What are Project Controls?

In this article Project Management advisor and lecturer, John McGrath answers the common question “what are project controls?” and looks at how new technology can be used to enhance their benefits.

Definitely one of the areas we’re seeing a greater emphasis on, and that’s going to continue into the future is the whole area of project controls. We have now evolved where we recognize project controls are a professional function that is not widely recognized as a specialized set of skills in their own right. But perhaps the time has come to recognize that.

Project controls are a function that is critical to achieving successful project and program outcomes, essentially delivering the required benefits to ensure your cost, time and performance are delivering as planned.

How do you define Project Controls?

We could define project controls as the gathering of data and data management and analytical processes, but I think it’s a lot more than that – it’s about predicting the future to some extent and positioning the organization of the project team to be ready for that future and very much it is the opportunity to influence the time and cost outcomes of our project or program through the communication of information in a way that enables management to make better decisions through the use of data.

The need to convert data into insight

If we think about it project controls really impact all stages of the project lifecycle right from the initiation and the scoping of the project, through the monitoring and controlling, and right up to closure. And in fact, if you think about it, the whole discipline of learning from experience and looking to improve future project performance based on past project performance is essentially a project controllers element. My own way of trying to understand project controls is to communicate it – It’s essentially about converting data into insight and that, to me, is absolutely fundamental.

All organisations and all enterprise project program portfolio management systems gather data, but data on its own is pretty useless; we want to gain insight. We want to be able to look at the current status of the project and use it to estimate future potential project variances and “what-if” scenarios, in terms of how we manage those.

If you think about it an effective project management plan really requires a robust and complete and comprehensive approach to project controllers within the organization. So often we see, whether it’s a basic or a complex project, massive problems because there wasn’t the discipline of adequate planning at the start of the project.

The other aspect as well, is we don’t really look at project controls in isolation in terms of robotic process automation, in terms of big data, in terms of artificial intelligence, these other technologies are going to give us real-time data, so we will be making better strategic decisions in real-time in our future project programs and portfolios and that is going to be a game-changer. That is the fundamental difference that coming back to that key point about converting data into insight. Certainly, project controls are a set of tools/processes, but they’re also people skills, and it’s really the synergy of those, coming together, to help project managers have the right information, at the right time, to make the right decision and that fundamentally is where project controls add value.

Project controls are helping project managers make informed and accountable decisions that will add value to the organization. I think project controls are key to successful project execution and to successful project planning too, without a doubt. if you think about it, for successful project execution to happen, there must be a solid plan in place and project controls help to align the whole project with the larger strategic goal of the organization, which fundamentally is all about saving money, getting the project delivered on time and adding value to the organization.
Furthermore, if you think about it, project controls help us to answer the most important questions of the project, such as:

  • “How much will the project cost?”
  • “What is the variance between planned and actual?”
  • “How long will it take to complete based on this additional piece of work that has happened”

I often think of the concept of project management and project controls as a bit like the idea of flying a plane. The Project Controller is the navigator and the project manager is the pilot and they work together to deliver that plane safely to its final destination on time, on budget, and within the required scope.

Project Controls and the SRO

The strategy realization office (SRO) tends to be very effective at harnessing the competitive advantage of project controls.

SROs are focused on addressing the fundamental challenge that project controls, even at their most basic level of tracking a single project in terms of planned versus actual, are typically rife with time-consuming repetitive processes and using manual workflows. It is not uncommon for a PMO to be drowning in multiple spreadsheets and single project scheduling tools requiring a huge amount of copying and paste and very little ability to roll up into a program or a portfolio view. SROs address this challenge by harnessing the power of robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI). These tools boost business agility while also reducing the complexity and inefficiency that is typically in strategic planning processes.

By harnessing RPA and AI, PMO’s developing towards an SRO type of function are focused on that Holy Grail of portfolio management, which is a single version of the truth at the project, at the program and at the portfolio level.

Learn how Cora’s Project Controls Software solution PPM can help with project controlling and monitoring.

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