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Traditional project management can't keep pace with uncertain economy

SaaS-based project and portfolio management tools for SMBs offer a plus besides cost -- in uncertain times, they're better at adapting to rapid change than traditional project management tools, say experts.

Midmarket CIOs who have ruled out traditional IT project management tools due to their cost and complexity can now choose from an abundance of solutions better suited to smaller environments.

Touted for their ease of implementation and delivered in large part as Software as a Service (SaaS), these lighter-weight applications target teams of 10 to 100 users. The offerings range from the Basecamp software developed by 37signals LLC, to the Excel-like solution developed by Inc. LiquidPlanner Inc., founded by former managers, launched a solution in 2008 that utilizes social networking tools such as wikis and Twitter-like activity streams. Microsoft Project, rejected by some midmarket companies as too complex, was redesigned earlier this year to be more intuitive for users with no formal training in project management.

Abundance and ease of use, however, are not the only reasons why midmarket CIOs might want to embrace these new online tools in lieu of traditional project and portfolio management solutions. These flexible tools may in fact be the wisest strategic investment for the current economic climate.

In its recent 2011 prediction report on project and portfolio management, Gartner Inc. makes a case that traditional project management -- and the traditional PPM software and project management office (PMO) structure that support its approach -- cannot keep pace with a rapidly changing and uncertain business environment. "Our prediction indicates ... that the time of traditional project management being the answer to every problem has ended," writes Audrey L. Apfel, lead author of the report.

Traditional project management relies on "isolating specific work, while holding all else stable," Gartner authors argue. It proceeds in a linear fashion and success is premised "on designing the project from beginning to a likely end date before the project begins." In fact, changes in requirements, scope, timing and budget "are the bane" of a well-run project. In the "new normal" environment of constant change, "this linear, 'freeze-the-plan and the requirements' approach as the default for almost all project work is quickly becoming damaging to achieving real results," Apfel states. "Change needs to be expected, not avoided."

The report predicts that by 2014:

  • Organizations will invest 30% less time and money in traditional IT project management than in 2010.

  • More than 30% of organizations will rely on a proliferation of software tools to support PPM processes and projects.

  • Less than 20% of today's PMOs will oversee enterprise-wide business change or strategy.

Reality-based approach to project management

Finding a PPM tool that could accommodate change and "managing uncertainty," was key for Jim Burger, director of IS at Applied Extrusion Technologies Inc. (AET), a maker of the polypropylene film that now encases everything from bags of chips and cheddar cheese to DVDs. The New Castle, Del.-based manufacturer was kicking off an SAP implementation, and needed a project management tool to estimate timelines and help plan tasks at a detailed level for the large project, Burger said. Equally important was finding a tool flexible enough to accommodate a workplace culture that included a variety of work styles and approaches.

Burger said he had tried Microsoft Project Server but decided that with the scope of his SAP team -- 50 people, including outside experts -- and the data being generated, it was a struggle just to keep the information updated. "It required having a dedicated person to manage the environment -- and we still weren't doing any project management," he said. In addition, the Microsoft tool seemed to need kid-glove handling. "For every 10 changes we'd make, we'd have one mess-up that would corrupt the project plan," leading to a "just don't touch it" attitude, Burger noted.

Our prediction indicates ... that the time of traditional project management being the answer to every problem has ended.

Audrey L. Apfel, analyst, Gartner Inc.

A year ago, he began exploring SaaS solutions, narrowing the crowded field of providers from 10 PPM tools to three before selecting software from Bellevue, Wash.-based LiquidPlanner. The software is based on task lists, Burger said, an approach familiar to anyone who has used a to-do list to prioritize his day. Users don't have to be certified or trained in traditional project management protocol. Individual team members build their task lists and communicate with each other via Twitter-like activity streams and wikis, without having to think about the broad conception of the project, he said.

Equally important for Burger, the scheduling engine is "effort-based," tracking the actual time a worker spends completing a task and calculating the probability of individual tasks and project goals being completed by certain dates, rather than dictating a completion date. "It helps take some of the stress out of estimating," he said. It also means he doesn't have "to dictate the same method for every task," a departure from the command-and-control style of traditional project management. The software instead takes a "reality-based approach," relying on transparency and visibility into what is actually happening on the project, to allow managers to set daily priorities. The database of information collected by the LiquidPlanner tool will eventually allow the project team to analyze what works and doesn't, and enable AET team members to become better estimators and project planners, Burger said.

Time will tell whether the approach shaves time or saves money on the SAP implementation, Burger said. The No. 1 measure of the success of the solution so far, he said, is the wide acceptance by users. He piloted the software first with the project team leader, getting feedback on its usability and relevant features at every level, before moving the pilot down the chain. He said he strongly advises other CIOs to "walk softly" when rolling out PPM software of this type.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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