PPM: Why Spreadsheets Are Yesterday’s News

Jan 29, 2016
7 Min Read
ppm - why spreadsheets are yesterday’s news

On a recent Gartner webinar, research analyst Teresa Jones explained how the PPM solution market now offers dozens of effective tools to replace the ubiquitous spreadsheet.

In 1979, spreadsheets changed the world. VisiCalc (for "visible calculator") was the first spreadsheet computer program for personal computers, originally released for the Apple II. According to Wikipedia, it’s often considered the application that turned the microcomputer from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into a serious business tool. VisiCalc sold over 700,000 copies in six years, and as many as 1 million copies over its history.

Over three decades later, the spreadsheet remains prevalent as a valued tool in the project manager's toolbox even though its widespread use leads to as many problems as it solves. Due to duplicated information, arguments about whose data is most accurate and the challenges of distributed teams, fit-for-purpose tools are growing in appeal.

Jones offered guidance on some of the options available to project managers, and started with a bit of education on the PPM market itself.

Welcome to the PPM Age

Project Portfolio Management (PPM) is the centralized management of the processes, methods, and technologies used by project managers and project management offices (PMOs) to analyze and collectively manage current or proposed projects based on numerous key characteristics.

Within this discipline, however, you need to know exactly what you’re working on in order to identify the right tool. For example, Jones defined a “project” as a temporary endeavor designed to achieve a particular business outcome, a “portfolio” as a group of projects that are related in some way, and a “program” as a group of projects within a portfolio (CRM, etc.).

Selecting the Right PPM Solution

Before undertaking the selection process, it’s key to understand that PPM tools aren’t perfect. Jones cites several challenges, including that some tools can’t report the most useful information, and others are too complex or not complex enough. Some have inefficient cost models, while others have poor usability.

Given that there is no Holy Grail that will be all things to all organizations, PPM software selection begins with gaining a comprehensive understanding of your company’s requirements. Who in your organization will use the tool, and what do they need the tool to do? Jones said that PPM solutions provide a combination of actual work activities and reporting, but features differ.

A program manager, for instance, may need a tool with more strategic analysis capabilities, while a project manager will likely need a central dashboard. Usually, as the level of manager interaction with a tool goes up, the number of employees accessing the tool goes down.

Now, you’ll want to create a short list of your priorities. Jones provided the following guiding questions:

  • How will you employ the tool (via the cloud, etc.)? Access from anywhere is an advantage many current PPM solutions have over spreadsheets.
  • How much customization will you need?
  • What roles and/or permissions will you need?
  • What’s your project demand input process? That is, how do people request projects?
  • Do you want to use the tool for project planning?
  • Do you want to use the tool for resource management? That is, will you need to assess whether a project is doable in your environment?
  • Do you want to use the tool for portfolio management? If so, will you need to actively manage a portfolio, or simply report on it periodically?
  • Do you want to use the tool for project collaboration? If so, who inside and outside the organization will need access, and what integration with other tools is essential?
  • What kind of reporting will be necessary?

The Art of the Demo

You will, of course, need to demo a few products. Jones cautioned us to ask the “how” rather than the “what.” While vendors might want to show you the latest new thing, along with sexy sounding features like portfolio optimization and social-style collaboration, you should stick to your priorities.

Insist on following a simple scenario through, and make sure you understand how the product handles workflows, multistage processes, and reporting. Be clear on your scope, and see if it’s possible to take a test drive to uncover any gaps between what you need and what the solution can provide.

Your People Are Still Important

Hopefully, you will identify a solution that makes your PPM systems much easier. However, even the best PPM tool will not replace the need for accountable human beings. When I asked Jones how businesses are using PPM tools to drive accountability, she responded that accountability has more to do with a process itself – and the people behind a process – than a tool. Make sure that your team members have specific roles so that no process gets left behind, and that every process is visible to the team as a whole.

Still managing projects with spreadsheets? Learn the Hidden Cost of Managing Projects with Spreadsheets.

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