Project management tools can combine the long view with fine-grained details
- By David Essex
- May 21, 2008
Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. And sometimes it's just as hard to see the trees for the forest. A good project management program should help you do both.
Faced with perennial budget pressures and accountability mandates, agencies continue to look to project and portfolio management software to gain control over their operations. With project tools handling basic details such as task lists and work schedules ' and portfolio management filling in financial plans, analysis and benchmarks ' it is possible to get a handle not only on how you execute projects but also why you do them in the first place. Better still, you can get the two working in tandem.
At the federal level, capital planning and investment control (CPIC) mandates this kind of alignment through a three-stage process that mirrors the functions of project and portfolio tools.
For several years, major software vendors have offered CPIC features or specialized bundles, including reporting of capital requests to the Office of Management and Budget in exhibits 53 and 300.
More recently, they have begun to support another mandate, an early warning system called earned value management, a subdiscipline of project management used for measuring completed work against a baseline plan.
However, earned value management has gained limited acceptance so far. 'It's something that takes time,' said Keith Lee, product manager and vice president of project management tools at Day and Zimmermann Dassian. 'In the past two years, they've started getting more serious about it.'
'It's a big training issue, having more people versed in the worth of earned value management' said Mike Isman, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. 'In some agencies, it's become [a question of] 'Is this just a check-the-box thing I'm doing, or is this valuable?' ' The solution might be sharing success stories and hiring more people with EVM experience, he said.
'The quality of the tools to support the process surrounding it is evolving,' said Jon Hughes, vice president of the technology solutions group at Robbins-Gioia. 'Some do it better than others.'
Beyond earned value management, the broader discipline of project management is still imperfectly understood in government, and there aren't enough certified project managers, according to a recent CIO Council report.
'I definitely think it's an issue,' said Gil Di- Gioia, regional manager of federal sales at CA Clarity PPM. DiGioia said agencies rely too much on so-called graybeard experience, putting the management of new projects in the hands of the people who have always done them. Project and portfolio management (PPM) tools can help counteract this tendency by automating processes so they are less dependent on individuals.Sorting the tools
Public-sector penetration for the PPM category is only in the 12 percent to 18 percent range, one of the lowest among industry segments, said Daniel Stang, principal research analyst at Gartner's application management and government research organization.
'What we've seen is perhaps a little more of a midmarket kind of focus,' Stang said. Agencies seem less interested than private- sector companies in comprehensive, integrated enterprise suites from heavyweights Clarity and PlanView. Instead, they gravitate to Microsoft Project Server to centralize project management, choosing a separate portfolio tool, or dashboards for the analytical component.
'Project Server historically was tracking project work, but in the latest version, 2007, we're actually tracking all work,' said Alban de Bergevin, portfolio and enterprise project management strategist at Microsoft's federal division. 'There is a bigger understanding that project work is not the only thing that happens, and other work has an impact on projects.'
Users and vendors have struggled to integrate the two layers. In the past two years, high-profile acquisitions ' Microsoft buying UMT and Primavera buying ProSight ' have merged the two at the corporate level, though integration challenges remain.
'A lot of the systems out there are very configurable,' Hughes said. 'You can track as much or as little as you want. You'll be able to drill down and get to the level of the project, if you need to do that.' Vendors have generally built one-to- one connectors between their products or offered open-source programming tools so customers could write their own. Some, including Clarity and PlanView, sell both layers and have comprehensive integration, Hughes said.
Organizations demand integration because they want to connect strategic planning with execution and make better decisions, not just track project progress and produce reports to meet mandates.
'If you don't have a strong foundation for the projects, you're not going to have successful reporting,' said Margo Visitacion, public-sector and aerospace and defense market manager at ProSight. 'Now I'm able to measure the impact of pursuing a particular initiative. It makes it more predictive than reactive.'
Jose Mora, senior director of product marketing at CA Clarity, agreed when describing the CPIC process, which his company supports with CPIC Accelerator. 'It's going to be a continuous flow of collaboration between what OMB needs and what your stakeholders need to deliver what their business case promised,' he said.
Isman said many vendors have robust integration tools, but agencies haven't taken full advantage of them. One reason is that some agencies bought portfolio tools to decide which projects to fund and project tools to manage them, but they haven't figured out how to combine the two.
For years, Oakland County, Mich., has used integrated software from CA Clarity for the IT alignment and cost savings that many federal agencies still struggle to achieve. It saved $1.5 million on its Y2K conversion by canceling an outside contract and paying staff overtime, said Jeanette McKenna, chief of IT internal services and head of the county's project management office.
'Because we had the tools and could look at the data and analyze it, we were able to find a different approach,' McKenna said.
The software improved IT efficiency so much that it helped make the case for centralizing the department, said Phil Bertolini, chief information officer and deputy county executive ' and an early critic of the system when he worked in the land division.
When he became CIO in 2001, county commissioners ridiculed IT as a financial black hole, subjecting him to tedious questioning about every expenditure, Bertolini said. 'They didn't trust us,' he said. 'Now, sometimes I can barely get in the chair to discuss the resolution, and they're already voting. It's a direct result of our ability to lay out the hours of every IT person for every day for two years.'People and process first
Major changes in the use of contractors will soon drive greater interest in PPM, said Rich Wilkinson, vice president of government contractor marketing at Deltek, whose WinSight software is used in the Army's Kaleidoscope program at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Wilkinson said the Defense Department recently banned a practice requiring a lead contractor to oversee design for other prime contractors in a project. 'The government will take responsibility for integrating those prime contracts,' he said. 'When this happens, it's going to be critical for the government to have midlevel tools' that let program managers and their closest superiors, perhaps up to the commander level, see graphical summaries of key measures.
Vendors and consultants agree the software won't help much without putting PPM policies and methodologies in place first. 'The tool is not a silver bullet,' de Bergevin said. 'You have to have a process in place and use the tools to help.'
Hughes agreed, citing a large federal agency that bought hundreds of thousands of copies of a desktop project tool, many of which are unused. 'You can promote bad project management by buying people a tool and having people think they're doing project management,' he said.
Stang said the key is to implement PPM at the proper scale and direct people, processes and tools judiciously. 'You have to ask yourself, 'Where am I going to crawl, where am I going to walk, and where am I going to run?' ' he said.
'We tell clients it should be narrow in scope in the first phase.'Essex is a freelance technology writer