How Translink Boosted PMO Efficiency With Project Online 


Brendan Harkin, Head of the Portfolio Management Office (PMO), explains how implementing Microsoft Project Online gave his organisation a 25% efficiency saving and brought its diverse and complicated portfolio of projects into crystal clarity.

Tell us about Translink and your role?

Translink provides public transport services for Northern Ireland and is comprised of three main operating companies; Northern Ireland Railways, Ulsterbus and Metro. The organisation operates 12,500 bus, rail and coach services every day and carries 85 million passenger journeys every year.

To support and develop these services Translink manages an ongoing capital investment portfolio for Rail Infrastructure and Property facilities as well as Bus and Rail Engineering projects.

These are coordinated and controlled through a centralised Portfolio Management Office (PMO). Funded through the Department for Infrastructure (DfI), the investment portfolio currently exceeds £100m pa.

As Head of the Portfolio Management Office (PMO), I’m responsible for  managing the planning and delivery of the overall portfolio and assurance of best practice programme and project management processes.

Give us some idea of the complexity of the projects you work on

Translink’s portfolio consists of a diverse range of projects across Network Engineering, Property, Bus and Rail Engineering and ICT programmes.

There are typically over 300 live projects being managed concurrently, ranging in value from £100k to £100m-plus. Project types include railway infrastructure renewals and enhancement works, bus and rail station development and new bus and rail fleet expansion and engineering facilities

To manage the diverse range of interdependent programmes and projects we adopted a best practice governance approach based on a Portfolio, Programme, and Project Office (P3O) framework, which is aimed at integrating projects, programmes and portfolio and ensuring optimum return on investment.

How did you come into contact with The Project Group?

The Project Group (TPG) was recommended to Translink by Microsoft as a Gold PPM partner. Its team is highly experienced and they guided us through the full lifecycle of the toolset deployment.

TPG’s suite of Microsoft Project Add-ins were critical to meeting several of Translink’s more complex challenges.

What was your need and how did they approach the project?

Translink’s portfolio of projects, both in terms of numbers and value of projects, has risen considerably in recent years as investment in public transport increased.

Our old project information management system was no longer fit for purpose, and the PMO was struggling to effectively manage the steadily increasing volume and scale of projects and associated data requirements.

The old system didn’t integrate project manager schedules with the central master programme therefore requiring a manual data interface with the PMO. These inefficiencies meant the PMO had to spend nearly a week every month  capturing and transferring project data  before we could fully understand portfolio performance, risks and issues.

We had developed a range of complex P3O KPIs and reporting had been developed. The delay between project updates and portfolio publication created inconsistencies between source and published version.

That problem was compounded by increasing client expectations for fast, real time, project information to be provided. As a government client organisation this was a critical requirement.

Another issue was Translink’s document management system, which had been developed separately so project documentation, schedule and cost information was not integrated.

How did you overcome these challenges?

We decided we needed a cloud-based enterprise system to fully integrate PMO and project information. It had to be bespoke to meet business needs. We also wanted to take advantage of the capability of Power BI to enhance our reporting capability.

Translink engaged with TPG , a Microsoft Gold Partner, to develop a bespoke integrated P3O information management system based on the Project Web App (Project Online and SharePoint Online) methodology, combined with Power BI.

TPG worked closely with us to understand how our methodology and reporting systems worked and incorporate many of the features that were embedded in the new software. This was crucial for us: to develop a bespoke model meeting business needs, rather than a simple out-of-the-box solution.

TPG made sure that existing ‘business as usual’ arrangements could be maintained in parallel during the development, so there was no loss of capability during the project implementation.

To resolve some of Translink’s PMO needs, TPG deployed one of their Project apps, which imports baseline data from all active projects into one project file to provide an integrated picture and deliver an accurate capital plan.

TPG advised on how the system capability could be enhanced with the user of Power BI and they developed the new system which is now a core function for our business.

In what ways did Microsoft Project and Power BI Come into play?

All Project Managers within the organisation now use Microsoft Project to manage their projects. The information on the details page helps us develop multi-layered, detailed and complex reports.

The information coming from the schedule is now ‘one truth’; accurate and accessible off the network and in the cloud.

Using Power BI, we developed detailed reports using the data. It allowed us to not only see period changes to the portfolio, but for the first time have an accurate projection for the future.

With Power BI and using the Project data we could see what the portfolio would look like 30-plus years ahead, allowing us to sharpen our long-term goals and vision for our projects.

What do you like about these tools?

Project Online allowed us integrate portfolio, programme and project structures seamlessly with lists that roll up key P3O data including Costs, Milestones, Change Control, Risks, Issues, Lessons Learned and Benefits. The ability to integrate project documentation within same site was a key benefit in project and records management requirements.

The outcome is that real time, integrated data on projects, programmes and portfolio is available and accessible.  The result is ‘one truth’ for analysis, decision making and reporting.

Training for Project Managers and stakeholders has been straightforward and adoption of new systems fairly seamless. Highlight Reports, KIPs for Cost, Schedule as well as Benefits, Risks, Issues, Change, Lessons Learned etc are generated form lists and static projects data and are rolled up across programmes and the portfolio.

A major advantage of using Power BI for data analysis and visualisation is that it is affordable. The Power BI Desktop version is free of cost, which allows a few members of the team to build ad-hoc reports.

With the wide range of custom visualisations – i.e. those made by developers for a specific use, the team have been able to produce highly interactive, attractive and professional reports. There are a range of custom visualisations, including KPIs, maps, charts, graphs, R script visuals, and so on.

The use of Power Bi coupled with Project Online has improved our reporting capability immensely and has now become the accepted means of visualising P3O data at project, programme and portfolio levels.

The range of data and reports now available for the first time at a portfolio level allows our Executive to visualise, understand the P3O at a strategic level and help influence decisions.

In what ways did the tools improve efficiency/visibility/productivity?

Conservatively speaking, we’ve removed a week of non-productive time per month as part of the cycle of collating, checking, analysing and reporting data to the Executive.

This is equivalent to 25% efficiency saving for the PMO team resource. A further efficiency of 5-10% of project managers time has been saved in reporting to PMO and using the same information in multiple other reports.

The real success is our ability to manage the Translink project portfolio seamlessly from project managers all the way through our senior executive team. Project Online and Power BI has now become the norm in reporting at project boards and in reporting Portfolio and Programme dashboards to Executive team

Project data is now easily accessible and co-located within project sites.

Utilisation of the model continues to grow and is now being used to inform other business departments such as Procurement and Estates. Further developments ongoing include Benefits Planning.

What have been the main benefits of this experience for Translink?

The ability to access live data, and report from a single truth source is hugely beneficial especially for a public sector-funded organisation like Translink. Both PMO and end users can have confidence that data and reports are from source and represent the real position.

The system enables Translink to implement a key objective in our Portfolio-Programme-Project Office (P3O) strategy for an integrated information management system to support planning and delivery.

The integrated structure has proved invaluable in scenario planning for capital investment and allows programme managers improved visibility of their programmes.

The quality of live time information for decision-making has improved dramatically, including projected Highlight Reports, KPIs, Risks, Issues, Change, Lessons Learned and Benefit Realisation.

The newly integrated Project Online, SharePoint Online and Power BI system has also brought major efficiencies in project management and PMO resources. Now, time is more productively spent on analysing data and decision making, rather than data handling and migration.

With Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Project, we now access our schedules, our SharePoint sites, and our Power BI reports remotely from any device.

Project reporting capability has improved immensely and is now used widely across the business and been a genuine game-changer for project planning delivery and assurance.

Brendan Harkin
Related People
Related sized article featured image

When it comes to a productive business, happy and healthy employees are essential.

PM Today Interview Team
Related sized article featured image

PeopleCert's Markus Bause talks about the future of project management skills, from soft skills to Dev Ops. 

PM Today Interview Team