Step One: Get the Job(s) Done

By Joshua Weinberger Print this article Print

In a recent Meta Group survey, 77% of respondents called a lack of project-management skills "a major technology problem." But can a single piece of software compensate for a lack of skills?

Projects are complicated creatures. From software development to building construction to nuclear maintenance, each initiative has specialized needs, and tackling them all calls for the continual juggling of finite resources—both human and mechanical. Each project's leader has to know what's available, decide what's needed, deploy what's required, balance what's uneven, and pay for it all in the process. But imagine adding other jugglers to that high-wire act—30 or 40 other project leaders—some of whom are grabbing for the same bowling pins, chain saws and flaming torches. Keeping every element in its place is quite a task.

But process, not surprisingly, depends on priorities, and an accurate sense of assets available. "Having approved a strategic plan, we had to make sure we had tactical management of our resources," says Steve Lynott, head of AIB Banks' Investment Value Management office. "We had people using everything from paper planning to Microsoft Project, but we didn't have an enterprisewide project-management system." (Now they do.)

For Bob Wiederhoeft, principal business analyst at medical-benefits administrator Wausau Benefits, the need for companywide management is really very simple: "The more projects you have and the deeper you view [them], the better you can plan the use of resources across the company. You [can see] the collective whole of all your projects, so you know where resource bottlenecks occur." Dave Houghton, project office manager at regional banking chain Banknorth, agrees. The point, he says, is "to look at data so that we can deploy the right resource to the right project at the right time to produce the highest return."

"Before, we had several pieces of software—and they were a bit marginal at best," says Thomas Ricketts, manager of Southern Company's engineering technology projects. "Now we have an enterprise system, which changes the landscape for us and our ability to be agile."

"Anything that helps automate the consolidation of work plans is great," says Chris Curran, of management-consulting firm DiamondCluster, even though none of today's software was originally designed for this expanded purpose. Some vendors, such as Artemis and market leader Primavera, expanded from strengths in the construction and engineering fields; others, including Lawson and Niku, acquired work-management tools to create larger packages with greater functionality. As it turns out, the provenance of the software almost doesn't matter. "If you think you're just going to buy a technology like this—well, that's where the mistake lies," says Eric Austvold, research director at AMR Research. "From a tactical point of view, we're interested in having successful projects," says Bechtel project manager Bruce Hubal. "You have to modify the tools to support that project—and at the same time you have to look at it from a companywide point of view.

"Primavera does it, Artemis does it, Microsoft Project does it," Hubal says. "They're all programs that develop a schedule and apply resources. But they definitely don't fix our problems—that takes human actions." At Bechtel, where individual projects are often the size of small companies, "we developed a lot of our own software and tools," Hubal says. Now that "those capabilities are available commercially, there's been a marked movement to take advantage of [them]."

Widespread as its use is, for most companies engaging in multiple projects Microsoft Project isn't enough. As Jon Swain of consultancy Pinnacle Management Systems says, "Desktop tools can't deliver organizationwide functionality." Pinnacle helped Guardian Life Insurance "save $4 million in the first year by replacing desktop tools with an enterprise system." Jerry McDowell, project control manager at engineering firm Lockwood Greene, likes Project's ease of use, but tries not to use it "for projects that are multidisciplined." He also recommends leaving Project behind for any plan with more than 400 tasks.

Project "has pretty much been the default for project schedules, but it's not a project-management tool," says BancTec Programme Director Paul Evans. "Too many project managers are slaves to the tool. I've seen PMs at other firms who spend all their time updating charts, and not enough time actually managing."

But AIB's Lynott says the transition from Microsoft Project had its upside. Managers "happy to use Microsoft Project in the past saw that the interaction was the same—with the added benefit that all the same information was in a central database at the end of the day."

That kind of visibility produces immediate results. "Once somebody knows that overview capability is there, the accuracy level increases," Lynott says. Detailed reporting—and, subsequently, detailed analysis—becomes possible.

Still, most say the software is little more than an instrument. "That's part of the problem with some of the software providers: They think the tools are the project," says BancTec's Evans.

But organizations still have to survive implementation. "We thought we'd get crushed under that load of change," says Rick Bailey, head of the enterprise program management office for the state of Connecticut. To mitigate the risk, the state "spent a full year developing a project-management methodology," says Bailey. "We didn't want to just roll out the tool without a methodology there—we wanted to know how the tool would be utilized on an enterprise level." And there's more than the purely technical. As Ed McLaughlin, I.T. project office manager at Wilmington Trust, says, "Any company pursuing [an enterprisewide system] needs to consider their culture."

Getting it right the first time is critical. "Once you've implemented something like this across an organization, coming back to fix it later is a major headache," says AIB's Lynott. And committing to any tool on this scale requires buying in for the long term. "Once you have your people trained in a program, it's to your advantage to keep them using that program," says Bechtel's Hubal.

"It's the process procedures around the tool that make or break its success," says Banknorth's Houghton. That would explain why first-time jugglers are advised to hold off on the chain saws.

This article was originally published on 2003-08-01
Assistant Editor
After being on staff at The New Yorker for five years, Josh later traveled the world, hitting all seven continents in a single year. At Yale University, he majored in American Studies, English, and Theatre Studies.

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