SaaS project management for the enterprise
Today’s business environment is constantly changing, with trends such as globalization and outsourcing greatly altering the pace in which companies operate, and as a result their team and group dynamics. For example, due to offshoring, the projects teams are likely to be geographically distributed across multiple time zones. Outsourcing creates another twist, where many key members on the team are not only geographically distributed, but they may not even be the employees of your company. Finally, vertical organizations’ silos are becoming a thing of past — being replaced with a cross-department, cross-company, geographically distributed flexible project teams, where members weave in and out of projects. Such fundamental shifts in how teams are organized and work is done will make traditional project management systems obsolete. This shift will be accelerated by the popular use of on demand or software-as-a-service (SaaS) technology. This paper examines these issues in more detail.
Planning vs. Execution
Most of the project management tools are designed to address project planning problems, and they address this requirement very well. However a successful project is 20% good planning and 80% good execution, and therein lays the problem with traditional project management tools. The key to ensuring successful project execution must always begin with the team and its approach to group collaboration. Each team member must actively engage, connect, and remain a consistent participant to achieve success. Traditional project management tools are primarily project planning tools—they do not provide such team collaboration capabilities, forcing team members that are geographically and organizationally distributed to share project documents and collaborate with each other using other means such as email, instant messaging, and shared file folders. As a result, project plans, project documents and day-to-day discussions are managed using separate systems in disconnected environments and are not working together (Exhibit 1). This increases the inherent risk in the success of the project. For a project management system to address the 80% requirement—good project execution—these separate environments must be brought together. This is a key reason why “planning-oriented” project management systems are no longer effective for the changing work environment. Let’s examine the issues more closely
Exhibit 1: Project plans, documents and discussions in same or separate environments
Getting Project Status
A project manager typically spends valuable hours every week chasing each of their team members to get visibility into the status of their tasks, so he or she can establish the current status of the project. After compiling the information, if the project status yields a surprise, the manager revises the project plan, which may, and often always does, affect the schedule of some team members. Once a revised plan is created, the project manager then spends a great deal of time communicating the new plan back to the team members and steering committee, so everyone knows the new schedule and due dates. This process alone is a huge drain on time, especially when the team is distributed across multiple departments and external partners, and can be operating in multiple geographies (due to off shoring and outsourcing). Even in a project with 10 team members, keeping project status current and communicating changes to the project plan can take about 50% of a project manager’s time—an expensive overhead.
Being on the Same Page
One of the biggest reasons projects get delayed is because the team members are not on the same page about their deadlines, dependencies, impact of their task on other tasks, or the real scope of an effort for a task. The project manager must ensure that not only each team member clearly understands their tasks, schedules, and dependencies, but they all must also be on the same page with respect to the project specifications, revisions, and assumptions, and they can spend a lot of their time on this effort. Most project management systems which are designed for creating and managing project plans, do not address this issue. Team meetings only go so far. Sending e-mails to team members with attachments to bring the team on the same page regarding dependencies and specifications often results in multiple versions of the same document floating around and only adds to the confusion.
It is also critical that when a new member is added to the team, not only does this person need to come up to speed on all these items very quickly, but he or she must also understand the context basis of previous decision making the team agreed on in the past. Only when everyone is on the same page and executing to the plan, the odds of the upgrade/deployment project completing on time can increase significantly.
Inability to get everyone in-sync and on the same page is one of the biggest reasons projects fail and traditional project management systems do not address this issue at all.
Issues with Current Project Technology
Many of the industry’s project management tools were designed in a pre-Internet era, to be used by the project manager on a laptop/desktop computer. Some have replaced their Windows front-end with a browser interface—but they are fundamentally still a project manager’s tool.
They do not have the capability to automatically query team members in the background and capture the status of their tasks, so when the manager looks at the project status, they get up to-date information into planned versus actual schedule. Such a capability will free up many hours every week from their busy schedule that they spend chasing team members about their task status and use them instead for other higher value-added tasks.
These old tools are also weak on ensuring everyone is on the same page. Content is stored in multiple places, such as personal e-mails and file folders or shared directories on a server. A team member has to take the initiative themselves to check in with their teammates and proactively find such documents to ensure that their assumptions are correct, while working on a task.
The handful of project management vendors who have extended the solution to team members have failed to address one fundamental issue in their solution—tool should be so intuitive that it makes team adoption easy without any training. Without this issue, the tool does not fully enable good project execution. Imagine having to train geographically and organizationally distributed teams on how to use the tool in an off shoring and outsourcing scenario. The member who is not comfortable with the technology in the project management tool becomes the weakest link in the quest for flawless project execution. In addition, the cost of deploying these solutions remains very high, the IT organization has to configure such systems (and related security configuration) to ensure that team members across organizational and company boundaries can access such systems through firewalls without compromising the security of the company.
The combination of these issues makes it very challenging for managers to ensure full execution of their projects. However a new generation of systems is emerging, that leverage enterprise 2.0 and SaaS technologies within project management to successfully enable solid project execution, and allow for greater team collaboration without additional training, effort or team-building initiatives. Let’s look at them in more detail.
Project Management meets Enterprise 2.0/SaaS
Enterprise 2.0 is the convergence of technologies such as team collaboration, always-on Internet access (Software-as-a-Service or SaaS), and business applications. Such a technology lets teams work together in a more intuitive way, encouraging greater collaboration and team awareness of changes and additions to the project. It also enables organizations to deploy applications at the fraction of the price of deploying on-premise applications (Exhibit 2).
Exhibit 2: Cost of ownership of SaaS vs. traditional Software
These project management solutions leverage e-mail as a mechanism to automatically query team members at scheduled intervals and capture the status of their tasks—all in the background. The team members get an e-mail from the system containing an embedded form querying them about task status and they reply back to this e-mail with the status data. The systems consolidate all the e-mail responses and use it to keep project status current—project tracking becomes automatic and managers save a lot of their valuable time in not having to chase team members to understand where they are with their tasks. The solutions then automatically provide alerts and highlights to allow managers to stay on top of their project’s ever-changing status and proactively eliminate unpleasant surprises. This allows them to focus their time instead on addressing issues to keep the project on track rather than collecting project status data.
These solutions also leverage team-sharing technology to store/share documents, notes and discussion threads with each individual work item, providing team members an easy way to share their knowledge and remain in sync with each other. As a result, everyone within the team is on the same page, so more time is spent on the project execution rather than managing team members and their individual knowledge and tasks. These tools provide a range of options for the team, making it that much easier to understand their directives, voice their opinions, and provide timely feedback.
Exhibit 3: Project documents and notes are attached to a task, so context is never missed and team is on the same page
Always-on Internet access using SaaS ensures that any team member can access his or her project plans, task schedules, and associated documents anytime—irrespective of their geographic location or the organization they belong to or their business travel schedule. This not only makes it easier for teams to work together but it also makes it very easy to integrate new team members into the project. In addition, these solutions use intuitive web 2.0 technologies to enable 100% adoption within the team—they are designed to keep complexity out and make it usable by everyone within the organization, including the project manager whose is manager/director/VP in their organization and has other full-time operational responsibilities—not just project management.
In addition, SaaS significantly reduces the cost of deploying such systems, since the customer does not need to purchase software or hardware to run the application. All they need is Internet access and they pay a monthly subscription fee. Also, it allows organizations to use such technology even when their own IT resources are not available. This is a huge benefit to mid-sized businesses where their IT resources are scarce. Finally, the SaaS infrastructure allows the project manager and team members to access the project management system (project plan and dependencies, project documents, notes etc.) from any where in the world, including while they are traveling via the Internet. This makes it easy for teams to be connected with each other all the time and ensure successful execution.
Project management tools in the past were created to address the project planning problem. However, the success of an upgrade/deployment lies in solid execution and these tools are not designed to address. The next generation of tools takes advantage of technologies, such as team collaboration, always-on web-access via SaaS, and proactive alerting to enable you to successfully execute your projects and eliminate surprises.
© 2008, Avinoam Nowogrodski
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA