Commoditizing Project Management for the Mid-market

Over the last 5 years I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with Microsoft on deployments of its Project Server system. Microsoft refers to its entire solution as the Microsoft EPM (Enterprise Project Management) Solution as it encompasses much more than just Project Server. To consider the total solution we think of a “stack” of technology. There is Microsoft Windows Server 2003 to start with. Part of Windows Server that’s critical to this kind of deployment is Internet Information Services which is the Web Server for delivering all the web content. Along with Windows Server is Windows Sharepoint Services (This is included with Windows Server) which provides us with collaboration and web portal functionality. We often do authentication with Active Directory so that’s part of the solution too. There’s also SQL Server where we’ll house the database. Microsoft Office Project Professional and Project Server and the Project Web Access interface are the more commonly expected pieces of software. Finally, there are some elements of the functionality that might require Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office System, SQL Reporting Services or SQL OLAP Services.

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

There’s no doubt that the end result is a powerful one and no doubt that the solution has been well received. Even among Microsoft’s detractors, there is widespread opinion that Microsoft is a force to be reckoned with in the EPM space. The initial targets for this new enterprise functionality was, to no one’s surprise, Microsoft’s enterprise accounts. Microsoft doesn’t publish numbers of how many such accounts exist but it is no secret that these accounts typically number in the thousands of PCs. In these kinds of companies, there are numerous resources that are applied to an EPM deployment. The IT department has network administrators and installers and technical support personnel. There are database Admins and programmers and so on. Well it’s been 5 years now and Microsoft has surely had the chance to present their solution to all of their enterprise accounts by now.

I bring up this whole topic because what Microsoft is about to confront is surely a trend to be considered by everyone who creates systems for enterprise project and portfolio management. Microsoft must, over the coming years start to look beyond just their enterprise accounts and see how they can craft a solution and a sales and deployment message that is as attractive to the mid-market as the one for the enterprise market was.

In our business we get calls almost every day from a mid-market sized firm. “How long will it take us to implement Project Server,” they ask. The question is worded in different ways but it becomes clear quite quickly that an answer that is in the denomination of months isn’t going to find any traction. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten a call on this subject that sounds like, “Can you get the whole job done by Friday?”

With enterprise level clients, there is almost always an understanding that the deployment of such systems must be managed as a change management project. It’s the culture change, not the technology which is the big challenge. This is no surprise in a large firm. We’re talking about managing a major aspect of the business in a different way and this may well have a ripple effect through the organization.

There are aspects of this that are true at the mid-market also but it’s a truism to say that the smaller the organization, the more maneuverable it is. So when we explain how challenging changing behaviour may be, this is often met with more resistance at the mid-market or small-market level.

If you were Microsoft, or another project management software vendor, you’d have to think about how to tackle this market. The same sales model that worked for the enterprise isn’t going to fly here. What will be required is what people always expected from Microsoft: instant results.

This leads to what I believe will be a major trend in project management tools and their manufacturers over the next 5 years: The commoditizing of epm software. Publishers must ask themselves, “How can we provide a solution that enables the correct process, is a minimal drain on management to design and configure and is priced in a way that mid-market companies can afford the total cost of ownership.”

So, how do you go about commoditizing such a product/service offering? I have a few ideas.

First, make the technology all install at once
This is within the technical grasp of the large EPM system publishers. Make a one-click install that works for most mid-market size deployments. When we think of an enterprise deployment, we start talking about multiple servers, web farms, load balancing and other high-end challenges that just don’t exist when the total number of users is 200-300.

Next, pre-configure the software for my use
Sure it’s true that every company is a little different but there are many commonalities between firms. Instead of having the software arrive with nothing in it, the publishers could spend time making sure it’s pre-configured for the most common use with reports, customized fields, lookup values etc. all pre-set. Just add users and you’re there!

Also, make training available to the masses
There are so many great ways to distribute training now that EPM publishers need to take advantage of. Online instructor led or Computer-based courses, Teach yourself books, mixes of online and text-books and so on. The costs of such training would need to drop dramatically and the training would have to be broken into bite-sized pieces so any sized organization could digest them.

Don’t forget to abandon acronyms
Any arcane science has its secret codes. In the project management world we talk about things like CPM, SPI, CPI, EV, BCWS and so on. Even in high-end project management circles, these acronyms and abbreviations are being abandoned in favor of straight descriptive language.

Finally, build the processes into the software

There is a process to being effective with managing projects but the 80/20 rule has always applied here. Twenty percent of the process delivers eighty percent of the value. A basic fundamental process, created, perhaps around the tenets of the PMI could be woven right into the software of most EPM systems so that organizations could adopt it or not as they saw fit.

If you think of the project management systems market as though it was a pyramid, with the most experienced users at the top and the neophytes at the bottom, then the use of project management so far has been focused at the very tip of the pyramid. I hear sometimes someone say that all kinds of complex algorithmic functionality should be added to project management software in order to do better analysis but it’s certain that there’s little return for such an investment. No, the big returns for systems publishers are to make project management systems and project management methodology accessible to the masses. It should be like acquiring any other commodity; a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste. Project management software as a commodity would be used by millions, upon millions of users and that’s where the big payoffs come for software firms.

That makes commoditizing epm software inevitable.