So Much Data, So Little Information

By Anthony J. Quartararo III

The following paper is to be presented at Cesii '99, taking place in Orlando from November 20 through 24.For more information on the conference, go here.

The discipline of project management in the data conversion industry has never been more crucial.Clients demand a more scientific application of management principles to projects where information is the product.This paper will look at a comprehensive and integrated Management Information System (MIS) as a tool to managing the services and products provided to clients.

An MIS designed specifically for data conversion projects allows project managers to exercise more timely control over critical project activities, while having the flexibility needed to report on any aspect of the project.By warehousing information, the project manager is able to take advantage of standard trend analysis tools, cash flow forecasting, quality reporting and process efficiency evaluations, and a host of other information based project management needs.Built on standard industry technology, the MIS is modular, scaleable, portable, and flexible enough to handle any size project, from the smallest municipality's project to the mega-utility's enterprise conversion needs.

The real power in the system, however, lies in the application of project management processes (initiation, planning, execution, controlling and closing) to the information maintained and presented by the MIS.With this approach, the project manager can move beyond building spreadsheets and leverage the data for its intrinsic value to make the best-informed decisions for the project.

In the acclaimed book by Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Mr.Covey relates the story of a man watching a lumberjack trying to saw down a tree.The man watched as the lumberjack toiled at the task, when the man finally asked the lumberjack why the task was so difficult.Without stopping, the lumberjack shouted back that his saw was dull.The man then asked why the lumberjack did not stop and sharpen the saw, and the lumberjack replied that he was too busy sawing to stop and sharpen the saw.

While a traditional Management Information System (MIS) may collect, compile and store enormous amounts of data about a myriad of industry and corporate topics, there is surprisingly little information that a project manager can use to better manage a real project.The practice of project management is part science, part art.Useful, relevant and timely information is critical to the project manager's ability to execute the project as planned.One model of project management from the Project Management Institute (PMI) , is the foundation for the Project Management Information System presented in this paper.Even though the art and science of project management can be applied in any industry project, there are special considerations in the geospatial industry that need to be considered.The PMIS is about "sharpening the saw" in AM/FM/GIS data conversion project management.

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Management Information Systems
There are many flavors of what is commonly called a Management Information System (MIS), but they typically revolve around capturing massive amounts of data, storing them in a centralized database, and generating large volumes of data-intensive reports.The MIS is just that, a Management Information System, but for which level of management? Usually, senior management and accounting are the target audience for most Management Information System reports, not the individual project manager.The MIS can either be facility-wide or over the entire organizational enterprise.Almost every company maintains some form of MIS, even if it is recognized as something else within the corporate culture.

While the corporate benefits of a traditional MIS are recognized, the needs of project management in the AM/FM/GIS data conversion industry are often neglected.A Project Management Information System (PMIS) that would service the individual project manager's timely needs is more appropriate in this industry.Whereas the MIS is organization-centric, the PMIS is project-centric.Also, while traditional MIS is maintained by department, a PMIS is deployed to the project management team and the team is then responsible for input and control of the data and analysis even though the central database architecture may still be maintained by the MIS group.

Project Management without PMIS
For every project, there is a project manager.For every project manager there are horror stories about the impossible project.In looking at the root cause(s) of the horror stories, we need not look very far to find out that the key information a project manager often needs is outdated, contorted, inaccurate or delayed.In managing a project, there are so many facets for the project manager to consider, that scrambling to put together yet another summary report, or shuffling through various versions of a spreadsheet simply do not allow the project manager to make decisions on best practices and best information.Data that is compiled in various forms and maintained outside a standard system creates uncertainty and confusion for the project management team, often at the most critical junctions.

When a project manager must answer difficult questions about a project, providing answers on speculation is unacceptable, but such is frequently the case with AM/FM/GIS data conversion projects in the absence of a Project Management Information System.Being able to confidently report on the current status of a project or the project trend is paramount to successful project execution.The project management processes are difficult enough to integrate and execute, and most projects are far from ideal, so why are most project managers stuck without the tools to properly manage a project and be consistently successful? Sure, many projects get completed, customers are satisfied in the end, and many companies are able to glean a profit from these projects, but with a PMIS this scenario becomes more consistent and raises the bar of excellence for project management in the geospatial industry.

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Advantage PMIS
Contrary to the disjointed and isolated approach many project managers are forced to take, a Project Management Information System provides an ideal solution to the dynamic function of a project manager engaged in the geospatial industry.A consistent, comprehensive and integrated approach to managing projects is at the core of the PMIS.Because the PMIS is built with both the PMI model and AM/FM/GIS project life-cycle in mind, the need for constant formulation of unique project management processes is eliminated, allowing the project manager to focus on the job at hand: managing complex projects.

Because the PMIS is deployed to the project management team, the people empowered to execute the project, it becomes the focus of ownership in the project.The constant, real-time "double-loop accounting" information that is available to the project manager is a valuable asset to the PMIS.The ability to have accurate and timely "snapshots" of project metrics gives the project manager an advantage in analyzing progress and status of the project.This mission-critical information allows managers to make crucial decisions with confidence that might otherwise be known as "calculated risk".

With a PMIS, project data is consolidated and integrated into natural, project life-cycle workflow, allowing for continual feedback loops between planning, execution and controls.This is how project managers work and how effective AM/FM/GIS data conversion projects unfold.The PMIS provides tools for effective, efficient project management in a standardized manner.How many projects have faltered or failed when the project manager leaves midway through the project, taking all the intellectual information, and leaving any successor with the dubious task of pulling the project together, and "saving the day".

Another advantage of the PMIS is the inherent characteristics of a database.That is, the capacity to warehouse information about a variety of projects effectively and efficiently.While the PMIS is modular and deployable to the project management team, it is also integrated with corporate MIS, so that historical knowledge can be gained from post-project analysis in the form of "lessons learned".Most project managers do this as a matter of course, but by maintaining the information about projects in a central repository, each successive project can leverage the lessons learned from the previous project and provide a more accurate cost estimate.

The PMIS Process in AM/FM/GIS
The PMI model of project management consists of five general processes: initiation, planning, execution, controlling and closing.These processes have been embodied in the PMIS in the natural life cycle of an AM/FM/GIS data conversion project.The PMIS life cycle is outlined below.

  1. Initiation
    • Request for proposal and estimate (submittal of bid): initial planning of scope, schedule, resources, quality, risk, communications, project team and costs.
    • Pre-bid meetings, conversion vendor facility visit, proposal presentation
    • Contract negotiations, execution and letter of intent
    • Authorization to proceed
  2. Planning
    • Refining the initial plans for scope, schedule, resources, quality, risk, communications, project team and costs as more information becomes available.
    • Project execution plan published to project management team and customer
  3. Project Execution
    • Project execution plan in action, ("Plan the work, work the plan")
    • Project data collection and distribution, information analysis, business decision rules development
    • Project team development
    • Project scope monitoring and verification
    • Project contract administration
  4. Project Controls
    • Cost & gross margin reporting, tracking and analysis.
    • Scope change and overall project change control
    • Schedule refinement, updating
    • Quality assessment, data collection and analysis, root-cause determination and elimination, preventive and corrective actions.
    • Risk identification, assessment, quantification and mitigation
  5. Project Close
    • Administrative close
    • Contract close
    • Post-close analysis, lessons-learned, PMIS information analysis, deconstruction, cause-effect

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The Lever
Give me a lever long enough, and I shall move the world, Archimedes

The difference between the PMIS and other approaches to project management is the ability to:

  1. Leverage real historical data & expert experience.
  2. Apply scientific principles of project management in standard fashion.
  3. Provide timely and accurate project data and turn that data into information for analysis.
  4. Naturally model AM/FM/GIS data conversion project management.
  5. Provide a portable, modular, scaleable suite of common tools capable of being integrated with other MIS applications.
Using the PMIS as a lever allows key managers to confidently make decisions based on information rather than raw data.The decisions made on a daily basis can mean the difference between a highly successful project and a dismal failure.

Without a PMIS, the project manager may be successful, but not all projects can rely on such heroics, or questions of chance.Project management is the key component for success in AM/FM/GIS data conversion projects, and a PMIS is a powerful lever for the project manager because it provides all the key information needed to manage a project successfully from concept to completion.The costs associated with implementing a PMIS in the AM/FM/GIS data conversion industry is much less than other traditional MIS applications because of using various COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) software.This, combined with scientific project management makes a PMIS an attractive, low-cost of entry tool for the project management organization.

Once the PMIS is deployed and implemented, the project manager can initiate the process and allow the PMIS to direct the next natural step in the project management process.When the initiation and planning phases are completed the baseline project execution plan is ready for publishing and distribution.The project execution plan also serves as a record for quality management purpose, contract change orders, or subcontractor scope of work.

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Problem Areas
In organizations where the project management model stretches the limitations of each project manager, the PMIS can provide significant benefits in alleviating undo stress and ineffectiveness.However, if the project manager is not afforded sufficient time to correctly analyze the information presented by the PMIS, the system will eventually breakdown.Project managers who are responsible for all aspects of a technical solution as well as the administrative functions will not likely gain any benefit from a PMIS, or any other system for that matter.

While most of the discussion so far has been centered around the PMIS and its benefits, having all the information stored in a database doesn't mean projects magically manage themselves.Project managers need to analyze the information contained in the PMIS and make appropriate decisions.A well-designed PMIS can be misapplied in the hands of an inexperienced project manager.The project management organization is encouraged to train and mentor junior project managers in the methods and principles of project management while introducing a PMIS as a standard organizational tool for managing AM/FM/GIS data conversion projects.

In summary, a Project Management Information System is a highly effective method for managing AM/FM/GIS data conversion projects.The PMIS offers a low-cost, high-impact solution to the mobile project manager who needs timely information to make mission-critical decisions.A PMIS also increases the standard of excellence in project management by applying proven methods and scientific approaches to data conversion projects, and allows the project manager to truly manage the project rather than reacting to events during the project life-cycle.Decisions are made on information that is relevant, accurate and timely, allowing best-practices to naturally and consistently lead a project to it successful completion.

  1. Covey, Stephen.(1989).The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.Simon & Schuster.pp: 287
  2. Project Management Institute Standards Committee.(1996).A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK Guide).Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.
  3. Senge, Peter al.(1994).The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.Currency Doubleday.pp: 286-293
Project Management Institute
Critical Tools
Microsoft Project
JMP Discovery
Process Model
System Corp.
Microsoft Access

Note: The author has provided these references for anyone interested in building their own, appropriate PMIS tools.Neither the author nor AGRA Baymont are in any way endorsing these tools.

Published Saturday, August 7th, 1999

Written by Anthony J. Quartararo III

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