Project Management: Beyond Microsoft Project! (Updated)

pmIt isn’t quite hilarious when otherwise smart people are fooled into believing project management is simply being able to use Microsoft Project. It becomes even more unsettling when, these people are made to part with hard-earned cold cash in the name of obtaining project management training. And for me, it is painful to see all these people (well meaning, but scammed) have to show for their newly earned expertise is some random computer printed A4 certificate attesting to their ability to use MS project, and nothing else.

First a confession

I am affiliated with the Project Management Institute (PMI) and hold its Project Management Professional (PMP) credential and have been until recently, active in the local South Africa chapter of the PMI (PMI SA).

I am also aware of a group of professional peers’ interest to offer cost-effective project management training on demand/in person on weekends and online, self paced open distance learning  (allows other professionals keen on acquiring PM skills without compromising performance on their current jobs). Cost effective as affordability has been identified as leading cause of the pervasiveness of the false ideas about what constitutes project management.

What then is project management? 

Perhaps, we need first to clarify the term  project. 

Projects are temporary endeavours – which often have permanent impacts on businesses that run them and on the resumes of individuals who are involved – with start dates and planned and eventual finished dates.

Projects are run by individuals/teams of professionals with knowledge of the field in which projects are run – PMI asserts that knowledge of the application area is not important to successfully managing projects, but it is always the case that hiring managers always insist on some measure of knowledge of the application area. Projects are often necessitated by a business need, an advancement in technology or any other logical reasons for spending money. Projects are often constrained by scope – what the project must build; cost – how much money is available to spend to achieve the project’s intended objectives; time – how much time is available within which to achieve the stated objectives.

It makes sense that at the onset everyone involved (often reffered to as stakeholders, and this may include people whose interest is in the failure of the project and for very logical and sometimes reasonable reasons – I will discuss this in a later post) agrees what the project will achieve to be considered successful – the scope of the project. This must be documented and made easily accessible to immportant stakeholders. Changes to this document should be encouraged but controlled -encouraged, because most often, additional information that can potentially impact the outcome of project work becomes available and need to be acknowledged.

Projects, like all human endeavours have the potential to run on forever, if time is not constrained – project schedule. And as is popularly known, in business, time spent or saved is directly proportional to money wisely spent or wasted. OK, a bit more clarity, imagine, you have 3 people on a project, a senior executive who’s time is billed at USD2,000/hour and two members of staff whose time is billed at USD500/hour. This project typically costs USD3,000/hour. If the project completes in 10 hours, it will cost USD 30,000. If it completes in 20 hours, it will cost USD60,000. Imagine if the only the scope is constrained and time isn’t, and the project allowed to run for 20 hours for no apparent or useful reason. The implementing organisation will have expended an unnecessary USD30, 000.
Imagine, if the project was a fixed price contract, the opportunity to make profit becomes seriously threathened and if it were a time and material  contract, the implementing organisations’ integrity stands the risk of suffering serious damages. Now imagine if a project that can be completed in three years take thirty years to complete? Factor in inflation. Factor in the cost of funds and the future value of money. See what I mean?

There are several approaches to devising a practical schedule. One involves top down planning – the overall project deliverable is broken down into sub-deliverables and time is allocated for completing each. Another is to plan from the bottom up, with each sub – deliverable identified and allocated time – often in cases where the implementing organisation has prior experience with project type and can say with near absolute certainty what the sub-deliverables are and how much time it will take to complete each. However, in most cases, an astute project manager and a cooperating project team can successfully schedule and manage project schedules.

Ok, I oversimplified a bit, but you get the gist right?

Cost – yes, money, is perhaps the single most important metric by which a project’s success or failure is measured. I know this again sounds like oversimplifying. Remember the premises for selecting or deciding to implement projects – to take advantage of a business opportunity (and make more money), to take advantage of improvements in technology (and yes, make more money, when processes are improved and less time is spent achieving the same set of results)… to look good – reason why businesses have CSRs (and yes, increase visibility, beat taxes and yes, make more money). Name another basis, and we will successfully link this in some way to making money (or blocking loss of money). So imagine if projects have open ended budgets, the purpose of making profits is then defeated and thus the need for the project in the first place.

And Microsoft Project?

An information system. An Project management Information System (PMIS) – perhaps the undisputed leader in that space.

Like all other IS, requires a fundamental knowledge of the area of work for which it is being applied. At best, a PMIS, allows individuals and institutions who run them, better manage project information – resource availability and allocation, budget, schedule and overall process tracking. Imaging the difference between tracking a business’ finances manually in ledgers and keeping the same with an excel spreadsheet – at the click of a button, sums, averages and projections can be calculated right within the spreadsheet, graphs and other visual information generated in micro seconds, that will otherwise take hours and days to complete. That is exactly the case with a PMIS applied to project management.

Like in the bookkeeping example above, not knowing the underlying principles of the area of work, absolutely removes the benefits of automating the processes! That is the reason, smart people being fooled into thinking a computer software that was invented to enhance their work, can take it over and work absolute magic!

A final word

Project management is a skillset. Project management Information Systems are toolsets.

Image courtesy of – permission for use not sought.

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