Do the features support the functions?
by Terry L. Fox
EFFECTIVE PROJECT MANAGEMENT is crucial to the successful completion of a project—one that is on schedule, within budget, and meets customer requirements. While few people would argue that point, it is, unfortunately, far more easily talked about than actually done. Numerous examples have been reported of projects, particularly software development projects, gone terribly wrong to the tune of billions of dollars in wasted effort each year. Much of the blame has been placed on ineffective project management.
A key to effective project management lies in the project manager's ability to track and control the progress of a project. For large, medium, and even small projects, a project manager can be faced with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of interrelated tasks that must be tracked and controlled, and completed at the right time and by the right person, if the project is to be successful. This cannot (successfully) be done solely within the mind of even the most experienced project manager. What this ultimately implies is reliance upon a computerized tool to assist the project manager in performing tasks, and this reliance is based on the assumption that the tool adequately and appropriately supports the project manager's various functions.
There are currently dozens of project management tools on the market, so availability of a tool is not a concern. What is in question is how well these “project management” tools specifically support the functions required of project management. The assumption is that if a tool is available, it will naturally and inevitably meet the needs for which it is designed. This is the assumption often made for word processors, spreadsheets, database management systems … and project management tools. But, simply having a software tool available does not necessarily ensure that it supports all requirements of the task for which it is designed.
Exhibit 1. A listing of the top 10 most frequently used project management tools, as well as a measure of “exclusivity of use”—the extent to which a tool is used relative to the amount of time any tool is used. For example, Microsoft Project is the most frequently used tool, but is used less than 60 percent of the time that a project manager uses any project management tool.
Exhibit 2. An indication of the project managers' level of satisfaction with the top 10 most frequently used project management tools. Overall, and in the majority of individual categories, Microsoft Access received the highest rating, while Microsoft Project received one of the lowest. Ratings are based on a 5-point scale, with “5” indicating “excellent” support; “1” indicating “no support.”
This issue was examined by first identifying the functions typically performed by a project manager, and then asking project managers how well the project management tools they used supported these functions.
Exhibit 3. An indication of how well various project management functions are supported by the top 10 most frequently used tools. While no single tool received the highest rating across all functions, Scitor Project Scheduler 7 did receive the largest number of high ratings (5 of the 12 areas), and Primavera Project Planner received the highest average rating (before rounding). Ratings are based on a 5-point scale, with “5” indicating “excellent” support; “1” indicating “no support.”
Project Management Functions. Project management is often defined as the “planning, scheduling, and controlling of project activities to achieve project objectives.” Within this broad definition, several specific project management functions have been identified. These include decision-making, planning and replanning, work definition, monitoring, reporting, defining a statement of work, monitoring change control, estimation, organization, recording project data, problem identification, and performance measurement [Rook, Paul, 1986, Controlling Software Projects, Software Engineering Journal, 1 (1), January, 7–16]. Each of these tasks plays a key role in the project manager's work, and each could be supported with an appropriately designed project management tool.
The Tools. Over 1,000 project managers randomly selected from the membership of the Project Management Institute were asked in a survey to indicate what tools they used, how satisfied they were with the tools, and how well the tools they use supported each of the project management functions listed above. A total of 127 surveys were returned, representing a 12.1 percent response rate. (While a higher response rate is desirable, this is not atypical of mail surveys.) These project managers had, on average, almost 10 years of project management experience, and the majority worked in information systems, telecommunications, engineering, consulting, or construction.
The project managers were asked to identify as many as three project management tools they were currently using or had used in the past three years. The survey did not provide a list of project management tools from which to choose, rather the project managers were free to list any tool they used for project management purposes. A total of 46 individual project management tools were identified (not including those custom-developed for in-house use), indicating that, indeed, there are plenty of available tools from which to choose. The top 10 tools mentioned by the project managers are identified in Exhibit 1, along with the relative percentage of the number of times each tool was listed. A further measure, referred to as “exclusivity of use,” is also provided.
As Exhibit 1 indicates, Microsoft Project is by far the most widely used project management tool available today. An interesting finding from this survey is that the second most widely used “project management” tool—Microsoft Excel—is not a traditional, project management-specific tool, nor is Microsoft Word or Microsoft Access. Perhaps this is an indication that tools specifically designed to support “project management” are not entirely meeting the needs of project managers.
Exhibit 4. An interesting pattern in that the most frequently used tool—Microsoft Project—is also the least preferred with regard to overall satisfaction, and ranks sixth of 10 with regard to its support of project management functions. With several other tools, however, satisfaction and functionality rankings are similar: Primavera SureTrak (3/3), Scitor Project Scheduler 7 (2/2), Microsoft Word (5/5), LBMS Process Engineer (6/7), and Visio (9/10). Overall satisfaction and functionality ratings are based on a 5-point scale, with “5” indicating “excellent” support; “1” indicating “no support.”
This issue was also addressed by asking the project managers to indicate the extent to which a particular tool was used relative to other tools they may use. This is depicted as the measure of “exclusivity of use” in Exhibit 1. What this measure indicates is that, for example, while the vast majority of project managers use Microsoft Project, it is used, on average, only 59 percent of the time that the project manager uses any project management tool. The remaining 41 percent of the time that a project management tool is used, the tool is something other than Microsoft Project. Nontraditional project management tools, such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Access, when used, are used between 25–50 percent of the time that any project management tool is used by a project manager. Thus, it would appear that project managers have not found in only one project management tool what they need to support their work.
Satisfaction and Support. The project managers were asked to respond to a series of questions designed to measure their satisfaction with the project management tools they are using—examining content, accuracy, format, ease of use, and timeliness of each tool, as well as overall satisfaction. A rating of “5” indicated the tool was considered to be “excellent” in a certain category; a rating of “1” indicated that a particular aspect was “nonexistent.” For the most frequently listed tools, these measures of satisfaction with the tools are depicted in Exhibit 2.
Exhibit 2 indicates that project managers are reasonably satisfied with the software they are using, with overall scores and the vast majority of component scores being above average. Of the most frequently used tools, Microsoft Access received the highest rating of overall satisfaction, followed by Scitor Project Scheduler 7, Microsoft Excel, and Primavera SureTrak. Notable is the observation that although Microsoft Project may be the most frequently used tool, and has the highest measure of exclusivity of use, it received the lowest overall satisfaction rating (before rounding) of the 10 most frequently used tools.
The project managers were then asked to consider each of the project management functions and rate how well the tools they used supported these functions. Again, a 5-point scale was used, with a “5” indicating “excellent” support; 4—“good”; 3—“fair”; 2—“poor”; and a “1” indicating that for a particular function, the tool provided “no support.” Exhibit 3 details the results of the project managers' responses.
It can be seen from this exhibit that there is not one singular project management tool that achieves high scores for every project management function. Scitor Project Scheduler 7 achieved the high score (before rounding) in five of the 12 areas, making it the leader by functions; however, Primavera Project Planner achieved the overall highest average score across all functions. As these exhibits indicate, the current selection of project management tools varies considerably depending on what function the tool is supporting. Microsoft Project, for example, was rated between “poor” and “fair” in several categories, such as defining a statement of work, monitoring change control, estimating, and problem identification, but received “fair” to “good” scores for functions such as planning and replanning, monitoring, recording project data, and reporting. Across all tools, defining a statement of work was the least supported function, with Microsoft Word and LBMS Process Engineer being the only “project management” tools to receive above an average or “fair” rating. Other functions receiving a “poor” to “fair” score across all tools were monitoring change control, decision-making, work definition, estimating, and problem identification—very significant aspects of a project manager's job and for which an inadequate level of support is being offered by the project management tools. However, areas in which the most popular project management tools are doing a “fair” to “good” job include planning and replanning, organization, recording of project data, monitoring, performance measurement, and reporting.
Looking at the results on a tool-by-tool basis, it is evident that, again, although Microsoft Project is the most popular and frequently used tool, it ranked only sixth among the 10 most frequently used project management tools with regard to supporting project management functions as a whole. Microsoft Word, again not a traditional “project management” tool, actually received a higher overall rating than Microsoft Project. Primavera Project Planner achieved the highest score across all functions, but it was still less than a “good” rating.
This survey has confirmed that there are dozens of project management tools currently available and being used by project managers today, but that availability alone does not guarantee that the tools adequately support the functions. Exhibit 4 provides a summary of the findings of this survey, comparing popularity, satisfaction, and functionality rankings based on overall average scores.
Microsoft Project is by far the most popular tool, being used by the largest group of project managers responding to the survey. The project managers indicated that their overall satisfaction with the tools they were using was above average, and yet when asked how well the tools met the specific needs of project managers, in all but one case—Primavera Project Planner—their measure of functionality fell below their measure of satisfaction with the tools.
Further, although Microsoft Project is the most popular tool, it ranks last in regard to overall satisfaction and sixth in regard to overall functionality—even ranking lower than Microsoft Word—among the 10 most frequently used project management tools. Additionally, while project managers feel the need to use other nontraditional project management tools, such as Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access, and while their satisfaction with these tools is relatively high, they realize that, in regard to project management-specific functions, these tools are rather lacking.
FROM THIS SURVEY it is evident that there is still work to be done to support the functional needs of project managers. Although a software tool may be popular, marketed well, and used fairly often in attempts to support an individual's work requirements, it does not guarantee that the tool is actually doing the job it needs to do. ■
Terry L. Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Computer Information Systems at Emporia State University, Emporia, Kan. His primary areas of research relate to project management, accounting information systems, and cognitive style and information system use. He has published in journals such as Project Management Journal, Information & Management, the Journal of Computer Information Systems, and the Review of Accounting Information Systems.
Reader Service Number 103
March 2000 PM Network
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