Do people use their accounting systems or Microsoft Project to track hours? Some do. Unfortunately this can lead to heavy customizations and problems. For example, there are several different types of contract workers. As a result, a company ends up having a system for billable time tracking, another for tracking time for the purposes of payroll management (because that application has overtime rules, leave time management capabilities, and considers part-timers), and a possibly even a third system which handles time tracked against projects.

Companies need one system to cover all these possibilities.

The first thing a small business should do is create a visual representation of its processes – a flowchart, or a Visio (or similar) business flow diagram. This involves: dragging and dropping in things like when approval processes take place; defining transitions; and showing when someone submits a timesheet (or expense report) and who approves it.

If, for example you’re a very project-oriented environment, a group manager might approve all timesheets to make sure vacation time and hours worked were properly reported. As a next step, you may have one or more project managers who approve line items for particular projects.

The solution you consider should work around these processes. The workflow engine behind the system should enforce the processes and validate all data at its point of entry. It should also audit processes properly. To comply with regulations, you might not be able to just change a time entry without also entering a note. Or maybe you’re a US government contractor or perform billable work for a large customer who has requested such controls. If there are any such changes, the reason for those changes must be visible.

Take small bites

However, if you’re planning to add accounting or financial management capabilities, time and expense tracking, workforce planning and project planning – or a combination of a few of these – start small and take a phased approach. And start with time and expense tracking if at all possible. If you’re not tracking that information correctly it will cause chaos in other processes. You won’t be able to track project cost and revenue (if billable) properly. If that’s the case, how will you bill people correctly? If billing isn’t organized how can you increase revenue? And with unreliable information how can you plan any new projects?

Most companies, amazingly enough, do project planning first, not tracking. Or they do the tracking at the department level – and they only do it when absolutely necessary. They’d be better off enforcing and defining very carefully, at the enterprise level, exactly how time and expenses should be reported and captured. When they’ve matured as organizations they can then look at their billing systems and how they’re linked to the costs in accounting at a more detailed level, as well as other integration issues.

Seeking guidance

Ultimately most SMBs come to us because they have run into problems doing their project tracking. An executive recently told me: “All I want is a dashboard that shows me all my projects in one page, and I’m able to rely on the information I see on this page. If there’s a project that is late or over budget I want it to be highlighted in red, and I want to be able to click on it and find out what’s going on.”

Getting this information at his 100-employee company was proving very, very difficult. He had trouble getting reports, and then when he eventually got them, they’d have data entry errors or they would be so old that he could not trust the data inside them.

You require a system – or you should be incrementally working towards one – that solves these problems by providing you with real-time reports on all of your projects and people.

But, as I said, start slow. For smaller customers, automating all these processes is not trivial. Start with time tracking and go from there. As you add processes you’ll find that those Excel spreadsheets continue to disappear at a speedy and satisfying rate.

Rudolf Melik is CEO of Tenrox, of Montreal.

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