International growth at Axel Springer Digital TV Guide GmbH, supported by Blue Ant
(Client Review from 2009)
»Our employees have profited from more transparency since beginning to use Blue Ant.«
The ASDTVG, a fully owned subsidiary of the Axel Springer AG, offers technology solutions in the area of electronic program management, from advanced navigation in digital contents to future uses for personalized TV viewing. A central element in ASDTVG’s product portfolio is the valuable editorial contents and program data from Axel Springer AG, Europe’s largest publishing house. ASDTVG helps device manufacturers and network operators in customizing these contents for digital offers.
50 employees of the FUNKE Ditigal TV Guide GmbH (FDTVG) use Blue Ant at their locations in Berlin, the USA, Norway, Switzerland, and France as an ASP system to support their multi-project management. We spoke with Heiko Ahrens, project manager and person responsible for the launch of Blue Ant.
Mr. Ahrens, could you tell us exactly what you do at Axel Springer Digital TV Guide GmbH (ASDTVG) and what responsibilities you have there?
At the moment I function as both project and sales manager at ASDTVG. Among my duties are processing our projects, as well as the distribution of solutions we develop. Overall project activities, such as controlling, fall under my remit.
How would you describe the project landscape at ASDTVG?
Headquartered in Berlin, Germany, ASDTVG includes an experienced group of digital video engineers and software architects, as well as leading professionals in the sector of new media marketing and advertising. The Berlin team is complemented by a growing range of virtual offices around the globe, including presences in Paris, Oslo, Hamburg, Zürich and Pasadena, California.
Beyond the ASDTVG core team, the organization calls on the significant resources of other parts of the Axel Springer organization, including importantly the Digital Media Program Data group in Hamburg; the Axel Springer Digital TV production unit in Berlin, and the advertising sales expertise of Axel Springer Media Impact. In addition to these internal resources, ASDTVG also capitalizes on an extensive network of external partners.
What does the typical project workflow within ASDTVG look like?
Once a project has been drawn up, for the most part there is no going back. This is because a process is set up with the initiation of the projects. This is how the idea for implementing a project is drafted in our company, and then appraised and evaluated by different people from technical and product management fields. If we decide to go forward with the project based on this process, then we file an application. In the project request, we describe in detail which resources will be needed, what the projected time frame for the project will be and what the budget is expected to be. If the management accepts the project, then it is allowed to continue. Rejecting the project is no longer an option. The information is available and the project is processed. The project manager is solely given controlling functions in the project. The 'project delegates' decide the rest.
What requests make up the resource management in the ASDTVG?
High expectations are placed upon the resource management. For the most part, our employees participate in multiple projects concurrently. It is very important to know when and in which capacity the employee can be used again. We regularly work together with external partners and require resource planning. The decentralized nature of the company means that, because of the difference in time zones, we’re not always able to stay in direct contact.
We’ve arranged for the employees to report their progress in the project once per week. If the employee has direct access to the Blue Ant system, he/she can enter this alone. For external employees, it is especially important that the project manager be responsible for ascertaining the employees’ progress and entering this into the system.
Can it be problematic when it comes to appointments, resources and technical challenges?
Yes, exactly. That’s why the project manager is responsible for updating this information. In monthly meetings, the projects are presented in summary by the 'project delegates', and subsequently evaluated. So the project’s status is viewed in relation to time and progress.
To answer more in depth questions, the project manager is invited to the meeting to describe the project. In the meeting, we discuss and clear up any possible problems that could arise that may be conditional upon cost and technology.
What you’ve just described is the status quo today. However, that knowledge existed before introducing Blue Ant. Why was a project management solution brought in? What was the tipping point?
Well, we determined that the employees in our company had varying ideas of what the term 'Project management' meant to them. Therefore, it was important to agree on a common foundation, a common language. Our employees, as well as the management, wanted transparency that conveyed who was active in which projects, what the status of those projects was and how the information gained from them could be put to use for the future. To achieve this transparency, we decided to initiate a project management solution as our tool.
How did the introduction process turn out with Blue Ant?
The starting point for selecting and implementing a project management solution was a two-day workshop. The workshop was considered, among other things, as a chance to define technical terms in project management. Using practice-based examples, we answered the question of what is most important for our company. So there was a theoretical part and a practice-based part, in order to try out the theories in a real situation. We brought in colleagues from Hamburg, with whom we conduct projects. Following this, we decided, together with the management, which data was most relevant and needed to be gathered. This process was combined with finding a suitable tool that would be able to complete our requests. It had to be a solution that involved less work for our employees and avoided the double recording of data. That’s how we came to Blue Ant.
What were the pros of working with Blue Ant, a web-based and unified PM solution?
The word “web-based” was the important point. Because of our different locations and many external employees, it was an advantage that we wanted to utilize. Everyone would be able to record his or her working hours and progress directly. Excel and MS-Project can’t do that. Furthermore, it was important that the employees were only able to see the project information that was pertinent to them. With Blue Ant’s Rights Management, we could offer the user a tailored interface that averted an overlap of information.
How were your projects managed before?
Before the introduction of Blue Ant, everyone had his or her own tool. There were Excel or MS-Project varieties, as well as open source solutions. Comparability was not available. It was up to the project manager to decide which tool he/she used and whether progress was reported or not. The use of different solutions resulted mostly in hesitations with compliance and release dates.
How many projects run parallel to one another in your company?
At the moment, we have ten projects running concurrently. Before the mentioned workshop, we had about double that amount. The number got smaller once we started asking ourselves, “What actually is a project?” and “Are all of our projects still active?” etc. Most of them were not active at all, so the number of projects dwindled considerably.
Blue Ant is a comprehensive tool. How many employees work with you at the moment and which functions have you been using?
Right now there are 50 employees in our system. We use it for working time and progress reporting. The external employees take care of their hourly reports in the system and adjust their monthly invoice on this basis. They simply attach them to E-mail. Additionally, we use the evaluations that Blue Ant offers, such as the overview for all projects and their status. We implement all project planning with the help of this tool. All projects are put into Blue Ant and taken care of there.
Blue Ant offers many other functions. Will you be using these in the future?
Yes, we’ll be introducing them in small steps. For example, this year, we plan to integrate Knowledge Management. At the same time, we will be introducing cost rates to be able to accomplish meaningful budget planning.
Requesting progress and working time recording for our employees in regular gaps is a challenge, but it has the highest priority for us. When we’ve established this, we’ll record additional information.
Looking back, how was the employees’ acceptance of Blue Ant’s introduction?
When you change a process or introduce a new tool, there is often skepticism at the beginning. It was the same when confronting our employees with new software. At the beginning we trained our employees in the system and showed them what happened with the data and how Blue Ant should be used. The transparency in the projects became clear during the training and developed a first stage of acceptance. Additionally, we have external employees who need to record their hours as a basis for their invoices. The timesheet “at the touch of a button” also generated acceptance, as it’s easier to use in Blue Ant. We’ve tried to show our employees the benefits of the new system. Overtime is easier to see in the system and can be adjusted. We’ve also made Blue Ant more appealing financially by integrating its use into our bonus provisions. Next to other factors, our bonus payments depend on how and whether the employee uses Blue Ant. As a final instance, we invite employees to a meeting to clear up any further resistances.
By introducing Blue Ant, where there other impulses to act on the part of the management?
Yes, if a new project is to be realized today, the management looks at the resources available. This way, they can quickly gauge whether a project needs to be pushed back or if it can be initiated immediately. Technical leaders whose employees are active in many projects can quickly get an overview of which employees are busy and, should the situation arise, convey action impulses to those who are not. Additionally, with the help of the tool, the management can recognize when appointments cannot be kept and can take measures against this. In general we could say that experiences with completed projects flow better into the planning of new projects since the introduction of the tool. However, the most important condition for this is that the employees use the tool and keep the data up-to-date. The management must also stipulate that the data is to be recorded, should this be necessary.
From your point of view, has the sensitivity toward project management changed for the management and employees in the last year?
The topic has certainly attained a higher significance. Earlier on, we used to speak about our projects in the management meetings. However, it was more of a casual subject. Since the introduction of Blue Ant, we discuss current projects at the beginning of every meeting, using Blue Ant to call up important information at a glance. At the same time, we talk about and clarify issues surrounding the project.
Our employees have profited from more transparency since beginning to use Blue Ant. They get to see which projects in the company are being performed and how the project is going, even if they are not participating in the project themselves.
If you had to do the entire introductory process over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t do anything differently. A certain learning process is part of it, otherwise there is no awareness created for what’s new and important. The workshop at the beginning and the following system training supported the introduction process well. What was difficult at the beginning was leadership continuation after the workshop, the training and the start of the system. The management had to realize that their service was still and would continue to be needed. The way had to be cleared of resistance from employees. Recording working hours and progress also had to be demanded and retained. However, it’s an initial investment that, in the end, decides whether the software can establish itself in the company or not.
What does the future look like for the ASDTV? In which direction will the company develop?
We’re moving into a growing market with our solutions and can foresee a continuous rise in demand in Europe as well as in the USA. We also plan to implement or blend other information and contents from Axel Springer into an electronic medium in the future. Today these are classical program leaders, but there is information from other fields that we want to integrate. TV is going to change in the coming years and Axel Springer AG would like to have a role in it. Blue Ant supports our multi-project management and creates the necessary structure to be able to take on an increasing number of employees.