Project portfolio management versus project ERP

Rob Stummer
July 10, 2014

What is project portfolio management (PPM) software? How does it deliver value to a project-driven enterprise in a way that is different from enterprise project management (EPM) or even a good project-driven enterprise resource planning (ERP) application?

All these solutions are complementary and, ideally, part and parcel of a single project-based solution. Yet various vendors sell standalone PPM software, standalone EPM software and standalone ERP. Each of these applications must then be integrated in some fashion through a complex, risky and extremely expensive development project in order to provide an enterprise computing environment suitable for a project-driven manufacturer, engineering procurement and construction contractor, offshore drilling operator or other project-centric business.

What are the differences between PPM, EPM and project ERP? What is the ideal state of a single ERP application capable of uniting all three approaches to enterprise software in a single system? If a single application can fulfil the roles of three separate applications, it can mean substantial savings in software licensing costs. Additional benefits will be realised through enhanced interoperability and visibility across the enterprise into specific projects and activities.

Alphabet soup

The enterprise software industry is rife with three letter acronyms (TLAs): PPM and EPM are only the tip of the iceberg. PPM can also stand for program portfolio management or product portfolio management. And EPM can also stand for enterprise program management. These differently named offerings may even be sold by the same vendor!

This, to say the least, is confusing. So to help sort things out, we consulted ARC Advisory Group senior analyst Dick Slansky, an expert on project management and project management software. Slansky suggests that the underlying PPM and EPM solutions are essentially the same, but that vendors use different names for them depending on the industry.

“You’ve got all these different offerings that get turned around and relabelled probably based on what the product is and how they are trying to market it,” Slansky says. “Another way to look at these definitions and how they are used is based on the industries that use them… Some companies are very program-driven and thus project-driven. So there would be elements of engineering organisations, and the projects that move through those engineering organisations. Whereas another company can be very ERP-centric, and their focus could be on the portfolio management at a higher level.”

According to Slansky, certain terms and definitions are more often used in different verticals. An engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company is very much project-driven, and uses complex project management tools. Portfolio management may more often be associated with a manufacturing company that makes products. So they are managing a portfolio of product lifecycles.

In our experience, the most intense interest is in portfolio management software among companies deliberately selling and managing discrete projects and those involved in managing portfolios of sizeable and expensive capital assets. A homebuilder or EPC contractor will have an obvious need to manage a current and future project portfolio. And a utility company or largescale property developer or process manufacturer will need to manage their investments across a portfolio of assets to ensure maximum return on capital. These asset-intensive companies may be the most interested, today, in portfolio management. And among these companies, as Slansky suggests, there is no consistent terminology.

Portfolio management—be it across products, projects or programs—really involves similar functionality aimed not at day-to-day project management of milestones, resources, people and deliverables. Rather, it is designed to handle the overarching project, program or product environment including current and future needs and demands on resources.

A clearer picture

So it becomes apparent that PPM is different from an execution-related application like EPM in that EPM is designed to facilitate day-to-day project delivery and project management. PPM, in its various incarnations, provides visibility into performance, risk profile and resource demands of current projects, but also projects that are being bid, sold or will start at a future date. This allows senior management to marshall the appropriate resources to ensure that commitments can be met and the business is on track for growth projections.

Popular definitions for PPM suggest that it would encompass the following:

  • Pipeline management
  • Resource management
  • Change control
  • Financial management
  • Risk management

All of these functions are highly desirable for an organisation with multiple, mission-critical programs, projects or product management processes. But how well does it meet the needs of day-to-day project management? Comparisons between popular PPM products and project management tools suggest that many PPM tools have gaps in the area of actual project management.

PPM software may not support things like milestones, Gantt charts, budgeting, calendars and time sheets required for day-to-day project management but this is the strength of EPM: managing activities, schedules and work breakdown structures. Multiple projects would then be aggregated and consolidated in a PPM solution in order to manage the overall priorities of the organisation. Often, software users may find themselves exporting data back and forth between separate EPM and PPM applications.

But where does that data originate from? Where is most of the work performed? What is the true system of record for the company? More often than not, that is an ERP application.

All together now

At what point can a single application, that ERP system of record, deliver both EPM and PPM functionality? This singular, unified approach is desirable because projects do not happen in an organisational vacuum. Projects can affect the organisation from a financial standpoint, and many organisations do integrate a project management application with their ERP from a financial standpoint.

But what about other dependencies between the project and the rest of the enterprise? How are those accounted for? Someone managing an enterprise project may need visibility into human resources to evaluate the skills and competencies of those resources, often across international boundaries. How does a project manager get that global view?

Inventory and supply chain management is also critical to the timely completion of projects, and even if a project management tool includes inventory management functionality, it is duplicating functionality and data from a separate ERP application. Moreover, project managers probably have enough details to track without taking on roles that ought to be performed by the purchasing or supply chain departments.

So it becomes apparent that a strong project-oriented ERP application may be more attractive than separate ERP and EPM applications. But what about PPM? Can ERP also encompass the functions of a portfolio management solution? Can it take into account financials in such a way as to managing risk and the financial resources of a portfolio of projects? The answer to that question is yes.

“Can an ERP system support all this? Well yeah,” Slansky says. “ERP has become way more than just kicking out a shop order at the end of the day. It has become, to use the term, this portfolio of products that can be very project-driven.”

The most comprehensive ERP software now has extensive project functionality, not only just to execute work on projects, but to offer different views of the project on an individual and portfolio perspective because a project manager wants to manage immediate priorities—what activities are due to happen by whom and when—but finance may want to take a slightly different view to determine where costs and revenue recognition is going to occur.

Most importantly, whichever tool you choose needs to allow users to align the business strategy fully from end-to-end within the solution so that if anything goes out of kilter or is not meeting the overall strategy and objectives of the company, it will be flagged.

Many of our customers are in high-risk industries like oil and gas and engineering procurement and construction contracting or in fields that require heavy project accounting like aerospace and defence. Managing risk is essential in these challenging environments. And running multiple projects that can all contribute to project risk means that management must be able to determine current risk levels as the project portfolio changes.

In a powerful project ERP application, executives can determine what level of risk is acceptable to the organisation. And then they can rely on the overarching portfolio module to evaluate the risk profile of the mix of projects currently underway as well as those in the future. This degree of what-if and predictive analytics capability is essential to a project or program-driven organisation, and therefore ought to be included in ERP.

The distinction between EPM and the various facets of PPM should be relatively clear. EPM supports day-to-day project management whereas PPM supports overarching management of current and pending projects. Definitions become less clear as we look at the role that ERP can play in delivering the functionality of PPM, EPM or both. Certainly, not every ERP product will be project-centric enough to replace or eliminate the need for standalone project software. But project-driven organisations may realise more streamlined operations and lower total software licence costs by selecting and implementing ERP that can meet most or all of their project and portfolio management needs.

Author avatar
Rob Stummer
Rob Stummer is managing director, Australia & New Zealand, for global enterprise applications company IFS, achieving significant growth over the last five years. He holds a Master of Information Technology from Melbourne University and has consulted to many of Australia’s Top 500 companies.
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