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The Power of PowerBI

I must admit, I am in love with a tool. Yes, I said that out loud, and I don’t regret it. You may be wondering how someone can be in love with a tool, but it’s true. I am kidding, of course, about loving a tool, but not joking when I am talking about using PowerBI in a project management environment. In fact, PowerBI has the power to make project managers smarter about their project’s data!

Let me give you some background about why I love this tool so much. Well to start, I learned it while working at Microsoft. Being there for 14 years, I was around when PowerBI was first released. Yep, I saw beta one and all the other releases until it was ready to be shipped out to the world. I had some really close friends working on the PowerBI team at the time. Then, I partnered with a PowerBI expert and he wrote a chapter on PowerBI dashboards for my book, Project Communication Tools. Once I saw those dashboards, I was hooked, and I had to learn this tool. I used PowerBI on every one of the eight PMOs I ran at Microsoft, and it was always part of my reporting tool suite. I really did create some great dashboards that served up my PMO data in ways I had never seen before. I could at any time see exactly what was happening with the programs and projects running in my PMO.

When I left Microsoft, I took PowerBI with me to my next role. It’s true—I immediately downloaded the desktop version and started building reports and dashboards based on project management data in my new organization. Because PowerBI connects directly to Project Online, I was once again in heaven. You may be wondering if PowerBI can be used with other data sources. It can, but I use it mainly with Project Online and project management data.

Why Is This Tool So Great, Bill?

Ok, let’s start with the basics and something that you will all love. It is free! Yep, I said it. It is free. FREE, FREE, FREE. Well, it is not “technically” free. There are paid aspects of it, but that is not what I will cover in this article.

What you need to get started won’t cost you a cent:

  1. Windows store ID – Free: If you have Windows, you have a store ID.
  2. PowerBI desktop software – Free: If you have Windows and a windows store ID, you can download the PowerBI desktop application. I am not covering the nuances of your company’s restrictions, which is essential, but not relevant for this article.
  3. PowerBI.com ID – Free: For this, you can go to PowerBI.com and create a free id. When you do that, you get the ability to publish dashboards onto your private workspace. You knew it was coming…here is where the free becomes paid, but also where you start to increase the things you will be able to do with PowerBI. For example, add additional workspaces, share reports…etc. You can always go with the free account and get started!

That’s it. Once you have a windows store ID, you can download and install the software. Once you have the software, you can create reports and publish them to PowerBI.com. Once you have PowerBI.com, you can see those published reports. Pretty easy, right? Let’s keep going and talk about why you need PowerBI and how you will use it.

The Big Why

Let’s step back for a second and talk about the art and science of project management. As we all know, the phrase “art and science of project management,” has been around for many years. You can’t be a great project manager without balancing both of these skill sets. When it comes to PowerBI, the focus here for project managers is science. You see, science is data, and project managers are surrounded by data when they are running projects. What tool does a project manager need to analyze their project data? Well, that’s easy: PowerBI.

So, we have a tool (free) at our fingertips that allows us to take our real-time project information and analyze it as we have never done before. PowerBI turns project managers into data-driven project managers. This data-driven term is not used a lot, but you do see it in articles and posts from companies advertising their PowerBI or Tableau tools.

But let’s keep going because I never actually told you the why yet. Take a look at the graphic below (known as the Knowledge Triangle). People working in the data warehousing space have been using for years, and it depicts the journey data takes to become something someone can use to act.

Data

It all starts with data. So, what is data? Data, in the world of project management, is, of course, project management data. This is what you generate during the life of a project. As you can imagine, projects generate tons of data during their lifecycles (initiation to close), such as risk data, issue data, and budget data. Once you have all that data, you start to compile it, and, in that process, you start to formulate information. You can’t action or make decisions on data before it’s gone through the four-step process. Eventually, it gets to a point where you can take some action. Read on!

Information

Data by itself is good, but information is better. That said, information is often looked at as unconnected or isolated, and therefore requires a connection to other data to start to formulate knowledge. For example, a project has kept a budget risk in the risk log for many months. That’s information. Or on that same project, we see costs fluctuate over budget, under budget, over budget, etc. as the months roll on. That, too, is information, but it is unconnected. Why is it going over and under budget? Why is there a budget risk in the risk log? As you can see, by itself it is just information. When you to start to understand the “why,” it becomes knowledge.

Knowledge

Knowledge is gaining more information about project data. Project managers need to connect data together in the information stage to create knowledge, and, therefore, act on it. Only when you have knowledge, can you make decisions, drive actions, and successfully execute your project. So, in this example, a budget risk on the risk log and the project’s budget variance going up and down each month is probably connected and should be investigated.  Connecting those two pieces of information together and understanding why it is happening gives you knowledge to do something about it.

Now, do you get the why?

It is not about throwing up a random risk in a risk log or an issue in an issue log, and saying, “look, I have them.” No, it’s about reviewing, consuming, and then deciding what to do. It is about looking at the data, looking at the trends, and making smart project decisions.

The question I have is this: how are project managers making smart project decisions without going through this process? How much more information would you have if you made decisions based on data served up to you from the amazing PowerBI? As a PMO Manager, or, better yet, a project manager managing multiple projects, this process makes sense and is extremely valuable in helping drive your projects. You no longer have to use your “gut” to make project decisions, you can use facts and data!

Action

The last step of the data journey is action. Now that you have taken the project data through those first three steps, you are at a point where you can act and start making smarter project decisions. Before going through the steps, the data was just data—just a series of risks in a risk log, actions in an action log, or issues in an issue log, but when data flows through those Information and Knowledge steps you turn data into action.

Going back to my previous example of the project that goes over budget, under budget, and over budget as it executes month by month, we’ll look at what action steps can be taken:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Sit with the finance team and determine why this is happening. Is the budget based on actuals, or is it estimates? Once known, you can then, put steps in place to correct the issue and prevent it from occurring again.
  3. Sit with the project team and determine how they estimate their time on project tasks. Put steps in place to correct.

It’s not my place to tell you which action step to follow (Hint: I don’t recommend doing nothing). The point is you can take various actions on your project based on what you see happening with that budget data. It all starts with data, right?

It’s the same for issues on an issue log not being worked on or addressed, risks in a risk log, and tasks on a project schedule not being updated. It’s all just data until it flows through this process—then you act and make smarter decisions.

Power BI Benefits

So, how does a tool like PowerBI help this process unfold? My answer is that the tool takes away all the guesswork and allows you to analyze data to a level you have never done before. Most project managers are far too busy, or they simply use their “gut” to make project decisions. It is just faster and easier, but it often does not give you the time to understand everything that’s going on. The old saying, “trust your gut,” is not wrong, but it’s also not possible nowadays when you manage three or four projects continually shifting your time between them. We all know the days of single projects for project managers are long gone. The “gut” technique doesn’t often cut it anymore.

As a data-driven project manager using a tool like PowerBI on your projects, you’ll notice:

  • You have data from your projects that you use to support decision making. Regardless of if you make a right or wrong decision, you’ve backed it up with data.
  • One of the biggest challenges project managers face is resource management. Having a wealth of time tracking data will allow you to accurately predict when resources will be able to roll on and off your project.
  • Risk Management becomes much easier to consume. You see the risks across your project and the organization and can proactively put steps in place to prevent them from turning into issues.
  • You’ll understand what your peers and other project managers in the PMO are facing and be able to make your project corrections based on how they solved the same issues. PMO Managers can look across all project issues and risks and put remediations in place across the organization.
  • Budget data at the project and portfolio level will tell great stories of how projects are spending, what is over budget, what is under budget, and what is tracking properly.

What do you think? Is it making sense why I love this tool now?

Project managers must start embracing the concept of data-driven project decision-making. To do that and do it well, you need to analyze your project data and stop relying on your gut to make project decisions. I believe you need PowerBI as a tool in your toolbox.

So, what’s next? How do you get started in this world of data-driven project management and start analyzing your data? Well, I’m glad you asked because I have created a new webinar that takes you through the step-by-step process of creating and using PowerBI dashboards based on project management data. You must learn PowerBI before you can start to analyze and understand your data, and this course begins there. I’ll teach you to install the PowerBI tool and how create and use existing dashboards full of example project management data in Excel spreadsheets. The dashboards are ready-made, the example Excel spreadsheets give you an immediate starting point and you can update that data with your own project data in the future.

Are you ready to go? Do you want to start the adventure into the world of being a data-driven project manager? If so, check out it out and let me know what you think. This link will get you set up and running in minutes:  The Power of PowerBI – Making Project Managers Smarter about their Project’s Data!

Check out the most recent course from Bill Dow here: Top Project Communication Tools

Written by Bill Dow

Bill Dow, PMP, is a published author and project management professional with more than two decades of experience in information technology, specializing in software development and project management. Bill has built and operated large project management offices (PMOs) and is the author of three project management books. The latest is Project Management Communication Tools, co-written with Bruce Taylor. Contact Bill at billdow@dowpublishingllc.com.

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