3rd Party PM tools and why they matter

I thought I’d focus here on 3rd party project management tools. Now just what does that mean? I mean, if we’re going to look at 3rd party tools, what were the 1st and 2nd party tools? For a long time, the term “Project Management Software” has meant project scheduling software. Look at the big players, Microsoft with MS Project, Primavera with its P3, P3e, TeamPlay and SureTrack, Artemis with its Project Views and Welcom Software with Open Plan and you’re looking at Critical Path Scheduling Software. Third Party tools are simply tools made by vendors other than the scheduling manufacturer, which usually link to the scheduling systems.
Now, for you purists who are already sharpening your pencils for a letter to the editor explaining that project management software should mean much, much more than scheduling, take a break. I agree with you but that doesn’t change what the people think of when they ask to see a “project management system”. In fact, it is the addition of some of these 3rd party tools that rounds out the scheduling systems’ functionality and makes them into more of a complete project management system. It’s also fair to say that many of the major scheduling systems are working on implementing some of the functionality we’ll be mentioning here over the next few articles.
We’ll be exploring 4 categories of tools over our next four issues: Document Management in this column then, Timesheets, Contract Management and PDAs in the issues to follow. I’ve chosen these four areas because in each case, the 3rd party tool might be enough to consider as a project management solution on its own.As you consider your own project management environment and how you might improve it, it is worthwhile to take a moment to see what is working and what not. At one time, implementing formal project management meant the creation of a Project Management Office with critical path scheduling being the primary function. Other elements of project management crept in to the scheduling group including resource management and costing but all was directly tied to the critical path schedule.

Now, I’m not going to argue that scheduling isn’t important. That’s silly. Of course it is important. But there are thousands of companies around the world that are able to handle scheduling without a formal process or tools. For some organizations, improving or even formalizing the scheduling process will not deliver a huge improvement in project management. Yet, there may be other elements of the project management process that could be improved that would yield tremendous advances in efficiency for the organization.

So it’s worthwhile to take a step back and consider all aspects of the project process to see what you think needs improvement first.

For many project teams, the handling of documents is an area of grief and difficulty. I was recently in one of Canada’s more prestigious pharmaceutical firms talking about how project management works there. They have a casual set up for scheduling and have an established timekeeping environment to track R&D costs. The fundamental problem that the project team did not have a solution for was the management of documents. In the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry, tracking regulatory documents, updated forms and updates versions of documents is critical. For many such firms, the problem is compounded by simultaneous work done in multiple countries where virtual project team members sometimes have never met.

For this firm, loading all tasks on a schedule was not going to produce huge improvements in efficiency but the implementation of a document management system might. They turned away from traditional project solutions and found a highly secure document management system that allowed browser-based access. This tool enabled documents of all kinds to be stored in a central client/server database and yet be accessed when permitted by users all over the world. Version control, security and document scheduling all became part of the picture. Now project members from 5 different countries are able to review documents as need be. Multiple versions of documents due to simultaneous editing and too many “Save As” options have been eliminated.

These efficiencies aren’t restricted to the pharmaceutical industry. A recent survey of IT firms in the southern US states found that employees in the R&D area spent up to 30% of their time looking for information that they ultimately did not find! Imagine a development group that can immediately lay their hands on 100% of all design documents including every version saved and the ability to compare changes in the design document and the author who made them. This alone might improve development efficiency by an order of magnitude in some firms.

There are many other industries whose project management groups would benefit from a controlled document management environment. The ability, for example, to always have the latest forms or the latest templates for documents can be a huge time saver for any regulated industry. Multi-nationals can centralize multi-lingual documents and know that they match versions. The potential savings could be significant.

Now I know that there are many project management software firms that are adding some document management to their own products. That’s great. However, these tools are scheduling-centric. If formalized scheduling is important to your firm, then document management should perhaps be linked with such products. But for some companies, document management alone might be enough.

The secret with all of these project-oriented tools is that they are not a given panacea. You’ve got to look for yourself at what your organization needs. It’s not enough to know that you’re hurting. You’ve got to ask: ‘Where are you hurting?’ If scheduling isn’t it, then it’s worthwhile to examine other tools in other categories.
Originally published Winter 2002 in PM Times


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