Is It Time To Bin Spreadsheets And Digitise Your Project Management Office?

laptop research

Many of us love technology, but well respected South African Politician and businessman, Tshekede Pitso took it to the next level by being buried in his treasured car. Tshekede, a chief and member of the United Democratic Movement, loved his 1980’s E-Class Mercedes so much that he asked his family to bury him in it.

Following his sudden death, his family rolled him into his resting place, with his hands firmly attached to the wheel, precisely as he wished, and yet the connection that Tshekede felt with his pride and joy is nothing compared to the connection that some project managers have with their spreadsheets.

Tsehkede’s Mercedes was a full ten years younger than the spreadsheet, and yet someone having an emotional bond with fifty-year technology is something that many project teams will instantly recognise. Unfortunately, as strong as those bonds may be, I’m here to tell you that the series of calculators, trackers, registers, forms, data repositories and graphing tools that you have built up over the years aren’t quite hitting the mark anymore, because, while spreadsheets are versatile and useful pieces of software, they prevent us from taking project management to the next level.

During my quest to design a digital project management office, a paradox began to emerge. Almost all work takes place in the digital space; the first thing we do is turn on a computer when we arrive at work, and our laptops are the number one piece of equipment we need to travel with, yet getting a consistent view of project status can vary dramatically from person to person thanks to a plethora of manual processes, conflicting data sets and a good, old fashioned dollop of fudge. All this leads to periods spent interpreting, collating, and sifting through data, in other words – we are wasting of enormous amounts of time.

Within the energy sector, the scale and complexity of projects is increasing exponentially. Ever-growing computing power means that our engineers, architects and construction teams are able to generate, capture and interpret astronomical volumes of data, and yet the number of people we have to deliver this work is about the same, so if those people lock that information away on spreadsheets, complexity gives rise to confusion, confusion gives rise to cost and cost gives rise to delays and failures.

We already innately understand the power that comes with sharing information digitally. We are all able to open the handheld device in our pockets and communicate with people all over the world. We can witness events of national importance, or some flamboyant TikTok dancing. We can order virtually any product at any time of day from anywhere in the world and we can now curate all of the world’s information into a single, user friendly, chat interface, but for some reason I still end up with a cost variance of 0.8 and 1.1 in the same week.

What are we doing wrong?

The first thing we need to consider is control. If there’s one thing that a project manager likes to feel, it is in control. Spreadsheets offer a project manager the illusion of control because the numbers can be interrogated, manipulated and transformed to tell the story that they want. Even if that means many project management reports can prove about as useful as telling the future using chicken entrails, project managers fear the feeling of not being in control and so rely on data sets that can be fudged to create the illusion of control. Let’s be clear, this is often with good intent as you want your leaders directed to the issue at hand, and a tailored report can be an effective way to do that, but feeling in control is not the same thing as being in control.

Second to the need to feel in control comes the challenging technical issue of using data effectively.  Away from the project management office there are developments taking place in digital construction that really demonstrate the benefits that robust data management can bring. Building information modelling emphasises the need to create a data model as a precursor to any engineering work. Over the lifetime of a project this means that duplication of both effort and data can be eliminated and all construction data slots together like a fine piece of flat pack furniture. In manufacturing, aircraft firms are able to produce components in completely different time zones that fit together with microscopic levels of precision thanks to sharing up to the minute design information. Now consider how many projects you have worked on that can demonstrate such an effective use of project management data while everyone is in the same room, never mind different continents.

The seldom mentioned tragedy is that project managers were once way ahead of the data modelling game with the invention of the work breakdown structure as a by-product of the program evaluation and review technique (PERT), but now it is the engineers and asset owners who are demanding consistent and shared coding schemes that enable them to track all their pertinent information. The tables have turned and project managers have lost the initiative.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that project data models aren’t more prevalent is as a consequence of the complexity of the projects that organisations are delivering. In the current, disruptive and often downright unruly environment that organisations are operating in, the missions of the organisations change, and the associated processes have to be adapted, tested, trialled and, most frustratingly of all, approved before they can be released into the wild. How can you build a data model if you don’t know which process you are following?

If you are unaware of where you are in your process and where your data are, is it any wonder that our project managers are finding ways to create the illusion of control using dated techniques and squirreling information away to make them feel in control?

The digital project management office

Our engineers, architects and construction teams are in the process of building the most complex machines ever created. Incredibly fast and efficient transport systems, innovative nuclear technologies and fusion plants which harness the power of the stars to meet our ever-growing energy needs while aiming to reduce carbon emissions. The analysis and systems engineering capabilities of those teams is growing exponentially and we need to make sure that our project management office can match the capabilities, complexities, and ambitions of these systems.

That may sound daunting, but digital transformation is happening all around us all of the time and making noticeable improvements to what we can achieve. So if you want to break free from decades old technology let’s stop thinking in terms of an fifty year old Mercedes, and start considering the digital project management office in terms of the most advanced automotive engineering on the planet – a Formula 1 vehicle.

On the face of it, the job of an F1 team is relatively simple, to get a vehicle and driver around a track a set number of times quicker than the other drivers who set off at the same time. How you approach and set up for a race can help us understand how to set up a project management office.

The heart of the digital project management office, just as with a F1 car, starts with the person in the driving seat. We want our project leaders to feel like Lewis Hamilton, tearing around Silverstone in his Mercedes. The number of things the driver can do during a race is limited, he or she can make accelerate, or brake, turn and go straight, and they can respond to issues on the track. They are the person who is responsible for getting the car around the track in one piece.

Once a project commences, our project managers have a limited number of leavers they can pull to optimise the outcome, and it is them who are going to get that project across the finish line. The important thing is that they feel in control.

Creating that sense of control is how we break the dependency on spreadsheets and put project managers in lockstep with their delivery teams. To be successful, any digital project management office must be built with our end users at the centre. We need to understand what they need to be successful and equip them to drive the project as efficiently and effectively as they can.

Next are the tactics. An F1 team doesn’t set the car up at the start of the season based on the first event that comes along and then just hope for the best for the remainder. Likewise, a digital project management office needs to become artful at tailoring the platform to the mission at hand, rather than trying to force a rigid process to fit.

The aim is to think iteratively and adapt before the rubber hits the road. This process involves plenty of dialogue with your end users, and being open to contrasting opinions that will require tenacity and diplomacy to find consensus. It won’t be easier, but it will make the difference between spending most of your time in the pit and pole position.

Critical decisions need one critical ingredient to be successful – data. Every physical F1 car has an accompanying digital twin that enables the driver and the team to make crucial, split-second decisions to improve their chances.

We need to create a data model of your project before you start and map out the data sources and types. This goes beyond the work breakdown structure and should include the data that needs to be generated in all of the key processes that are undertaken.

This can include your risk register, change management records, recruitment, and even tracking your most important email conversations that can then be stored, shared and made accessible through techniques such as dashboarding, data marketplaces, and even, dare I say, artificial intelligence, to make sure the project managers and all your key stakeholders can make well informed decisions.

A union of people and technology

My company, Assystem, has been working at the forefront of the digital revolution in complex infrastructure projects for some time. We have long recognised the value of weaving data-based insights and digital platforms into project management to maximise efficiency. Working in partnerships with companies such as Oracle and Dassault Systèmes, and continuing to champion innovation in this space, our sophisticated, comprehensive digital project management office is now live.

The digital project management office creates the opportunity to put project management data on a par with our most advanced engineered systems. Just like an F1 vehicle, delivery centres on the project leader, equipping them to drive the project forward confidently, and with an iterative, adaptive, user centric approach the digital project management office empowers team members to lead and make informed decisions.

This gives us a chance to get people’s heads out of spreadsheets, trying to work out what their tables are telling them, and focussing on the road ahead. A digital project management office is vital to be able to deliver the extremely complex projects we have in the pipeline, and we need to combine people, process and technology to create a digital platform that is so good you will be ready to write it into your will.

Graham Openshaw is UK Head of Digital at Assystem.

Graham Openshaw
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