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How Big Data is Driving the Move to Modern Project Management

By Greg Stine, Director-Project Management, Equifax

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Greg Stine, Director-Project Management, Equifax

Project management is nothing new. While not recognized as a formal discipline until the middle of the last century, we know   that humankind has been accomplishing great things, utilizing common sense project management techniques since the time of  the pyramids, at the very least. Progress in methods and tools has been very slow and incremental. However, we are at the dawn of  an unprecedented shift in how we manage projects, driven mainly by bringing big data, cloud computing, and social applications into the mix.

Project Management: A Short History

To understand the magnitude of the change that will be seen in the   coming few years, it is helpful to look back at the evolution of project  management. From time immemorial and up through the early  days of the Space Age, leaders of projects needed not only “people  management” skills, but also strong drafting skills (for drawing Gantt   charts) and mathematical skills (for time and budget management.)   

In the 1960s, project management best practices were starting to coalesce, but sharing information about a project was still a slow and manual process. The dawn of faster and more accessible computing in the late 80s and the creation of specialized software allowed  project managers to focus more on “soft skills” interpersonal and political aspects of leading groups of people towards a common goal.  Project management was still a very specialized skill set, a niche lying somewhere between business management and engineering.

In the late 90s, Y2K and the rapid maturation of the Internet brought project management into the mainstream, especially within IT organizations. Internet-supported applications provided the ability to share information more broadly through web pages for document   sharing, but these proved to be suboptimal. Tools were built around specific project management software, such as Microsoft Project, and it required continuous maintenance to ensure documentation was kept current. They also forced team members to seek out information on project websites to find artifacts. Such tools actually added work to the administration of a project and did little to enable increased collaboration and productivity. Because of this, many organizations simply used these systems for document storage; most project work continued to be completed through conference calls and email. 

Amazingly, there has been very little innovation in state-of-the-art project management for well over a decade. Outside of automation of the scheduling task,   a case can be made that we are only incrementally better off than the Pharaohs’ foremen! 

Data, Data Everywhere! 

Today, data is exploding exponentially, thanks to mobile devices, appliances and gadgets in the “Internet of Things.” IBM has estimated that 2.5 exebytes (2.5 billion gigabytes) of data were created each day in 2012. On top of that, 100 billion business emails are sent each day, a number that is expected  to grow to 132 billion by 2017. The addition of so-called ‘unstructured’ data, such as social media, blogs and online discussion groups is largely responsible for the growth of available data and further muddies the situation. The availability of data on such a magnitude the arrival of cloud-based analytics tools by large industry players like IBM has shortened the innovation lifecycle from opportunity identification to marketable  solution considerably. In short, a dynamic business landscape has arisen that brings companies closer to their customers sooner. Old-  fashioned project management practices, methods and technologies based upon static assumptions made far in advance of delivery have not kept pace and threaten to be a chokepoint instead of an enabler. Until recently, the risk and impact of bad or ill-timed decisions in a slower-paced, less complex world were rarely catastrophic. If one project or product launch failed or didn’t quite meet the customer’s needs, another project could be launched to make the correction with very little long-term effects on the company.

"Organizations that successfully navigate the paradigm shift to Modern Project Management will use a combination of updated management processes, innovative but non-intrusive project management tools”

One does not have to look farther than their pocket for an example of this. HTC estimates that the shelf-lives of mobile devices have shortened to a staggering 6 to 9 months. A failed launch of a new iPhone or iPad model, which together accounted for 76 percent  of the company’s revenue in 2013, the results are catastrophic for Apple. In fact, early adoption of data analytics caught thousands of product issues of the iPhone 6 well before the launch, while simultaneously uncovering opportunities for enhancements.

To counter uncertainties introduced by risks such as instant social media commentary and increasing Big Data capabilities of competitors, projects must be fluid and able to adapt to changes quickly. With today’s capabilities, waiting until after the project is complete, to gauge success is an unnecessary and completely avoidable risk. 

Emergence of Modern Project Management 

Project teams are no longer co-located and often times are spread across multiple time zones and continents. At the same time, the number of projects companies have in-flight at one time has increased meaning that team members’ availability is more limited in the past. The typical practice of bringing the whole team together for a conference call at a time that works for everyone is impractical and impedes nimble projects.   

Organizations must rethink the way that they run their projects. Sacred cows such as project scope, deliverable requirements and schedule need to be viewed as targets that are subject to change at any given time with analytics being the driver. In addition to flexibility, delivery cycles need to be drastically shortened.   

Teams must also become more efficient by working asynchronously. Closer team member problem solving and greater transparency are needed. Finally, a constantly shifting workforce means that information needs to be pulled out of short-lived email inboxes and into collaborative conversation spaces, much like a Facebook post.   

Here’s the kicker: all of this needs to happen in a way that is intuitive and does not create work or disrupt the flow of the project. Organizations that successfully navigate the paradigm shift to Modern Project Management will use a combination of updated management processes, innovative but non-intrusive project management tools and integrated data analytics capabilities to identify opportunities, shift and mold their projects mid-course and shorten delivery times.   

Are you ready to retool?

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