Insight in project portfolio for Astron

In the northeast of the Netherlands, between sleepy forests in the village Dwingeloo, the office of ASTRON is located. The futuristic building, filled with advanced equipment, makes you think of thrilling spy movies. Here, observations of the radio telescope in Westerbork are processed into knowledge about the universe. Preparations for LOFAR – a radio telescope consisting of antenna clusters throughout the Netherlands, with a total cross-section of 350 kilometers – are also made here. The newest instruments are developed for astronomy. In order to have good control over all complex long-term projects, ASTRON has been working with Primavera since the summer of 2002.

ASTRON performs scientific research and develops astronomic instruments. It is a clean, high-tech industry that goes together very well with the nature the office is surrounded by. Part of ASTRON are radio observatory Westerbork, the board and staff and the technical laboratory, where over ninety scientists and technicians work on the research and development of new instruments for the astronomy. These are both concrete instruments, such as antennas and lenses, and abstract instruments, such as methods for filtering away failures of cellular phone masts. André van Es, manager Process Support R&D at ASTRON: "About two thirds of the work we do in our technical laboratory deals with the technology for radio astronomy which will be used for future telescopes, such as the Square Kilometer Array and LOFAR. For this we develop both instruments and software. We invest about one third of our capacity in optical and mechanical instruments for astronomy. We are, among other things, working on the MIRI project: development of a camera for the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a huge new challenge for us, as it is the first time we are involved in a space project."

Subsidy

Besides research and development, the foundation in Dwingeloo also fills an important function on the field of education, in particular astronomy. ASTRON is part of the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, which in its turn is part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. A large part of ASTRON consists of subsidies. To give account of these, process control and process management have become increasingly more important. In particular now that money is provided by other – for example European – foundations, a detailed overview on how the money is spent has become a prerequisite. Primavera has turned out to be the ideal tool to stay informed on the many running projects. Van Es: "We used to work with a simple tool, which required much manual work. We started to search for software that at least could make sure that the hours the employees registered would automatically be processed in the project planning. Another demand was that the application would be web-based.

"Our accountants wanted to minimize the human input in the project administration, which became possible when we coupled the Primavera applications to our financial program Navision. Thanks to Primavera, we now do our administration and make the reports every month, instead of every quarter. In that way we keep up with projects a lot better. Especially a project as LOFAR, where hundreds of thousands of euros a day will go around, frequent updates, probably weekly, will be needed."

Gradual culture switch

At this moment, ASTRON works with Primavera Project Manager and soon with the Primavera EPPM the web-based version. Next year, van Es wants to add the Methodology Manager. He deliberately implements one application at the time. "The project leaders experience themselves the advantages of working with this software and how much insight it provides. I wait with introducing more functions until they start asking for more. You can’t make people work with a completely new system all at once. That is for example why we initially kept on working according to the three-month cycle. I aim for a gradual culture switch, even though fitting Primavera into the existing organization went relatively easy. Using the application makes you reflect over the organization, on a project level but also all other levels. Who answers to whom between the project organization and the existing organization?"

Since July 2002, ASTRON works with Primavera. Since October of the same year, the financial package Navision runs simultaneously. "Coupling these two applications was more complex than we anticipated", says van Es. "Navision has a completely different architecture. Right now they function well together, but it has been an enormous ‘translation job’. Primavera Nederland has been helping us enormously on that point."

Primavera course

By now, registering hours has become obligatory for the employees at ASTRON. "Every employee works basically 2088 hours per year, and each hour is accounted for. In Primavera, each employee registers how much time he or she spends on which project. This was a rather simple procedure to learn. A number of persons from the research groups followed a three-day Primavera course and passed on their knowledge to each group." Van Es and his colleagues are very content with the new approach. "Thanks to Primavera we can produce better and more detailed reports. Our budget control has also improved, or at least our insight in our financial position. Of course you cannot give up your responsibility, but the project leaders are really on top of the information. Every third month we make a spending profile based on the schedule, to establish an overview of future expenses. Navision does not offer that insight, Primavera does. Besides hours we also plan to register investments in Primavera Enterprise, to get an even better view on how these go together with the financial planning. The preparations for the LOFAR project, 21 million euros in total, started with 6.9 million euros from the Northern Netherlands Assembly. This year we finished the preparations and thanks to Primavera we have been able to answer all questions from our financiers without any problems. We spend community money and it is a matter of ethics to handle it with care."