Combining standalone and enterprise features

Like most project managers working in the IT industry, I know that delivering work in a global virtual matrix organization is an enormous coordination challenge. Two factors (the development backlog resulting from resources diverted to the Y2K event and the realization that even in the new economy, companies must be profitable to survive) demand that IT development do a better job of meeting budget, requirements, and schedule. In fact, even the media is paying attention, as when Newsweek asserted in its April 3, 2000, edition that most dot.com IPO failures are the direct result of an "inability of firms to get projects out the door."

Software vendors stand at the ready with automated project management tools that can help. Some offer database products for requirements management while others generate task distributions from previous efforts for more accurate duration and level-of-effort (LOE) forecasting. Still others promote products that tout a specific methodology, such as Critical Chain. However, what remains paramount in IT development, specifically with recurring (e.g., quarterly) releases, is schedule. You can add money and LOE and descope requirements, but you must meet the schedule. This emphasis is what makes a good, easy-to-use scheduling tool an essential component of any project manager’s toolbox. Like a good word processor, the more familiar and less trendy the tool the better.

Knowing the value of a good scheduling tool, you begin your search and are soon struck by the latest claim from project management software vendors that their tools are true enterprise solutions. Be aware, however, that applying a project management solution across an organization is not equivalent to giving everyone copies of the same software—you need to overcome methodologies, corporate culture, and politics. What is important is selecting a software solution that works across multiple development projects and programs in your company. You can most easily achieve this goal by selecting a standalone application that you can eventually deploy companywide and that provides synergism with other product suites the company already uses.

Keep in mind that not everyone will be excited about, or interested in, using a project management software tool. The primary users are the project managers who serve as the pivot point for collaborative plan development and assessment. Subsequently, these users are the focus of status gathering, re-plans, and escalations. Other users are the stakeholders, who are more interested in their responsibilities of system architecture, market positioning, return on investment (ROI), and network operations. These secondary users will use the software tool that the IT matrix project manager selects only if these users perceive the process as simple and painless.

One example of an enterprisewide scheduling, statusing, and communications tool is Microsoft Project 2000. While earlier versions facilitated collaborative interaction with the project team via email, the new version places data on a server and communicates project information with stakeholders via the Web using the software's Project Central component. With the help of the systems administrator, the project manager controls who sees what by giving access to an interactive view of the project file at the client. The stakeholder sees the portion of the schedule and other information that the project manager needs that user to update. With Project 2000, the stakeholders don't even need to understand the product or load anything on their clients—slick.

At the moment, interactive reporting addresses input of actual time worked—rather like a timesheet, while statusing is still email based. But the data resides on a server, offering many benefits for saving and resource manipulation. If you work in a Microsoft shop (like I do), the promise that Project 2000 can compete on a level playing field with other Web-enabled tools gives Microsoft's product the edge, especially when you learn how it integrates with other Microsoft Office products, such as Outlook.

Standalone Project-specific Improvements
Microsoft's Project 2000 product planning team has carefully listened to Project users and integrated their requests into a familiar package. I wanted to see what the standalone product would do, so I installed it on my laptop (a Dell Latitude 266XT), which was already running Project 98. The process of upgrading to Project 2000, as well as handling my Project 98 files, was flawless. Be aware that Project 2000 can only access files from the previous version, Project 98. In my case, this planned obsolesence forced others from whom I obtain weekly status updates in Project 95 format to upgrade to Project 98.

One shining promise of Project 2000 is its integration with other products in the Microsoft Office suite. Microsoft designed Project 2000 from the outset to be a component of an integrated solution in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For instance, Office and Outlook users can now see all of their tasks—both non-project and project schedule derived—on their daily task calendar. Speaking as someone who currently performs this task manually, I couldn't wait to try this new feature. In addition, you can combine this integration with Exchange Server to further coordinate schedules and meetings across the enterprise; however, you need Outlook 2000 to realize this benefit. When I tested this later feature (our office had just upgraded), the operation could not have been easier. I simply selected a task to track in Project 2000, went to the Tools menu and selected Workgroup and Set Reminder, and watched as the task appeared on the task list in Outlook. You can also view Outlook information in Project 2000, as Figure 1 shows.

Updating the Basics
Microsoft has spent time updating the fundamental scheduling portion of Project. Aside from providing new formats, the company has also correctly renamed the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) view to Network Diagram. (PERT involves adding probability distribution to task durations—something that Project never did, but that is readily available using after-market add-ins.) And, although many users dealing with semirepetitive projects build their own project templates, Project 2000 now officially recognizes templates and even offers how-to tips for the novice.

Another addition is the ability to assign true Work Breakdown Schedule (WBS) categories that relate to a company's structural organization, rather than simply assigning an arbitrary numbering system of the schedule tasks. However, Project 2000 still refers to the schedule and its embedded costs elements as a project plan rather than an all-encompassing document that includes risk assessment, quality plan, and other related elements, in addition to the schedule.

Project 2000 lets you use hyperlinks to access other types of project data. You can use the software to attach data from other sources (e.g., budget spreadsheets, requirements selection and prioritization documentation) and related information to tasks on the project schedule detail. This feature is very handy for project documentation and helps reduce hard copy files.

Other improvements that the standalone user will appreciate include in-cell editing, setting project priority, setting deadline dates, handling material resources, improved network viewing, grouping, improved leveling functionality, and master calculation of subprojects.

Project 2000 is also faster than its predecessor where it counts. Because my files are generally fewer than 1000 tasks in size, I could save them quickly. Saving speed and file efficiency are critical to both project consolidation and running "what if" scenarios. This speed and efficiency is especially critical where it applies to the needs of multiple project portfolio management and mega projects involving 10,000 tasks or more. In the Design Goals section of its Reviewer’s Guide, Microsoft states that saving a 10,000-task file to Microsoft SQL Server is three times as fast as Project 98 and, further, that "linking twenty 1000-task files to a common resource pool is 98 percent faster" than Project 98—I believe it.

Enterprise Project Management
Regardless of whether the core improvements to the software provide enough benefit to consider purchasing or upgrading to Project 2000, the real test for most companies comes down to the software's claim to be an enterprise solution. Simply stated, does the software let you form a Project Management Office (PMO) or select Project 2000 enterprisewide when the need or opportunity arises?

Project 2000's Web communications involve three entities: the systems administrator (with Project Central installed on a server), the project manager (with Project 2000 loaded on the client), and the stakeholder (who requires only a Web browser and Web access). To test the Web features, I supplied the system administrator with a recent project file. The system administrator, at my direction as the project manager, must manually create user accounts for the project resources. The project manager then pushes the project information to users by going to the Tools menu, selecting Team Status, and clicking Workgroup. The Web communication features let you notify any user via email of the Web address where you want to present both selectable columnar and Gantt chart information for them to modify, as Figure 2 shows.

In this release, users can update actual working time on an interactive basis. An accomplished database manager can then transfer this information into your current proprietary timesheet system. The process should be easy and fast for users, and that’s the key to effective two-way project communication.

The Best of Both Worlds?
In the past, deploying a project management tool has taken one of two paths: You either had to load standalone software on individual PCs or use an enterprisewide implementation from the PMO level or above. Project 2000 brings together both approaches. It enables individual project managers to continue to use a familiar, although enhanced, product and rely on local servers to distribute project information and gather status from widely dispersed users. This approach lets the current user base grow vertically from within the organization until such time when you need a PMO to tie the strings together for a truly corporate view. Working out the details of how to merge timesheets and other release actuals into existing corporate tools takes time; however, widespread use will be the driver. Because of Project 2000's functional compatibility with other Microsoft products, such as Outlook, everyone from the individual project manager to the CFO can use the same product and Office suite at different levels and know that synthesis is mainly a matter of time.

From a telecom perspective, if Microsoft wants to seize the moment and distance itself from the pack, why not leverage its recent investments and voice-enable Project 2000 for updates via phone, especially when a lot of project management takes place remotely worldwide? Why should I have to wait to get back to the office or type on my Web-enabled cell phone to update a project when I can call in my updates from anywhere? Something to think about, Microsoft.

Project 2000 retails for $499 for one copy and $199 for an upgrade (enterprise contract copies should be substantially cheaper, and are based on the number of concurrent users). However, anyone can order a 60-day trial copy on CD-ROM from Microsoft's Web site for less than $10.