Evolution of a project information system

 

BY KIRON D. BONDALE, PMP

With 90 percent of a project manager's work being communication, providing stakeholders with timely information is crucial. When that need is met, the number of purely informational meetings can be vastly reduced during a project's life cycle, which ultimately improves the productivity of all involved.

The Avantis business unit of London, England-based Invensys PLC's Software Systems Division is responsible for the software development, sales and implementation of a suite of enterprise asset management (EAM) products. At any given time, the company can be managing up to 10 software development projects, all with aggressive timelines and significant resource constraints. To reduce project issues and improve overall perception of the project management function, the Burlington, Ont., Canada-based firm has developed an information exchange system.

A Clear Need

Avantis' project management office (PMO) was formed in early 2001 to manage all marketing and support-sponsored projects, establish and control all project management processes, guidelines and procedures, and act as a focal point for disseminating critical project information.

Prior to the PMO, communicating information was time-intensive and inconsistent. While an intranet-based system was available for storing documents of common interest, the system was used inconsistently, and there was little use outside of the development department.

Status reporting was accomplished via a combination of meetings—some daily, some weekly and some electronic. Depending on who attended these meetings, critical information was often missed by key stakeholders until it was too late to resolve a particular project issue. Key project issues were neglected, and the overall organization was unaware of the status of various projects being managed by the development department. These factors affected the PMO's credibility.

The Action Plan

In May 2001, the PMO began to develop a system to gather and update project information and asynchronously communicate information to stakeholders. Before a tool could be implemented, a set of procedures was required:

  • Functional managers ensured that project managers tracked and updated issues, actions and risks daily.
  • The PMO manager reviewed the issues, actions and risks at day's end and held a morning focus meeting with all project managers to assist with escalation wherever needed.
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To support this process, a Microsoft Excel Workbook (named IAR.xls for Issues/Actions/Risks) was created. Project managers had to print their IAR.xls workbooks daily, and these files were stored in a centralized repository.

To provide effective asynchronous communication of project information, a standardized naming convention for all key project documents and a standard storage and retrieval scheme were required. The project charter, the scope definition document, the schedule, the project organization chart and the project IAR.xls file had to be readily accessible. Once a project was completed, the sign-off document and the lessons-learned document also had to be stored in this standard location.

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Figure 1. The data model for Avantis' project database is shown. This data model captures the relationships between the different entities that make up a project: actions, issues, risks, log entries and the project itself. It also captures the relationship between projects, people and programs.

Last, senior management needed a project portfolio health dashboard. A Microsoft Excel Workbook was created to graphically depict the “health” of a project by taking the weighted sum of quantitative project indicators, such as schedule variance, issues, risks and product defects. This health value was compared against thresholds to determine a color for the project. Project managers were responsible for daily updating of the data corresponding to their projects.

Once these procedures were established and the supporting tools were implemented, the organization's overall knowledge of the state of projects immediately improved. Directors of other departments began looking at the status information for the projects impacting their departments. On at least two separate occasions, critical risks that would have been missed until a subsequent senior management review meeting were promptly addressed.

Before, projects completed on schedule seemed to do so more as a result of last-minute heroics than any sustained planning. Since introduction of the procedures, every project that has been formally chartered has been delivered on schedule and met the defined expectations.

System Modifications

The system succeeded after a month of use, but two concerns surfaced:

  • By storing issues, actions and risks within a file-based system, the state-change nature of these items wasn't addressed. For example, an action could remain “open” beyond the estimated date of completion without any automated notification to the owner.
  • Ad hoc reporting of project information was difficult. For example, creating a report of all actions opened and closed within the last month was impossible without a significant amount of manual cut-and-paste operations.

For a truly robust system, the data had to reside within a relational database with forms-based input and ad hoc reporting capabilities. Ideally, by coupling a workflow engine with the database, it would provide state change capabilities for the issues, actions and risks.

For this next step in the evolution of the project information system, a data model design (Figure 1) was created. By utilizing a commercial relational database to store the structures and data related to these relationships, the concurrency control and referential integrity of a relational database could be leveraged.

Since commercially available project management tools didn't satisfy the requirements, the firm decided to build the system internally. The functional requirements and data model lent themselves to almost any commonly available commercial relational database management system. In addition, the simplicity of the data model and the basic functionality of this database allowed for quick implementation. PM

Kiron D. Bondale, PMP, is the manager of the Invensys-Avantis PMO. He has more than 10 years of experience with IT projects, which has provided him with ample first-hand experience of the importance of communication on projects.

PM NETWORK | APRIL 2002 | www.pmi.org

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