Project Management: Choosing the Right Tech Tool

Project Management Tools and Technology
September 7, 2018

Today there is no lack of technology to engage in your Project Management processes. Choosing the right technology tools for your firm can be a real challenge. The market provides countless tools, all touted as the best of the breed. So how do you choose the one that makes sense for your team?

My focus over the years has been to help companies utilize Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to their fullest potential, and through that experience, I’ve seen many great success stories. On the flip side, I’ve also seen many firms invest significant time and money into a system only to have results that are a disappointment at best.

There are many tools that a professional services firm comes to rely on; this blog will focus on project management ERP systems. For firms that are considering the leap to an ERP, I’ve laid out several primary facts to consider. While the ERP tool may not be the only system your team employs, it is likely one of the most critical ones, especially when it comes to project and firm management.

Why an ERP?

ERP systems provide the ability to monitor projects, manage internal and external resources, process payroll, and offer full financial reporting. They are powerful and, if implemented and used properly, can provide the data and reporting required to track and achieve your company’s goals at both a project and business management (financial) level.

A huge benefit of ERP systems is that all the data is housed in one place, linking all areas within the software for optimal management and reporting, including time and expense entry, payroll, and billing. Many ERP systems designed for the A/E/C industry also include CRM and Opportunity tracking capabilities for a complete project management system.

It’s All About the Value Add

Having an ERP system does come with many benefits that can strengthen your firm. I’ve listed some higher-profile examples below.

  • Eliminate the need to manage and maintain multiple software systems.
  • Experience “real-time” reporting based on time/expense entry.
  • No more cobbling together reports from multiple tools/systems.
  • Keep information efficiently in one place; no searching in multiple network locations and no need to track in Excel, which can lead to potential errors and stale data.
  • Many ERP systems today are Cloud-hosted, eliminating the need for expensive server upgrades.
  • Most ERP systems provide a method to roll out reporting by role – your PMs can track their projects closely, your Marketing team can track opportunities and win/loss rates, while Principals and Finance teams can focus on the BIG picture.

How Do We Know if Our Firm Will Benefit from an ERP?

Chances are, if you are tracking the items listed above utilizing multiple platforms, tools, and methods, your firm is a prime candidate for an ERP system. Firm size is not always the best indicator; an 8-person firm may benefit as much from an ERP system as a 300+-person firm. Stop and assess your current tools for efficiency and accuracy; remember, in the professional design world: time = money; finding efficiency with an ERP system most likely will provide a significant ROI.

How Do We Choose the Right ERP for Our Firm?

This might be one of the most important decisions a firm can face; after all, making the move to an ERP will cost both time and money. Give these some thought:

  • ROI should be high on the list; assess your processes and challenges to determine the value-add an ERP will provide to your firm. Trust me, you will find it!
  • Consider surveying the various teams in your firm. Ask what their challenges are related to the current systems in place. Include an assessment of time spent on the most challenging tasks – this will help determine ROI. You may be surprised by what your team is tracking, where and how they are doing so.
  • Vet the options thoroughly. Remember, every salesperson you talk to will say that their ERP is the best. Be prepared with a list of questions, and don’t settle for answers like “it should,” “it could,” or “we are always making enhancements”. Your immediate needs must be met.
  • Provide a detailed list of “must-have” items to the sales rep. Every sales process is different – make sure you work with someone that is willing to take the time to understand your needs.
  • Provide examples of important reports, invoice formats, and other outputs you desire from a new system. Ask to see “like” examples.
  • Don’t settle for a “cookie-cutter” product demonstration. A sales rep that has taken the time to understand your needs should provide a project demonstration specifically for your firm to be sure it has solutions to your challenges. You don’t want to buy the problems you already have!
  • Ask about customization costs – they can add up quickly.
  • Ask about implementation and support processes and costs.
  • Ask about User Groups and other support options.
  • Request references for other users – preferably with the same professional specialty and/or firm size as yours.
  • Involve the right team members in the decision. Leaving it up to one or two people can be a mistake. Include PMs, the Finance team, and Principals. It’s worth the time & effort!

Successfully Implementing is CRITICAL to Success

Too often, I’ve met firms that experienced a negative implementation process. They feel short-changed and disappointed and sometimes end up starting over. Here are a few tips on the successful implementation of your new ERP system:

  • Start with a clean data set – Garbage In = Garbage out… it’s true.
  • Data conversions aren’t always worth it; if your data isn’t reliable, don’t bring the detail into your brand-new system. Consider a manual implementation with beginning balances. In the long run, you will be pleased with this decision.
  • Ditch the “We’ve always done it this way” mentality. The whole point of the transition is to provide positive change. Being stuck in a rut can limit your new ERP benefits.
  • Work with a seasoned implementation consultant, insist on one that is experienced, and ask to talk to other clients they have worked with prior to engaging. Also, don’t settle for a “one size fits all” consulting approach. To make the most of your ERP, you may need to work with a team of consultants, each with individual areas of expertise.
  • Don’t try to save money on the implementation process – a successful implementation sets the stage for successfully using your ERP system. Spending additional consulting dollars today will save you thousands in cleanup consulting later – not to mention buying trust with your end-users. I’ve seen too many firms shortcut this area, only to have to spend double to “re-engineer” their system after the fact.
  • Involve the right team members in the implementation – it takes a village.
  • If the developer doesn’t have a consultant with “boots on the ground” experience in your industry, consider hiring an ERP implementation specialist to guide you in your decisions and guide the consultant in industry best practices.
  • Develop an implementation timeline and follow it! A good consultant will help you with the timeline to keep you on time and on budget. Stalled implementations will double your cost.

Managing an ERP is an Ongoing Process.

So now you’re live – coach your team to understand this will be an organic process and one that is going to evolve over time. You don’t know what you don’t know – while implementing your system, you may have made decisions based on a demo or what you thought would work best, but now that you are live, there might be a better way. Remember, the demo is just a demo; during implementation and after go-live is when the hard work begins to set up the system the way your firm needs it.

Consider these things while rolling out your new system:

  • Hold regular training sessions on the fundamentals like time/expense entry.
  • Ask your team for input on what they think they are missing – they might have it and not know.
  • Provide only “value add” reporting – too much is not a good thing.
  • Consider specialized training by a team – PM training, Finance team training, etc.
  • Attend User Groups and Support Groups to learn from the community.
  • Require regular maintenance for accurate reporting.
  • Use the features as intended – “workarounds” cause issues!

Next Steps

A project-based ERP system can help your firm to better manage projects and ultimately win more business and increase profitability. If you would like to continue to learn how your firm can experience these benefits and more, reach out to us today, and let’s start collaborating!

Valerie Higgins - Stambaugh Ness