Common Project Management Challenges

How Online Project Management Software Solves Issues

By Cynthia K. West, Ph.D., Vice President, Project Insight

My team speaks with project managers, directors of operations, vice presidents of professional services, chief financial officers, and other project team members every day. We hear familiar stories repeatedly and there are some trends, or commonalities. Here I will outline five of the most common project management challenges.

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#1-Geographically dispersed project teams

Many project teams are geographically dispersed. Projects are inherently collaborative efforts. The very nature of projects is such that project teams are usually comprised of multiple team members. Often, project teams incorporate multiple organizations. Team members can not only be employees, but also clients, vendors, sub-contractors, and other third parties.

Sometimes the entire project team belongs to the same company or organization, yet they often work from different offices either within the U.S. or globally. Even if the project team is in the same office, in today's fast paced economy, information needs to pass as rapidly as possible, making a centralized project management software solution imperative.

As the rise in outsourcing work and offshore development continues, project managers and executive management need to synchronize their work across multiple time zones. So, when the U.S. based team goes to sleep, and the team in Asia goes to work, they may login to the web-based project management solution to view their project, resource and task status. Companies that manage this asynchronous process well are excelling compared to their competitors.

Also, clients are demanding more visibility and transparency into their projects' progress. Client-facing project teams that possess a collaborative software system to interact with their customers are selling this as a competitive advantage and winning business over their competition.

#2-Using the wrong tool for the job

Many companies attempt to manage projects using desktop software applications like Microsoft Project and Microsoft Excel. The main challenge with using desktop software to manage projects is that these applications were not designed for collaboration among several parties. At worst, the file is shared by emailing the file to all parties on the team. At best, the file may be posted on a network or on an extranet and shared from there.

One typical scenario that arises from using desktop software for project management is file 'version control.' For example, a project manager may email a Microsoft Project file to share project information to the team. If the file is updated frequently, then it can often be confusing as to which version of the project is the most recent one. Many times, the project manager will be conversing with an executive about a project and twenty minutes into the conversation find that they are both viewing two different versions of the project.

Another issue with using desktop applications is that the minute they are emailed to the project team, the project data is outdated. That is, the information is not available in real-time. Projects are inherently dynamic efforts that change by the hour and sometimes minute.

A project management solution that is 100% web-based solves these issues by allowing project managers and their team members to access project information from any browser in the world, at any time of the day or night. The project information is centralized in one database and posted in real-time, assuring that all project members and executive management can view the most recent information about the project.

#3-Over booked resources

Project teams usually have more demand for projects than they have team members or resources to execute the projects. Project managers and resource managers using desktop applications have a challenging time being able to see how much work each resource has across all projects. Teams without a centralized project management solution often talk about using an Excel spreadsheet to manage workloads and find that this is quite a cumbersome exercise. At best, project managers may be using Microsoft Project's resource pool to level resources across multiple projects. Yet, many project managers, even PMP certified project managers, find the resource leveling features of Microsoft Project to be confusing. The common issue stated is that the projects' timelines are extended beyond the acceptable timeframe, so many project managers abandon using the resource leveling functionality.

A web-based project management solution has the advantage of storing all projects, all resources and their task assignments in one centralized place. Unfortunately, not all web-based software is equal. Many low end solutions and even mid-market software systems cannot perform resource allocation properly. When evaluating various portfolio and project management solutions, be certain to check to see if the software can perform these functions:

Many project management solutions say they perform resource allocation and show graphs of how much work is assigned to each person, but cannot drill down into specific projects and tasks to show what is causing the over allocation. Resource balancing demands visibility into the offending projects and tasks.

A project management solution that can account for non-working time such as weekends and company holidays at the system level is imperative. Otherwise, project schedules will assign work on Saturdays and Sundays, making the resource allocation report inherently invalid.

Many project teams use part-time employees or sub-contractors. If resource allocation is going to be accurate, again the software must be able to account for a resource's default work schedule. For example, if a team member works twenty hours a week, then the resource allocation grid should turn show over allocation after four hours of work per day have been assigned.

Almost all resources take time off. If the software is unable to block that time off, again the resource allocation grid will be incorrect, making the resource manager or project manager's job more difficult.

If resource demand is an issue, then a decent mid-market or high end solution may be the only option.

#4-Wasting time looking for project documents and assets

All projects have assets that belong to the project and/or tasks. Project assets can include project scope documents, risk lists, issues lists, files, emails, and deliverables, to name a few. The common use file sharing on networks seems to be the lowest common denominator for project teams.

The challenge with even the best file storage systems on the internal network is that team members still complain that they cannot find critical documents. It is simply too easy to forget where those assets and files are, unless they are frequently used. The other problem with this is that usually third parties or those the project team needs to collaborate with outside one's four walls (and network) cannot access these files. Many organizations do not permit third parties to VPN into their network for security reasons. This means that the project manager must resort to emailing those assets to these outside resources, which again can result in the version control problem stated under #1 above.

A web-based project management solution solves these issues by posting all project assets in the centralized repository. The solutions that link documents repositories with the project they pertain to make finding the specific assets easy for the project resources and team members. An even more robust solution will permit team members to post assets at the task level, or in folders, not just the project level.

Another good feature to look for is the ability for the project team to collaborate on these project files and assets by posting comments or threads. The value of this is that the entire project history is captured in the documents repository. As projects are dynamic and ever-changing, if a team member gets assigned to a project mid-stream he or she may read all of the communication on the project and 'get up to speed' much faster than before.

Other distinguishing features worth looking for include:

Document check-out will permit one project team member to edit a file at a time. If others attempt to edit the file, the software will inform them that the file is checked out and the exact date, time and resource that has the file checked out. Check-in makes the file editable again.

Version control refers to tracking all iterations of a file or document. A common example is a project scope document that goes through several changes over the course of the project initiation stage. A decent document management solution will keep track of all of the versions of the file and post who made the changes, and exact date and time of the change.

Many project deliverables are documents that require approval. A great feature is a routing and approval process. If you can route a project asset for approval, define the approval sequence, then you eliminate a lot of work compared to manual routing or email routing. When one team member has finished approving the deliverable, a notification is sent to the next resource in the approval chain.

Alerts and notifications are emails sent to the email client based on certain events that occur. A decent web-based solution will permit project managers and team members to set up automatic alerts on folders, documents and other items. These reminders will encourage project resources to log into the system and work on the specific task or approval.

#5-Too much time spent in project status meetings

Many project team members complain about spending too much time in meetings to update project status. No solution is going to ever replace the need for human communication and meetings. However, many teams talk about having too many meetings where everyone goes around the room and updates the project manager on his/her tasks. Often people feel that this is not the best use of their time.

Another common model for updating project and task status is the project manager asks each team resource individually where the tasks stand. The problem with this model is that the project manager becomes a 'glorified administrator,' and spends time updating the Microsoft Project file or Microsoft Excel file. Instead, project managers could be managing more projects or strategizing about higher level project concerns.

A web-based project management solution permits each team member to report back on project tasks and activities throughout the working day instead of relying on status meetings, or asking each individual for an update. The beauty of web-based solutions is that each project resource is empowered to report back on his or her tasks, pushing the responsibility back where it belongs, to the team member.

Getting real-time project and resource information instead of relying on time intensive status meetings can save project teams time and money.

If you have experienced any of these issues, or other project challenges and would like more information on how Project Insight can help your project team become more efficient and productive, call 949 476 6499 x3.

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