Smart project management helps Canadian firms save time, money, labour

Canadian businesses are using new strategies and tools to effectively manage projects and slash costs in these tough times, industry insiders say.

Enterprise project management (EPM) applications are helping firms to effectively align dwindling resources with critical business priorities, said participants in a project management roundtable in Toronto last week.

The event was sponsored by Microsoft Canada.

EPM software can help a company’s project management office plan and track current – and future – projects organized by such criteria as budget size, schedule, or business line.

Despite the dire economic situation, infrastructure and project management are two areas where technology spending remains strong, noted Warren Shiau, senior associate and lead analyst at IT research firm The Strategic Counsel in Toronto.

Virtualization technology – which provides solid cost benefits – is driving infrastructure spend, Shiau said.

Interest in project management is being fuelled by the need for business decision makers today to understand where money and resources are being used.

 Only 12 to 15 per cent of large Canadian companies believe they are getting “excellent value” from IT, according to a recent survey by The Strategic Counsel.

These companies have one thing in common, said Shiau: They tend to use some kind of IT risk analytics tool to discover “what’s going on in their operations.”

The absence of such tools, he said, hinder a firm’s ability to make quick and effective business decisions.

As many as a third – or 33 per cent – of respondents to The Strategic Counsel survey admitted they can’t quickly assess or re-adjust their project portfolios.

EPM tools help decision-makers make such assessments, Shiau said.  

This ability is crucial to CIOs because they have to “defend the spend” to the company’s chief financial officer, noted Tad Haas, senior product manager, Microsoft EPM.

He said EPM tools help CIOs  identify “duplicate work and make fact-based decisions on what to keep and what to kill.”  

While speakers did not provide specific numbers on EPM adoption in Canada, the head of a company that builds  such systems for organizations across Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe area said business is “booming.”

“We see a lot of growth in the market,” said Paul Estabrooks, vice-president, for sales at Agora Consulting Partners Inc. a Toronto-based firm. “Our business has tripled in the last year.”

Agora’s clients include small and mid-sized businesses, as well as large companies and government agencies.

Estabrook said his company is called in by clients who have just set up a project management office or by CIOs being asked “tough questions around IT spend.”

There’s a great interest around performance management, he said, and “creating desktop applications and dashboards for senior managers looking for a holistic view of IT.”  

In many cases, noted Estabrooks, one group of project managers aren’t aware of initiatives being undertaken by others – and this causes a lot of waste and duplication.

This was the situation at Dundee Wealth before the Toronto-based investment firm embarked on its EPM initiative.

Information was scattered around and project management wasn’t standardized, said Van Le, Director, project office, Dundee Wealth.

He said the situation would have been manageable if the company was only involved in two or three projects, but was chaotic for an organization juggling 30 projects.

The set-up was less than ideal, especially with the increasing compliance demands and scrutiny within the financial services, he said.

Another issue was the need to extract data about projects in order to track progress, control costs, and manage risks.

Two years ago, Dundee Wealth Funds, adopted an EPM system. The system was up and running within three weeks, but users quickly outgrew it, said Le.

The company has issues with integrating the system with MS Project, Microsoft’s offering for assisting project managers develop plans, assign resources to tasks and track progress and budgets.

“Synchronizing plans became very difficult because dates were being dropped by the system and that wasn’t a good thing,” Le said.

Dundee Wealth, eventually sought the help of Agora to develop a Microsoft-based EPM.

Le said the change will enable his company to save thousands of labour hours a year.

For example without an EPM system, he said, a project manager might spend an hour each week discussing project particulars with other project managers working on similar or associated assignments.

But with the new EPM system, project managers can use a Web browser to drill down, in a matter of minutes, to the most granular level of each project and tasks being undertaken by various staff members.

Staff can view assigned tasks and changes to these, or input project updates via a Web browser.

“This simple feature can save an hour a week. With a staff of more than 200 hundred that can amount to more than 10,000 hours a year,” said Le.

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