Tracking your project's progress through email

Managing a project's workflow is an arduous chore that can be even more difficult if your project management software doesn't integrate with electronic messaging. Keyfile recognized the need for a software tool that lets you use email to track your project's progress and created Keyflow. Keyflow uses Microsoft's Exchange Server as a base to provide a mechanism for streamlining tasks within your organization.

Keyflow consists of client and server components. The server component handles the administrative work, and the client component obtains information from users to feed to the server. A full installation requires 5MB of disk space and a minimum of 16MB of RAM on the server, 15MB of disk space and a minimum of 16MB of RAM (24MB recommended) on the clients, and Windows NT Server 3.51 or 4.0 running Microsoft Exchange Server 4.0 or later.

Before you can install the server component, you must set up a special NT user account with the ability to log on as a service, and you must assign this user an Exchange Server mailbox. Next, you install the server component on your NT Server system. After you install Keyflow, you can configure the software with the Keyflow Server icon in the Keyflow program folder. Clicking this icon opens the Keyflow Server Setup and Configuration window, as you see in Screen 1. This screen lets you change basic configuration data such as the logon account the service uses to log on and the Exchange Server mailbox it interacts with.

Setting Up Keyflow
Using Keyflow is a four-step process that consists of creating a flow template, using the flow template to start a flow, having the system automatically deliver task messages and receive updates, and having the software monitor the prerequisites and automatically execute steps. A flow template is a graphical representation of the tasks that users must finish to complete a particular project or assignment. Creating a flow template is not difficult, but it is time consuming. The amount of time you spend on the flow template grows exponentially as the complexity of the task you want to control increases.

To create a flow template, you use Keyflow's Flow Template option on Microsoft Exchange's New Form option. Once the product is in form design mode, you use icons to add a series of steps to the project. You can add eight different types of steps to a project: Start (to start a flow), FYI (to distribute information to recipients), Response (to gather responses), Loop (to return to previous steps conditionally), Split Path (to spawn or combine a series of steps), Milestone (to monitor flow progress), Launch (to start another flow template), and Done (to complete the flow). After you finish creating the flow template, you store it in a public folder in Exchange Server so that other users can access it.

After you add all the steps to your project, you can enhance them by specifying additional parameters such as prerequisites, voting, recipients, completion dates, and connectors. Prerequisites are conditions that must exist before a step executes (e.g., a manager's approval of a purchase order request). Voting lets you add prerequisites based on percentages. For example, whether you add a prerequisite might depend on the number or percentage of recipients (individuals assigned to vote on a particular task) who approve a picnic date. Completion dates let you track when you need to finish certain steps in the project. With completion dates, you can specify a date or the relative number of days from the start of the step. Finally, connectors define the relationship between steps in a project--how the flow of a project progresses from one step to another. To create and modify connectors, you use the mouse to draw connector lines between steps.

Tracking a Project
When a user needs to start tracking a new assignment or project, the user (originator, in Keyflow terms) retrieves a flow template from the server and assigns tasks in the flow template to other users (recipients, in Keyflow terms). Exchange Server then sends messages to these recipients to notify them that they each have a task. After completing the task, each recipient acknowledges its completion back to Exchange Server. At any point in the process, the project originator can view the status of the different tasks in the project. If necessary, the originator can edit the project to forcibly approve a user's task. This ability to intervene prevents projects from being held up if a user is not responding or is on vacation or sick leave.

Keyflow makes full use of Exchange Server's features. For example, on new projects, you can attach a file for other users to review and approve, which is helpful in business settings where you need to send a specific document to several users for editing and approval. Keyflow also lets you assign due dates so that you can receive a response for each recipient's task. When the due date expires, the software automatically sends an alert message informing the recipient that the task is overdue for completion.

Keyflow is an excellent workflow management tool integrated through Exchange Server. The documentation is small but adequate and helpful in all phases of the software's use. Technical support is available on a per-incident basis. You can download a demonstration version of the software from the company's Web site.