Making the world safe for democracy
project management software means power to the people
Once they just devised fancier ways of replicating the pencil-and-paper techniques of project management. But today, project management software developers put technology to work reshaping the practice, the discipline, the workplace…the world.
by Jeannette Cabanis
WE'RE FOND OF SAYING that software is just a tool. No different from, say, a hammer. It helps you beat that data into the desired shape. Of course, at one time, even a hammer was a pretty revolutionary thing—flashback to the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick's classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes invent hand tools. It's a safe bet that those apes weren't considering the long-range effect that hammers and their kin would have on daily life; how they would tweak the gene pool, lead to the invention of architecture, and thus alter the face of this planet and maybe a couple others…
Likewise, as you type your status updates into the project management program, you probably aren't thinking about what it means to have at your fingertips a method of sharing your ideas and work product with virtually anyone, anywhere, at the click of a button. Of course, this is not to compare you, Dear Reader, to an ape. Only to point out a fundamental truth about technology: it has a way of outstripping our ability to plan where it's taking us. We daily accept changes of work style that, cumulatively, are rebuilding the foundations of organizational life under us. A subtle shift day by day, and pretty soon the geologic plate you're on has moved from Indiana to Hawaii and is picking up the speed needed to become airborne. Technology has an energy and a trajectory of its own. We are largely along for the ride, pretty much unconscious of the impact of how we do what we do.
Example: Web-enabled project management software. Project managers didn't ask for it, never thought of it, and when it was first presented to them, most of them couldn't see what earthly use it was. Yet today it's one of the most popular functionalities in the marketplace. How many of us have taken the time to think ahead to what it might really mean to have all project data visible to all stakeholders…or even a project plan and schedule that is an organic, constantly evolving work of art co-created by many team members around the company or around the globe?
But relax. If you and I aren't thinking about the larger implications of how software is changing our work, our jobs, our workplaces, and maybe even the world, somebody is. There are folks out there who spend their days dreaming up ways to use bits and bytes to restructure organizations, change the way we communicate with each other, make barriers of time and space evaporate, and put decision-making power into the hands of lowly project team members, thereby turning the traditional balance of power on its head. How? Simple: They design project management software.
What's startling about the interviews that follow is that this isn't what this article was supposed to be about. But it was what emerged from PM Network's conversations with leaders at seven major project management software vendors. It's what they think about. Dream about. I thought I was going to be talking to techheads…they turned out to be philosophers.
PM Network asked: Project management has grown so much in the past decade…and the software market has grown with it. It seems that the growth of the discipline spurs application development, while the increasing availability and functionality of the software spurs growth of the discipline…so it's a symbiotic relationship. Do you agree? What is software's role in growing project management as a profession?
History Lessons. In the beginning, says Roger Meade, CEO of Scitor Corp., there was hardware. “As people we get to do what we do because farmers are out there making food. Likewise, under this industry is the semiconductor industry. Because of that tremendous development in hardware capacity and performance, software has been able to add functionality that is beyond the imagination. Still, if people couldn't afford the hardware, we wouldn't be doing this. When I entered the industry I was selling room-size computers for $7 million. Now my desktop has more power than that for $3,000. We should recognize who we're standing on.”
Ed Farrelly, vice president of product development for ABT Corp., echoes Meade: “A key catalyst was the IBM PC,” Farrelly said. “It was one of those AHA! moments. Suddenly there was an opportunity to move this robust application out to the individual. People pulled themselves off a centralized resource to a personal, isolated workstation—the opposite of what happens today.
“As soon as people pulled away and got isolated…the first LANs came around. We thought, maybe this ability to link people together was gonna be something neat. Maybe the server would be where the project resided … but hard drives kept getting fatter, and people held on to their information. It made for a lot of individual control and threw a 15-year glitch into things.
“Oddly enough, in those days, it was easy to do the kind of things that you hear people demanding now, [like] centralized project accounting. What Oracle Projects does you could do in the ’60s. It's just now coming back. The technology is new, but the ideas are the same.”
Farrelly theorizes that developments in technology simply mirror larger trends in society. “In the ’80s there was the ‘Me Decade’ giving rise to the individual island of automation. Now Stephen Covey is out in the marketplace talking about interdependence, an idea [that's] pervasive in the culture. Things come together and split apart in cycles.”
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Scitor's Meade agreed. “It's a human nature thing, to expand and contract, centralize and decentralize. You always change management from what it was into the opposite.”
But is the discipline of project management changed by technology? Yes and no, says Primavera's president Joel Koppelman. “There are always new things happening in technology; that doesn't change the fundamentals of managing projects. Since the Egyptians, it's been the same: define what you want and who can do it, find those people, motivate them, keep them happy, feed them, water them, check the quality of work as you go, get around problems that come up.” What's changed, says Koppelman, is our relationship with time. “People have always been in a hurry to get things done. But in the world of the Internet, what looks like unreasonable waiting time would have been reasonable yesterday, and 15 years ago you would have been rapturous…our patience with getting things done is reduced.”
Our relationship to the machine has also changed, Koppelman notes. In mainframe days, people structured their work around the limitations of the machine. “They did their jobs thinking what's the best way to get this stuff into the computer so I can get it back out? If you made a mistake you were dead, so everything was done for the ease of computer use.” Technological advancement has meant that now the machine is adapted to human needs; “ease of use” means ease for the user.
No single company has benefited as much, or brought the changing technology home to as many users, as Microsoft. With an installed base of something over 3 million (even they have lost count), Microsoft Project might well claim to be a driving force behind the popularity of project management. But Kathleen Hebert, general manager of the Microsoft Project business unit, sees it the other way around: “Our research shows that 70 percent of users of MSP 4.x were first-time users of any kind of project management software. But that's new to the software, not new to project management. A lot of people do project management on paper. I would credit PMI with coming up with standards like the PMBOK™ Guide, as well as business trends like process reengineering. To become more competitive, project management is the logical tool. Business pressures made people look for tools, and MSP was accessible.”
Accessibility—another word for ease of use—was a major driver for MSP's developers. “We're known for taking what had been a fairly esoteric discipline and making it accessible to everyday users. We had acquired a company that had project management expertise in the DOS world; it seemed that bringing project management to a GUI would vastly increase its accessiblilbity.” That decision wasn't technology-driven, however, Hebert says. “The Standish Group data [about project failure] told us that project success was about communication. We integrated e-mail into Project 4.0 not because e-mail was cool, but because research showed that communication was the No. 1 indicator of successful projects.”
Throughout the ’80s, business pressures and technological advances continued to converge, bringing project management to center stage. Roger Meade credits project management's renaissance to “the fear we'd lost it. Remember those stories about us being unable to compete with Japan? That scare fueled project management, quality improvement, BPR…because project management was recognized as a discipline for delivering complex projects, people began turning to it more and more.” Then new technology drop-kicked this valuable set of skills and techniques to a higher level. “In the project management software biz, the enhancements that help communication have really driven the growth of the profession. Graphics capability, databases for the storage of common information, the Internet—they've become fundamental to the practice.
“That's why [software companies] have a good market. If you look at people who are building products, time-to-market is the most important factor. The project management renaissance came out of this very competitive world we are in. If tomorrow was as good as next week, why would you need a product that manages schedules?”
But technology, as Patrick Durbin, president and CEO of PlanView, sees it, was not the only handmaiden to the growth of project management as a profession. “Ten years ago I thought that the philosophies and concepts of project management would migrate out of the industry and have their own life. They'd just be good business ideas, but not something called ‘project management.’ But PMI, through the whole concept of certification, of professionalism, through expanding the membership by listening to others outside the traditional industries, has created the opportunity for the profession to flourish and stay intact as a discipline.”
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Durbin notes that in the software field, project management was for years “the next big application…but it hadn't lived up to its promise, partly because the organizational support required to really capitalize on it has been missing.” Now all that is changing.
Joel Koppelman agrees. “If you were to analyze the papers presented at PMI's conferences over the last 15 years, you would find that after years of talking about increasingly sophisticated algorithms, suddenly it turned toward how to manage people, how to communicate…it's a pretty radical shift.”
Did this shift originate in the competitive pressures of the time, in improved communication technologies, in the leadership of a top-notch professional association (if you'll forgive the hornblowing), or in the dawn of the Age of Aquarius? No one is sure. But in the here and now, project management and the technology that serves and expresses it are engaged in a spiraling pattern of symbiotic change and growth.
Present Reality. But enough philosophizing—for the moment. A lot of what happens in software development is pragmatic, inspired directly by the user. Every company has its system for incorporating user feedback into new product development or continuous improvement cycles. Scitor requires that all their developers spend a certain amount of hours each week on tech support, which Roger Meade calls “a fundamental way to get realism into the software development process.”
Kathleen Hebert says user feedback plays “an enormous role” at Microsoft. Through a whole set of customer feedback opportunities, their developers stay on top of what's important to users. This helps the developers focus on the pragmatic issues that face project managers in the field. “In the success of a project,” Hebert says, “it all comes back to ease of use.” Yet a technology hound's solution to a user's problem may not always be a mere incremental improvement. “This is the nexus of technology and practice,” says Hebert. “We started figuring out the power of using e-mail in conjunction with project management to address that fundamental equation of communication. If we had asked users, ‘How about tying in the Internet?’ they would have said, ‘Huh?’ They didn't think of the Internet as a strategic part of their communications.”
John Baldwin, vice president of business development at Artemis, calls the customer feedback loop “a strange numerator/denominator relationship. We are always going to the client for input. But at client involvement workshops we often present application enhancements that are technology-driven. A user might not think of how breaking technology might help them, because they can't picture it.” But picturing the world differently is a software developer's stock in trade. “We've got programmers who have been with the product line 10-plus years. They learn the application and they come up with things and we take them to the clients. Three times out of four the clients love it.”
Over the lifecycle of software, Baldwin says, the paradigm shifts from incremental user-defined improvements to technological breakthroughs. No surprise here: we are currently in a breakthrough period.
To ABT's Ed Farrelly, user feedback is useful, but not exciting. “When you get an installed base, by definition you are satisfying a good percentage of what they consider their problems to be, or they wouldn't have invested in your product. So when they talk to you about what they want changed, it tends to be incremental. True innovation is discontinuous. It comes from outside, from competitors. That's where the interesting stuff comes from.”
But even innovation needs to be grounded in reality. “Software engineers are likely to chase technology sometimes because it's fun and they want to play with it,” admits Farrelly. “So at ABT we try to ask them, What problem are you gonna solve with this? Sometimes you come up with the business driver and ask if there's a technology to address it; sometimes you find the technology first, then find the business driver. But you have to have a balance.”
At PlanView, Patrick Durbin says, that balance comes from focusing on the human resource equation. “Our belief is that resources drive work. If you don't know the resources you don't know that project. Just having a name is no big thing. What skills does that name have?” The balance between business need and technological possibility is also achieved through the vendor's partnership with the customer. “Unlike a retail vendor, who sells the product and then you use it or not, we need to do more to help get processes in place that will give clients the productivity improvement to justify their investment. If we can't help the customer to show this we cannot justify our presence in the organization.”
Steve Cook, vice president and cofounder of Welcom, agrees that it's all about people. “People used to assume that they could just go out and grab whatever resources they needed, and if not, just throw money at it and make those resources appear. So planning was task-oriented. But things are so competitive now. Everyone's trying to reduce cycle time, reduce cost; resources have become much more important because they can create real crunch problems. Understanding where the resources are coming from gives a project a much better chance of succeeding.
“We look for patterns in our users’ comments—‘We wish it did this; we wish it did that’—and ask how those changes might impact their business. We feel it's our responsibility, if a company says they want something and it's not right—a sense of judgment you develop through experience with 400 clients over the years—to advise them against it. Likewise, I think it's our duty to add things into the product that haven't been asked for.”
Joel Koppelman takes a different tack when thinking about user needs. He's thinking about the user who not only doesn't know what software might be able to do, but also doesn't know project management. Says Koppelman, “We're into how easy is it for people to understand what's going on: ease of understanding. Ease-of-use was the buzzword for the last geologic period. Now, I ask how easy is it for the user to create reports, analyze information, share data…this is the biggest change in the last 15 years. We finally have gotten to a stage where we are thinking about how to help people understand the information that's in the project management system, as opposed to how to make the system hop, skip and jump.”
Koppelman credits Internet technology with this new focus. “The breakpoint is the Internet, where the interface is either dumbed down or incredibly elegant—or maybe that's the same thing—a point-and-click tool. It's all about content…all about information that exists without the user having to know how to do the analysis or even to find the information, the way you use the news services your Internet service provider offers. You don't even need to go look at the newspaper, you just look at your screen and it's there. That's the change that's happening now. Project management won't be limited to people with technical background. If you need to know what the software has to tell you, you'll be told; you don't have to learn the technology. The system can collect very, very simple information: Did you do it? When did you start? When did you finish? You say, ‘yeah,’ and everyone who needs to know about that will know it. It's actually getting more people involved in the process but not by teaching them arcane techniques of project management.”
Future Trends. Which brings us perilously close to our next subject. What are the biggest areas of opportunity in the marketplace for software to serve the profession? And where might those innovations and enhancements lead us?
According to Roger Meade, the biggest development is in communications bandwidth. Companies can afford high-speed access—in fact, Scitor programmers already use it to “work where they want to live”—but the bottleneck is in providing speed to the home, where people are increasingly working. “This is going to change the way we work. For years one of the ground rules was that you had to have all your people in one place. Now people will be able to work anywhere.”
Although Microsoft's programmers all tend to work onsite, Kathleen Hebert says the company's flextime policies mean communication is just as important there as in a distributed workforce. And the sheer size of the company means they can discover and test new enhancements from an internal pool of users. “Our most interesting breakthroughs have come when we were trying to make our own projects work. We're a big company—we have a finance department, a real estate department. We treat departments as customers themselves. Based on that input, we are increasing the collaboration tools in MSP. We'll continue to extend those features because customers are really turning to the Internet, and that's how we use it internally ourselves…all members of the team are intimately linked together in a system that includes not just plan and schedule but also design and testing.”
Hebert also predicts that we will see “project data linking more tightly into other business systems. Project data is critical data; people are just being to realize how critical. Having access to it means people being able to manage themselves better.”
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(Manage themselves. Hmm. Hold that thought a moment, Dear Reader. It'll come up again.)
At PlanView, Patrick Durbin is musing about leadership and risk. “Technology lets us do things we hadn't thought possible. But technology is not the point. Negotiation, vision, planning, communication, facilitation, entoring—those are the skills project managers need support in. As software vendors we've done little to facilitate creating leadership skills. As we look down the line, we need to take what we have historically done well—the hard issues—and supplement them with more system support for these leadership skills.
“And neither we nor any one else really has put their hands around risk management yet. As I look forward, I think this is going to be a major concern. I'm not talking about Monte Carlo, I mean creating overall understanding of the portfolio of work that sits in front of an organization. Any person—manager or contributor—has a lot to do. If any of us could concentrate on one project life would be easy, but there's rework, phone calls and ‘Oh, by the way…’ The complexities overpower us.
“Now, I'm not having people come to us and say they need better risk management. That's my prediction from looking at the marketplace. Leadership and risk aren't a screaming demand…but areas where we feel we can add value.” Where risk and leadership intersect is in the need to identify skills and be able to plan around them, he says. “We believe that resource portfolios are just as important as project portfolios. People are king; if we don't look for their availability as part of the scheduling we're just killing ourselves. This makes project management more people-oriented…you don't have a publishable schedule until you put the names of the people in the schedule.”
Ed Farrelly wonders aloud if the technological improvements in project management are “merely trendy,” or if they will qualitatively change the way we approach the process? That will depend in large part on the vision of software developers, he believes. “At ABT we don't want to just ‘pave the cowpaths’—not just automate what you're already doing. Instead, we want you to go back and think about what you wanted to do but couldn't do before. One of the key things that project managers spend time doing is coordinating and communicating, making sure the right people are talking to each other, that people don't have inappropriate access to information, but have what they need. How do we change the processes so we get more decision-quality information to people without overwhelming them?”
You might notice that this is not strictly a technical question. Instead, it goes to the heart of how organizations are managed: who holds the information, who wields the power. Viewed as a cultural change, the trend toward enterprise project management systems, putting information at the fingertips of every contributor, might just cause a tremor in the foundation of your pyramidshaped organizational chart. Is this happening as a byproduct of technology…or is it intentional? Is project management software a tool for social change?
“Yeah, of course,” Joel Koppelman laughs. “That's the whole reason I do it. It wouldn't be any fun if it weren't.
“Today when people buy a software package they expect it to give them abilities and insights they didn't have before. And a company buys it to make people more productive by taking out routine, mindless things and presenting them with a process that makes it easy for them to do the right thing.
“The monolithic, centrally controlled corporation assumes there is somebody with the answers somewhere at the center, which was never really true. The difference today is that everybody knows that. What you are seeing is an attempt to move decision-making out to the people who are closer to the situation. It doesn't mean you get all right answers…it means you get broader, more sensitive input, and it happens faster so companies can move faster.
“The idea is that if you tell people where you want to go, give them information, and trust they will make the right decision, it's a much more effective way to work. I recently read an article on computer modeling that said the more realistic we make the models the more we're surprised by what happens in real life. Nobody will ever be able to predict reality, so the best you can do is give people tools to react flexibly to changing situations.”
What would an organizational structure designed around such a transparent, accessible system look like? John Baldwin of Artemis has a biological metaphor for it: “We are creating a collaboration framework that we hope will blur the lines between doing project management and doing work. Clients won't think ‘I have to turn on my project management software.’ One of the ways we sell Artemis today is to bake it into the client's overall management control systems. We almost want them to submerge it so it becomes like the water they are swimming in. We want to be the ecosystem, the air-fire-water-and-earth of project management. You don't think ‘Now I'm breathing air and walking on the ground.’ Our French company loves this concept: they call it ecologie.
“Joel calls it social change; I call it cultural change. We are empowering people with self-service project management kiosks all over the organization…the only way the company can see the ROI is by addressing the cultural issues that empowerment brings up.
“We are making the world better for democracy, and they'd better keep up with us.”
IN SCIENCE, THEY SAY, the great breakthroughs are made by people who cross academic boundaries and see things from a different angle. Wouldn't social scientists faint if the world became a more democratic place because of…web-based project management?
“There's some chicken-and-egg thing that happens between people and technology,” says Koppelman. “Change in technology influences how people work, which influences the growth of technology…through technology, we are constantly reinventing ourselves. It's an organic thing that happens.”
Well, okay. Organic is good. But is it possible to slow down the pace of technological change just a bit? Let us get our breath?
Somewhere I hear a chorus of software developers saying, “Sorry, we can't do that, Dave.” ■
Jeannette Cabanis (email@example.com) is Acting Editor in Chief of PMI's Publishing Division.
PM Network • December 1998
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