Project Management

Ask the Experts: Enterprise Project Management tools with Jon Swain

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In this instalment of Ask the Experts I talk to Jon Swain, President of Virginia Beach-based firm Ten Six Consulting. Ten Six specialises in enterprise project management tool deployment, so I talked to Jon about what these products can do and how they can help project managers work more effectively.

Jon, when I think of enterprise project management tools, I think of scheduling. What else can they do?

There are many features that take EPM tools beyond just scheduling. At a high level, EPM tools offer a centralized repository with all of an organization's project information in one place.This is coupled with a role-based security structure that allows an individual access to only what their role needs. Because you can centrally control the environment, you can enforce process disciplines. For example, take baselines. Baseline discipline is sometimes difficult to achieve with standalone tools as the project can re-baselined at any time without a formal process to control that. In EPM tools, you can better control the schedule from being informally baselined.

With everything in one place, senior management can see up-to-date project performance data across the whole organization allowing them to better manage their project portfolios. They can proactively choose which projects to select, prioritize projects particularly with competing or scarce resources, understand the interactions between projects and tie all of these decisions directly back to the company's strategy and goals.

So portfolio management is a big chunk of it. How do they fit into the rest of the systems in use?

It's not uncommon for EPM tools to be integrated with other enterprise systems including HR and accounting. Two very simple examples of these include allowing the synchronizing of resources from an HR system and the collecting of actuals costs from an accounting system. A project manager can not only plan and profile their budget, but accurately track project spending by collecting actual costs from these systems. This gives you a complete picture of your project finances. This kind of integration and information sharing at the enterprise level are benefits that stand-alone implementations of project management tools can’t easily match.

In addition, collaboration is available with many of the EPM tools today emphasizing the importance of collaborating and communicating to improve productivity and drive project success. These capabilities can enable the better management and sharing of project artifacts.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the tool vendors embracing web-based technologies. Having all this functionality in a tool suite that is now 100% web-based, makes it far easier from an IT perspective to deploy and manage large numbers of users.

That sounds great, but expensive. How do they pay back?

Many organizations that are not using EPM tools often have no way of measuring organizational project performance with empirical data, resulting in subjective assessments that can be misleading.

By way of example, a successful deployment across a 'green field' IT organization of say, a thousand staff, can yield millions of dollars in savings. These savings can come from improved project selection, removal of duplicate effort, better utilization of resources on the right projects, improved project delivery and reduction of project risk, to name just a few. These are fantastic benefits that any company could and should enjoy.

Also, learning from past project performance increases the likelihood of better estimating on future work. Building on past project successes helps create best practice templates that can be reused time and again. It's a cycle that naturally drives continuous project management improvement over time.

The customers in which Ten Six have successfully implemented EPM tools are reaping huge benefits and often have an improved organizational culture with a motivated staff that is focused and all pulling in the same direction.

I imagine you can get a lot of reports out of these systems. How does good reporting help a project manager make their project more successful?

Reporting plays a big part in supporting the project manager. EPM tools provide real-time information on the status of their project, which is presented in the format and style that they need to make decisions. These reporting capabilities can be extended using third party reporting tools, allowing complete customization of report formats and the ability to include information from other systems.

Getting the right data out of these tools is no longer the only priority; great graphical presentation in specific formats for different roles including senior management has become just as important. Web-based dashboards also play a large role in supporting both project managers and senior management in their decision making process.

I'm convinced. Is the next step to pick a tool?

There are three elements that are often talked about when implementing EPM: first tools, second processes and third people. Most organizations that are implementing EPM tools for the first time focus on these three things in that order.

In our experience, they should reverse the order to get better results faster. In other words, implementing the tool is typically the least of your challenges. Cultural issues, change management and user adoption are the challenges that need to be overcome to ensure a successful EPM tool implementation. So, if the priority were people, process and then tools, more emphasis, money and effort would be spent dealing with these “soft” issues that can slow down or even stall an EPM implementation, ironically making the implementation more expensive!

Thanks, Jon!

Posted on: March 06, 2012 05:01 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Thanks for an interesting read, Elizabeth. I'd like to follow-up with a couple of questions of my own:

Quote: "With everything in one place, senior management can see up-to-date project performance data across the whole organization allowing them to better manage their project portfolios."

1) In my experience, senior management will expect the right level of information to be pre-packaged by the Project Manager in a neat little PowerPoint slide deck - they most certainly won't deal with a PPM tool that requires a new pair of login/password, navigating to find the right report or dashboard, etc. At the end of the day, when your options are to either replace your entire senior management with IT-savvy people, or have your PMs extract the raw data from the application and rework it all using Office tools to make it readable, what is the real value left in your Enterprise Project Management tool?

2) Project data doesn't update itself. You need to get your team members, who don't necessarily have project management training, to adopt both a process and a tool and input their progress info - ideally without having to constantly hold their hand throughout the process, or to have to wield a carrot and stick to get them to do it. In order to drive adoption, how do you make it easy for them?

Hi Julien,

Very good questions driven, I suspect, by insightful real world experience. I''ve attempted to clarify our experiences below.

1. I agree that in some organizations, getting senior management to clearly understand and actively participate in the project portfolio management process is a challenge. You do mention, dashboards and other senior management reports that can help (some not requiring any logon). This really emphasizes my point about the priority of the implementation process. That is, People, Process and then Tools and not the reverse that is so commonly attempted.

With people, I am including all levels of the organization. Before senior management sign off on a major enterprise implementation, they should know in advance what their involvement needs to be, both pre and post implementation. We would typically hold executive workshops and highly targeted training to build awareness and to help clarify their role and the expectations of that role.

2. You are absolutely correct that we need team members, who are an integral part of the process, to have the necessary skills to use these tools as well as the desire and motivation to do so. Again, this highlights the most common area that is underestimated…People! To improve user adoption, you need more than one generic training class typically showing all the features of the tool. In addition to educating the team in the basics of project management, you need a combination of role based training integrating both tool and process, structured mentoring and coaching all paced at the level of change expected. This needs to be augmented with a strong communication plan that again involves senior management.

As a closing thought, some of the tool suites now recognize these challenges and are introducing even simpler, web based modules aimed specifically at team members.

Good conversation.

I have also seen that tools are moving towards a user-friendly 'novice' interface. I saw one today that had a full impact analysis component but if you only wanted to see the summary you could do that via a really easy web form. Tools will succeed or die on the user interface, I think, so making it at once easy and also comprehensive is going to be the way they have to go. I have also seen personalisation make a big impact on software - all types, not just project management software. People know that they can personalise their interactions with web software, so they expect to be able to do that in work tools as well. In this way the exec gets the dashboard view, the project manager gets the 'everything' view and the team member gets the simple 'insert your progress here' view.

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