The role of the project controller

Syed Ali Dilawer highlights the growing importance of project controllers within the construction industry.  
The role of the project controller
By Syed Ali Dilawer
Sat 21 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

Most professionals agree that project management skills can be divided into two basic components, commonly referred to as the skill and the knowledge of project management.

A major segment of the project manager's work deals with the skill, or leadership side of project management. It demands vision, communication, negotiation, motivation, and interpersonal skills. In this case, business acumen and knowledge of the industry are critical.

On the other hand, knowledge of project management methodology and tools, plus strong analytical and problem-solving skills are required. Here, the ability to quickly gather data and communicate it under pressure is critical. Because these two distinct skill sets are best provided by two very different types of people, some organisations have begun to divide these two sets of responsibilities.

The development of the project controller's position has been an evolutionary process. Initially, many organisations created a position called "coordinator." The coordinator was responsible for handling administrative tasks, entering data into a timekeeping and scheduling system, gathering status information, and helping to produce status charts.

Over time, additional requirements - such as development of the initial schedule and estimates - forced many organisations to develop the role of "planner". Some organisations required this role to perform on-going schedule tracking and analysis, often using the term "scheduler." Responsibilities of tracking issue and risk logs, analysing schedules, and facilitating all planning and status sessions were usually assigned to this role.

More recently, responsibilities increased to include handling resource allocations and constraints, schedule and critical-path analysis, financial reporting of earned value and providing other documentation sufficient to comply with authorities' requirements.

Today, the role of a project coordinator, planner, and scheduler has evolved into that of "project controller". The project controller supports the project manager by handling most of the critical, detail-oriented, analytical-focused, time-intensive project tasks. As a result, the project manager is free to focus on more strategic project goals and objectives, and is often even able to take on additional projects.

Both the project manager and project controller carry out crucial duties, and both possess significant, albeit, different skill sets and responsibilities in order to bring the projects in on time and within the budget.

The project controller is a key member of the project team and works directly with the project manager to help define the project's goals and objectives; create and maintain a project's budget and schedule, analyse progress reported against the work schedules; and recommend actions to improve progress. In order to ensure accurate documentation and reporting on a consistent basis, many organisations are positioning the project manager and project controller as part of a centralised project support organisation.

In order to efficiently handle the responsibilities of a project controller, a successful controller must possess insight into business process, cost budgeting and estimating, risk analysis, critical path diagramming and analysis, resource forecasting and change control. It is important to note that the project controller may be supporting several projects simultaneously (based on project size and work experience).Therefore, he or she must also be flexible in dealing with multiple project managers, while maintaining the required level of standards demanded by the organisation.

Syed Ali Dilawer is a planning manager with EC Harris International for their Dubai and Saudi Arabia offices and has 18 years of experience as a project management professional with expertise in time and cost management, contract administration and claim substantiation/analysis. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and is a certified cost consultant. He is also an associate member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in the UK.

The opinions expressed in this column are of the author and not of the publisher.

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