So you’re considering Microsoft Project Online…
With Microsoft’s Project Online PPM tool making gains in stability, functionality, features, and popularity, I thought I’d broadcast some of my thoughts to counter recent observations I’ve picked up from my experience in the Enterprise PPM space. While I think there’s always been some tendency to regard Microsoft software or productivity tools as “just install it and use it,” we Microsoft PPM pros know full well that this software suite is anything but plug and play. Unfortunately, the ease of getting started with Project Online via free trials and subscription-based pricing has caused those looking to Project Online for project management clarity to lose sight of the fact that this is a powerful, hardcore Enterprise PPM tool. With this in mind…
1. No apples to apples comparison here
If you do a web search for PPM software, you’ll surely find many SaaS options – some free and some by subscription. Several look excitingly cool, have attractive pricing, and many are touting ease of use and simplification. Awesome – I think we could all use some simplification in our lives! And these attractively priced, user-friendly tools certainly have a willing audience: a user, a group of users, or an organization who will experience an increase in collaboration and organization they desperately need to refine or increase productivity. And I see many organizations combining multiple programs to meet all their needs, rather than leveraging an Enterprise tool to effectively manage it all. As you would expect, you will find these benefits with Project Online. And the fact is that moving Project Sever to the cloud and simplifying its access doesn’t take the enterprise edge off this product. Microsoft Project is not cookie-cutter, it’s not one size fits all, and it’s without a doubt not a watered down version of its former self. Properly implemented with know-how and vision, Project Online can run circles around many of its alluring contenders.
2. Your success depends on proper up-front planning
The Project Online solution is scalable to meet the needs of a large and varying workforce, consisting of multiple user types, project types, and potentially complex processes – all kept honest by a robustly configurable solution with a potentially complex security model. Taking this tool from the free trial to a properly scaled solution doesn’t occur by happenstance, and even the most seasoned group of PM professionals should look to an experienced professional to help guide the implementation, adoption, and continued evolution of the tool within their organization. Project Online isn’t something you’re going to figure out as you go. Unfortunately, I have seen too many times organizations throw out this solution because it did not meet their needs. That is impossible. The real statement is that it was not configured or implemented properly. Simply put, this is a enterprise class tool, and it should be approached as such. When properly mated to an organization’s current PPM processes and future PPM vision by experienced professionals using a proven implementation methodology, you can expect a return of huge dividends.
3. Fact: you will need training
If you and your organization are migrating from an on-prem version of Microsoft Project Server to Project Online, you can probably skip this section. Although… it’s been my experience that even comfortable users of Microsoft Project can benefit from some “refresher” or “deep dive” styled instruction to shed light on some of the grayer areas of Microsoft Project. (Think Task Types or Effort Driven vs non-Effort Driven.) But in my opinion, the fact that Project Online still allows PMs to use Microsoft Project in conjunction with this online version is an advantage. I mean, Microsoft Project is the absolute de facto ruler of schedule management. And as such, make sure your PM team knows how to use this tool to your organization’s advantage, and make absolutely sure those new to Project Server/Online know how this tool interacts with the system. Otherwise, I guarantee you will run into challenges. The bulk of your training budget should be spent on your PMs and Project Analysts (Pas) for scheduling, collaboration practices, and any process-centric activities specific to your organization that may or may not be baked into your implementation. A very minimal amount of training for your team members (resources) and any personnel who are simply data consumers should also be expected.
4. Dynamic & meaningful reports are not just a point and click away
Ah, charts, graphs, dials, indicators, buzzers, and colorful whizz-bangs… These are the things we get all geeked up about! But, keep in mind that there’s more to this that meets the eye. You first need to have a solid confidence in your data, and that comes from your user-base’s knowledge of your properly implemented Project Online tool and their adherence to your processes. Second, there’s really not much reporting that comes “out of the box.” Because the solution is nearly infinite in its configuration possibilities, it’s a given that to get your reporting to reflect your unique design, some effort level of report crafting will be necessary. While it may be easy to get the simple stuff from ODATA and import into Excel for some slice and dice, it’s a whole different story to match data presentation with executive expectations, or provide a homogenous dashboard so PMs or PMO personnel have a complete command center to turn to for clear and concise PPM intel. Your organization will define your PPM solution by the usefulness of the data they consume, and your reporting needs to reflect that unique design. Properly skilled professionals who understand Microsoft Project and its structure should be utilized to produce productive reports and dashboards.
5. Drive adoption by keeping it simple
Many of us have been here before: Work is not perfect, but we’re getting there, we’re comfortable. Then suddenly, Management has decided to force some new system on us, completely setting on end our daily routines and work habits. We didn’t ask for this Change! Well, Project Online is one of those systems that can provide great rewards but can also be incredibly disruptive. Please DO NOT overlook the potential impact of this change and the need to manage it. Plan to drive the adoption of this tool not by committing every manual process to electronic rigidity, but by selecting small, meaningful processes to simplify. As a rule of thumb, don’t make a process complicated just because you can; if it doesn’t relieve pressure from the workforce, don’t spend the time, money, and effort. Do look for bite-sized, easily digestible wins, not a pie-in-the-sky gauntlet of end to end processes to define, configure, teach, administer, and enforce. Recognize that this tool isn’t “set it and forget it” – there will be ample time to evolve it, so plan to start simple. Your user base will thank you.
6. You cannot set it and forget it
Project Online, or any PPM tool for that matter, needs to be adjusted to meet the initial and continually changing needs and demands of organizations striving to keep a competitive edge in their industry. Aside from the system fundamentals provided out of the box, be prepared to seek advice from Microsoft Project Online subject matter experts (SMEs). Make absolutely sure you have chosen an implementation partner with a Support offering. You’ll need it, because things change: your needs mature beyond the functionality provided in the base implementation, people come and go, management’s mood changes, and directives are often a moving target. Look for the support team to help guide you before you tackle system modifications yourself, and you’ll likely save yourself quite a bit of heartburn and money. Also, be proactive – periodically engage your partner SMEs to assess whether or not business activity has opened the door to system refinements, such as security model updates, or enhancements, new reports or workflows. Don’t let your PPM system stagnate – new features will be introduced, and your SMEs should be on the ball and at the ready to help you determine if, or how, they might benefit your organization.
By no means am I trying to steer you away from Project Online. In fact, my recommendation is just the opposite. What I hoped to accomplish was to bring to light some of the misconceptions surrounding this product. Project Online is such a powerful solution and there is no doubt that the majority of organizations can leverage this solution in a more affordable way to address challenges with project visibility, resource utilization, and project financials.