Technology (especially “project management software”) has been and will continue to be an important part of project management discussion and practice. This is justified. The right project management software that is implemented correctly can have significant, positive effects on an organization. However, the wrong software, or software implemented poorly can pull an organization down.
In our experience, we have seen organizations struggle with the proper implementation of the right software. Many times we find this stems from a limited or misunderstood view of the purpose of technology in the first place. For example, organizations may look for a tool that can just “schedule projects”, or they simply do not think through the broader, strategic purpose that the technology should serve. This leads to selecting the wrong technology or not implementing it in a way that provides the most value for the organization.
The purpose of this white paper is to provide a fresh perspective on 5 major purposes of technology (and project management software in particular) in project management.
These purposes come from lessons learned in the aviation field. The aviation field is similar to project management in the sense that it seeks to create predictable, successful outcomes in an activity with inherent risk. It utilizes technology heavily to fulfill that objective. By studying the role of technology in aviation, we can derive the major and similar purposes that technology should serve in project management. In so doing, we can also boost the strategic use of technology to support our organization’s strategic objectives, needs, and processes.
Purpose 1: Situational Awareness
Some of the most important aviation technologies, such as the ILS (instrument landing system), glass panel displays, and GPS (global positioning system) are focused on situational awareness: letting the pilot know at every moment where the aircraft is headed, how it is oriented, how high it is, where it needs to go, how it is performing, or a number of other pieces of information.
Project management technology is no different. It needs to provide situational awareness of each project’s situation, where they are headed, how they are performing, and how they need to proceed. It also needs to provide awareness of the situation of an organization’s entire project “portfolio.” If you cannot utilize your technology to know the current situation of your projects, you are not utilizing technology effectively.
The “current project situation” may be different depending on your organization and its particular processes and objectives. It may mean the status of the project schedules, the quality of the deliverables, the current degree of risk, the satisfaction of the clients, or the state of the budget or profit numbers.
It may mean how current resource utilization will affect the project, what issues have arisen that would derail the project, or what has slipped through the cracks.
The important thing is to always be aware of the project situation so that you can make intelligent, timely, well-informed decisions.
You can factor this into your project management technology implementation by doing the following:
- Identify the key information that you need to maintain situational awareness.
- Ensure that your project management software tool(s) can track and provide this information.
- Train your staff on providing this information within the tool.
Purpose 2: Decision Making
In aviation, pilots must be able to make quick decisions using accurate data. For example, a pilot needs to know exactly what is wrong with the aircraft to make a good decision on next steps. They need to know how much fuel is remaining to make a decision on weather avoidance.
Similarly, managers need to have accurate data to make decisions in project management. They need to know what is wrong with a project so they can make a good decision on next steps. They need to know resource availability to prioritize efforts and choose directions. In many organizations, this type of information is not readily available, either because the right toolset is not in place or the toolset has not been implemented in a way that supports this strategic purpose.
Over 10 years ago there was a project manager position that was held by the author of this whitepaper. Each week, the project management group would spend hours (literally) compiling long status reports for management. They would need to track down the status of everything and document them, along with a host of other information. Is it good to have this information compiled? Yes. But it sure is a resource-intensive way of doing it that could be substituted with good technology and good process. Was the information effectively and utilized? That was unclear.
Ask yourself, what is the information you need to make good decisions? What problems does your organization routinely face? Do you have real-time insight into those problems? Do you have all of this information readily available at all times? If not, make a pro-active effort to use process and technology to enable your decision making to be much more accurate, informed, and effective.
In order to make decisions, two things have to occur:
- The information needed to make decisions must be compiled.
- The information needed to make decisions must be readily available.
Project management software technology fits into this broader purpose, but again you need to ensure that:
- You know what information you need.
- Your project management software technology is capable of compiling the information you need to make decisions.
- The information in your project management software technology is always readily available.
- Your team is trained on how to correctly compile the right information into the tool so that you can retrieve it to make decisions.
Purpose 3: Automation of Routine Tasks
A recent article in an aviation periodical referred to a certain modern airliner as a 650,000 pound computer. There is a lot of technology in cockpits today and much of it automates routine tasks for pilots. For example, pilots can use automated engine management systems that eliminate the need for the pilots to manage the specific thrust levels, temperatures, and other engine parameters; checklists are automated; alerts (notifications) are automated; and so forth.
This automation does three things:
- It reduces the risk of human error (i.e. someone makes a mistake while following a boring, routine process).
- It frees up the resources (aka pilots) for more important things.
- It allows more tasks to be accomplished in the same amount of time with fewer people (a third pilot is no longer needed).
There are many, many routine tasks performed in project management which take an enormous amount of time. Every organization has routine tasks that it has to do to be operational. Sometimes it is inconceivable how many countless hours are spent on mundane activities. This may only be because it is more comfortable and easy to do things the same way that we are used to doing them. Some that come to mind include the notification of events, the reporting of status, finding out if something is done or not, finding a document, routing incoming requests for work, filling out and disseminating forms, and collecting time.
The right project management software technology can automate the routine things that your organization does. This has similar benefits for project management:
- It reduces the risk of human error in your processes.
- It frees up resources to do more important things (such as billable work or taking work off someone else’s plate).
- It makes it easier to perform the process (less skill is needed to perform it).
- It allows more tasks to be accomplished in the same amount of time with fewer people.
If you implement or use technology without having this broader purpose in mind, you will not be using your technology effectively. In fact, you may be simply swapping one tool out for another without a net benefit.
What are ways that technology in project management can automate routine tasks?
- Taking status inputs (such as a team member entering percent complete) and automatically rolling that up into project-level status.
- Automatically notifying key personnel when an issue has arisen.
- Centralizing all information so that there is one place to find it.
- Automatically routing incoming requests so that the right person can see and respond to it.
- Collecting time reported information and automatically generating reports on actual time usage.
- Automatically aggregating all project plans and schedules into useful resource utilization views and reports.
- Automatically creating new projects from templates that follow a pre-defined path and eliminate the need to re-create that path.
- Automating the generation of proposals and other templated documents.
What this looks like for your organization will be different because you have different strategic objectives, different processes, and different activities that eat up a lot of your staff’s time.
The point is to understand the purpose of technology so that you can use it strategically to accomplish a specific purpose.
As with other purposes, you need to take pro-active action to fulfill this purpose by ensuring:
- You know which tasks are routine and time-intensive in your organization.
- Your project management software tool(s) can automate those routine tasks.
- Your project management software tools(s) are setup correctly to automate those routine tasks.
Purpose 4: Support for Standardized Processes
Standardized processes are a huge part of the aviation world and a big reason why it has had success at creating predictable, successful outcomes in a risky environment. In aviation, technology supports the standardized process environment. Technology is not implemented because it would be cool or neat. It is strategically implemented to support the standardized processes. For example, part of the takeoff checks process is to confirm that the correct runway is programmed into the flight management computer. Well, in many systems, the correct runway is displayed right where the pilot needs to see it to complete this standard process. It is also standard procedure that when an aircraft is descending in clouds towards a runway that they cannot proceed below a certain altitude unless the runway environment is in sight. Technology supports this process by displaying the minimum altitude and alerting the pilots if they go below it.
Technology in project management tends to be separated from the purpose of supporting standardized processes. We may have a process, but we may also be looking for a “scheduling tool.” In other words, we look at them differently, but the two go hand in hand. One of the primary purposes of technology must be to support the standardized processes of an organization. Why is a standardized process important? Because you cannot have a predictable (ordered) outcome if you have a random process. The process must be standardized and ordered.
Technology should help us implement, maintain, and improve standardized processes across the organization. Examples include online checklists and templates, exception reporting of items outside the process (aka alerts), and workflow automation that follows a particular process. These types of things support the strategic process and the overall goal of implementing strategic objectives.
Your project management software tool(s) should fulfill this fundamental purpose as well. You also need to take the following pro-active steps:
- Ensure that your processes are documented correctly.
- Ensure that your project management software tool(s) support your processes.
- Ensure that your team understands how to manage the process in the tool.
- Ensure that your team is trained on executing the process within the tool.
Purpose 5: Insight into Trends, Problems, and Performance
In aviation, there are systems and even organizations in place to mine data and identify trends and potential future risks. Is there a trend of certain mistakes that pilots are making that need to be addressed via training? Is there an unusual spike in maintenance anomalies for a certain aircraft?
This is often the furthest thing from the mind of a project manager. We are so busy with the day to day that we cannot (or will not) take the time to look at things like trends and potential problems. However, that is part of our job. Problems and risks are always lurking and will strike when we least expect it.
This is where technology comes in to play. As in aviation, technology can make it easier to do this. The right technology will help us run reports, look at data exceptions, and provide similar views into our project management environments.
There are two points here worth mentioning:
- When you choose technology, you should keep this purpose in mind. How easy is it to mine for various types of data?
- We should be experts at quickly drilling into data and extracting useful information.
Organizations continue to struggle with either poor project management software tools or project management software tools that are not implemented correctly. The purpose of this paper was to help organizations understand the broader purposes of technology in project management by looking at lessons from the aviation field. By doing so, organizations can expand their perspective and pro-actively implement these purposes in their own project management environments, thus creating a toolset that increasingly supports the strategic objectives, needs, and processes of the organization.