Projects: Risk-e-Business
Jerry Laiserin

Now that resource scheduling software has become mainstream, and online project collaboration networks are poised to cross the chasm, where are the early adopters headed in project management? Quick looks at Robust Decisions' Accord, SimVision from Vité, and Thumbrint from Cyntergy Technology provide some clues. The new mantra? Managing the risk of project business.

"Traditional" project management entails applying resources appropriately to one or more tasks (each with defined starting and ending dates/times and duration) until the overall project goal is completed. In projects of any complexity, such as design and construction of almost anything in the man-made environment, the project management process and supporting software tools quickly grow correspondingly complex, as well. With multiple sub-tasks, dependencies among tasks, a critical path (the "least-time" route through the graph of project dependencies), resource-leveling (spreading the burden among the available personnel and equipment), and so on, project management has become a professional discipline unto itself (see, for example, the work of the industry-leading Project Management Institute).

Tools such as Ballantine & Co's QuickGantt, Kidasa Milestones, AEC Software's FastTrack Schedule, Microsoft Project, Primavera Systems' Project Planner and SureTrak Project Manager, and Artemis International Solutions' ProjectView provide varying degrees of sophistication and scalability to serve projects of varying size and scope. Numerous add-on products from these and other vendors provide interoperability among schedulers, links to other applications such as financial management and timesheets, multi-project roll-ups or portfolio management, and so on. Still other tools, such as Primavera's Expedition, Meridian Project Systems' Prolog, and an exaltation of extranets (Web-based project collaboration networks) address the related but separate issue of project administration (managing the flow of project information, rather than the flows of project schedule-time and resource-time). Yet, there remain project niches not well-served by any of these tools.

These hitherto overlooked project information needs revolve around three sets of issues:

> Project decision-making in the face of uncertainty

> Project adaptation to the risk of project tasks not going as scheduled

> Project knowledge management, which lets us apply what we've learned from past projects to our next project.

According to Robust Decisions President Dr. David G. Ullman, PE, the company's Accord software is specifically designed to "compensate for typical barriers to decision-making, including: incomplete and evolving information; uncertain evaluations; and inconsistency of team members' inputs"—in other words, decision-making under uncertainty. Dave is one of the smartest serial entrepreneurs in the design technology business, which makes Oregon-based Robust Decisions' Accord well worth consideration by anybody with "skin" in the project game.

Moving down the Pacific Coast to the Silicon Valley neighborhood of California, Vité Corporation takes a unique look at projects by including variables such as "failure dependencies," in which subsequent events that do not go as scheduled can ripple back to affect prior events. Instead of looking at resource allocation and the critical path based solely on nominal assumptions about timely performance, Vité's SimVision simulates the probability that any project task will be completed within its scheduled duration and then dynamically optimizes the "fitness" of the project, portfolio, or organization to suit the realistically most likely outcome. Founded by Stanford University Civil Engineering professors and researchers Dr. Raymond Levitt, Dr. John Kunz, and Dr. Yan Jin (the latter now at the University of Southern California) and partly owned by Stanford, Vité provides project decision support and risk management to Fortune 1000 clients such as Hewlett-Packard and Genentech.

In the US heartland of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cyntergy Technology, LLC President Bill Davis argues persuasively for his firm's Thumbprint technology as the best way to "help companies organize, manage, and track portfolios of similar-but-different projects." Within any company, most projects will have similar parameters, work products, and work flows. Identifying and reusing such common elements across multiple projects enables project personnel to work smarter with less effort, focusing more of their attention on those factors that make each project different from all the others in the firm's portfolio. This sort of "knowing what we know" is the essence of knowledge management, which makes Thumbprint one of the first project knowledge management tools on the market (careful observers of the AEC dot-com bubble may recall seeing, if they didn't blink, a now moribund product/service called VisionPlanner, which attempted to capture project knowledge at closeout and recycle it to other projects' startup.

Project knowledge management closes the information loop, effectively providing better information to reduce the uncertainty of future project decision-making. Many of these concepts are starting to trickle out to more established vendors. For example, the latest repositioning of Framework Technologies' ActiveProject is as an executive-dashboard decision-support tool for project portfolio management.

Mathematically, information is the inverse of uncertainty; so, increasing project knowledge inevitably decreases project risk. Any project-centric organization seeking leading technologies for less risky business should be looking into these kinds of decision, risk, and knowledge tools.

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