Make or buy questions are a common thread in any business function that requires an extensive set of support tools to automate time-consuming manual work. This of course includes PM office management of portfolios, programs, and projects. After all, each PM team is only as effective as the collaboration tools they use to get the work done.
What is meant by “make” or “buy”? In fact, “custom” or “off-the-shelf” is a better way to express the question. The real question being, is a custom solution required/better than an off-the-shelf (OTS) solution?
With so many OTS project and portfolio management platforms to choose from, it’s easy for anyone to believe that at least one will meet their particular needs. In truth, it’s very unlikely unless the function is truly non-unique ( e.g. HR) in terms of methods used and work performed, when compared to similar functions in other companies. Project management rarely falls into this category since projects tend to vary significantly in terms of both methods used and the type of projects being undertaken from company to company. As a result, it is almost impossible to find an OTS PM collaboration system that isn’t an poor fit for team productivity.
The unavoidable truth for all those executives looking for a quick fix that can be obtained with a checkbook, is that “make” is very often the only viable option for real productivity improvement. Most OTS solutions are designed to meet the generic needs of any project in any industry. While that enables a greater number of sales, productivity is better served by tools tailored to the specific needs of the organization. When it comes to quality and productivity, OTS is a path to mediocrity.
So what about the make (custom) option? The advantage of course is getting exactly what you want and knowing exactly what you’re getting. The cost may be competitive too, given that most OTS collaboration systems are very expensive to buy and implement (configuration is often as difficult as development from scratch). On the other hand, building your own is more time consuming and it requires expertise more common to an IT organization than a PM office. If you don’t have the expertise in house, the development can be outsourced, but arrangements will need to be made for long term incremental development as your methods change and to provide ongoing support.
Looking at PM office automation from a top down holistic perspective, it’s clear that methodology and management tools must work hand in hand. Methods are the top priority, and must come first, since they define how work is done and therefore have a direct impact on quality and performance. Tools selection is lower in priority since tools simply make doing work easier and less prone to error. It follows then, that tools should be designed/configurable to meet the changing requirements of PMO methods. It also follows that improvements to methods will often necessitate improvements to the tools that support them (hence the need for the long term commitment from custom developers mentioned above).
Looking at automation from the bottom up, it’s evident that simplicity and ease of use are critical to success. Complex environments with multiple application platforms make training, maintenance, the distribution of work, and data integration and reporting more difficult to manage. When users are required to move in and out of different applications to make progress, they become frustrated and less productive, defeating the purpose of automation. In most cases some mix of enterprise and desktop platforms will be needed, but the total solution should be kept as simple and elegant as possible to reduce the potential for failure.
No matter what direction you take, a successful productivity system offers significant cost savings and increases in both speed and competitive advantage, but only when well planned and executed. Additionally, most of the value is realized via incremental improvements over time and not upon delivery of the initial system.
Some things to consider before you begin: Why are you asking the question, make or buy?
- What is the scope of the problem/opportunity being addressed? Do you need a complete system redesign or would some limited or specific improvements achieve most of the gains you’re seeking.
- What constraints (cost, duration, strategic alignment, …) will be applied to any given solution you identify?
- How detailed and specific are existing management methods (steps, forms, templates, reports, …)? As methods evolve, the need for customized tools increases.
- How flexible can you be with respect to existing methods and where?
- Do you have a well formed evolution plan for the organizations that will utilize or be impacted by the solution you implement?
- What ancillary methods/systems will your solution be required to support and how?
- What off the shelf tools are available in the market?
- What resources and technologies can you draw upon to develop (and maintain) custom solutions?
It will pay huge dividends to begin with a detailed and well vetted list of system requirements. Just like any development project, it’s critical to prioritize each in terms of cost and payback. Use those requirements as input to a high level design that seeks to identify the best approach for realizing the system considering OTS and make options for each component in addition to the system as a whole. However comprehensive the list of requirements, start small – don’t try to boil the ocean. Since most of the real productivity gains will be realized when making post implementation improvements, it makes sense to start with a small first offering.
In summary, while most PM office organizations don’t have the skilled resources needed to develop and maintain a best in class productivity system, a custom (not OTS) solution is the only viable option to long term productivity gain. To effectively drive both quality and productivity the solution must be designed to support the requirements established by PMO methods and change as methods change.
The beliefs expressed above form the basis for PMOSoft’s PMIQ quality and productivity platform. PMIQ is the custom solution that each PMO needs. It provides tools to manage both PM office methods and collaboration and/or productivity tools that support project management in alignment with your own methods.
PMIQ supports ongoing improvements to both methods and tools while PMOSoft provides the long term expertise to help each client PMO improve and maintain their system over time.
Please visit us at http://pmosoft.com to learn more.