how to use the different resource cost settings in Microsoft Project and you can choose which ones (if any) are useful to you on your project.
In this book, Bonnie Biafore aims to share the basics of project management and how to achieve what you want to do in Microsoft Project 2013. That’s quite an ask for one book. Part 1 is a primer on project management and I was surprised that there was so much about this including project selection. It’s written as if it is aimed at a complete beginner – at least, the early bits are; the book gets technical pretty quickly – and there are nice boxes called ‘reality check’ scattered throughout. They tell it how it really is, like this one (which you probably can’t read) titled ‘When Stakeholders Aren’t Supportive’.
Chartering the project
As part of the ‘how to do project management’ stuff, Biafore describes a project charter as a press release. This appeals to me as someone who writes press releases and I'd not thought about it like this before. She writes:
The project manager needs some publicity, too. Your authority comes from your project and its sponsor, not your position in the organisation, so people need to know how far your authority goes. The project charter is like a project's press release – it announces the project itself, as well as your responsibilities and authority as its manager.
There’s lots of practical advice like this, including the handy tip of not getting the most senior manager to send out the charter unless they actually know something about the project. You need authority, but you also need credibility, so choose someone who can give that to you, not any old senior manager in a suit.
"Like the pop-fly ball that drops to the ground as the third baseman and shortstop stare at each other, project work can fall between the cracks," she writes, whatever that means.
Getting technical: MS Project 2013
It's not until Part 2 that the book starts talking about MS Project. The biggest news since the product’s last release is that Project is now part of the Office 365 suite and there are easier to digest reports (which frankly wouldn’t be hard). In fact, there's a lot on reports which leads me to believe that getting them to look how you want could be tricky.
The book only covers the Standard and Professional editions, not Project Server. Some of the 365 suite features are covered but that software is evolving and the book is likely to get out of date quickly (and Biafore acknowledges that).
There are usability tips like collapsing the ribbon so you can see more of your plan on the screen and keyboard shortcuts. Biafore uses an example to create a basic project and then goes on to use another example to create a 'proper' schedule in a lot more detail.
She also includes tips on using other Microsoft products alongside Project, such as how to create a RACI matrix in Excel and importing resource names from your Outlook contacts.
The book is full of tips like how to create a resource and assign it to tasks at the same time, which are all aimed at getting you operational faster. I like the idea of downloadable worksheets for things like capital budget planning from the book's website and also links to MS templates online, which this book provides. They make the book more useful (and give it a longer shelf life) and the added resources will help you get your project on track more quickly. Having said that, I haven't downloaded any to try them out.
Check your schedule
There’s a lot about how calendars control resource and task scheduling with plenty of detail and screenshots about how to set up the correct variations of working time for your project.
As well as detailed walkthroughs and how to information, there is also practical advice for making the best possible schedule. For example, Biafore says you should be on the look out for these 8 things as you refine your schedule:
You can do some really advanced stuff, like setting work contours within an individual task to reflect how work is actually done – after all, resources don't work at the same pace for the entire duration of a task, especially if it lasts over several days. You could get really whizzy with your resource management using the advice in this book, but many of the features described will be far too much detail for the average project. While it's good to know what Project can do, it would be useful to have some sort of signpost in the book to say 'you can do without this feature if your project environment is not that mature or is relatively straightforward’. This would help new project managers work out which features they should use (like dependencies and baselines) and which ones they can leave and learn about another day (like creating an Excel form to display task information from Project and use it to get task updates from team members).
At over 800 pages the book covers a lot of ground. Much of that is screenshots, which are good and helpful. What surprised me was the breadth of the book, which covers everything from ‘what is a project’ to crunching some serious project calculations using data cubes. I don’t think you could read this knowing nothing about project management and turn into an expert by page 800, but if you need a detailed knowledge of MS Project 2013 then you certainly will get it from this informative and practical book.
In this video I recap the discussion at the APM Round Table debate on project management in the collaborative age, specifically the ideas we had about the future of project management software. If you would rather read, here is the transcript:
My name is Elizabeth Harrin and I’m from The Gantthead Blog, The Money Files. I’ve spent the morning with a group of people discussing collaboration tools and the future of project management technology which was a really interesting discussion and there were few points that came out that I thought I wanted to share with you.
Good collaboration tools can basically save project managers money because they can increase efficiency and they can reduce the need to travel to meetings. So there’s a lot to be said for making sure that you are up to date with the best technology that you can possibly have and that you know how to use it effectively. And those were some of the things that came out of the discussion today.
We had a representative there from the software provider Projectplace called Fredrik and he raised the issue around the future of technology in this particular type of project management tool being collaborative planning. So the way the tools are moving, it looks as if people are putting out functionality that allows project managers and their teams and their other project customers and stakeholders to collaborate effectively on the plan and make sure that is kept up to date at any one time which gives your customers more engagement in the schedule which has to be a good thing.
He also talked about mobility and the fact that project managers now are expected to travel to work and that technology needs to evolve more so than it already has to do with being able to be used on mobile phones, on iPads, tablets, touchscreen PCs and things like that.
We had a project manager there who was called Anne and she talked about the vision that she had for the future around interconnectivity between tools. She raised the point that project managers often have several different tools that they have to update especially if they’re working with social media tools both in their personal lives and in their professional lives. It ends up with a number of different logins. Interconnectivity allows software and products to talk to each other. So hopefully, tools in the future will become a lot more open in the way that they share information between each other so that we can start seeing portal style tools which consolidate feeds of information from various different places and again that should help us be more efficient.
There was a project manager there from Transport for London and he was talking about the challenges of being in a construction environment and not being able to access the information that you want to be able to run your project while you’re on a building site or in his case, potentially underground. And he said that real-time communications in construction is a really big challenge and the introduction of 4G next year will be a step in the right direction and as long as the software that project managers are using can tap into that. It helps network capability, the requirement on the bandwidth is lower then information can move backwards and forwards in real time and that’s a good thing as well.
We talked about the perceived barrier to entry for a lot of project management software products and potentially stakeholders see it as: “Oh that’s project management tool. That’s very complicated to use,” and really that isn’t the case. So we’ve got to find a way to get over this perceived barrier to entry and the fact that people don’t want to use the project management software because it seems too difficult. So maybe there’s something there in the future that software vendors can do to make it seem easier to use or to make software more intuitive so it can be used by a greater number of people.
That creates another problem which is getting the information to the right people at the right time and you want one product that serves all of your needs and as a professional project manager, you would want that to be a tool that will do scheduling, risk management, budget handling potentially, time sheets, all kinds of different bits of information that you require to manage the project effectively.
If you are a stakeholder or if you’re the project sponsor, you want to see a dashboard potentially of the major risks: ‘Are we on track; are we not on track’ for the budget and what are we doing with the scheduling: ‘Are our main tasks on time?’ which is very high level, dashboard information which is not useful for a project manager at that level.
Then you’ll have project team members who perhaps doesn’t understand a lot about the project methodology but know that they have to do certain tasks at certain times and so they will want to see the information related to them in a different way. So tools have got to be able to allow different stakeholder groups to carry out all of these different functions.
We also talked a little bit about biometrics because currently, tools require you to log in and they trust that you are who you say you are and this is particularly an issue with social media where you can create a profile on Facebook or Twitter and pretend to be whoever you want. Biometrics, which is if you log in with an eye scan or with a fingerprint, will then enable technology to determine that you are who you say you are. That sounded like an interesting way forward for software as well so that you would automatically be able to log in to different sets of tools with fingerprints or eye scanning. Apparently, that technology is already out there. It’s used on some corporate laptops, used on some tablet PCs and obviously it is used in the security industry. So it’s there. It’s just not being adequately used within the project management software arena.
So we’ve spent the morning really looking at collaboration and how technology can help us engage with our project customers more effectively. As a result of that, we thought about ways where the technology can evolve in the future and how that would help us be more effective to save more money, be more collaborative and get better engagement from the people that we are working with.
So I think a lot of ideas that came out of that and hopefully the software vendors who were there will look at ways of educating the project managers and their PMOs in those particular bits of functionality and perhaps develop some of that functionality that we’re looking for.
Can software really help save money on projects? Genius Inside's blog claims that it can improve productivity by a quarter. That's an impressive claim, and I wanted to hear if that was really the case. I spoke to Neil Stolovitsy, Senior Solution Specialist, at the company.
Neil, you say on your blog that project management software can improve lost productivity by 25%. How is that?
We arrived at this percentage from various conversations internally as well as feedback from our clients. We also have an ROI calculator which helps us demonstrate the value of project management software to prospects and clients.
The Golden Gate Bridge project that you talk about was brought in under budget and on time. Would software really have improved the outcome that much?
It is important to look at the project within its historical context where no automation of any kind was used. I believe the ability to automate many of the project management (PM) processes employed and the significant increased visibility provided by today's PM software reporting tools would have positively impacted the bottom line and improved the efficiency of the work achieved. So although the project was on time and under budget by the acceptable standards of the year 1916, its success was measured based on the available tools of the time. However, the participants could have achieved even greater success using 21st technology.
How do you feel project management software like Genius can help us save costs on projects?
Most project cost losses result from the inefficient use of time and lack of visibility of project progress and potentially disruptive issues. Genius Project provides a single view that can be accessed anywhere allowing the efficient capture of project details, the elimination of manual processes, and 360 degree visibility into project progress and potential bottlenecks. The Genius Project solution therefore ensures lean project management processes are in place at the start of a project, helps eliminate wasteful activities and allows for project leaders to quickly respond to potential problems that may lead to increased costs in projects.
What are your top tips for cutting costs on projects without compromising quality?
There are several best practices I’d recommend but the most important is to have a solid project governance and business process strategy in place at the outset. Project governance will ensure that project teams follow a proven path to success and will increase the productivity of team members on their assignments while maintaining the quality of the work. Project governance also allows for the development of repeatable processes that will save time and money for future projects. You also want to have a solid business process strategy that has been approved and vetted by all stakeholders at every point within the life cycle of the project. This ensures no stone that can impact the project timeline, budget and ultimate success and quality of the project is left unturned.
More about my interviewee:
Neil Stolovitsky has 10 years of IT experience with end-user, consulting, and vendor organizations, along with extensive expertise in business development, software selection, and channel strategies. Neil is a Senior Solution Specialist with Genius Inside and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org