Project Conference 2015 Announced – Well Sort Of

See this link for more details: http://blogs.office.com/2014/07/21/microsofts-unified-technology-event-for-enterprises/

As has long been predicted, this will be the big one – where the worlds of collaboration collide for a unified Project/SharePoint/Exchange/Lync conference.

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Project Scheduling and the World Cup

In my training sessions, I often use sports metaphors for project schedule modeling – this, despite my utter lack of any sort of athletic ability and pathological indifference to most sporting events.  The thing is, sports events are great examples of predictive models.

Take the World Cup for instance.  If I were to ask you who would have taken the Cup way back at the beginning of this thing, you would have selected from 32 teams.  At a basic level, we could say that each team has an equal chance of winning.  Of course, we can make the model more complex.  We can look at individual player performance, historical records, playing style, locations in which matches will be played…..  When we throw all of those together, we can create a model of the top 5-10 favored teams.

What is this doing?  It’s adding information to the model to predict the future – and providing a range of potential outcomes.  Like any schedule, as I learn additional information, I include that in my model and refactor the results.  From where I sit at the time of writing, we have now gotten down to the quarterfinals.  Of the 32 teams that started, 8 are left.  Clearly, I can remove 24 of the original candidates from the list of potential winners.

Simply by removing those 24 from the list, I have greatly increased my chances of being correct about who will win the championship.  Can I tell exactly who will win?  No, but I can apply my data modeling structure to the remaining teams and come up with a much better prediction than when the games started.

Extrapolate that forward, and as each game is played, the potential outcomes for the competition narrow even further.  Eventually, we’re left with two teams – which greatly simplifies the modeling.  Finally, at the end, we know who won.

Apply this model to a schedule.  We forecast a range of potential outcomes, with a more probably outcome and a less probable outcome.  As the project plays out, the range of potential outcomes diminishes.  The most probably path becomes more and more apparent.

Another metaphor I commonly use is a toothpaste tube.  If you assess the amount of risk, or uncertainty, associated with the schedule.  As events increasingly transform from the potential future to the recent past, the amount of uncertainty goes down.  It’s the same as squeezing toothpaste from a tube.  At the end of the day, there’s no uncertainty as the project is complete.  All of the risk has been squeezed out of the tube.

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Alphabetical Order Matters: Naming Task Lists on Project Sites

Figured this out a while back for the forums, but then promptly forgot and shot myself in the foot.

Consider the following scenario:

  1. You modify the default site template to have more than one task list – for instance, if you plan to have workflow deployed on the site – which requires a task list.
  2. You publish a project with that site template.
  3. You create a schedule for that project.
  4. The schedule does not appear on the site.  You don’t get that cool Project Summary view.

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It turns out the schedule is sync’d to the first task list it finds on the site alphabetically.  If you have a task list named something like, My Workflow Tasks, the schedule gets sync’d to that list.

The solution is to always make sure the task list that you want to sync with the project comes in first in the alphabet.  Optionally, the other method is to modify the Project Summary Webpart so it points to the correct list – although I’d probably check out option #1 first.

Posted in Collaboration, Project Online, Scheduling | Leave a comment

Choosing an Engagement Model

Thanks everyone for coming out to my session on Project Epistemology a couple months ago at the Project Conference.  As I discussed in that session, there are often two conflicting views of any Project Server deployment – and I would contend that most conflict within a consulting engagement typically is driven by the conflict between these views.

Put more succinctly, when both parties in a consulting arrangement are operating from a different engagement model, bad things happen.

The first model is simple.  It is based on the following points:

  1. The problem is simple.
  2. The focus is the solution.
  3. The solution is technical.

What this means is that we have a discrete, defined problem.  We can easily place boundaries around it, and the consultant’s job is to come in, design the solution, train a couple of end users, drop an invoice on the desk and run.

The second model is more complex.  It is based on the following points:

  1. The problem is wicked.
  2. The focus is the problem.
  3. The solution is adaptive.

The challenge in the second model is that we never assume that everyone agrees as to what the fundamental problem actually is.  In fact, we don’t even acknowledge that everyone agrees a problem exists.  The first step in an engagement of that nature is to work on defining a common consensus as to the problems faced and the priority of those problems.  Often times, this requires covering ground that may have been covered already long before the consultant walked in the door.

That’s the fundamental building block upon which to continue the engagement.  Once that is completed, we don’t acknowledge that there is such a thing as a solution.  Instead, we acknowledge the concept of progress towards a solution, insofar as we can work towards a better future, one where we better understand what the problem is and better provide value to the organization.

What does this mean in the context of a simple reporting engagement?  Reporting, more than pretty much any other topic, lends itself to the adaptive consulting model.  In reporting, you are typically tying multiple data sets into a single reporting tool, and then presenting that data to your stakeholders.  Once they see the data, and they see how it can be manipulated, the questions start.  “Can I see it this way?” they ask.  “Can we add additional data to the mix to see how it impacts things?”

What that means is that a reporting effort never ends.  It just begins.  It’s an adaptive exercise continued ad infinitum until the stakeholders have iteratively identified what reports are actually required.

How does one consult in a situation like that?  You don’t focus on the steady state solution, which is arguably a myth.  Instead, you focus on building a capability.  Our job as consultants is to build the capability of developing and modifying reports within the client organization.  Once we’ve built that capability and the technology platform to support it, we have done our job well.

For more reading on problem framing as part of enterprise tool deployments, take a look at Kailash Awati and Paul Culmsee’s book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.

Posted in Change Management | 2 Comments

The Microsoft Platform and the Evolution of a PMIS

Is a doorway a frame around empty space?  Or is it the space that is surrounded by a frame?  When selecting a PMIS platform, the same question should be asked.  Is a PMIS a series of solutions within an empty white space?  Or is the PMIS the empty white space populated throughout with a series of solutions?

For those of you not familiar with the PMIS term, it’s a standard industry name for a Project Management Information System – or any system within your organization that is used to track project data.  The PMIS could be a filing cabinet.  It could be a series of notebooks kept by engineers.  It could be an incredibly complex series of IT tools integrated through a data warehouse and a service bus.

Regardless of the technology underpinning it, the PMIS needs to serve specific functions, whether that is project tracking, portfolio analysis, resource management, risk management, or any one of the other key knowledge areas or processes defined in the PMI literature.

The particular form of a PMIS that’s supported by IT tools is part of our stock and trade.  As we see it, this PMIS evolves in different forms.

In some companies, there is no formalized PMIS.  In these organizations, there’s typically not a lot of formal project management processes, and most things are tracked in Excel – perhaps with some financial management in a specific tool such as Oracle or PeopleSoft.

In other organizations, there are a wide range of point solutions.  This is often associated with (but not exclusively with) large organizations where the project management function has been broken out in to a wide variety of distinct offices.  In these organization, there may be an enterprise architecture office, a risk management office, an office that deals with projects just being developed, an office that deals with projects that are more advanced, a reporting office…you get the picture.

The Microsoft platform has a different value proposition in each of those scenarios.  Note here that when I talk about the “Microsoft Platform.” I’m not simply talking about Microsoft Project Server – but rather the full panoply of Microsoft solutions: SharePoint, Project Server, Yammer, Power BI, SQL, etc.

For the first kind of organization, the one where there’re not a lot of formal tools in place, the Microsoft platform provides an excellent foundation to build upon.  Build your collaboration and document management workflows in SharePoint.  Build project scheduling practices and resource management in Project Server.  Enhance knowledge capture through Yammer.  Report on all of this in the Microsoft BI suite.

The challenge here is that Microsoft in presenting itself as a platform becomes a victim of trying to be all things to all people.   Microsoft is great for basic scheduling – but if you are attempting to model critical chain scheduling, you’ll need an add in.  If you’re attempting to do Earned Schedule analysis, you’ll need an add-in.  If you’re looking to manage large industry-specific design documents, you could do it in SharePoint, but you’ll likely be looking at another solution that’s more tailored to the specific needs of the industry.

For the second type of organization, the kind that already has a lot of solutions already in place, we find value in evaluating them and bringing them into the SharePoint fold.  Retire the ones that are superfluous.  Integrate the ones that aren’t.  At the end of the day, the Microsoft platform provides a single integrated user interface from which to navigate to those tools – and a data structure to enable integrated reporting.

At the end of the day, selecting a PMIS platform is less about point solutions and more about filling the white space within the organization’s project delivery organization.

Posted in PMO, Portfolio Management, Project Online, SharePoint, Workflow | Leave a comment

The Macro View of Technology and Portfolio Management

Enterprises do a lot of things to improve how projects deliver value.  They look to define resource capacity calculations, identify the project pipeline, enhance reporting capabilities, etc.  The list goes on and on, a veritable smorgasbord of PMI terminology and PMBOK processes.  When you back up a bit, and look at each of these options from a macro standpoint however, you begin to see some fundamental trends.

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The reality is that from a purely technological standpoint, many of these bells and whistles serve one of two masters.

  1. Portfolio Structuring (aka Governance)
  2. End to End PM Information Systems (aka the Data Required to Support Governance)

Portfolio Structuring / Governance

All of the AHP heuristics, resource forecasting, and dark scheduling arts in the world won’t get significant value out of a portfolio that has not been structured properly.  Instead, you’ll be spending a lot of time and energy tweaking a sub-optimized system where you’re still either working on the wrong projects or can’t explain why the ones you’re working on are correct.

Identify which projects belong to which programs….and which programs support which strategic initiatives.  Only then, can you really determine when (and how and by whom) the project should be chartered.

Portfolio structuring also helps you become more proactive in your candidate identification.

Caveat: that probably only applies to second tier portfolios – but identifying the difference between the tier one and tier two portfolios is part of the portfolio structuring exercise.

E2E PMIS / Data

Too often, we walk into an enterprise and see various point solutions for managing specific elements of the project lifecycle.  As study after study points out, the key to effective portfolio management is to create an end to end repository for all project information.  Start with the idea, move it through selection and out into execution.  Gather information throughout the lifecycle.  Don’t be creating information from scratch every time you hand the project off from Team A to Team B.  Simple.

The data you collect in the PMIS then becomes the grist to enhance the decisions made in the governance layer.

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Business Intelligence: Project Online vs. Project Server 2013 On-Premises

This question comes up on such a regular basis, that I decided to blog it up this weekend.  What’s the difference between the business intelligence story in Project Online vs. Project Server 2013 On-Premises?  To be honest, answering this question goes a long way to answering the question of what the difference is between Project Online and Project Server, period.  The main difference is business intelligence.

First off, a bit of term definition:

  • Project Online – the offering provided by Microsoft that’s really Project Server 2013 + whatever upgrades have happened in the Online product between when 2013 was released to market and the date of this blog post.  (Watch the comments for updates).
  • Project Server 2013 – well, Project Server 2013, as deployed on premises – again, assuming all of the updates as of this blog posting.

Note that the reason I have to be careful about term definitions is that much of the v.Next functionality for Project Server on premises is being released right now in the online environment.  I would expect many of these features to first appear online, then migrate over to the on-premises world – which will make this post outdated pretty soon.

Before reading any further, feel free to check out some of my other blog posts on reporting options available both online and on-premises.

BI Components

The following components come into play when discussing the difference between online and on-premises reporting:

  1. Data Source – the underlying raw data related to projects, resources, etc.  This data source may be real time, or for various reasons, replicated to a secondary data source using a timed process.
  2. Data Model – the relationships and hierarchy between the various data points.  For example, I may have three resources assigned to a project that is supporting my drilling operations.  That would necessitate pulling data from the resource table, assignment table, project table, and potentially additional tables related to workflow.
  3. Reporting Layer – the tools used to actually generate the reports.
  4. Presentation Layer – the platform used to surface the reports to the general users.

The Basics: Data Access

Project Server stores everything in a set of tables within a SQL database.  Hence, any reporting tool that can access SQL (which is pretty much all of them) can access and report on Project Server data.

Project Online doesn’t allow direct access to SQL data, as the database instance is a shared environment, and thus, users could theoretically impact other tenants if they had direct access.  For Online, the preferred reporting is OData, which is an RSS-like data feed.  Open an OData compliant reporting tool (like Excel 2013), point it at the feed URL, and you have the data (albeit not the data model – which is a different story).

As many clients still prefer to report against SQL, Microsoft has recently released (via Cumulative Update) an SSIS upgrade that will allow organizations to set up timed reporting jobs to import OData feeds into an on-premises SQL database – thus allowing the use/migration of existing reports that look for SQL data.

The issue, of course, is that the SSIS integration reporting isn’t quite real time – or it’s a mix of real time and not-so-real time.  Reports requiring a limited data set can pull from the live online OData.  Reports requiring a lot of data, i.e. timesheet reporting, etc., can pull from the SQL database.  The main caveat here is that if you’re the kind of organization that likes to generate reports, spot mistakes, republish projects, and regenerate reports, latent data may not work for you.

If on the other hand, you feel the savings from going online offsets the issues with not having real time data, the the Online offering may be appropriate for you.

Scenario Comparison

Hence, we actually have three scenarios to compare.  Note that these may not be mutually exclusive – as you can mix and match some of the functionality depending on your needs.  You can also have hybrid online/on-prem environments if there’s something available in one that you absolutely need to support your organization.

  1. Project Server (On-Premises)
  2. Project Online (Native OData)
  3. Project Online (SSIS Integration)
Scenario On Premises Online (OData) Online (SSIS)
Data Source SQL (Real Time) OData (Real Time) OData (Real Time – Limited Data Set)SSIS (Sync’d via timer)
Data Model SQL PowerPivot (Excel) PowerPivot (Excel)SQL
Reporting Tools Excel, SSRS, Standard Reporting Tools Excel 2013Other tools that support OData (limited availability) Excel, SSRS, Standard Reporting Tools
Presentation Layer SharePoint SharePoint (add’l options to support iPad compatibility with HTML5) SharePoint (add’l options to support iPad compatibility with HTML5)
Natural Language Queries (Power BI) Not Available On-Prem Power BI Portal Power BI Portal

And Another Thing….Power BI Sites

The term Power BI is confusing as it is often used for both the Microsoft Power BI offerings (Power Pivot, Power View, Power Maps) and the Power BI sites.  As of this writing, most of the Power BI suite is availabe online or on-premises, but the Power BI sites are only available online.  Power BI sites are SharePoint portals available under an ala carte licensing scheme that provide the following functionality:

  1. Data Feeds – configurable to integrate both on-premises and online data.
  2. Power View reporting – similar to what’s available in SharePoint.
  3. Natural Language Querying – which is one of the more exciting things to be happening in the BI world, i.e. the ability to create data models and allow users to enter questions into the browser window – which the system answers.  For example, you can type something like “Show me all projects starting in Botswana in 2015,” and the system will automatically spit out a map of Botswana showing the location of all projects starting in 2015.

That’s the main round up of differences.  Did I miss anything?  Feel free to drop me a line in the comments section.

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