Translink gets people where they need to go throughout Northern Ireland. Based in Belfast, the public corporation runs railway and bus services, including rail infrastructure, in the region. When the company sought better insight into projects and an easier, more efficient way to manage its project portfolio, it chose Microsoft Project. Adding Power BI and other Microsoft collaborative tools, it saves 25 percent of its project reporting time every month, with an array of other productivity gains to increase project efficiency and make the most of taxpayer money.
“We use Microsoft Project for faster, better decision making, at 10 percent greater overall project management efficiency. With the previous tool, we couldn’t have delivered the current £100 million in capital projects. Our project teams deliver larger, more complex infrastructure projects now that we have the right tool—Project.”
For transportation companies like Translink, straddling the line between government entity and private company, governance and precision management are critical. The company runs large, long-term projects—about 200 of them at a time. Mounting pressure to increase ridership meant larger budgets for continual transportation upgrades in Northern Ireland—and greater project management challenges. It turned to Microsoft Project (Project Online), in concert with other productivity-enhancing Microsoft apps, to gain new project insights and efficiencies.
Managing money—and infrastructure—for the taxpayer
Translink oversees most bus, rail, and coach services in Northern Ireland, running about 85 million passenger trips every year, operating 12,500 services every day. That means managing rail infrastructure and stations across Northern Ireland and thousands of drivers, customer service agents, conductors, and engineers.
Apart from day-to-day operations, the company carries the government’s vision for public transportation forward, developing detailed long-range plans. Climate change accelerates Translink’s mandate to increase public transportation use in support of Northern Ireland’s social, economic, and environmental goals. As it develops an investment plan for the next decade, Translink emphasizes technology to remove friction from the passenger experience, like real-time trip information, “contact-less” ticketing, and other convenience-first innovations.
Translink CEO Chris Conway explains that stewardship of public funds underscores everything the company does: “We manage public money, so we must also provide precise data and excellent governance.” His executive team relies on the Translink Portfolio Management Office (PMO) for information to optimize decision making and provide accurate, comprehensive reporting to government stakeholders. When the company replaced its previous PMO solution, it turned to Microsoft. “We’ve invested heavily in Microsoft 365 tools not only to make our business more efficient internally, but also to engage with our customers better externally and to get better use of data,” says Conway. “Microsoft Project and Power BI were a clear choice for our PMO.”
Remaking project management at Translink with a unifying solution
Head of PMO Brendan Harkin explains the catalyst for Translink’s Project deployment: its adoption of the UK Office of Government Commerce best practice model for public sector organizations—the Portfolio, Programme, and Project Office (P3O) framework. Recognized across the United Kingdom as the best way to deliver optimal project planning and delivery plus return on capital investment portfolio, P3O adoption demanded a sophisticated information management system.
The previous portfolio management system was no longer fit for purpose, and the PMO was struggling to manage a steadily increasing volume of projects and expenditure exceeding £100 million across a diverse portfolio. The PMO spent nearly a week every month, manually capturing and transferring project data to fully understand the total portfolio status. Even then, the previous project information system couldn’t meet increasing customer expectations for fast, accurate project information.
The company needed an effective enterprise project management solution that was compatible with the P3O strategy adopted—one that would integrate projects, programs, and portfolio. Translink chose Project to facilitate those principles and provide accurate and efficient reporting. Translink engaged with Microsoft Gold Partner TPG (The Project Group) to plan its Project implementation and develop a program management and baseline reporting methodology. TPG developed a Project add-on app for Translink that imports baseline data from all active projects into one project file to provide an integrated picture and deliver an accurate capital plan.
With Project fully deployed, Harkin finds that the interoperability between Microsoft solutions, especially the full range of Microsoft 365 apps, particularly SharePoint, maximizes his options. That advantage figured heavily in his decision. “Being able to integrate Microsoft SharePoint for document management with project planning was also critical to our choice of Microsoft Project,” he says. Harkin sees concrete benefits in both data accuracy and PMO efficiency from the Project deployment across the entire Translink portfolio and all business areas. “With Microsoft Project, project and program managers focus on analyzing rather than handling data, making more informed decisions,” he says. “Conservatively speaking, we’ve removed a week of non-productive time per month for the PMO, which means 25 percent more efficiency in our people.” That efficiency extends throughout the company. “The real success is our ability to manage the Translink project portfolio seamlessly from project managers all the way through our senior executive team,” says Harkin.
Key to that seamless multi-level project portfolio management is flexible, instantly available project data. Translink uses the extensive Project reporting capability to keep all stakeholders ahead of the curve. And when the company added Power BI, it took reporting to a new plane.
Sharpening reporting with Power BI
Reporting was a critical factor in Translink’s decision to choose Project. Prior to deployment, Translink executives couldn’t get the timely, rich data they needed for optimal decision making. Without a standard project center and a system to support remote data entry, project managers submitted notes in a variety of formats. And as custodian of a public budget, Conway needed higher productivity and live time reporting. “Because the prior system was slow and cumbersome, our project managers were confined to the office more than they or I wanted them to be,” he recounts. “Always with an eye to governance, we sought a system that made the best possible use of our project managers’ time.”
Executives like Conway need flexible, fast reporting. “The combination of Microsoft Project and Power BI impresses me—the reports have met and in some cases exceeded my expectations,” he says. His team is freed from minutia. “With this increased visibility, in an hour we go through all the portfolio reviews, see all the data, focusing on projects we want to review in more detail. In addition to 25 percent of the time we’ve reclaimed for PMO and Executive reporting, we estimate a further 10 percent increase in efficiency in our overall project management.”
Life changed for Aaron Adams, PMO Analyst at Translink, after the Project deployment. He’s responsible for managing the Project system for Translink, which currently has 300 live projects and 80 users. “Microsoft Project is brilliant for reporting,” says Adams, who previously had to reconcile data from multiple sources. “In fact, we’ve changed the format for project board meetings, viewing data from Microsoft Project in real time as the single source of truth. Now, rather than questioning the accuracy of data and moving it from one system to the other, we confidently focus on using it productively.”
The efficiency Adams appreciates ripples into other aspects of project management. Translink Project Manager Hannah Lewis finds that the Project system facilitates greatly enhanced collaboration. The silos that once isolated Translink’s business areas have disappeared. Collaboration is further enhanced by the sophisticated, detailed project reporting facilitated by the application’s ability to track and coordinate a plethora of project data—quickly. That’s why Translink Programme boards, charged with project program oversight, use Power BI reporting for increased visibility into project progress and interdependencies. Prior to deploying Project, project managers worried that project risks and issues were obscured. “Without our data transferring in real time to the overall project portfolio, decisions for critical projects could be delayed,” says Lewis. That increased efficiency means that project managers spend less time updating data, and more time managing projects.
The value of those increased insights unites executives and people on the ground in the PMO. “For me, the biggest impact of this business change is the project governance and project performance visibility that our top executive committee never had before,” explains Adams. “That not only helps them access that information, but for the first time, they can view the range of projects we have, the health of those projects, plus detail about risks and issues. But the key for them is that they now have real-time information on projected expenditures across our capital budget—around £100 million per year and growing.”
The PMO uses the additional flexibility it gets with Power BI reporting to optimize decision making and portfolio management. “The combination of Microsoft Project and Power BI is now critical to managing Translink’s portfolio,” Adams adds. “It has been a genuine game-changer; we simply could not have continued to manage our growing business needs without it.”
Collaborating with a connected environment
Translink uses the interoperability among Microsoft solutions to make work easier for its people and elevate achievements. “With Microsoft 365 and Project, we now access our schedules, our SharePoint sites, and our Power BI reports remotely from any device,” says Adams. “It’s at the heart of our own ‘one team‘ ethos here at Translink. We have greater openness and collaboration throughout the organization. Now we can really work together.”
With that connected system, Harkin’s team take on and manage the full range of their project management roles, unimpeded by siloed data. “The project manager can now take ownership of the project schedule, its costs, its resources, and so on, and that’s a huge change,” he says. “They use Microsoft Project to identify interdependencies and manage proactively.” Those benefits spread throughout the company. “Now we can match budgets and prioritize project spend. There’s interest across Translink to collaborate with the system. Our procurement department and other related areas envision accessing our data to better manage project procurement stages and vendor contracts.”
As he takes the Translink vision forward, Conway and his teams have a purpose-fit tool for the challenges ahead. “With the tool we had before, we could not have managed £100-plus million worth of capital projects a year. I think that’s evidence that we have the right tool in Microsoft Project.”
“Microsoft Project is brilliant for reporting. In fact, we’ve changed the format for project board meetings, viewing data from Microsoft Project in real time. Now, rather than questioning the accuracy of data and moving it from one system to the other, we confidently focus on using it productively.” – Aaron Adams: PMO Analyst Translink
“With Microsoft Project, project and program managers focus on analyzing rather than handling data, making more informed decisions. Conservatively speaking, we’ve removed a week of non-productive time per month for the PMO, which means 25 percent more efficiency in our people.” – Brendan Harkin: Head of Portfolio Management Translink