Project Management & Planning Articles

Making Your Professional Service Firm Work in Difficult Times — Review of Projector PSA

by Rakesh Sharma
Published on 15 January 2013

Back before I became a professional analyst who specializes in the intersection amongst technology, business, and journalism, I worked in the IT services industry for many years. Immersion in the environment allowed me to develop a healthy appreciation of some of the key drivers that can mean the difference between success and failure in the services business. Our management team would keep an obsessively close eye on budgets, schedules, and milestones. This was no small feat given how difficult it was to gain useful information from our antiquated systems. It was, however, absolutely necessary in order to enable us to compete in an increasingly crowded marketspace.

Review of Projector

In recent times, the recession hasn't helped matters. According to a recent industry benchmark report by Service Performance Insight, fixed-price contracts have been playing an increasingly prevalent role in the professional services market for some time now. This has been largely driven by customers seeking to force their vendors to shoulder a higher proportion of delivery risk. The challenge for professional services firms who want to thrive in this fiercely competitive market is to figure out ways to improve the efficiency of their delivery operations.

Fixed price contracts represent an opportunity as well as a challenge. They are a challenge because they require the organization to streamline operations, enhance visibility, and improve delivery capabilities to mitigate the increased risk. Once these improvements are made, however, they often provide significant benefit to non-fixed price contracts as well. Thus, this shift to fixed price contract terms can often become a trigger, a rallying cry to strengthen the enterprise as a whole.

Through my experience in the professional services industry I have learned firsthand how critical it is for service firms to manage their fixed price engagements closely. I have too often seen project teams spend countless hours desperately trying to save a fixed price project which they discovered too late was running off its rails. If the organization had seen the signs of a project in trouble earlier, they could have renegotiated a contract, assigned more experienced resources, or taken other steps to stabilize the project while there was still time.

Today, we review a solution: Projector, a modular professional services automation (PSA) application built by Projector PSA, that is targeted exclusively at professional service firms. Projector promises to convert the fixed price challenge into a competitive advantage by helping service firms optimize and streamline their delivery processes. We will review its features, explore its interface, and see how it can be of use to you.

Necessity, the Mother Of Invention

While running a rapidly growing professional services firm, the team behind Projector PSA had already drawn a blank while searching for a scalable and cost-effective solution to manage their diverse project portfolio. Frustrated, they ended up building a loose suite of applications, which they used to manage the growth of the organization to over 1,600 billable resources worldwide.

Realizing that their problem was a universal one, the solution's founders took that experience and built a new application with additional features, implemented it as a productized offering, and brought it to the market under a hosted, SaaS model.

That decision seems to have been the right one as the solution's popularity has gathered steam. At last count, Projector is being used by over 19,000 users and 180 professional services companies worldwide.

Steve Chong, COO and Product Manager at Projector PSA, characterizes the solution as one that serves as the "core operational system" for professional services firms. "Projector is able to streamline all of the delivery aspects of a services firm in one fully integrated application," he says. "When we designed Projector, we consciously focused on only implementing features that have a material and measurable impact on the bottom line for services organizations."

Operationally, Projector is a three-in-one solution. It enables organizations to manage their projects, efficiently schedule resources, and stream line their time and expense tracking through invoicing process. Flexibility is included in the solution through an architectural design that includes visibility, control, and integration layers. Together, these layers enable you to gain a holistic view of your organization and to "bridge the gap between your CRM system and accounting package," as Chong puts it.

I like this approach for two reasons. First, it enables professional services firms to streamline and execute projects with efficiency (whether they are fixed price or not), consequently enabling higher margins. Second, it provides a holistic, 360° picture of the health of projects to the entire organization-from the individual billable team member to senior management to key client stakeholders. This increased visibility allows managers to spot problem areas more quickly and to implement corrective actions in time.

Power Wrapped in Simplicity

Given the cross-functional and diverse nature of professional services firms, Projector has adopted a flexible design that is reflected in its customization and integrations. However, the flexibility does not come at the cost of focus.

As readers of my reviews already know, I am a big fan of applications that do one thing and do it really well. Chong says as much. "Among our key differentiators is our deep understanding of the services market," he says. "At our core, we're business people using technology to solve problems that we've run into ourselves, rather than software people in search of a need. We know what it takes to build a product not to just address the key challenges faced by services organizations, but to nail them completely and intuitively."

Despite the completeness of the application's features, I like the fact that its interface is relatively simple. The interface is role-based and divides user actions into Personal and Management portals.

The personal portal, called Projector Web, helps users perform an assortment of individual project-related tasks such as submitting timesheets or filling out expense reports. One of the more interesting ideas in the solution is related to project workspaces. These workspaces enable team members (whether they are employees of the services firm, subcontractors, or members of the client team) to share project artifacts and collaborate with each other. The main dashboard then culls important details from each of these tasks to display a snapshot of their activities and highlights things they need to act upon.

The alert and notification features distinguish Projector from other similar solutions. With this feature, the interface displays or marks out important activities that are overdue or require your attention. This paradigm is spread throughout the solution. For example, individual projects and tasks are marked with current statuses based on calendar or work remaining information entered earlier.

I like the idea of alerts for two reasons. First, it simplifies and reduces email churn. Second, the personal portal enables employees to focus on their jobs and, consequently, deliver a higher proportion of projects on time. This faster, more efficient, and more predictable service delivery can be the factor that enables organizations to thrive in this fixed price-centric services market.

The Management Portal uses a tabbed interface to perform and administer different activities. The portal enables firms to more accurately model their organizational structures, workflows, and business processes in the system. It also allows client and project managers to structure client contracts, plan and staff projects, manage the availability and allocation of people, and monitor the health of projects.

How naturally a product can model an organization's business is often the most important factor to determining the fit between the application and the need. Projector was designed from the outset to be easily configurable, to adapt to the myriad of business models employed by different services firms, and to scale to support an organization's changing needs. According to Chong, "Projector is simple enough that we were able to quickly implement it at a small firm when they were just a half-dozen people working out of start-up office space. As their business grew in size and complexity, we were able to enable more and more of the application's feature set and fluidly morph the configuration to keep up with their needs. The company now manages hundreds of consultants in six countries; has expanded into multiple revenue models beyond pure consulting; and balances a complex portfolio of services, product, and hosting projects, all using the same operational system they adopted as a small start-up."

A New Face for Projector

Projector PSA's web interface was recently redesigned with HTML5.

The difference shows. While the previous interface was fairly simple and accessible, the new one is definitely an evolution. The new interface is elegant and minimalist. Instead of cluttering the screen with multiple tasks and icons, the design is focused on performing tasks with minimal friction. For example, information is condensed and presented as short summary snippets on the dashboard. Subtle animations are employed to give users context without slowing down their workflow. The use of HTML5 provides an intuitive experience that supports powerful functionality like drag-and-drop uploading of receipts onto expense reports.

Projector Web is the platform that the future of Projector will be built on. "Over the next series releases we are planning on blurring the line between Projector Web and the Management Portal. Users will see us taking the power of the Management Portal and migrating its features over to the more modern, intuitive interface of Projector Web," said Chong. This is an exciting prospect for Projector PSA as it unlocks the speed and agility of the HTML5 foundation for the entire application suite.

The Interconnected Projector

As mentioned before, one of the advantages of Projector is its focus on being best of breed in the professional services automation space. Rather than attempting to lock an organization into using only its suite of CRM, PM, HR, or accounting tools, Projector was consciously built upon an open architecture that allows easy integration into a firm's existing business systems.

The solution provides pre-built interfaces that allow for close connectivity with popular solutions such as QuickBooks, Great Plains, MS Project, and Projector also provides an open set of web services that can be used to integrate with legacy or custom solutions not supported by the pre-built connectors.

"We are not interested in building the next or Great Plains," clarifies Chong. "Rather than reinventing the wheel, we believe in sticking with problems that are closer to our hearts-and integrating with other established solutions for the rest. That's important to our users because it gives them choice, rather than locking them into a single, monolithic product suite." I like this statement because quite a few SaaS applications often mess up their unique selling point in the rush to provide an assortment of services for consumers. Focus and utility of the application is lost amongst the confusion and complexity of multiple modules. Thankfully, that approach is absent in Projector.

The Bottom Line on Projector

I liked Projector because it combines multiple aspects of project management with resource scheduling and accounting. It turns all the microscopic, day-to-day activities involved in managing and delivering projects into enterprise-level perspective about the health of the organization as a whole. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, Projector PSA integrates with third-party solutions to achieve focus and simplicity. In turn, this enables employees and management to focus on tasks and initiatives that really matter. Whether or not your organization actually does a lot of fixed price work, Projector brings the focus, the discipline, the visibility, and the automation to let you get the most out of your resources and more specifically your PS team.

Ratings : ease of use 5/5, features 4 /5, value 4 /5 and ease of deployment 5/5

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Apps mentioned in this article