Project management can be difficult, no matter the size of the project. But managing a project involving hundreds of thousands of documents that must be shared by teams stationed around the globe is a significant challenge. Here’s how one of my clients identified and met the challenge through a Web-based project management system.

Two years ago, an international construction company that is among the top 20 firms worldwide won a two-year contract worth $1.5 billion, presenting the company with a fast-track construction project and numerous challenges:

  • My client had to manage more than 700,000 documents, including drawings, memos, specifications, quality manuals, purchase orders, invoices, tenders, contracts, site instructions, variations, standards, etc. These documents needed to be stored, distributed, and updated rapidly.
  • Comprehensive tracking of time-sensitive items, such as requests for information (RFIs) and submittals, was essential. Team members were accountable for content and timely response.
  • An audit trail that verified a communication took place (was sent/received) was a mandatory contractual requirement.
  • Secure and fast document delivery (much faster than overnight courier) was essential.
  • A major challenge was to achieve a faster cycle time by eliminating lag time as information moved from one organization to another.
  • The project had a fully distributed team. The engineers were in Europe, the client was in the Middle East, vendors/subcontractors were across the globe, and the construction site was more than 600 km into the desert, with major logistical difficulties.

What we needed
We needed reliable, inexpensive, and almost instantaneous worldwide access available 24/7 to a centralized repository of project management information. In summary, we needed the ability to manage the project across time and space, to “work side-by-side worldwide.” This ability was impossible to achieve without shared storage and concurrency control.

Critical characteristics
To achieve our objectives, we identified three critical characteristics for the proposed solution. It would have to be:

  • Coherently structured
  • Integrated
  • Scalable

All the projects within the organization’s portfolio would need to share a consistent set of data definitions and structures. The teams would need to have a common understanding of the relationships between activities, costs, and resources. This foundation is critical since projects use a shared pool of resources. Using this structure, management can compare and summarize individual projects within a shared database. Without this structure, management would unable to assemble the details of multiple, diverse projects into a coherent and useful global view.

First of two parts

This is the first of two articles dealing with the implementation of a Web-based project management system in a major construction company. The series documents the firsthand experience gained during the planning and implementation of a Web-based project management system. The next article will discuss the challenges we faced in implementing the PM system.

A common structure enables team members from a specific project to work with information captured or created using distinct software packages. However, effective management of multiple projects requires seamless integration of dispersed information. There is no isolated project from an organizational view. The delays in releasing resources from one project will affect the schedules of all other projects that share the same resources. Eliminating this risk requires the integration of these diverse schedules. A Web-based project management solution should enable managers throughout the organization to integrate multiple projects. It should also allow managers to identify relationships between several projects in different geographical locations without physically being there.

Projects vary in size, scope, and shape. On the one hand, a few projects are large. Those projects require comprehensive planning and constant status reporting. They also need frequent analysis to manage risks and resolve issues. On the other hand, smaller projects generally require less effort for project planning and reporting. A Web-based project management solution should be scalable to the size, scope, and shape of the project. In addition, it should be adaptable to the skills and requirements of the project managers.

Minimum functional requirements
We used several workshops, discussion forums, and surveys to gather, document, analyze, and prioritize the minimum functional requirements of a Web-based project management system. The requirements included the ability to:

  • Provide the right information at the right time and place to the right team members.
  • Accomplish the first task electronically to reduce or eliminate costly and time-consuming manual distribution.
  • Provide continuous information-sharing with individuals from other firms.
  • Integrate information from external applications or databases, such as CAD programs, accounting programs, etc.
  • Deliver information in its native format so that an authorized user can manipulate/modify it.
  • Allow team members to view information in all forms without having to install the related applications on their computer; they should be able to view and annotate documents from within the tool.
  • Be easy to use and navigate; be compatible with Windows 2000 GUI.
  • Be accessible to all team members with minimal or no changes to their computers.
  • Automatically track and record user activity and archive previous versions of any changed document. This record holds team members accountable for changes and errors during design and construction. It supports/refutes claims for additional charges.
  • Track and link discussions with the related documents.
  • Manage access rights, make associations between team members and relevant data, and notify appropriate team members about new, pertinent information when it becomes available. This protects the data and speeds up the communications process.
  • Generate requests for information (RFIs), track them (RFI log), and resolve them.
  • Track proposed change orders (PCOs), construction change directives (CCDs), and change orders (COs). This reduces the number of steps and the time it takes for the submittal and review processes. It thus shortens the overall project design and construction schedule and reduces non-responsiveness on the part of the design professionals involved.
  • Provide online review and coordination of design documents, progress photographs, reports, drawings, etc.
  • Allow drag-and-drop updating of information.
  • Support the use of hyperlinks and allow all teams to use standard business software right away for creating and collaborating on a wide range of document types.
  • Be compatible with the information technology infrastructure that already exists in the company.

Our options
Once we identified the minimum requirements of the Web-based solution, there were three options available to acquire it:

  • Build the tool from scratch.
  • Sign up for a subscription service.
  • Purchase an off-the-shelf server application designed to fulfill specific requirements.

Cost, flexibility, and strategic issues forced us to build the tool from scratch, which took about six months.

Developing a Web-based project management strategy
To effectively and efficiently implement the tool, we needed to develop a Web-based project management strategy, which included the following steps:

  1. Measure the effectiveness of the current project management process.
  2. Define the new project management process incorporating the new tools available.
  3. Pilot test the process and modify it accordingly using manual simulation.
  4. Refine the process based on the results of the pilot test.
  5. Complete system installation and training.
  6. Identify projects that will use standardized project templates.
  7. Define roles and responsibilities of team members and project managers on accessing and updating the repository.
  8. Identify the team that will monitor and support the new project management process.
  9. Identify projects that will continue to use the old project management process.
  10. Prepare managerial procedures for handling multiple projects, resolving resource conflicts, etc.
  11. Time the migration to the new strategy.
  12. Monitor and support the new installation.
  13. Measure the effectiveness of the new process and compare it to the old one.
  14. Refine the new process according to the results of step 13.

Web-based project management is not a replacement for time-tested and proven project management techniques. On the contrary, it extends the best practices in project management to distributed project management; i.e., multiproject and multisite organization. Web-based project management provides the enterprise with an extensive and integrated set of tools that enable it to attempt much larger projects involving more locations, people, facilities, and equipment. Implementing a Web-based project management system requires a cultural change in the organization and is associated with many difficulties. This change is going to have a considerable impact on the organization’s technology, working environment, people, and processes. Implementing a virtual project team requires extensive planning, management backup, availability of resources, and monitoring of performance. A prerequisite step for its success is the meticulous selection of the proper tools that support the critical needs of the organization.