Make IT assets support your mission

Agencies that need the latest project management tools to improve performance and comply with Office of Management and Budget guidance also may need new software. When responding to a request for proposals for a new project management platform, make sure the software not only supports OMB Exhibits 53 and 300 but also easily generates the reports.

Examine the program's support for earned-value management requirements. Compare several tools to see which will make it easiest to comply with OMB guidance.

Look for software that can incorporate new mandates without big modifications, for example through a free download from the vendor's site.

Investigate the depth and breadth of integration with the portfolio suite. Isolated project tools are of little use in today's governance-driven climate. Make sure it integrates with enterprise resource planning or other accounting systems. Otherwise, you can't guarantee the accuracy of project costs.

Seek vendors that support industry standard databases, have open development standards and fit your enterprise architecture.

Examine a product's portfolio, program and project hierarchy for adequate mapping of projects to applications and business goals.

Be able to demonstrate collaboration features, such as Web browser access or project portals. If they're easy to set up and use, more people will participate in project and portfolio planning, an inherently collaborative process.

Avoid software that doesn't fully support methodologies such as the Program Management Body of Knowledge, which helps legitimize project management as a discipline and strengthens training of project managers.

Test for scalability. Desktop-bound and small workgroup software, as well as some online tools, can bog down when accessed by more than a few users.

Tools can help agencies align business, performance

Now that government agencies are getting a handle on aligning IT portfolios with business goals, here comes the hard part: execution.

Turning high-level plans and budgets into reality on the ground, then monitoring that progress is the job of project managers. Thus, there is a renewed interest in arcane methods of delivering a project on time and under budget.

After several years of focusing on products, such as portfolio management software, that paint the big picture, the spotlight returns to project-management tools.

Derived from the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, capital planning and investment control is a decision-making process for ensuring that IT investments integrate strategic planning, budgeting, procurement and IT management in support of agency missions and business needs.

Office of Management and Budget Circular A-1 mandates that federal agencies develop investment control procedure (CPIC) strategies to bring IT investments into alignment with business goals.

CPIC plan has three major phases:
  • Selection, essentially the portfolio management and business case piece
  • Monitoring and control, also known as project management
  • Evaluation, again portfolio management, but this time functioning as feedback loops.

Today's project and portfolio management suites meld these steps seamlessly. The best also integrate government-specific support. For example, OMB requires capital requests to be submitted in Exhibits 53 and 300.

All the major project and portfolio vendors ? Artemis International Solutions Corp., Computer Associates International Inc., Metier Ltd., Microsoft Corp., PlanView Inc., Primavera Systems Inc., ProSight Inc. and Welcom Corp. ? have enhanced their software with direct support for CPIC and OMB 53 and 300 filing requirements. This makes it easy for agencies to generate the documents from data in their project management systems.

This year, the hot federal trend is earned-value management and analysis, a financial measure of actual work completed. Vendors have been fast to introduce its the principles into their suites.

"Earned value is all about understanding how much progress you've made relative to the plan," said Joel Koppelman, founder and chief executive officer of project portfolio software vendor Primavera, and co-author of a book on earned-value management and analysis. "Within a given project, the earned-value analysis helps you identify corrective actions with a view to getting the project back on track."

Until this year, earned-value management and analysis had seen spotty adoption in government except for the Defense Department, which has long employed an international standard, ANSI/EAI 748. But in August, Karen Evans, administrator of OMB's Office of E-Government and Information Technology, directed agencies to adopt earned-value management and analysis systems.

"They've been given a Dec. 30 deadline to establish a policy," said Jose Mora, director of product marketing at Computer Associates' Niku division, a project portfolio software maker.
Placing people on projects

Earned-value management and analysis isn't the only trend in project management. Users want more integrated visibility into ongoing projects' key components: people and processes.

In addition to old-fashioned, but greatly enhanced, project management programs and scheduling tools, a key piece of the execution puzzle is resource management. Most major vendors provide significant resource modules for their suites, and some even offer them as standalone programs.

Resource tools sit at the intersection of projects and portfolios. All projects require resources ? typically people ? often drawn from other projects and departments. Time must be scheduled and labor costs tabulated, just as in a full project plan.

Some agencies have dedicated resource managers just for this job. The software keeps track while providing what-if analyses to help improve resource allocation.

The benefits can be huge. Mora said one customer cut from 12 or 14 to two the days usually needed to staff projects.

ProSight, a portfolio software vendor that licenses Microsoft Project, the de facto industry standard, as its project management component, sells an optional Resource Manager add-on to the network server version of Project.

"Resource planning does not require a project plan to be in place," said Caine O'Brien, ProSight's vice president of marketing. "There are a lot of projects that, frankly, are too small to warrant the build out of a full project plan, and there are some project activities that impact these resources, such as vacations."

A centralized resource-optimization tool can improve project delivery times, as delays often result from waiting for team members to complete other projects, O'Brien said.

"There's all this great science around project management and how to put it together," he said, "but the real pain point is around resource availability."
Feel the burn

Another pain point is demand. Although government use of project management software extends to engineering and construction, the recent focus has been on IT.

Mora said demand management, a big trend in supply-chain intensive industries such as consumer goods and manufacturing, is infiltrating IT project tools. He said government IT groups increasingly are asking how to understand the demand that's coming from within their agencies.

IT departments have tended to take a one-dimensional view of requests. In contrast, capturing demand in a project portfolio tool allows a more comprehensive view of resources that can give IT the confidence to push back against demands.

Project and portfolio management users have continued to ask for ? and get ? more document management and workflow features, and vendors said government customers are no different.

"Workflow is pretty much routing to make sure all the people who need to be involved in a decision are informed," Primavera's Koppelman said.

Workflow and document management are just two aspects of a broader trend in collaboration that has brought increased demand for Web-based "teamware."

These centralized project portals and server- and Web-based tools are a sort of "project management lite" that includes free, open-source project schedulers, democratically editable project pages called "wikis" and add-ins to Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client.

At Calipatria State Prison in California, Chuck Mobley, an associate information systems analyst, and 80 other employees use one such program, Alexsys' Team 2, to track tasks relating to family outreach, prison management and formal communications with state authorities.

Calipatria considered buying full-fledged project management programs such as Microsoft Project, but realized that would be overkill, Mobley said. He figures the prison saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over seven years, in part by using Team 2's Oracle history database to quickly produce reports that once required long and painstaking research.

"It's our sole source of tracking assignments," he said. "This product has afforded us the opportunity to look at whether we got those documents in on time."
Methodology first

Experts said they've seen a major push by agencies to hire or train more employees certified in project management. Keith Kerr, solutions development director at Robbins-Gioia LLC, an Alexandria, Va., project management consultancy, said a few of his federal customers recently put their employees through five weeks of training for project-management certification and OMB 300 capital planning.

"They're starting to pull non-IT people into that training," Kerr said.

Agencies also are demanding that software support best practices and project standards, especially the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK, pronounced pim-bok) from the Project Management Institute, the main professional certification group in North America. More specifically, Mora said, that impetus increasingly is coming from directors of agency project management offices, centralized departments that often start off with IT projects but expand to spread project disciplines to other departments.

"In the past, where project management was architected around a few individuals, it's getting greater credence throughout the organization," he said.

Grants management is another growth area for project portfolio management tools and techniques, said ProSight's O'Brien, citing at least one federal customer that used the software to decide which applicants' projects were deserving.

The product list includes desktop and networked software that handle not just scheduling and task management, but the full panoply of project management tools. Also shown are portfolio suites that ship with, or are closely integrated with, project management software. Select Web-based alternatives that appear to have some traction in government also are listed.

Whichever way your customer goes, project management software figures to become increasingly important. Projects that stray and become multimillion-dollar sinkholes have had a hard time staying out of the spotlight. With the right tools, you may be able to stay off that stage.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer in Antrim, N.H.

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