Part 4: Microsoft Project Server — the Super Premium Octane Project Management Tool

So finally I get to talk about the large “High Test or Super Octane” projects and tools!  Most organizations will have only a few of these projects or maybe they will have a program that is a collection of many projects being managed under one team or PMO.

Even though there are not a lot of these types of projects or programs in an organization, they tend to be the strategic, highly visible and large staff projects. The need to manage them correctly is driven usually from both a cost and strategic perspective. These projects are often called the “career killer” projects — because if you don’t get them done on time and within budget, you may be looking for a new job.

Here are the characteristics of these types of projects:

  • Large, strategic project
  • 30+ full-time staff
  • Long duration — 12 to 24 months
  • Full time PM (Or perhaps more depending on the size and scope of the program)
  • Needs rigor and Project Management tools to develop and track
    • Charter and budget
    • Project management plan
    • Detailed schedule
    • Assignments
    • Risks and issues
    • Quality plan
    • Cost controls
    • Status reports with metrics
    • Forecasts

So there are many tools and products on the market for this level of project management —many times they are called Enterprise Project Management (EPM) tools.  Companies like Microsoft (Project Server), Computer Associates (Clarity) and Oracle (Primavera) have products exclusively aimed at assisting with these types of projects and programs. I will speak to the use of Microsoft Project Server 2010 for illustration purposes.

As the name implies Microsoft Project Server® is the first capable version of Microsoft Project® residing on a server along with a web based interface (SharePoint) that allows most team members access to the functions they need (Note:  It does not have all of the functionality of the desktop version so a professional PM will still use MS Project Pro with Project Server).  Project Server also works in conjunction with the desktop application, MS Project Professional, to provide a seamless experience for the PM.  The major advantage of this arrangement is the ability to view and organize data across multiple projects for effective portfolio management. Microsoft Project Server is an enterprise and portfolio tool suite that:

  • Works with Project and Office
  • Has a web-based user interface
  • Allows “cradle to grave” tracking for projects
  • Shows status across multiple projects and global resource pool
  • Supports typical project management work products such as:
  • Project sites, libraries, collaboration and schedules
  • Repository for all artifacts
  • Timesheets and assignments
  • Workflows
  • Facilitates portfolio analysis and report generation
  • Provides real-time data for decision making across multiple programs

Choosing an EPM tool, like Microsoft Project Server, requires an organization-level commitment. The utility of Project Server can be realized only when the resource, schedule and document information is updated by all project managers and used to allocate resources and make decisions. An organization’s commitment to Project Server requires a higher upfront cost than Microsoft Project or Excel, and training for PMs, portfolio managers and business analysts in accessing and using the reservoir of available information.

In my experience, the additional cost of Project Server is justified when:

  • Projects are large and of strategic importance to the organization
  • A single project employs 30+ full-time staff, some of whom may be in remote locations
  • Projects last more than 12 months and may extend to two or three years
  • The organization needs to compare status and outcomes across multiple projects in order to make the best resource allocation decisions

Here are a few examples of using Microsoft Project Server:

Individual projects can use Microsoft Project Server to generate status reports using established templates that access current information on key project metrics, such as planned versus actual costs, risk and issues status and resource utilization.

Project Management Offices and senior decision makers can see at a glance, the development stage of all suggested, proposed or ongoing projects.

And, portfolio managers can track the status and issues of all their projects on one page.

Overall I find that Microsoft Project Server meets my needs completely in managing a large project and consulting with companies on creating an effective PMO. Most importantly, I believe that the inherent collaborative nature of Project Server® (because it uses SharePoint® ) helps keep project team members on the same page and provides individuals with a knowledge that ranges from their current task list to how their project fits within the greater organization. To summarize:

Pros of Microsoft Project Server:

  • Uses Web browser for most functions — since employees already know how to navigate and use a browser, this saves on training and orientation time.
  • Central repository for all information — as previously discussed in Finding a Content Management System solution – Part 1
  • Works well with other tools (Office, Project, etc.)
  • Multi-User data — this ties the team together through facilitating communication and creating a common project picture
  • Single Resource pool — helps solve resource management challenges because tasking and capabilities are in one location on the server
  • Process and Workflow enforcement — tracking key metrics across multiple projects

Cons of Microsoft Project Server

  • Cost (Initial setup and on-going administration required)
  • All staff must utilize and update information in order to have complete picture
  • Training is needed initially to maximize the investment in the tools

So do you have thoughts on the tools your organization is using for managing large or “High Octane” level projects?

Next week I will talk about a Hybrid tool approach to managing projects.

Part 3: If projects are like gasoline – Project Management Tools for Medium-Sized Projects

Managing medium-sized development projects requires project management tools that are more specialized and capable than the Microsoft Office tools recommended for use on small projects, as discussed last week. These are the regular octane or plus tools. Because more people are involved in execution of standard or medium-sized projects, and because they often have a duration of a year (or longer), project managers need tools that can handle resource management and task dependencies with greater sophistication than Microsoft Excel or office tools alone can provide — mainly due to the number of people and sharing of information that is needed.  The characteristics of a medium-sized project are:

  1. 10-50 staff
  2. 4-18 months duration
  3. Part  or Full Time PM
  4. Formal documentation and planning support required, such as
    1. Charter
    2. Project Plan
    3. Schedule
    4. Assignments
    5. Risks/ Issues
    6. Status reports

The most commonly used, special purpose project management tool for medium-sized, octane-plus efforts is Microsoft Project®. In fact, many professional and experienced PMs successfully use MS Project on small, medium and large sized efforts. In addition to project scheduling, for which it is the number one choice, Microsoft Project supports:

  1. Detailed view of  tasks, assignments, and resources
  2. Integration with Excel, Word and PowerPoint to manage more complex or interrelated projects
  3. Supports the creation of timelines, status reports, and metrics

Microsoft Project has been around for a long time and many people are still using versions 2007 and 2003, however the current version, Microsoft Project 2010, will be used in the following examples and discussion. Most managers begin by creating a project schedule, which creates a high-level task list and can drill down to detailed tasks for each high-level task. It automatically creates a Gantt chart and supports establishing task dependencies. Microsoft Project uses the standard Microsoft ribbon to control formatting, navigation and frequently used activities. The ability to link tasks allows project managers to perform predictive scheduling, which I believe is an essential skill of professional PMs. (Why your project needs a predictive project schedule).

The second Microsoft Project capability that I believe is important to successful project management is effective resource allocation. Understanding the level of effort required for each task and seeing the commitment of personnel across tasks ensures that individuals are not over or under tasked. In the resource management survey conducted by Cognitive Technologies, we found that across the board there is the perception that key project resources were consistently over allocated. (Project Management Resource Survey 2009–Challenges)

A project timeline is helpful for seeing the project big picture and for inclusion into management status briefings. Here’s a sample:

Microsoft Project Pros:

  1. Well known tool by PMs and the industry standard for project schedule tools — and classes are readily available for individuals needing to learn the tool
  2. Powerfully scheduling engine — I think it has one of the most mature schedule engines around.  And with 2010 you can actually turn this off and do manual scheduling if needed.
  3. Detailed task and resource data
  4. Works well with other Microsoft tools (Excel, Visio, Power Point etc.)
  5. Resource assignment capability – can view schedule by resource or assignment views
  6. Task linkage capability allows for predictive schedules – can link tasks inside one project to tasks in another project

Microsoft Project Cons

  1. More complex tool — requires staff skill level higher than the Microsoft Office tools suggested for small projects
  2. Each project is a standalone resource pool — hard to get complete organizational resource demand
  3. Updates must be done by one person (Not multi-user) — so it doesn’t solve the multi-user issues

For other tips and tricks in utilizing Microsoft Project, checkout Tips and Tricks. Next week, I will talk about the power-house project management tool — the super unleaded one, Microsoft Project Server. I will close this series by talking about a Hybrid octane tool set available through Microsoft SharePoint.

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