The best way to get good decisions out of people is to give them timely, accurate information that answers their questions. This gives them both the motivation to act and the resources on which to act.
Historically, however, this was not done. Throughout the accounting cycle—usually a calendar month, but sometimes a calendar quarter—operating data was collected that was primarily of interest to the accounting department, mostly numbers preceded by dollar signs.
At the end of this period, after another period called the closing process, reports were printed out, usually defined by what an accounting system could generate.
Much of this information was considered confidential, so it was distributed to the principles of the firm, to the CPA, and maybe to the bank or lending institution that may have provided a line of credit.
Professional service firms like architects and engineers came to realize that there was also important project-oriented data that could be collected, but it tended at first to be collected and compiled on the same cycle, by the same people, printed and distributed to operations personnel, including project managers.
The problem with this cycle is that it provided data that was between one week and six weeks old, in a defined format that may or may not have met PMs needs, and all too often of questionable accuracy. Depending on the PMs workload and the level of detail, these paper reports could have been overwhelmingly voluminous, making it difficult for the PM to find the critical information he needed, and usually long after it would have been helpful.
In many engineering firms several projects could have completely come and gone in this reporting cycle.
Most of today’s professional service reporting systems are capable of much more than what the old system provided, but the old patterns are still followed: print a lot of reports, usually around the billing cycle and distribute them with more emphasis on billing than on control.
Let me propose four changes that will greatly empower PMs to make more timely and accurate decisions.