- Roads & Bridges; Aug97, Vol. 35 Issue 8, p52, 2p, 1 Color Photograph
Advances in project management tools are fostering an evolution in the role these tools are playing in the managing of the engineering and construction business
In its simplest form, project management used to be about organizing large numbers of activities, coordinating resources, and making sure everything happened on schedule and according to plan. For every mile of highway, for every yard of bridge, there were some number of events that had to take place in a certain sequence.
Each activity required a variety of materials–all of which had to be ordered and all of which had to be staged for use–as well as a variety of labor resources to turn the raw materials into the structure taking shape. A small project–a state DOT resurfacing a short stretch of road–might have only a few activities and crews to manage. A large project–the Boston Artery extension, for instance–involves hundreds of thousands of discrete activities, contractors, and material requirements that stretch out and change over a decade’s worth of work.
To be sure, the management of these core components still resides at the heart of the discipline of project management, but advances in project management tools and technologies are fostering extraordinary evolution in the role these tools play in managing of the business of engineering. The trend in project management–as a concept and as a discipline–is towards the management of the entire organization, not just the discrete projects within the organization.
The ramifications of this movement are enormous. Suddenly, one looks at the mission of the organization itself–from a business perspective–as the overarching project, beneath which every aspect of business comes to be seen as an integral subproject that used to be seen as a span of bridge or a length of tunnel. Now these are increasingly seen as subprojects within the overall project, which is the business mission of the engineering company or the charter of a state DOT.
Just as past project managers have used project management tools to manage the construction of a physical structure on the ground, today’s organizational managers are increasingly relying upon project management tools to manage all aspects of the organization. The advantage they perceive? Project management tools can facilitate the success and the expansion of the business itself.
The project management tools that can support this enterprise-wide approach have only recently begun to emerge. Two particular advances are largely responsible for making this possible: the increasing accessibility of information and the increasing integration of management systems.
Bricks are still important in construction projects, but information is increasingly the mortar that holds a project together. And just as bricks become walls and walls become houses and houses become subdivisions, information takes different shapes depending upon the angle and the altitude from which you view it.
Project managers working on a short piece of a roadway need only to consider the information about the materials and resources they need to get that short piece done. However, the boss overseeing all the subprojects on a long stretch of roadway, needs information on the status of that small project as well as the status of all the other small projects that fall under his or her management.
At each rung on the managerial ladder, the scope of information a manager needs increases while the level of detail desired generally decreases. The information requirements change, but only in scope, not in essence. The picture presented to the managers at the highest levels of an organization is still constructed from the same essential project and status information that shapes the pictures presented to each individual lower down the ladder.
Contrary to what one might expect, the trend here is not to develop different information databases for different levels of management. In fact, the trend is to consolidate all information in a single massive data store and let the managers use the software tools to extract the appropriate summaries from the database to present the picture that he or she needs.
Depending on the size and scope of the organization, there may be many different levels of summary required, but the evolving project management software tools are becoming increasingly capable of delivering everything from task-by-task detail level views to multi-project executive roll-ups. Increasingly, all the information, for all the projects, resides in a common database–which expands the scope of the information that managers higher up the ladder can obtain while maintaining the data in the most efficient manner.
The fact that the data resides in a single database does not mean that project managers must return to the home office in order to interact with it. As communications infastructures improve and communications bandwidth increases, more and more managers are interacting with project data from remote sites.
A firm may have crews developing structures throughout the world, yet the executives in the home office have access to up-to-date information on all the projects in all the locations–even as the managers in the field have up-to-date information on the status of all aspects of their own projects.
The significant advance here is the increasing volume and increasing availability of information that is pertinent to managers throughout the organization–both in different locations and in different managerial positions. As the firm or department moves toward a more comprehensive business management approach built on project management tools and disciplines, this volume of information and its availability are crucial, for they will fuel the transformation and management of the business.
If information and its availability are the fuel, then the engines consuming the fuel are the open, standards-based project management software tools that will enable mangers at all levels of the organization to get the answers they need from the information that is available–using whatever tools they need to get those answers.
For basic activity planning and scheduling, project managers will continue to rely on the core technologies that inform the project management system of today. These technologies will drive the day-to-day management of projects–in the traditional sense of the word–at all levels of the organization.
But there is a trend in project management software architecture that indicates an evolution in two complementary dimensions.
One dimension embraces the inclusion of additional project management helper tools, such as Monte Carlo simulators, which enable project managers to simulate project models and determine the probability of completing a project according to a given schedule. In the past, such a helper application would have been a separate application, but increasingly they are becoming an integral part of the expanded project management application.
The second dimension of evolution complements the first: it is the movement towards the adoption of open industry standards. That move enables organizations–to use a Monte Carlo simulator (to continue the example) from a third party if they find one that they prefer to use over the one that has been embedded in the project management software.
By relying on open standards at each level in the architecture, project management software vendors are giving project managers new opportunities to manage their projects more predictably and more efficiently–which in turn leads to opportunities to reduce expenses, increase business, and increase profits.
Finally, the most significant trend in project management is the increasing role of project management tools in the management of the business itself. Project management tools are interacting more and more closely with traditional back office systems–accounting systems, sales and planning systems, human resources, manufacturing and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Project management systems are coming to be seen not just as critical systems for managing traditional projects but as mission-critical systems for managing the business. They are rising to a peer level with traditional back office mission-critical systems–and their contribution is coming to be seen as central to the success of the enterprise.
What organizations are finding, both inside and outside the construction fields, is that project management systems can help managers throughout the organization plan and project business–at the highest levels–more effectively.
The same systems that are managing the day-to-day details of pouring concrete and ordering rebar also are managing the acquisition and installation of new human resource software packages for the home office, managing the maintenance schedules of heavy equipment, and managing the process of bidding new jobs and lining up the resources to take on new projects. Moreover, the project management system is increasingly interacting with the accounting, human resources, and ERP systems.
As a result, every activity that is fundamental to the operation of the organization becomes manageable as a project within the management reach of the project management system. The ensue enterprise becomes manageable as a project with multiple subprojects. All the relationships and contingencies that implicitly exist become more explicit–and then eminently more manageable. Best of all, these are results that companies and governmental agencies can expect to measure in terms of the bottom line: greater predictability, greater efficiency, and greater cost saving.
Project management used to be about organizing large numbers of activities, and while this remains true, advances in project management tools have changed the role these tools play in managing the business of engineering.
by Mark Kay Sheahan
Sheahan is an industry marketing specialist for Primavera Systems Inc., Bala Cyawyd, Pa.
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