Methods of Execution

Agencies that need the latest project managment tools to improve performance and comply with Office of Management and Budget guidance may be in need of new or upgraded software. When preparing a request for proposals for a new project management platform, experts say you should:

  • Make sure the software not only supports OMB Exhibits 53 and 300 but easily generates the reports. Try the functionality yourself to ensure the automation helps, not hinders.

  • Examine the program's support for earned-value management requirements. Compare several tools to see which will make it easiest for you to comply with OMB guidance.

  • Look for software that can incorporate new mandates without major modifications, for example, through a free download from the vendor's site

  • Investigate the depth and breadth of integration with your current portfolio suite. Isolated project tools are of little use in today's governance-driven climate.

  • Demand integration with your enterprise resource planning or other accounting system. Otherwise you can't guarantee the accuracy of project costs.

  • Prefer vendors who support industry standard databases, have open development standards and fit with your enterprise architecture.

  • Examine a product's portfolio/program/project hierarchy for adequate mapping of projects to applications and business goals.

  • Ask for a demonstration of collaboration features, such as Web browser access or project portals. If they're easy to set up and use, more people will participate in project and portfolio planning, an inherently collaborative process.
  • Avoid software that lacks full support for methodologies such as the Program Management Body of Knowledge, which helps legitimize project management as a discipline and underpins the training of formally certified project managers.

  • Test for scalability. Desktop-bound and small workgroup software, as well as some online tools, can bog down when accessed by more than a handful of users.

Without good project tools, IT governance and portfolio analysis are just fancy words

Now that government agencies are getting a handle on aligning IT portfolios with business goals, here comes the hard part: execution. Turning high-level plans and budgets into reality on the ground, then monitoring that progress, is the job of project managers.

Thus the renewed interest in arcane methods of delivering a project (roughly defined as an activity of finite duration carried out for a particular purpose) on time and under budget. After several years of focusing on products that paint the big picture, namely portfolio management software, the spotlight now returns to project management tools.

The mandate that has federal agencies struggling to bring IT investments into alignment with business goals is called Capital Planning and Investment Control, an outgrowth of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act.

Project resources

CPIC outlines three major phases: selection (essentially the portfolio management and business case piece), monitoring and control (project management), and evaluation (portfolio management again, this time functioning as a feedback loop).

Today's project/portfolio management suites meld these steps into a seamless whole. The best also integrate government-specific support.

For example, the Office of Management and Budget requires capital requests (and not just the IT ones) to be submitted in Exhibits 53 and 300.

All the major project and portfolio vendors'Artemis International Solutions Corp., Computer Associates International Inc., Metier Ltd., Microsoft Corp., PlanView Inc., Primavera Systems Inc., ProSight Inc. and Welcom Corp.'have enhanced their software with direct support for CPIC and OMB 53 and 300 filing requirements. This makes it easy for agencies to generate the documents from data within their project management systems.

But this year, the hot federal trend is earned-value management and analysis, a financial measure of actual work completed. And vendors have been fast to introduce the principles of EVM into their suites.

'Earned value is all about understanding how much progress you've made relative to the plan,' said Joel Koppelman, founder and chief executive officer of project portfolio software vendor Primavera Systems Inc. and co-author of a book on EVM. 'Within a given project, the earned-value analysis helps you identify corrective actions with a view to getting the project back on track.'

Until this year, EVM had seen spotty adoption in government except for the Defense Department, which has long employed an international EVM standard, ANSI/EAI 748. But in August, Karen Evans, OMB's administrator of e-government and IT, directed agencies to adopt EVM systems. 'They've been given a Dec. 30, 2005, deadline to establish a policy,' said Jose Mora, director of product marketing at Computer Associates' Niku division, a project portfolio software maker.

Project resources

But EVM isn't the only trend in project management. Users want more integrated visibility into key components of ongoing projects'namely people and processes.

In addition to old-fashioned (but greatly enhanced) project management programs and scheduling tools, a key piece of the execution puzzle is resource management. Most major vendors provide significant resource modules for their suites, and some even offer them as standalone programs. Resource tools sit at the intersection of projects and portfolios.

All projects require resources'typically, people'often drawn from other projects and departments. Time must be scheduled and labor costs tabulated, just as in a full project plan; some agencies have dedicated resource managers just for this job. The software keeps track, while providing what-if analyses to help improve resource allocation. The benefits can be huge: Mora said one customer cut the 12-14 days usually needed to staff projects down to two.

ProSight, a portfolio software vendor that licenses as its project management component Microsoft Project, the de facto industry standard, sells an optional Resource Manager add-on to the network server version of Project.

'Resource planning does not require a project plan to be in place,' said Caine O'Brien, ProSight's vice president of marketing. 'There are a lot of projects that, frankly, are too small to warrant the build-out of a full project plan, and there are some project activities that impact these resources, such as vacations.'

O'Brien said a centralized re-source-optimization tool can, in turn, improve project delivery times, since delays often result from waiting for team members to complete other projects.

'There's all this great science around project management and how to put it together, but the real pain point is around resource availability,' O'Brien said.

Demand management

There's also a pain point around demand. Although government use of project management software extends to things like engineering and construction, it's clear the recent focus has been on IT. Mora said demand management, currently a major trend in supply chain-intensive industries like consumer goods and manufacturing, is infiltrating IT project tools.

He said government IT groups are increasingly asking, 'How do we understand the demand that's coming from within our agency?'

In the past, IT departments tended to view requests one-dimensionally. In contrast, capturing demand in a project portfolio tool allows a more comprehensive view of resources that can give IT the confidence to 'push back' against customer demands.

Finally, the project/portfolio management industry in general is adding more document management and workflow features, and vendors say government customers are no different.

'Workflow is pretty much a routing, to make sure all the people who need to be involved in a decision are informed,' Koppelman said.

Workflow and document management are, in fact, just two strands of a broader trend in collaboration that has brought increased demand for Web-based 'teamware.'

These tools take the form of centralized project portals and server- and Web-based tools'a sort of 'project management lite' that also includes free, open-source project schedulers, democratically editable project pages called 'wikis' and add-ins to Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client.

Chuck Mobley, an associate information systems analyst at Calipatria State Prison in California, said he and around 80 other employees use one such program, Alexsys' Team 2, to track tasks relating to family outreach, prison management and formal communications with state authorities. Mobley said Calipatria considered buying full-fledged project management programs such as Microsoft Project, but realized that would be overkill.

He figures the prison saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in seven years, in part by using Team 2's Oracle-based history database to quickly produce reports that used to require painstaking research. 'It's our sole source of tracking assignments,' he said. 'This product has afforded us the opportunity to look at whether we got those documents in on time.'

Methodology before software

Experts say they've seen a major push within agencies to hire or train more employees certified in the formal discipline of project management. Keith Kerr, director of solutions development at Robbins-Gioia, an Alexandria, Va., project management consultancy, said a few of his federal customers recently put their employees through five weeks of training for project management certification and OMB 300 capital planning. 'They're starting to pull non-IT people into that training,' Kerr said.

Agencies are also demanding that software support best practices and project standards, especially the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK'pronounced 'pim-bok') from the Project Management Institute, the main professional certification group in North America.

Mora said the impetus is coming increasingly from directors of agency project management of- fices, centralized departments that often start off with IT projects but typically expand to spread project disciplines to other departments.

'In the past, where project management was architected around a few individuals, it's getting greater credence throughout the organization,' he said.

O'Brien said grants management is another growth area for project portfolio management tools and techniques, citing at least one ProSight federal customer who used the software to decide which applicants' projects were deserving.

The accompanying product list includes desktop and networked software that handle the full panoply of project management, not just a piece or two, such as scheduling and task management.

Also shown are portfolio suites that ship with, or are closely integrated with, project management software. We've even listed select Web-based alternatives that appear to have some traction in government.

Whichever way your agency goes, project management software will likely become increasingly important. Projects that stray and become multimillion-dollar sinkholes have had a hard time staying out of the spotlight. With the right tools, government is hoping they won't take center stage too often.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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