Project Control Software: Features versus Collaboration

This is the age old (ok for the past 20 years) problem… how many features do we want in our project control software to the point that it gets too complex and too expensive for the masses to use. We all know the internet is a difficult and expensive platform in which to develop complex applications so the question then becomes:

Can the power of the collaborative nature of an internet based project control collaboration tool that is simpler in functionality outweigh the more complex project control tools that struggle to bring all project stakeholders together? I believe so… let me explain…

I see this time and time again. As a working design engineer I entered the industry when many nifty programs and algorithms were being built into applications albeit in their early versions.  These programs varied from pressure drop calcs in pipelines, to liquid loading in wellbores, to tower tray design in process towers… and everything in between. They all had some similar characteristics in that they were simple and inexpensive. Now, fast forward 20 years, and we see these applications 20 to 30 revisions later and reflect on their new characteristics… they are now all incredibly complex for the non-specialist to run and too expensive for most engineers to be able to justify.

In the context of a project control tool for handling daily field reports, committed (incurred) field costs, purchase orders, invoices, capital accruals and managing an Estimated Final Cost which of the following two options is the most important?

Option #1: Do we want to have the complexity to manage the unit progress (weld inches, yards of dirt moved, joints of pipe strung, welded, lowered in etc) and all of the different methods each company manage the progress tracking of each?

Option #2: Or do we want to simplify the “unit” tracking of projects and focus on commonality and collaboration so all project stakeholders will actually use the tool and use it to foster dialogue? was designed with the premise that it is more important to collaborate on basic information than it is to try to emulate every business process. In some cases this might result in some information being duplicated somewhere else but it is our belief that this is still much better than a “silo” of information that all stakeholders (across multiple companies) does not have access to or the skills to use effectively.

 Projects vary dramatically based on size, construction firm, contract style, and the project scope itself. In fact one firm may do multiple projects that are completely different in any or all of these characteristics Therefore the tools to micro-manage the unit progress on these projects  can vary dramatically. I would offer that the ideal scenario of having the perfect software for every trade discipline, for every project type under every contract style would be massively complex at best and unattainable at worst.

 Trying to cover off this complexity is essentially quicksand. It will quickly grind the usability of any software to a halt. The problem is that every project is so different that one is far better off tracking unit progress such as weld inches etc in an access database than can be custom configured for each individual project. Put another way it is a better investment to train your Project Manager’s to quickly set up simple fit-for-purpose Access databases for unit progress tracking than it is to try to build this into a canned (or worse yet.. web based) software. “Quicksand” is referring to the slippery slope  of starting with saying “I want to track progress on units”… for example weld inches… and then that soon becomes “Well I want to track the weld inches per line number” which then leads to the difficulty of defining where one line really ends and another begins…. As I said… quicksand.

The other element here that introduces difficulty is human nature. I do not think I am exaggerating here when I say that project cost control is pretty much the least favorite activity of every engineer I have ever worked with. It gets prioritized downward in the face of competing priorities every time. From the engineer’s perspective “Why would I spend my evening hours tracking how things have gone sideways  OR should I spend this time focusing on the elements that will keep or get the project back on track?” I think it is easy to predict the winning side of this argument.

Lastly let us consider things from the perspective of who really matters? And who is this person anyway? This person is the project sponsor who sold this project to management, who is responsible for the capital spend of this project and more importantly the financial return on this capital. We need to appreciate his world. This person will have 20 to 30 projects going on at any giving time at all stages. This person needs to know his financial commitments at all times to ensure how much capital he is on the hook for now and where he is going to end up. Picture what it is like, day after day, having reports coming to him in all different formats (mostly Excel or *.pdf). What is it like for this person? His management wants his report in 10 seconds or less meaning that our overworked project sponsor needs all of this projects accurately tracked and forcasted and rolled up into a consistent format so he can be on top of his game at all times. At all times!! There is no time for this person to be constantly consolidating spreadsheets that are out of date within 12 hours.

So as a project stakeholder what is our end game? We want the next project!! We want our current projects to be successful so we are awarded the next project. It is that simple. But what is success? Success is delivering on project deliverables in a manner in which there are never any surprises to the client and ultimately the project sponsor. Bosses hate surprises in any direction.  So let me ask you… “If your daily reporting is complex and company specific in order for you to manage your business… do you think it would be important for the project sponsor to be on top of things at all time and if so would it be too onerous to have a project admin enter certain relevant information (even if it is total duplication) into a COMMON system so the project sponsor can build confidence within his management that he is on top of things?  I believe so. I believe most project sponsors are happy to pay for this admin time to consolidate this information into real time.