Agricultural project cycle and portfolio management inefficiencies
At a recent workshop held at SEEL on 4th June in Portsmouth, Hampshire. A preliminary review of a forthcoming report on the state of agricultural project cycle management systems was presented as a basis for discussion.
In spite of the World Wide Web (W3) being in operation for over 20 years, most donors, executing agencies and consultants have not gained the full benefits of online technologies.
A common problem is the use of legacy applications such as word processing documents and spreadsheets which create islands of data which is updated with difficulty, they both suffer from major manual numeric data error issues and overall are responsible for a significant decay in data quality over a project cycle. The reasons for these impacts is that these "convenient" applications are ubiquitous and most people know how to use them but they have not evolved at the pace of the evolution of W3 technological capabilities. Connected to this lack of evolution is the fact that these legacy applications do not support the operational needs of modern cloud-based oversight systems. As a result the organization of project portfolio management systems is one of the weakest elements of existing systems.
On an item by item basis, the main inefficiencies arising from this state of affairs are:
Errors and data quality decay
- The continued widespread use of spreadsheets maintains a high level of manual errors and black box calculation errors. For these reasons, some large organizations and regulatory agencies have banned the use of spreadheets;
- The distribution of spreadsheets as email attachments is convenient but this results in a lack of cohesion between the current state of information and that distributed leading to data quality decay;
- Automatic updating of spreadsheet content works with varying effectiveness across the globe and it faces practical difficulties associated with program versions and the current status of software licenses. These are practical issues which are particularly prevalent in low income countries. As a result document content quality decay is not avoided;
- A large number of institutions still use word processor documents which face the same problems as spreadsheets with document content quality decay being a significant problem in distributed documents;
- Online automatic updating of word processor documents does not operate well and faces significant issues related to different versions and formats and licensing issues, especially in low income countries;
- Besides spreadsheets and documents having a serious data quality decay problem the process of correction of numeric data requires orientation and benchmarks which these applications are unable to manage adequately;
Standardization for longitudinal and cross-project portfolio analysis
- Documents and spreadsheets are not effective vehicles for supporting the needed standardization of data sets across projects so as to support portfolio analysis;
The impacts of multiple applications
- In order to operate on this basis there is a need to make use of many different applications and techniques
- The convenience of using applications to which people are accustomed often causes there to be a lack of awareness of the impact on data quality
- The use of multiple applications working with common datasets introduces margins for mistakes and errors and data accessibility can present issues for some applications. Compensating through manual data input only reintroduces manual error risks.
- The use of any different programs and services to operate a project cycle management system can result in higher software costs, maintenance fees and upgrading and may result in a need for more expensive hardware devices. This can be an issue in low income countries who face constraints in maintaining appropriate updates and replacements
Transparency of critical analysis assumptions and results
- Critical calculations and reporting is required in relation to simulations for determining likely throughput quality and quantities, impact analysis, sensitivity and returns on investment including cost benefit analysis (CBA). Invariably to complete these analyses use is made of different applications or add-ins to spreadsheet applications. Quite often this requires individuals with adequate expertise in the use of such methods. This can create communications issues between the specialist and report editor leading to a lack of transparency in the final document.
Project portfolio oversight
- Very few operational systems that are organized on the basis of multiple applications are conducive to the operation of an efficient portfolio configuration or oversight process.
- The lack of a systematic portfolio structure, a document flow management system and transparent data record archiving can result in documents being deleted or documents existing that do not have version numbers or appropriate date/time stamps creating difficulties for subsequent access for reviews.
Examples were given of instances of inefficiencies and irregular evens arising from poor project cycle management. For example some projects have been shown to no longer have the original Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) information that was completed pre-funding because this was contained in a spreadsheets or documents which could no longer be found at project completion so comparative estimates could not be carried out. Monitoring and evaluation personnel are occasionally given out-of-date documentation with which to evaluate a project and this not being detected because of there being no update tracking or document version numbers and the documents in question were in hard copy.
In other reports it has been admitted that the completion of CBA before project
The examples mentioned in this section of this article are the subject of a forthcoming article on standards.
funding has fallen to less than 30% of projects funded in spite of institutional operational procedures requiring that CBA be carried out before funding. In many cases projects were approved for funding before the CBA and other critical analyses were completed as a result of political decisions being taken without reference to the design or evaluations.
Lastly, is has also been admitted that out of all of the CBA analyses completed, only a small number were completed correctly as a result of staff not having adequate knowledge to complete this work. There are several instances, in large funding organizations, of the project identification and preparation activities being carried out by different people who have no communication between them. In the case of critical analyses these are often conducted by specialists or consultancy firms. There is therefore not only an atomization of applications (software), discontinuity in cycle logic but also discontinuities in the build up of project memory within a single "team" or project "group" because of the lack of communications. The result is a difficulty in obtaining a fully coherent view of how a project was designed, why any specific option was selected as the preferred design and in many cases, there not being any adequate evaluations and justifications. In most cases where this occurs project managers who might be different individuals from those involved in project design, end up using the Log Frame Analysis as the guide to management. However, Log Frames only provide a description of expected events and necessary management actions along a proposed time line for a single selected project option. Normally, there is no information in Log Frames concerning the design, sensitivity analysis, impact analyses and CBA. This, it is assumed is in accompanying documentation, but with the current ineffective coordination and oversight in many management systems, it would appear that this is unreliable.
Given the high rate of project failures, especially in agriculture, this state of affairs was considered to be a matter of great concern. There is a need to replace unsatisfactory modes of operation by taking advantage of far more efficient, effective and lower cost options that today's W3 technologies offer. Fortunately there are many options. The participants agreed on the following pointers on how to substitute the current inefficient configurations and work habits with methods that can eliminate errors, lower the costs of administration and improve the quality of projects on their entry of portfolios. These assume the full application of cloud-based technologies and are listed below.
Virtual documents are viewed on a monitor or browser and do nor take a physical form such as hard copy. Their purpose it to ensure that each time they are accessed they are up to date because they access a single monitored and regularly updated master data source such as an Accumulog (see box on left).
Although virtual documents are not normally printed to help secure a significant saving in energy and medium resources. They can, of course, be printed off if required.
Virtual documents work best with Accumulogs and Real Time Audit to save time and focus by selecting the precise information desired as opposed to looking through a large document.
Accumulogs are blockchains or ledgers that record all events and information concerning a process made up of individual transactions. Currently, blockchains are best known through their association with BitCoin transactions.
Accumulogs are the similar concept but were conceived in 1985 as an essential component in learning systems and AI applications. Accumulogs ensure a permanent record designed to facilitates a transparent recall of content.
This has a specific application in the case of project evaluation and implementation in guiding management decisions in response to change, providing monitoring and evaluation teams with a complete project profile and bringing new team members up to speed when they replace someone who has left the team.
- Project cycle and portfolio management can only operate efficiently by using virtual documents that read a SINGLE constantly updated master document or database;
- The most adaptive, transparent and efficient organization of the database is a blockchain. The only blockchain system that is currently deployed for project cycle and portfolio management is the Accumulog;
- Accumulogs provide a permanent record of all project design and implementation information, enabling cross portfolio and time-based references e.g. comparison of CBA at start, mid-term and at the end of a project;
- Accumulogs prevent data quality decay because records cannot be changed but all updates are recorded and justified; all current virtual documents monitoring or evaluation personnel can access and review all events and updates if needed;
- Accumulogs record all design and implementation information throughout the project cycle. This imposes a standardized dataset enabling longitudinal (time-based) and cross-project analysis;
- Accumulogs are designed to enhance learning and recall of accessing information and represents an ideal record configuration for oversight so as to be provide virtual documents of any aspect of any project located anywhere and accessed from anywhere in the world;
- In practical terms the only way to deliver this functionality is through a cloud-based project cycle and portfolio management service;
- A cloud-based operation facilitates a portfolio approach because of the facilitation of global oversight of project operational information being accessible in any location and from any location;
- All operations should be coordinated by an agreed due diligence design procedure as a guarantee that all factors are taken into account and all decisions recorded;
- Due diligence procedures should each be associated with a clear dataset specification and method of analysis which should be embedded in the delivery service - as a result CBA and other analyses, will be completed correctly, even by individuals with less experience;
- In order to avoid the use of additional programs, all more advanced analytical procedures should be embedded in the delivery system including decision analysis model construction, simulation, risk analysis, impact analyses, financial performance projections, project activity capacities, budgets, accounts and others;
- In principle, there should be no document distribution other than virtual documents viewed through W3 access devices such as laptops or mobiles using a browser;
- Cloud delivery means lower-priced user devices (thin clients) it reduces significantly the needs for auxiliary software with the only software required being a browser, this also significantly lowers the cost of entry and operations a matter of significance to users in low income countries;
- Decisions on project funding should also be subject to the same due diligence procedure to ensure all costs, benefit and risks are established before a funding decision is made.