Third party project management tools – timekeeping

This year we’re focusing on implementing 3rd party tools into our project management environment. Document Management was the first selection of this category, which we looked at in the last issue. This time we’ll be looking at timekeeping systems.

Now, for those of you who know me, you’ll know that I have a vested interest in project-oriented timekeeping. In fact, my very first introduction to implementing project management systems came on a mandate to create a timesheet system for a high-tech company in Montreal. The client was the company’s Chief Financial Officer but the owners of the system would be the Project Management Office. It was an interesting test of wills as these two aspects of the company negotiated the design of a system that would serve both of them. Our firm has implemented corporate project-oriented timesheet systems ever since.

The implementation of a timesheet system as part of a project structure has become more and more critical among many companies. There’s no doubt it’s important. After all, if all you’re doing in a project environment is planning, there’s not much point. The true power of project management comes once the project is underway. Tracking the progress task-by-task is critical to good project management. In a tough economy it’s not enough to know how much is being spent on labour, management now insists on knowing what it was spent on.

Once you start looking at integrating timekeeping data into your project environment, you’ll find several types of commercial timesheet systems. By far the most common of these systems are time-and-attendance systems. It’s perhaps not a surprise. The nature of a timesheet is that an employee must complete it and so employee-oriented timesheets would be natural to be managed by Human Resource departments or by Finance. The interest of HR or payroll in an employee’s time is in how much of it was spent.

Time and attendance systems come in several flavors. The most common would be positive-time systems in which an employee must enter data for each day they attended the office. Also common are exception-time systems in which an entry is only made for to categorize time which is not spent at the office such as vacation or holiday time. Another category of time-and-attendance timesheets would be mechanically driven off of access cards. These cards are used by employees to enter and depart a building and the logs of these access systems can be used to determine the presence of an employee in the building.

While time-and-attendance systems are very plentiful, they aren’t much help to project managers. The design of such systems makes them particularly ill suited to link up with huge lists of tasks and projects from a scheduling system. You are likely to find many ERP type timesheets based on this model and adjusted to attempt to link to tasks in the ERP’s project list.

The second most common type of timesheet would have to be time-and-billing systems. These are also quite plentiful. Time-and-attendance systems are characterized by allowing a client name and task description next to the hours spent per day on billable work. An open description field must allow for an entry to describe the work in enough detail that the timesheet could be used in the future to justify an invoice. The hours from time-and-billing systems are linked to billable rates per client or per client/project and then generate an invoice.

While this is much closer to what we think of as a project system, the strength of these timesheets is not to link to pre-planned tasks but rather to existing clients. It’s often common in such systems then to not deal well with the huge amounts of data and rates that can come from a multi-project system.

The other type of timesheet that project managers are bound to come across is often included with a scheduling system. I’ll call these timesheet Statusing Systems. These statusing timesheets are designed to move hours back to the progress fields of each task from the scheduling system. They tend to do this very well and also often include functionality which is of great interest to trained project management professionals such as task and project data manipulation, limited reporting etc. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem with many of these systems is that they are weak when considered from the financial perspective. First, they are rarely auditable and often, when a project tasks is deleted, these types of systems will allow all data associate with the task to evaporate as though it never was. This is no problem for a scheduler but Finance and Payroll will not be the happiest.

Finally, there is a category of timesheet, which should be of great interest if you’re considering going with a “best-of-breed” solution in the creation of your project management environment. This is a project-oriented timesheet. These systems are designed to stand-alone and to link to both a project systems and the finance system simultaneously. As a hybrid, such timesheets typically feature less functionality in linking to the project system than might be found in a statusing tool and must have some configuration done in order to link to the Finance system(s). However, the benefit of the project-oriented timesheet is that it can be deployed across the entire enterprise as the main corporate timesheet providing data to both masters. This convergence of uses can result in huge improvements in efficiency as the potential for redundant systems is reduced. This means there is less chance that the different perspectives of Finance and Project Management will end up with different costs per project. The most common downside of these systems is the cultural challenge of having an organization adopt any new enterprise-wide system.

If you’re looking at implementing any of these types of systems, you should be concentrating on a few key aspects.

Approval functionality is critical. Can the people who need to see the data before it is accepted do so? Approvals in a matrix environment can be particularly challenging.

Links to external systems are also important. Can the system link both to and from the Finance and Project systems already in use or planned for deployment? Don’t settle for a yes or no, ask to talk to someone who’s done it using the timesheet you’re considering.

Ease of use and acceptability by the end-user will make or break the deployment. End users are going to see your new timesheet at 4:55pm on Friday when their tolerance for how great your new timesheet system is, is at an all-time low. It’s got to be easy to get in and out of and fast, fast, fast.

Supplier experience counts for lots. The best guide to how will this system might work for you will probably be found in the references of organizations similar to yours who have done it already. Make sure you can talk to at least a couple of clients who can give you the real lowdown on how their deployment went.

Timesheet systems can make up one of the most impactful elements of a project environment. They can also be the fastest to deploy since the cultural impact of getting a timesheet installed is usually quite low. If you’re starting your enterprise project environment from scratch, this is a good place to start.

Next time we’ll be looking at Contract Management systems. In some project environments, contract management is one of the most impactful areas of project management

Originally published February 2002 in PM Times

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