Making Projects Behave

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Even if they don't plan it, most consulting firms end up with some kind of project management process. "Generally speaking, most of the better business partners develop [a project management approach], by natural evolution," says David Dierke, president of AccountMate, the accounting software company based in Novato, Calif. "They develop their own process or they came out of the project management world."

And maybe that's simply a matter that installations require some kind of management in order to get things done. But it's a matter of doing them more or less efficiently.

The AccountMate resellers, says Dierke, often utilize a formal project management process because of the complexity of the customizations they perform during an AccountMate implementation.

Partner Insights

And the phrase naturally covers the tasks involved in projects of any kind. There are just certain things that need to get done, according to Pam McGee, a business consultant who outlined her approach in "Project Leadership, Solving the Mystery," a session presented to resellers of Dynamics GP at the Partner Channel conference in Fargo, N.D., in early October.


In managing a project, "you have to set deadlines, set a critical path, and measure project profitability," noted McGee, a former Microsoft manager whose McGee & Co., is based in Moorehead, Minn. She continued that without the proper approach, "in a million-dollar engagement, you may lose a million and a half."

And for Manny Buigas, a partner with Sage reseller Axis Integrated Systems, good project management is a step toward bringing the kind of discipline that exists in the audit world, into the software reselling and consulting business.

"On the audit side, when you got into trouble, you could go into your workpapers and see where the breakdown took place," says Buigas. "We need to be able to do that."

McGee says there are many different approaches to project management, although she feels that, "Project managers that have a checklist they have to do before they go home are some of the worst project mangers."

But generally, she espouses firms should pick a methodology and does not have any favorites out of those systems she believe work.

"I have never met a methodology that's better than the others," she says.

HELP AVAILABLE

The learn-as-you-go approach was followed by Kevin Stroud, owner of NexLan, an AccountMate reseller based Danville, Ill.

Stroud agrees that there is a need for a standardized approach to projects, but says in his case, and in the case of many other AccountMate resellers, they have established a standard process "because we have done it so many times."

Rather than having a project manager, NexLan has processes that have been thought out and written down. Not everyone needs to refer to those books.

"Some people have been here a long time, it's in their DNA," he says. "It's very good for the new people. It's especially important to lay that out for them."

Beyond the natural evolution in which VARs develop their own skills by doing, there are a number of formal programs being offered to channel members.

For instance, Sage Software offers structured programs for helping resellers develop such abilities, including a curriculum delivered through a program called the Project Management Boot Camp.

"I believe every implementation requires project management. You need to do project management while implementing an accounting package, even if it's Peachtree," says Ed Kless, senior director of partner development and strategy for Sage.

The two-day class, which has had about 350 VARs participate, helps the attendees understand the process. More instruction is available through the Sage Consulting Academy, which includes the Boot Camp curriculum and provides additional information on the theory of professional management. The cost for one attendee is $1,300.

For some, the training is not just an option.

"Recently, we have added the Sage Consulting Academy as a requirement for MAS 500 partners," says Kless.

The message about project management's importance has started to get out to the Sage channel. When Sage first began the program, it was primarily executed by Kless reaching out to resellers and consultants.

"Now, I get at least five calls a week from resellers saying, 'I need help with project management,'" Kless says.

They need help because professional project management can be the difference between the success and failure of an installation. Kless quotes a study by The Standish Group which reported that 31 percent of projects for small and midsize businesses are cancelled before they are complete.

The No. 1 reason for failure, the study found, was lack of buy-in and commitment from the senior executives of the organization. That was reported by 27 percent of those with failed projects, Kless said.

GETTING THE 411

Client buy-in and cooperation is critical to keeping a project on track, notes Peyton Burch.

Burch, the COO of Dallas-based Sage reseller ERG, says his company had a project that was stalled because it took three weeks for the client to give ERG its chart of accounts. And that underlines the fact that in project management, many of the resources are in the hands of the client and not under the control of the reselling firm.

The only recourse, Burch says, is communication. The project manager must inform the client the project is falling behind schedule and explain what the consequences might be if that continues.

In fact, the ability to ask the rights questions and to understand a client's business processes is critical, and that has to happen upfront, says Burch.


This kind of communication becomes more critical as installations get more complex, one of the factors driving resellers to improve their approach.

"We are getting into more complex engagements which cover multiple products and services," says Burch. He notes that one recent engagement involves the sale of Sage's Timberline construction software along with ERG business services worth about $400,000.

"If you don't keep projects on track, two $500,000 engagements that creep by 20 percent can cost you a lot of money," he says.

Beyond the classic role of project management-keeping projects on time and under budget-there is a second major reason for developing methodologies that can work at multiple client sites. That is the well-publicized shortage of skilled workers.

"We can't hire enough people fast enough. We have to be able to leverage people across multiple engagements," says Burch. "We can't afford to waste resources. We don't have that capacity. Nobody does."

Having a standard process means that implementations proceed more quickly, and the staff can handle more sites, instead of trying to find more bodies to handle the jobs.

Axis' Buigas says his company is using various resources in one of its three offices to help develop the others. In this case, the project management training is coming from the company's Chicago office under Tony Chiodo.

"Our goal is to standardize it across the offices," says Buigas. "It's got to be the same look and feel. It's for the sake of efficiency, setting the expectation of what needs to be documented."

The documentation is important for Buigas, a CPA who received training in audit. He noted that while it doesn't matter what kind of tick marks a firm uses, "It didn't matter whether the tick marks should work this way or that way, once the firm adopted that, you could look at a set of workpapers and see exactly what work was formed."

Buigas says the Chicago office is interviewing a senior-level project management candidate, who will work out of the Windy City, but will serve the other offices, which has been the Axis way of being able to afford greater resources by sharing them.

START AT THE BEGINNING

The place at which most projects go wrong is from the start, says Kless.

"People will call it 'scope creep,' but it's not," he says. "They never had a properly defined project in the first place."

Kless says often partners send what they think is a project management plan, but are not clear what the firm is proposing to do for the client.

"We want our partners to have a solid project plan before going in to sell a client software," says Kless. "Prescription without Diagnosis is malpractice, and if you sell a client software without a project plan it's prescription without diagnosis."

Similarly, Burch says the secret is defining the scope of a project before work actually begins.

"The trickiest part is identifying the scope [of a project] and staying in it," he says. "If you could do that, you should be able to manage to stick to the plan."

That means asking many questions, and not only understanding business processes, but knowing, "the good processes, the personnel strengths and weaknesses and the organization strengths and constraints."

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