Do you really need state of the art IT systems to ensure project success? ABSOLUTELY!

IT systems provide critical support for most business functions in today’s world. Project management is certainly one area where the selection and use of IT tools can have a huge impact on the success of a project. Quite frankly, IT systems – or in more general terms, technology – are essential and projects wouldn’t even get off the ground if it weren’t for the various forms of technology, systems and tools we use every day. IT tools are essential to supporting – not replacing – project planning alongside the critical thinking and decision-making of the project manager. I’m sure some people might argue they work in a small office alongside their project team on small projects, so tech isn’t that important. Where that argument may barely have held water 12 months ago, I am quite confident that COVID-19 has sealed the deal on that one.

Think about it. We all use telephones, or more likely smartphones, to communicate with team members, suppliers, clients and other key stakeholders to ensure our projects run smoothly. Nowadays, we also use those same smartphones and computers to send and receive critical information and files that need to be reviewed and feedback given promptly. IT systems and tools have sped up these activities and make it possible to discuss ideas, develop complex plans, and monitor the progress of projects – all without everyone having to be in the same physical room. COVID-19 has forced businesses to leverage and adapt technologies even more to support their project management activities, ensuring projects continue to move forward where possible. 

Obviously, there is more to project management than simply communicating via smartphones and email. IT systems and project management tools come in many, many forms and are targeted at different project types and user audiences. Some project management solutions are highly complex and suited to specific industries or businesses, while others aim to be extremely flexible and adaptable to almost any use case – or so they claim. The tools you use or choose to deploy in your business will depend on many factors that are particular to your situation and of course your budget. Most important, the IT tools you choose to use must SUPPORT your project management activities, rather than be an added overhead.

Why use specific IT tools in project management?

Project management is primarily a coordination activity involving the planning and alignment of resources needed to achieve a project’s stated objectives. The effectiveness and ultimately success of a project is highly dependant on the access to, and the application of suitable processes, skills, knowledge and the experience of the resources you have available. Basic technology, such as phones and email, enable project teams to communicate. Similarly, standard business software like word processors, spreadsheets and presentation applications also increase the level and depth of project information that can be tracked and shared. These IT tools do work and have their place in project management – mainly because they’ve been around for 30 odd years and are essentially still the same today! However, they are generic tools for capturing, transforming and presenting information. They haven’t been designed with project management specifically in mind and from experience, tend to create limitations rather than enable efficiencies. In this day and age, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to project management tools, so why not use one that does what YOU need it to do.

Who are project management tools for? 

Everyone involved – that’s a given! This maybe true, however the actual benefit seen by the project lead, project team, key stakeholders and sponsors, the client, and even business leadership may be very different indeed. If you’re a small business and only need something basic (but professional) to help you manage your client projects, then use what suits you for the given project activities you undertake – lucky you. For most organisations though, the choice isn’t quite so easy and even a company with only 10 employees may have several people needing different things when it comes to project management tools. It gets complicated and expensive very quickly if you’re trying to satisfy everyone and even more so as the company size increases. The thing to remember is that different people and roles will derive different value from project management tools depending on how they interact with them, even when from the same team. The key here is to evaluate the needs of your whole team that work with, or rely on information that will be managed in the tools and to prioritise these needs based on your own project management processes. Some people only contribute information periodically, others consume project information occasionally for reporting, and yet others are deep in the detail every day. How you interact with the information and how often, will determine what your need is, and how much you want it.

Technologies continue to advance at a rapid pace and artificial intelligence is gaining momentum in many new fields. Project management often involves complex and dynamic information on a large scale that must be effectively managed and fed into key decisions at the right time. AI has the potential to dramatically improve the management of project data and to enhance the efficiency and success rate of projects. Perhaps controversial, but it is inevitable that AI will be commonplace in project management IT tools sooner, rather than later. I’m not arguing that AI will soon replace the role of project managers, but IT tools will begin to become ’smarter’, presenting project teams with the data they need, when they need it, based on an AI engine having predetermined the needs of the team, based on project data. The net result? Greater project success, faster, and with less risk.

What’s more important? Information in, or information out? 

The answer is – “it depends… specifically on who you ask!” You see, it all depends on a person’s relationship with the information, what they want with it, how they interact with it, and even what type of person they are. Project managers are the obvious choice when we ask, ‘who most needs a new project management tool?’ This is very much true and a good project management tool chosen and configured specifically for a project manager to fit their unique processes would be great. Let’s check back in on reality though. Many other people have a stake in the information that is held in a project management tool, including those that are obligated to provide information updates into projects, and also those very important stakeholders who expect to receive periodic updates on project status, progress and risks. All of this is, of course, very important and also usually the case that at least some of these senior stakeholders are responsible for the budgets that fund these projects and the project management tools, so it makes perfect sense.  

My observations over recent years have shown that the needs of senior stakeholders are often prioritised over the needs of the project manager, and those that merely have to input information, are left out of the equation altogether. When deploying new project management tools across a business function from scratch, organisations often do a good job of assessing the needs of all project stakeholders and the result will likely satisfy the majority. Everyone gets ‘most’ of what they need, and some of what they want. 

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

The main issue often arises when, in an effort on improve efficiency and effectiveness of project management activities, the overall processes or workflows are changed and/or new reporting data points are added and the tools have to be reconfigured or upgraded to accommodate. 

The issue is further exacerbated when the project management tools are already considered to be inflexible, legacy or even end-of-life. In these cases, a minor change in workflow can become a workaround, or worse still, a hack. Additional data points on projects and new reporting criteria can sometimes force project managers back to using generic business software tools in order to track ‘important’ data in worksheets and present project update reports in a specific format only found in specific tools. Sooner or later, the result is a downward spiral in productivity and projects end up being managed in spreadsheets or dare I say, email, and the project management tools become a secondary collection point for information which is updated only when needed.

‘Is there a solution’, I hear you ask. I believe there is, and it starts with listening. Listen to what your project experts say they need and give it the appropriate priority. Take the example of a pit crew in Formula 1 and their ability to change all 4 wheels and tweak aerodynamic performance of the vehicle within only a few seconds – under 2 seconds if you’re the Red Bull team. This achievement is not just the culmination of carefully rehearsed choreography and hours of practice, its the result of a team that listens to each team member’s needs and works together to make sure the right tools are available exactly when and where they need them. Although the driver arguably has most to lose if the pit crew mess up, he has very little baring on the performance of his crew once he enters the pit box. Actually, the team principal, team owner, and the whole team can do very little in those few seconds to influence their performance. 

My point? Project management tools should support the project manager, the process and the activities of the team first and foremost. Steer clear of tools that add unnecessary overhead to the project manager, as this will limit their performance and potentially long-term, negatively influence the project manager and others by fostering a culture of managing the tool rather than managing your projects. Whether it’s one comprehensive tool or a collection of separate tools, they must support the project manager and add value to the process. Good project management tools that SUPPORT the process and the project manager will ultimately allow them to perform at the best of their ability and your projects will have the best chance of success.

At 3E, we believe that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE AND SYSTEMS should be in sync in order for you to be successful. The importance of IT systems and tools in project management should not be underestimated. Ask your teams and project managers in particular, what they need to be effective? You hire expert project managers and expect them to deliver – give them the tools to do it. Our colleagues can undertake a detailed assessment of your project management IT needs and can provide recommendations aimed to bring alignment to your project management activities. Additionally, we can work with you to co-create and implement your chosen solution.