Anytime, anywhere


by David E. Essex


Project management has always called for collaboration. The technology practitioners used may not have been all that sophisticated—a Gantt chart, a spreadsheet printout, a phone, a meeting room and maybe a projector. Fundamentally, though, collaboration was about people in close, frequent communication with each other. Given the advances in computing and telecommunication technology, a shift in project collaboration was inevitable. Mobile phones gained data features. Handheld computers picked up enough processing power, battery life and screen size to run usable versions of familiar desktop programs, including e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets. And notebook computers became affordable and truly portable.

The revolution in mobile data has made team members and executives almost always reachable—ready and able to access timely project data.

“People are walking around with headphones the whole time, and they've got Blackberries and they've got notebooks,” says Matt Light, research director at Gartner Inc., a research and advisory firm specializing in IT in Stamford, Conn., USA. “This removes some of the delays from decision-making.”

Users have adopted a pecking order among the high-tech toys, however.

“People are certainly using the [personal digital assistants] and some handheld devices, where you can get more information on the screen,” says Robert Blakeney, product marketing director for software vendor Deltek Systems Inc., Herndon, Va., USA. Mobile phones, with their tiny screens, though, are a different story. “I'm not seeing phones, other than for e-mail alerts,” he adds.

Faster, Faster

The real power of networked collaboration comes from giving team members near-constant access to filtered, critical project data that they might otherwise have to wait hours or days for in printed reports or meetings. Sperry Marine, a provider of marine navigation and ship control systems, Charlottesville, Va., USA, for example, uses WelcomHome to provide a centralized, visible location for coordinated document storage, information, schedule tracking and live project status reports. In less than six months, Sperry teams worked on 40 proposals and 10 projects through WelcomHome, saving significant time and increasing efficiency compared to previous collaboration efforts. “Before using WelcomHome, people e-mailed back and forth or telephoned to stay informed,” Mr. Blakeney says. “The wrong version of a document could be passed to someone and team members might miss information if they missed meetings. Now everyone gets general information from the portal's home pages, reviews an up-to-date notice board, checks documents in and out, accesses process and risk information, and views live schedule and milestone reports.”

the history of collaboration

First Generation: In the late 1990s, collaboration technology meant little more than slapping a web browser interface on project management and scheduling software that ran on older server networks.

Second Generation: Tools were rewritten from the ground up, according to emerging web standards. This evolution made more of the software's features available over the Internet—not only to team members, but to customers and other stakeholders.

Add-Ons: Project management vendors next added new, complementary products to their portfolios, such as centralized web portals. New companies sprouted up to provide innovative alternatives, including web-based “teamware” and peer-to-peer messaging tools.

Free Speech: The last two years have seen the growth of free or inexpensive “open source” collaboration software such as wikis, which are easily downloaded and distributed to project teams over the Internet.

Wireless World: The network “backbone” evolved from private local wide-area networks and the wired Internet to small, localized wireless “hot spots.”

Coming Soon: Expect to see broader wireless coverage from metropolitan WiMAX networks and even satellites.

Online accessibility can improve project tracking by making it easier for team members to report their daily progress. UPT Ltd., a software development firm in Kiev, Ukraine, uses open-source Achievo project tools from to track billable hours and manage distributed teams. “The main advantage of the systems we use is that they are online tools,” says Vitaliy Perekupka, the company's CEO and chairman of PMI's Kiev Chapter. “It helps to coordinate activities, and we don't miss important things.”

At Benjamin Moore & Co., Montvale, N.J., USA, web-based project management software AtTask allows teams to collaborate on application development projects by tracking issues and requests, says Kurt Reisinger, the company's business application manager.

The benefits of the new high-tech team collaboration extend even to training, says Alfonso Bucero, PMP, founder, partner and director of Bucero PM Consulting, Madrid, Spain. Tapping into the company's Windows SharePoint Services portal, “a new member joining our company needs less coaching and mentoring from senior people at the beginning,” he says. “All the foundation, processes and real experiences are available in our collaboration portal.”

Beyond E-mail

E-mail is often the easiest, quickest way to get a group discussion going. Team members can hit the “reply all” button to share comments and project documents. The typically one-to-one channel turns into a virtual meeting room.

Things can get unwieldy, however, as the frequency of messages and number of participants increases. What's more, e-mail is an inherently asynchronous medium—messages can be read and responded to at any time. There can be an over-reliance on automation,” when in some cases “it would have been much more effective with a telephone conference,” Mr. Light says.

Instant messaging (IM) is another popular alternative. Once dismissed as a mere teenage obsession, it has since emerged as a serious corporate communication medium, but issues remain. Though synchronous, it's still primarily a one-to-one channel and can't provide the face-to-face visual cues that enrich communication. For all these reasons, Mr. Light says, it doesn't meet several project collaboration requirements.

Obviously, there's a need for technologies that simulate the experience of meeting in a room and viewing the same information together. Video- and audioconferencing, either through specialized meeting-room devices or desktop PC peripherals, can provide that human interaction. They can also save transportation costs and facilitate meetings that would not otherwise take place because of time and distance constraints.

Whiteboarding, which electronically simulates the ubiquitous whiteboard and erasable markers found in most corporate meeting rooms, often appears inside a videoconferencing window. This feature allows teams to brainstorm and record ideas, just as they would in a face-to-face meeting.

Other alternatives dispense with the video or make it optional, but provide a shared document and discussion space. WebEx Communications' WebEx and Microsoft's NetMeeting are two leading examples.

Some vendors have tried to improve upon e-mail by making it flexible enough for team collaboration. The most common underlying technology, called peer-to-peer networking, lets users send and receive messages directly to each other's computers without a central server. Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook e-mail program has links to tasks and schedules stored in its SharePoint Services teamware and Project software. Microsoft's Groove software and Colligo Networks Inc.'s Colligo provide peer-to-peer IMing plus chat rooms, file-sharing and conferencing.

Mr. Blakeney is skeptical there's much demand for these newer tools, though. “A lot of the people are not high-tech oriented,” he says. “They want a single point of access to multiple applications.”

Closer Ties

Improved integration of software continues to be both a daunting challenge and an opportunity to bring about new ways of collaborating. Standardized web services integration tools, which software vendors have gradually adopted over the past five years, promise both easier assembly of custom collaboration networks. These “building blocks” can work together in almost any combination. Federated Department Stores, for example, is testing an upgrade of AtTask, released in May and designed as a software “kernel” that can be linked to other web services.

Advanced integration will also improve the timeliness of project data. WelcomHome, for example, features links to chat rooms, topical forums and live schedules in Deltek OpenPlan, Microsoft Project and Primavera P3. Mr. Blakeney says his company can also connect WelcomHome's time-entry feature to a company's accounting system, updating it instantly.

With more business applications linked together, it will become easier to add workflow features to project collaboration. True workflow essentially builds more logic and intelligence into the flow of information through an organization. This feature goes beyond the basic document-management features of today's project collaboration tools, such as checking in and out of shared Excel files. Workflow would, for example, let project managers sign off on a project document, which would then trigger an action item in the project schedule and notifications to team members, Mr. Blakeney says. WelcomHome already has rudimentary workflow, including automatic notifications, but customers are demanding true “stage-gate workflow controls,” which the company plans to add in future versions, he says. Mr. Light notes that other project management vendors such as the CA's Clarity and Primavera have also been adding workflow features.

Thanks to web services integration, collaboration channels are beginning to evolve as separate services that can be mixed and matched to work inside project management tools or other business software. Such embedded communication mechanisms could help solve a conundrum that now faces managers assembling a project collaboration platform: Should the communication channels contain the project management tools or vice versa? Currently, project collaboration usually takes place outside the core project applications, requiring separate software.

Clearly, collaboration technology is evolving rapidly. “I don't think we've yet seen the perfect application for this,” says Nate Bowler, AtTask's chief technology officer.

Collaboration tools are nonetheless providing real value to project teams all over the world. They may also be flattening organizational hierarchies and democratizing project management by giving all team members a nearly equal voice in decisions. “Before, we used to prioritize all the work that came in,” Mr. Reisinger says. “Now we give that ability to the users. It keeps everybody in the loop.”

David E. Essex is a freelance journalist specializing in IT. A former editor at BYTE magazine, he has also written for PC World and and is a PM Network columnist.




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