Confused by project management technology? Russell Henley of Deltek gives some tips on what to look out for before you make your investment.

Thousands of UK AEC projects were delivered on time and to budget last year. Sadly though, it is the handful of high-profile developments that went badly awry that are remembered.

Bad news sells ± and reputations are fragile. Consequently, many AEC firms are now recognising that they must go the extra mile to avoid projects getting out of hand and are considering investing in one of the many project management IT solutions currently on the market.

However, making a decision on which one to choose isnÝt straightforward and itÝs easy to end up with a solution that doesnÝt quite fit the way you work. So, here are five points to consider:

1. Project ± or enterprise? Or both?

ThereÝs project management software and then thereÝs software that manages projects. Some solutions only allow users to record, store and share data. Others are more proactive and encompass the end-to-end project process from resourcing to billing.

ýBad news sells ± and reputations are fragile. Consequently, many AEC firms are now recognising that they must go the extra mile to avoid projects getting out of hand¯

A solution can manage projects in isolation or as part of your entire operation. The best have been developed for the entire project-focused enterprise. Check your chosen vendor understands how both the AEC industry and all project-focused organisations work.

2. Integrated control

Integrating enterprise functions with project activities can really help solve complex management and operational challenges. For example The Manchester-based engineeering services provider, the Wilde Group, was looking for a new system to help manage its growth across its four different companies. However, it had to go through a rigorous market research programme of at least fifteen different software packages before it found one that integrated both accounting and project control systems.

It found that most account packages focused on the financial accounts with possibly a small project module tacked on. However, it was actually more important to concentrate on the project accounts.

Once again, choosing an enterprise system designed for project focused organisations was the solution ± and now the Wilde GroupÝs system not only combines the two, but also provides integral CRM and resource planning. ýUsing a single, centralised database, our new solution will provide seamless workflow across our whole enterprise, providing critical real-time project data to our multiple locations. We anticipate that access to this timely, accurate data will ultimately increase our cash flow and help to expand our business,¯ says David Wilde, chairman.


3. Singular and central

You need a certain piece of information for a client meeting in a hurry. But to find it involves looking in a variety of systems and files as there is no way to generate the data automatically. The answer is a single, centralised database which keeps all project, resourcing, accounting and even HR information and which can integrate the data where necessary.

However, notice I say centralised and not modular. If your company is expanding rapidly, or want to make a staged investment, a modular solution may at first appear the best option. However, often with this type of system, the data is held in separate compartments.

If you make a change in one, you will need to go across the system and make changes everywhere. Also, if a system is modular in approach and modular in installation, each time new functionality is added, you may have to go through the whole upheaval of integration.

The best solutions hold all information on a single centralised database and further functions are activated using a code, as required. This will allow a seamless workflow across the entire organisation and also make it straightforward to build on the system without further integration as and when it is necessary.

4. Easy access to real-time, visual information

A web-based system which can be accessed from PCs and networked laptops with no other software needed is a must if staff in your organisation are always travelling, work on-site or from home. But, the best new solutions also offer the option of a mobile applications suite, which means they can enter timesheets and expense reports from PDAs and laptops onsite when not connected to the central database. This results in faster billing and better cash-flow.

However, perhaps the best feature of the latest systems is their ability to provide real-time information which enables an almost instant response when alarm bells start to ring. The faster you can get to a problem the easier it will be to solve ± and, in some cases, the client need never know.

Some solutions now on the market even present this current information visually to allow fast analysis of large amounts of project information. These can examine key metrics in the context of other business drivers such as current and future market opportunities. They also enable fast ýon-the-fly¯ comparisons, slicing and dicing of data, look at the aggregate view of a project or drill down into specific groups of projects by a range of criteria.

This functionality provides an excellent way to grab headline information quickly ± just before meeting the client, for example, or before a key internal meeting.

5. Look out for hidden costs

Finally, many buyers donÝt budget enough for installation and configuration. ItÝs often quoted that for every ú1 worth of software, you need to allow between ú2 - ú5 for installation and configuration. Bear this in mind ± but also consider that there are now solutions on the market that are far easier to install so only work out at around ú1 for ú1.

Bearing these five points in mind should help cut through the confusion of investing in a new solution. And making sure your projects are only hit the headlines for all the right reasons.