Web-based project management software can help project managers meet their goals. John Owen explains how such techniques can be integrated into the daily running of a project

When considering the huge scale of construction work involved in the water power and dams industry, it is not surprising that the task of organising projects can be extremely complex and time consuming. Project managers have to manage project durations, budgets and resources as well as relationships with external parties. With a whole host of activities to co-ordinate, and multiple stakeholders to satisfy, effective project management is critical.

This industry has a number of unique characteristics that can make the project manager’s task very difficult. Projects are frequently undertaken in remote locations, away from the traditional IT infrastructure, and often involve simul-taneous construction in multiple loca-tions. In addition, the work tends to be scheduled over long time periods and frequently requires the purchase of expensive equipment, with lengthy delivery times.

Project funding may also be complex, often necessitating that stringent requirements of government or other third-party funding bodies be met. Due to the large scale of these undertakings, the contractor will also benefit from keeping environmental pressure groups and the general public fully informed of the project plan and progress. The project manager must, therefore, be prepared to answer their questions at any time and should always have a clear and up-to-date picture of the project’s progress.

Saving a sinking city

A good example of effective project management is the Venice project. This project came about because abnormally high tides caused by global warming had been gradually eroding Venice’s foundations, causing the historic Italian city to sink. Local authorities estimated that by 2050 the city could be permanently under water unless flood barriers were installed.

Effective project management assisted the installation of these barriers across the ports to help combat the problem. Today, scheduling and cost management software aids the planning and control of the project which, upon completion, will result in the construction of 79 flood barriers across three ports in the city.

The complexity of the Venice project is increased by the element of uncertainty and fluctuation associated with its financing. The government allocates funds to the project annually but neither the amount, nor the dates on which the funds will be made available, are announced in advance. Consequently, project plans must be flexible and capable of adapting to available funds while still guaranteeing project advancement.

The latest project management tools are beginning to offer the project manager new opportunities through the power of the Internet. Web-enabled project management tools allow users to share information over a variety of connections, from high speed Intranet through to low speed Internet connections via cellular or satellite phones. This allows contractors in remote locations to report progress in real-time and raise issues using web-based interfaces.

Planners no longer need to visit each site in order to record progress; nor need they rely upon couriers to bring back hardcopy updates to the project plan.

As a result, they can always get an accurate update of a project’s progress, make amendments to the project schedule as required, and meet the reporting requirements of external agencies.

Project management tools are also becoming more than just simple scheduling systems. They are now becom-ing the focus for team collaboration and act as project data repositories. A project data repository is useful because it provides a centrally managed location where project information can be stored and shared. For example, assume that the engineers on site run into unforeseen technical difficulties, such as the failure of an important piece of equipment.

In such a situation, a photograph might be useful to help describe the problem.

An image from a digital camera could be uploaded to the project management data repository and other team members can help resolve the problem.

Using Web-based project management tools can also aid the planner when dealing with the purchase of materials and machinery. As the amount of capital tied up in equipment can be extensive, it is essential that orders be placed using just-in-time techniques and procurement departments must rely on accurate data from the project management depart-ment; there is little point purchasing an expensive piece of equipment only to have it standing idle.

The converse is also true. For example, the type of machinery used in the water power and dam construction industry is not mass produced. As a result, there is frequently a delay between the time an order is given for a piece of equipment and the date on which it is delivered. If this delay is not taken into account, it can have a large negative impact on the project lifecycle. To minimise this risk, vendors can be required to record their progress in the master project plan so that any delays in delivery can be quickly identified and appropriate measures taken.

Project management is now moving away from traditional thinking and this is something that the water power and dams industry can use to its advantage.