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Project collaboration tools that can make or break an ERP implementation

Experts recommend the best software for managing an ERP project plan across the organization.

If ever an ERP implementation needed serious project collaboration tools and a by-the-book ERP project plan, it...

was the two-year global rollout completed this year by The Mosaic Company, a Plymouth, Minn.-based fertilizer manufacturer.


The project was divided into three subprojects, one each for user readiness, consultant deliverables and IT infrastructure, and also into project teams in several Latin American and Asian countries. Mosaic -- already a lean company -- had little choice but to rely on the Internet to keep its team organized and in close communication. After a false start with the centralized methodology preferred by its ERP vendor, Mosaic established Microsoft SharePoint Server as the hub of a decentralized effort that adhered closely to standard project management methodologies.

“The tools certainly made it a lot easier to collaborate, especially across geographies,” said Frank Lanuto, Mosaic’s director of IT solution delivery. “If we had taken those away, it would have looked uglier.”  

“Blueprinting” an ERP implementation project

ERP project collaboration starts with the templates and other documents that are created in the planning stages and extends to the infrastructure for distributing them, according to Valerian Harris, vice president of Patni Americas, the global IT services firm that consulted on the Mosaic project.

“If you do not have all that in place, that common methodology or shared methodology will never happen,” he said.

Patni employs more than 700 ERP project management professionals (PMPs) certified by the Project Management Institute (PMI) who employ the organization’s five-phase methodology, along with templates, matrices and other collaborative decision tools. Harris, who has 16 years of experience implementing ERP, said the documents are especially helpful in change management and for carrying out the difficult design, training and testing steps.

Among the commonly used tools, Harris said, is VED analysis for rating ERP features as valuable, essential and desirable. That information comes in handy during requirements planning. A responsibility matrix laying out people’s roles on the ERP project team and a Force Field analysis that lists factors for and against the project are also commonly used by Patni project managers.

Charting the course

ERP project managers next need a way to translate the plan into visual information that makes it easier to track progress. Microsoft Project is the de facto standard in desktop project management software.  It’s the tool most project managers use to prepare the schedule, typically in Gantt charts or other timelines that list milestones and tasks vertically, with horizontal bars indicating start and end dates. The software’s other main function is resource management, which project managers use to assign resources (typically people, but sometimes physical goods like materials and equipment). This way they make sure they’re not over- or under-allocated. Microsoft sells a networked version called Project Server.

“We absolutely use Project,” said Bob Bell, director of professional services at ProSource, an ERP consulting firm. “That’s really probably the product of choice to develop an implementation plan with a customer.” ProSource usually tracks budgets in Microsoft Excel and writes status reports in Microsoft Word, Bell said.

Project also saw heavy use at Mosaic. “I can’t tell you how many times I saw the project managers huddled up with that project plan,” Lanuto said.

SharePoint: Microsoft platform becoming standard for project team collaboration

Despite the existence of dozens of cheap, “teamware” tools on the web, there seems to be an emerging consensus among ERP consultants, analysts and users that another Microsoft product, SharePoint Server, is now the preferred choice for project collaboration, even in companies that haven’t standardized on other Microsoft platforms.

“Sending out emails all over the place is just ludicrous,” Bell said. Instead,  project leaders can use SharePoint to set up a portal where members of the implementation team can store the documents required by the project methodology and post news, status reports, and chat sessions.

 That was certainly the case at Mosaic. “The whole project was run on SharePoint,” Lanuto said. “Some of those documents are so long, it’s much easier just to post them.”

Outside auditors could work off the SharePoint repository, and each country had its own project page. Mosaic also used such advanced features as workflow for travel approvals and a database to track project risks and issues, items normally recorded in static documents.

Harris said major ERP vendors have their own document repositories and portals that offer similar functions, but with the added benefit of running project financials through the ERP system. And there are other repository platforms with SharePoint’s prominence, notably EMC Documentum and IBM Enterprise Content Management. But SharePoint is still the favorite of Harris’s customers for managing ERP projects.

“Microsoft SharePoint has become very popular because it has evolved into a document repository, and publishing it on a portal is much easier,” Harris said. “Even if they would not want to use it, we would want to use it.”

Some companies also manage their ERP implementations in project portfolio management (PPM) software that organizes projects into portfolios and adds analytics so projects can be judged on financial performance and contribution to business goals. Lanuto said he uses PPM to furnish data to Mosaic’s IT governance councils.

Historically, PPM has been criticized for poorly integrating trench-level project data with the rolled-up financials and dashboards that executives see. Lanuto said Mosaic has had similar experiences with Microsoft Portfolio Server 2007, a companion to Project Server, after trying to wring similar functions out of its Remedy help-desk system.

“There is always a problem when it goes from a proposal within the portfolio to a full-fledged project,” Lanuto said. “If you want to get that 360-degree view of the portfolios, it requires some custom development.” The 2010 version of Microsoft Project Server should do better because it brings portfolio features into Project, he said.    

Harris said some companies perform similar oversight of their ERP projects in IT governance tools from vendors including Hewlett Packard and IBM. IT departments that don’t already have governance tools will typically use those offered by their ERP vendors. The important thing is to have some kind of technology in place for project management, collaboration and governance.

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