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Satellite firm SES saves millions with cloud project management tools

Discover how satellite firm SES modernised project management with a cloud-based system from Precursive, based on live data and tailored in its reporting to different managerial roles

Luxembourg-based SES was there at the start of Europe’s satellite communication boom. In 1988, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV was the first major private broadcaster to sign up to its Astra satellite, launched later in the year.

Since then, the industry has grown so rapidly that its enterprise software has struggled to keep up.

SES distributes more than 8,200 digital TV channels to more than 355 million homes worldwide via its network, as well as providing telecoms and data services. Managing new projects became inefficient using a patchwork of software tools. Investment in a cloud-based enterprise system has seen the firm save millions of dollars.

“We were using Microsoft Project, which was a pretty static way of producing Gantt charts which you could put into PowerPoint and Excel. We were then emailing plans around the company in this way. It wasn’t very efficient,” says Richard Vella, head of programme management at SES.

He says the company needed software which produced dashboard based on live data. It wanted a cloud-based system that could serve mobile apps and tailor reporting according to different managerial roles.

Vella and his team opted for Precursive, a project management application hosted on the Salesforce cloud platform. 

SES was already running its customer relationship management (CRM) system on Salesforce, and it wanted tight integration with that system to allow continuity of data and workflow from sales into project management.

“We have a lead-to-order process, where a lead comes in and it’s turned into an opportunity, and the sales team developed that. Once it’s got about 75% probability that it’s going to be won, it turns into a project and we start developing it from there to the orders fulfilment process,” Vella says.

As part of the Precursive system, SES passes projects through “gates” which control the progress of each phase, including kick-off, pre-implementation, implementation and acceptance. Once a project is accepted by the customer, it is handed over to customer service and billing.

Controlling finances

Vital to the value of the new software to the business was its ability to control costs. Such is the global scale of the business, and the range of skills and materials required, predicting and controlling costs for each project can be difficult, but it is necessary if SES is to maintain margins on each contract it wins.

“People need to assign beams on satellites and to configure the satellites. We need to manage the supply chain: we have warehouses in Virginia, from which we ship it around the world. We need to understand customs costs. We need to include engineers’ daily rates and expenses,” says Vella.

We needed a tool that could automatically generate this kind of data and flow it into the system so that the project team can manage the budgets and the revenue and control the P&L [profit and loss].”

Although SES also uses SAP financial software for its accounting, it was not useful for project management because the true cost would only be known after contractors and suppliers had invoiced for work – typically creating a three-month lag in understanding of costs. For ongoing projects, it is difficult for project managers to keep a control on costs if their information is not up to date.

As well as financials, SES also uses SAP for supply chain management. It harnesses Microsoft’s Power BI for analytics and collaboration tools Confluence and Quip.

Read more about project management tools

Vella says Precursive was able to work flexibly and mould the solution to meet the business requirements. “I had a very good feeling, when discussing our requirements, that they listened, as opposed to other companies which try to dictate what we should have and sell a product around that,” he adds.

“We had a vision of how we wanted it to work. They listened, and said the product wouldn’t do all the things that we wanted to do, but it had the capability of doing it. So we worked together over three months, and we were able to build the additional features that we needed for our business and our environment.”

The project has been a huge success, potentially saving the company tens of millions of dollars, according to Vella. Although it is difficult to put an exact figure on the saving, any delay to the project can be extremely costly as the loss of revenue from satellite capacity could far exceed project costs.

Historically, losses of this kind could reach around $100m, although some of that could be down to client delays. In the most recent year’s figures, since Precursive as introduced, these losses have been cut to $35m, Vella says.

“Over the past 12 to 18 months, using the tools, being able to manage the field engineers, and getting the people to do tasks at the right time has brought that lost revenue right down,” he says.

Mixing applications

Having selected the Precursive tool to integrate with Salesforce CRM, SES is now swapping out Salesforce as its main CRM system, and moving to Microsoft 365 CRM, hosted on Azure, the Microsoft cloud platform.

Although project management system from Precursive will remain on Salesforce’s platform and users will only log onto one system and see CRM and project management as part of an integrated system.

Jonathan Corrie, CEO of Precursive, says it is becoming more common for organisations to mix-and-match back end applications to create an integrated interface for users, via open application programming interfaces (APIs).

“You are seeing a trend of businesses being much more open to working on multiple platforms. Part of that is being driven by the fact that Microsoft, Salesforce, and others are beginning to play nicer with each other,” says Corrie. 

“You go back a few years, and it was much more difficult to achieve. But all of these suppliers have realised that they have customers investing in Salesforce, Microsoft and Oracle, all at the same time.”

The integration of data now possible with cloud computing and modern application architecture is creating a leap forward for project management software, says Mike Wallace, programme management expert at PA Consulting.

“Cloud tools improve access to timely and accurate data. This allows better and quicker decision making. No longer do programme managers expect to wait a whole reporting period to get an understanding of project status.

“Cloud-based tools offer the opportunity to gain nearer to real-time data, meaning emerging issues can be spotted and addressed more quickly than with historic tools,” he says.

The advent of cloud computing has also lowered barriers to entering the market, creating a proliferation of suppliers joining established application providers in the market (see box below).

However, Wallace warns that users investing in project management software need to pay as much attention to their own processes as the technology they hope will support them.

“Project and programme management tools do not directly affect the chances of project success. They add efficiency and help to automate and support governance and controls processes, but they shouldn’t directly drive decisions,” he says.

“The real value comes from the insight and experience that interprets this information. The pitfalls are seen in many project-based organisations who rely on tools to improve the way that data is collected and processed, but don’t address underlying behaviours.”

Introducing new tools into managing complex project risks separating ownership of the projects from the facts. Project managers feel they can distance themselves from the data in the tool: it becomes a curtain behind which project and programme managers hide.

“By using new tools to centre all data on a common structure, it is possible to hold project managers to account and own their project status more transparently,” says Wallace.

By adopting cloud-based project management tools as part of an integrated portfolio of enterprise applications, SES has achieved significant savings and efficiencies. As the supplier market becomes more competitive, there is an opportunity for other organisations to do the same.

Changes shaping the project management software market

Oracle’s Primavera software is the leading project management tool on the market, commanding around 18% market share, according to research from Apps Run the World. Between them, Oracle, Microsoft, SAP and ServiceNow make up around half the market.

However, Transparency Market Research says online project management software market is set to grow to at nearly 10% a year up to 2026.

The cloud model is attracting new entrants. Some specialise in specific activities such as marketing or law. For example, Alacrity Law is a startup operating in the legal industry.

Anaplan is a more well-established player, which counts Del Monte and Tata Steel among its customers.

InEight focuses on transparency and accountability in construction and engineering projects.

Ayoa, from OpenGenius, strive to combine creating “mind mapping” with task management and organisational chat.

But cloud and open architectures are not the only changes shaping the market. Gartner forecasts that by 2030, 80% of the work in project management will be eliminated as artificial intelligence takes on functions such as data collection, tracking and reporting.

AI is going to revolutionise how programme and portfolio management leaders leverage technology to support their business goals,” says Daniel Stang, research vice-president at Gartner. “Right now, the tools available to them do not meet the requirements of digital business.”

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