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Other Voices: Visions for the Project Management Software Industry

Stacy Goff is the president of ProjectExperts and contributor to Project Management Circa 2025.

Despite the technological innovations in the software industry over the past 40 years, there has been a noticeable lack of progress in the project management software industry -- neither in increasing the size of the market or the penetration of project management functions into enterprises. Organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to obtain software licenses and train their employees. The return on investment has been great for organizations that manage it well. However, many organizations waste the investment in a "flavor of the year" approach, concerned more with obtaining the latest and greatest in project management software than understanding the rigor needed to apply it appropriately. For example, some project-oriented enterprises use a range of desktop tools, content management systems, and project or portfolio software, together with databases, to execute projects. Others use only desktop tools. Their schedules are "good enough to get executive approval" but are seldom used as a baseline for tracking purposes. The harsh reality is the majority of the existing market is still not effectively using 20-25 year-old technology, and unless something changes, the average enterprise in 2025, even with innovation, market pressures and significant effort, will still be struggling to adopt today's leading technologies.

Successful project managers should always consider four factors when considering project management software. Technology is the last step in the process, which should be executed in the following sequence:

  1. Enabling Policies. The tools will not be used effectively if policies do not encourage and support their use.
  2. Responsibilities. If key stakeholders do not perform, the tools are worthless.
  3. Processes. Establish clear, scalable and flexible processes for the project work to be done.
  4. Technology. Select, install, and coach in the use of project management tools.

An increasing number of project management software vendors have visions and plans for continuing advancement in the project management software industry, yet, few enterprises, such as government agencies and corporations, take advantage of the power of all the portfolio, program, and project management software tools they already have. Adding more features and capabilities will not be the driver for advancement. The challenge of the next several decades, rather, is to maximize the benefits from the proper use of the tools that exist today, and then add the project management competencies needed to embrace the advancements to come.

Project Portfolio Management

Project portfolio management (PPM) has been around for years, and it will continue to increase its functions and audience for the foreseeable future. Separating the PPM business functions from the technology is a difficult but important task, as few organizations have properly identified a job classification and clear responsibilities for a portfolio manager. Instead, in many companies, portfolio management is administered by a part-time committee of managers and/or executives, with support from staff.

The first step in maximizing a portfolio is to decide how each project relates to enterprise strategies, operations and a multi-year funding process. On the technology side, tools for PPM first emerged in the 1980s, with a focus on aggregating cross-project plans for their common resource use. Many high-end project management software tools supported that aggregation, either with additional modules, or within the tools themselves. Soon PPM vendors began adding prioritization, risk management, dashboard indicators and portfolio tracking functions. Today there are a multitude of PPM vendors, many of which will see a massive increase both in their market breadth and penetration between now and 2025. For example, outside the U.S. Spider Project is seeing increasing uptake from construction to petroleum, to other serious project-oriented industries. Microsoft Project, Enterprise Server, and their suite of increasingly powerful collaborative tools do a stellar job of targeting the roles and information demands of unique stakeholders, and the progeny of the original PC-based Primavera solution is still a preferred leader for many enterprises. In-demand functions of the 2025 project-oriented enterprise will likely include:

  • A more-complete enterprise portfolio that integrates the management of projects with operations and business functions with the knowledgebase and information from all areas for improved executive decision-making.
  • Cash flow and human resources management across the enterprise, including the prioritization, modeling and provisioning of project, process and on-demand support staff (often a bottleneck in today's enterprise)
  • Multi-year workplace projections and the budgeting to support them, including needed capital investments
  • Modeling and simulation to show the trade-offs between combinations of proposed efforts and their benefits
  • Calculation of net present value of planned initiatives, plus follow-up to assure that benefit realization occurs
  • Inclusion and key consideration of otherwise separate project management activities and tools within the portfolio, including parametric estimating and risk management
  • Process and template reuse and metrics capture for improved estimating, bidding, risk management and project performance

Virtual Teams and Social Networks

A range of future innovations promise to improve the adoption rate and increase the size of the project management software market. One such innovation is the combination of virtual teams with social networks. Bringing together the tools that support this collaboration and communication can reap great results for those who apply them. Starting with voice over Internet protocol (VOIP)-based Skype conference calls and web-conferencing, and supported by wikis or SharePoint sites for content management, some of the tools are known for their flexibility and power, others for their accessibility and ease of use. Increasingly, teams will combine these tools with free or fee-based social networks that will help virtual teams work, research, network, relax (where that is within the boundaries of the culture) and achieve together. The net result will be a massive increase in the size of the market audience that uses project management software.

Mastery of Real-time Time Tracking

Time tracking has long been a frustrating factor for project teams; too many team members view time sheets as one of their greatest scourges. The next release of project management calendaring systems will do more than accept and notify project managers about project assignments, due dates, ongoing work responsibilities and other scheduled events. Under each team member's control, it will also record all project activities against those and all other events during the day, resulting in a unified phone system, calendar and car link with a PCD (personal communication device, a cell phone-sized supercomputer) to collect and maintain activity information. These systems will also track interruptions, recording them with a charge number and the context of the interruption, so project managers can later reduce unnecessary interruptions. At the end of the day, summary information will "pop up," complete with all needed charge numbers. Upon approval by the project manager, all information brokers, including project cost, status, earned value, activity completions and payroll, will receive postings in the right locations, with the right codes.

Significant advances will result from real-time tracking, driving the need to develop honest schedules a team can actually track against. From this advancement, the penetration of project management software will increase significantly. Earned value management (EVM) will become much more useful, as the window of currency moves from one month after the work to one day; in addition, the information will be much more accurate and reliable. Managers will make better decisions much faster, and project success rates will soar.

Dashboards and Project Intelligence

Project dashboards have been around since the 1980s, but aside from the leaders, too many enterprises were basing them on poor tracking against even poorer project plans. Even worse, many focused on easy-to-measure trailing indicators, rather than more actionable leading ones, opening the door for smarter project information management. As a result, project dashboards are moving from simple time and cost trailing data indicators, to EVM, which uses ratios and trends to indicate possible futures. In addition, some organizations today are offering leading, actionable information, a trend that is sure to continue over the next 15 years. The difference is much like driving by looking out your rear-view mirror -- you only know where you have been, and the trend seems straight -- compared to looking out the windshield so you can avoid hitting the car stalled in front of you. Highly competent project managers have great front vision, in addition to useful rear view vision. These elements of actionable information include estimate assumptions, risk threats and opportunities, issues requiring action, successes and failures and lessons learned. This Project Intelligence recurs in phase after phase of the same project, and project after project, and is responsible, together with changes in scope, for the majority of changes in trailing indicators. Further, leading indicators are and will increasingly be shown on dashboards in the future.

Project Management Absorbed into Enterprise Systems

Most of today's project management software functions are being absorbed by one of the enterprise software management domains: ERP, CRM, SCM and PLM. As a result, a huge data management problem is likely to develop in the next few years, and just as industries run in cycles, the cycle of centralized management systems will come back en vogue. The end result will be stronger Project Management Offices (PMOs) and centralization that will boost the interest in career development for all players, both in project management and other skilled disciplines. It will also make more evident those who are not yet competent in their roles and reduce the number of projects, as organizations realize the folly of trying to run too many projects concurrently with too few team members, a common project management problem in many organizations.

An interesting convergence will occur in the near future as project management software tools begin to merge into other software toolsets. For example, Estimate Pro recently became a part of a software development suite. Clearly, integrated software suites are the new wave of the future, as they encompass development functions ranging from initial project strategies, estimating and risk analysis, to requirements elicitation and iterative solution modeling (though coding may disappear with increased rewards for reuse and intelligent agents), to defect tracking and system configuration management.

Cloud-based and Open Source Software

Some of the best software to support project managers over the next decade will improve both processes and timing. The emergence of cloud-based or Software as a Service (SaaS) project/portfolio tools such as Daptiv, Serena, and others has largely impacted the market, except in rural and undeveloped areas, where there is no reliable electricity or strong internet connection. The open source movement is also having an effect on the industry, as project managers can either download a free version of Project Workbench, which powered many mid-range projects in the 1980s, or utilize OpenProj, a free alternative to commercial tools. Open source software is appealing to project managers in the short-term because it drastically reduces total cost of ownership and provides a stimulus for the commercial software industry to keep innovating and improving the value of their offerings. Longer term, it grows the market significantly because those who outgrow the free versions are more inclined to trade up to commercial tools. For example, free versions of Mind Mapping software, which is especially useful in facilitating team development of work breakdown structures (WBS), popularized the use of the method in projects. A commercial version that was first in the market benefitted from the increased interest by offering advanced features, such as "round tripping" the WBS to/from Microsoft Project.

Executive Transformation

The aforementioned changes in the project management software industry will affect not only project managers in the future, but executives and organizations. The greatest project management challenge for many executives is to get timely, actionable project management information. Over the last 20 years, enterprise executives have been increasingly frustrated by the lack of visibility into an increasing proportion of their enterprise portfolio. Many have responded by inserting more layers of middle managers between them and the "problem." Future changes will improve visibility, especially into leading indicators of project success, coupled with the integration of projects and programs, operations and financials into one true enterprise portfolio management system. New software developments will also likely present the needed information in a more cohesive style and format, achieving a level of detail needed by the individual executive, thus allowing them to bring to fruition their piercingly clear vision and enabling better and more efficient decisions.

Enterprise Change Management

Entire organizations will also see change within their structures, strategies, prioritization processes and reward systems. As the practice of project management becomes the universal core management discipline, organizations will learn to better manage change, as they broaden the skill, experience, discretion and rewards for talent, and accelerate the flow of actionable information. The enterprise collaborative network will do away with the rigid and inflexible hierarchy, resulting in energized talent that will result in mutual project successes.

Project management is the discipline of societal change, and project management software can ease and empower that change. The future of project management software will rely on new players that establish innovations, in addition to some larger, well-known players that will continue to serve project managers. However, the industry still has far to go to fulfill its potential. A combination of the right tools and processes with team members who possess the necessary competencies is the best hope for organizations who wish to advance their position.

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