Originally published - December 22, 2003
The unique business needs of project-oriented organizations, when addressed by large ERP vendors that offer general-purpose enterprise software, require heavy customization in order to work. On the other hand, when project-oriented organizations turn to small off-the-shelf project-management solutions, these solutions are soon outgrown by the user company. These organizations are looking for systems to support the project manager, who is responsible for sharing and tracking the revenue, expense, and profitability of a project. Most enterprise-wide business systems sold by software vendors are general purpose in design and without significant tweaking, they do not address many of the unique requirements of businesses engaged primarily in providing products and services under project-specific contracts and engagements.
Project-oriented organizations have many project-specific business and accounting requirements including the need to track costs and profitability on a project-by-project basis, to provide timely project information to managers and customers, and to submit accurate and detailed bills/invoices, often in compliance with complex industry-specific and regulatory requirements. Yet, traditional generic GL-oriented accounting systems have not been designed with project phases, work breakdowns or detailed time capturing in mind, and thus, they can merely report how much has been spent or collected, but not why a certain project is losing or winning money.
Not many enterprise products will support the following project-based processes: job costing, managing the sub-contactor, financial reporting, managing the workforce, process time and expense, winning new business, purchasing goods and services, managing the project, and building to order. If these high-level processes sound too ordinary, then digging to a level deeper might reveal their true intricacy and attention to detail such as employee time, billing rates, budgeting, collections, or project proposals, which are supported by only a few vendors.
For example, the job costing process can be broken down into the following steps: setup project work breakdown structure (WBS), pay suppliers, pay employees, accrue purchase orders, allocate indirect costs, calculate estimated time to completion, calculate contract ceilings, compute revenue, bill customer, and report the project status. The process time and expense cycle would have the following steps: create project, create project workforce, enter timesheets by project, enter labor adjustments, enter travel expenses, apply project business rules, approve time and expenses, pay expenses and payroll, bill expenses and payroll, revenue recognition, and project status reports (PSRs), which are used for period reporting on a project/task/phase level, and which can be regarded as the financial statement for the project.
The managing-the-project process would feature the following detailed steps: create opportunity plan, establish detailed scope of services, create project plan with work breakdown structure (WBS), establish task schedules, search and add resources to plan, establish budget at resource level, add consultant and expenses to project plan, add direct costs for plan, establish profit performance, save baseline budget, monitor time and expense costs, monitor schedule projected profit and revenue, and submit the project deliverables and closeout project. A build-to-order process would involve ERP materials management functionality through support for the following steps: customer demand, bills of materials (BOM)/routings, engineering change notice (ECN), materials requirement planning (MRP), capacity planning, purchase requisition/order, receiving and quality assurance, fill inventory, issue manufacturing orders, final subassembly and finished goods, customer delivery, billing, revenue recognition, and PSR.
Dealing with Government Contracts
Furthermore, many project-oriented organizations provide products and services under government contracts, and project accounting for these organizations often requires the use of sophisticated methodologies for allocating and computing project costs and revenues. There are many different types of contracts governments use and within each of those there are dozens or more variations, whereby each variation will drive its own type of billings, revenue recognition and requirements for reporting back to the government customer.
The US government requires its contractors to collect and allocate costs in certain ways; for example, according to the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) rules, labor costs must be recorded daily. Also, a contractor is required to keep track of several contracts simultaneously, meeting the rules for different types of contracts and being consistent in accounting for a number of indirect costs. According to the Small Business Administration Pro-NET sourcing service database, there are tens of thousands of small and minority-owned companies that are doing business with the federal government. With the new emphasis on improving homeland security and expanding anti-terrorism operations around the world, many of these firms will likely experience significantly greater demand for their services and grow rapidly over the next several years.
Additionally, service business application software systems are expanding as a result of a number of economic trends. Service organizations traditionally have utilized project accounting more than manufacturing firms due to the need to customize services for each client and to properly allocate the associated revenues and costs. Therefore, as the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy continues, the market for project-oriented organizations is expanding. Furthermore, the trend towards outsourcing an increasing range of activities broadens the market for project-oriented organizations as both customers and vendors need to track the costs associated with their projects.
Finally, many organizations with significant internal development activities can benefit from the use of project accounting systems to closely monitor progress and costs. Also, although somewhat conversely, more progressive firms may even try to boost their marketing, advertising, and PR expenditures in order to gain more project contracts during the market contraction, where for example, a proposal automation capability can come in handy. While project management and resource planning software applications help service organizations deliver within a budget, in the long term, these organizations need to win a new stream of projects or customers, which involves pre-sales customer relationship management (CRM), marketing and proposal management, and post-sales elements like travel and expense (T&E) management.
As the number and type of project-oriented and professional service organizations increases, such businesses are demanding increasingly sophisticated tools to address their core information and accounting needs, including project accounting, employee time collection, project budgeting, project reporting, CRM, sales force automation (SFA), and proposal generation. At the same time, these organizations are recognizing that because most aspects of their businesses revolve around their customer project relationships, they can achieve efficiencies in a number of project accounting and core back-office business functions. These accounting and business functions such as general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, materials management, and human resources, are supported through the use of software applications designed to address the special needs of project-oriented organizations. Like other businesses, project-oriented and professional services organizations are also demanding solutions that allow them to combine their business software applications into a single integrated, enterprise-wide system.
Time is of the essence for any business that bills for its services rather than sells a physical product, but the concept can be particularly tricky for design/construction firms that may need billing at different rates depending on, for example, project phase, task, client type, or escalation clause. At the same time, the industry is quite fragmented, with legions of specialist contractors, and it also has a long tradition of technophobia.
While the value proposition of integrated ERP/accounting and project management systems cannot be debated, companies should always identify the tradeoffs they are willing or not willing to make in order to achieve a level of integration. It is important to identify the laundry list of items that might or should be integrated between these systems, such as prime contracts, subcontracts, purchase orders, budgets, change orders, budget revisions, costs, accounts payable invoices and checks, labor, billing details, forecasts, and so on. Also, the companies should vigorously clarify the meaning of integration that the vendors tout—will the integrated solution contain a centralized database, for example? Also, does the integration accommodate the creation of new entries as well as real time or batch file transfers to synchronize changes to existing records?
Often, buying a completely integrated solution is not an option when companies have either an accounting or project-management system in place, which they will not simply rip-and-replace. Thus, prospects should assess the contesting vendors' flexibility to integrate to legacy and other third party applications, and to keep up with new versions or upgrades to both solutions. Built-in interfaces to commonly used third-party products like MS Project, MS Office, Corel Draw, Crystal Reports, etc., should be questioned, possibly during software demonstrations.