Supporting education with a better business infrastructure
Fulton County Schools brought a program manager on board in 2009 to optimize operational outcomes through excellent project management. Six years later, the district expanded the single role to a program management office. Upon accepting the Director of IT Program Management role, mechanical engineer Tim Dunn began to build a team to implement the technologies and solutions the district needed.
Now the Director of IT Program Management, he heads a staff of 25. Dunn also thinks of himself as the custodian and guardian of “the penny”—the 1 percent sales tax approved by the voters of Fulton County for school infrastructure costs, particularly technology improvements. “We’re charged with working with our peers in academics, finance, and other departments to honor our commitment to the taxpayers who approved this referendum,” he says. That means stretching his small team to cover a large project load. Without clear insight into the FCS project portfolio, planning was difficult and Dunn worried about staff overload.
The PMO team of project managers and analysts is responsible for five types of projects: network infrastructure, enterprise applications, capital improvements, IT security, operational hardware, and instructional technologies to roll out technology to the classrooms. Dunn’s overarching goal: implementing a methodology to optimize the efforts of his small team. “We knew that we needed to mature the organization from a project-management perspective so that we were doing things in a systematic, uniform way, regardless of the type of project,” he says. That’s when he decided to approach Nagendra Roy, Senior Director of IT at consulting firm Aptude. Already embedded at the district, the firm had earned Dunn’s respect. “They had the bandwidth and the expertise to help us develop our project-management model,” he says. “We focused on our people first—training needs, how we assigned work to them—and then on process. But to standardize our processes, we needed the right tool.” That’s when the partnership between Dunn and Aptude began.
Teaming with the right partner
Dunn identified three top requirements: schedule management, budget management, and a secure repository for project artifacts. He’d researched the options carefully, delving into Gartner’s Magic Quadrants and exploring the marketplace in depth. “The turning point came when we chose Microsoft Office 365 and migrated everything to the cloud,” recounts Dunn. “And when I saw Microsoft Project Online at a partner conference, I knew that this tool could help me with my top three wish-list items.” Dunn is glad he hired Roy’s team to help implement the solution. “Having Nagendra’s subject matter expertise and Aptude’s technology capabilities available saved me a tremendous amount of time and money,” he says. “And after a few conversations, we realized that we could build a tool based on Project Online that would line up with our project management model and take us even further. That’s how our PMO evolved to the point where it is today.”
One of the issues Dunn faced was managing capacity for his small team. Not only was it difficult to maintain clear insight into the portfolio and prioritize projects, but tracking his staff’s accomplishments—and reporting them to executives—was cumbersome and time-consuming. By the same token, without accurate, up-to-date information about current workloads, prioritizing and planning those projects and estimating timelines for upcoming initiatives was more difficult than it should have been. Dunn knew that a tool that could provide insight into PMO capacity would benefit the entire organization. He and Roy formed a vision for an overarching PMO solution built on Project Online. Building a solution as sophisticated as the one they planned from the ground up could be daunting. But Dunn and Roy saw opportunity in the varied, yet connected tools in Office 365.
Building the Navigator solution: Greater than the sum of its parts
With its Office 365 subscription, FCS already had access to advanced, off-the-shelf building blocks to create a solution that ticked every box on Dunn’s wish list. “We’ve always been a SharePoint shop,” says Dunn. “And part of the beauty of Office 365 is that it is largely built on the SharePoint environment in the cloud.” FCS is beginning its transformation from on-premises to cloud based computing. Dunn believes that creating a cloud–ready tool sets a strategic foundation. He looks forward to the FCS migration to SharePoint Online in 2020. “Our tool is ready for our eventual full cloud adoption. When we get to that stage, we’ll have even greater functionality and more features,” he adds.
Integrating the applications and developing the solution was a journey, says Roy. “Using Office 365 apps, we worked together on a strategy to take people, process, and technology forward so that we could cover all dimensions of the need—content management, visualization, project management, and portfolio management,” he adds. His team created a tool called “Navigator” based on Project Online for project management and SharePoint for content management and collaboration.
To give project teams and stakeholders a fast, easy view of individual projects and the FCS project portfolio, the Navigator development team blended Microsoft Visio into the solution. The team uses Visio with SharePoint and Microsoft Flow to create a graphical picture of project status. Adding Microsoft Teams gives FCS project managers a further edge when initiating projects. With project teams frequently composed from assorted departments, kick-starting collaboration is key to project success. Upon project approval in Project Online, the tool automatically creates a project team with the project name and embeds a dashboard directly into Teams. New team members don’t have to go to Project Online to learn about their project assignments; they click on a link in Teams and the project dashboard appears.
The FCS PMO stays ahead of the project trajectory, surveying stakeholders and incorporating inquiries via Microsoft Flow, which also streams data into Power BI. Project managers monitor projects using Microsoft Visio not only to create visual maps of everything from organization charts to processes, but also to compare progress at regular intervals and perform gap analysis for district-wide projects. The icing on the cake for Dunn was the seamless integration of Power BI with Project Online. “I knew our data team were Power BI experts,” he says. “But I had no idea of how well it interoperates with Project Online. That opens a lot of possibilities.”
Visualizing complex data for better decisions
If information is the lifeblood of a PMO, then Power BI is the heartrate monitor. In an increasingly data-driven society, information flows faster from more sources. To stay productive, FCS staff need real-time data to provide senior management with the most current information for proactive decisions—and action.
The FCS team augments the timeline views available in Project, using Visio to develop a range of charts tailored to FCS needs and deliver high value to multiple audiences—from Project Managers and project teams to executives. PMO leadership uses a program-level timelines chart for quick updates, while project managers and stakeholders drill into a given project using tailored project timeline charts and end-to-end project roadmap charts from Visio. The teams see both summary and detailed step-by-step views of their owned and participating processes and services; and that data from Visio integrates with Microsoft Flow and Power BI for automated workflows that further enhance PMO governance and productivity.
For Dunn, the obstacles to sharing capacity data about his team with executives is a fading memory. The PMO leadership, project managers, and executives can now see projects from a matrix of vantage points, whether from a budget perspective, goal progress, or risks and issues. With Visio, all phases of the project are clearly represented in a convenient graphical format. “It shows a glimpse of the full portfolio of all of the works that are in progress, large and small, so that as we discuss priorities and capacity, or if the district considers new initiatives, we have the information we need,” says Dunn. FCS uses the flexible Visio charts to empower its stakeholders, who can edit the charts/views tailored for them. ”And when we realized that Visio works seamlessly with Power BI, we began to integrate our Executive, Portfolio, Program, and Project Manager Dashboards with the corresponding Visio charts that we already have in place, in order to create a dynamic, automated, futuristic, and productive integrated solution,” he adds.