Distributing project control database information on the World Wide Web
Paul R. Seesing, PMP
During the last few years, corporations have begun to distribute management and operations information to their employees and clients using electronic media. Two trends supporting this phenomenon are client/server database interfaces and use of the Internet. These trends offer ways to satisfy the increasing management demand for formal project control systems.
Budgets, resource allocations, milestones, and actual costs are all data that can be conveniently stored in databases, which may reside on corporate mainframe computers or on network file servers. Client/server interfaces give users the capability to select information or run reports on demand. These interfaces, however, require the user to have some knowledge of the structure of the underlying databases. Hundreds of client/server interface software packages are available; although many require custom screen development for the company's specific database structures.
Many organizations have now connected their local area networks to the Internet. This gives their employees electronic access to company offices in other locations and also provides a quick means of sending information to clients and stakeholders. The Internet and its child, the World Wide Web, were designed to use an existing worldwide standard file structure (ASCII files) for data transmission. Despite the hype and glitz that is being used to market the Web to consumers, building and posting meaningful communications on the Web is a simple, low-cost process. It is the Web's simplicity of design and access that makes it attractive for business use.
Formatting project control data for distribution via the World Wide Web is not difficult, and does not require specialized software. Existing computer codes for report production can be reworked to organize the data for the computer screen rather than paper reports and to insert the necessary formatting. With these codes, hundreds of Web-ready reports can be produced in minutes and copied directly to the Web server. This represents significant time and cost savings over hardcopy report production and distribution.
Of course, because of limited security on the Web, these savings must be weighed against the business sensitivity of the project control information. But before you can make that judgment, it helps to know more about the Web.
Web Basics. The building block of the Web is the “page.” A page is an ASCII text file that contains formatting instructions (called tags) interspersed with the information (text and image) to be presented on the page. These tags are constructed according to the protocols of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). The tags allow pages to directly reference content on other pages. As a result, pages tend to be short and focused, relying on hypertext links to guide the user to the specific information required. The user accesses Web page files using a “browser,” which performs all data retrieval, formatting, and screen display functions.
Electronic information distribution came of age with the Web. A user does not need an account on the network or computer that holds particular data, but needs only to know the address (Uniform Resource Locator, or URL) of the file to be retrieved. This simplicity of access reduces the time required to access the data to a fraction of that typically required to establish a client/server connection. With the uniform method of access provided by Web browsers, the user no longer needs specific training on a client/server interface. This ease of use in turn offers the opportunity for wider use of the data by corporate executives and project managers, and by stakeholders outside the company. The burden that is lifted from the user is placed on the Web page designer, who must ensure that the information published on the Web is understandable, timely, and suited to the users' needs.
Organizing Project Data for the Web. Project control data tends to be periodic (in contrast to real-time, such as stock market data). This periodicity is an advantage when it comes to publishing the data on the Web. It allows for a snapshot of the data to be taken at a point in time and for the data to be organized in multiple ways to best facilitate decision-making. If real-time Web access to databases is necessary, it can be provided by professional programmers using specialized languages and chains of interacting programs. This can be a costly process and, in most cases, adds little value for project control applications. The additional complexity in the retrieval process also increases the risk that data will be unavailable due to failure of any of the programs in the chain.
Client/server interfaces provide a means for users to create customized report formats and retrieve the appropriate data on demand. Summarizing and formatting the information requires knowledge of the database structure, and sometimes knowledge of query language syntax. Some client/server interfaces return data in tabular format, and some allow the user (or programmer) to create page templates for the data.
Figure 1. A Project Control Home Page Featuring a Navigable WBS Index
Figure 2. The HTML Code That Produces the WBS Index in Figure 1
Project control data tends to be a mix of text and tables. Most client/server systems can be programmed to provide this mix in an organized and consistent fashion via pre-programmed templates. Project control has traditionally relied on reports printed using these templates. Often the formats are prescribed by the client. In almost all cases, client/server systems (and traditional database management systems) can write this formatted data to ASCII files.
Figure 3. Scope Pages (shown in a browser window) Let User Select Appropriate Reports at the WBS Level of Detail or Lower
With the bulk of the data deposited electronically into ASCII files via the database interface, only a little additional manipulation is needed to make the files ready for the Web. A rudimentary knowledge of HTML is all that is required to add document headers, footers, section separators, and graphic images to the ASCII file. The necessary tags can be added to the ASCII file using a text editor or most word processors (however, you must be careful to save the file as an ASCII text file). A talented programmer can create data extraction routines that automatically embed the necessary tags, allowing hundreds of Web-ready pages to be created from the database in minutes.
Figures 1 through 6 demonstrate a bare-bones structure for a Web-ready project control information distribution system. Figures 1, 3, and 5 depict sample Web pages that guide a user through a multilevel WBS to the desired project control reports. Figures 2, 4, and 6 are the ASCII text files with HTML tags that display these Web pages when read by a Web browser. Figure 2 was created by the author using a text file editor; Figures 4 and 6 were created by modifying the computer source code used to produce analogous hardcopy reports.
Figure 4. The HTML Code That Produces the Information in Figure 3
Web Page Layout Considerations. Web reports should be organized so that a user can quickly find the information of interest. This is accomplished by designing compact report pages and providing an index as the starting page (also known as the home page) for the report set. It is possible to build hypertext links to other reports independent of the hierarchical structure of the index. Words or phrases can be tagged to link with further description or supplemental detail. The user simply clicks the hypertext link and the information is instantly displayed on the screen.
There are significant differences between formatting a report for the Web and designing output for a printer. Although Web browsers have some capabilities to print hardcopies, the Web is oriented toward on-screen display. To minimize the need for horizontal scrolling on the screen, reports should be designed with a width of 65–70 characters. This represents a major departure from the compressed-font, landscape-oriented reports usually printed for project control.
Figure 5. A Report Dumped From a Database with Added Headers and Footers
(Notice how a set of buttons provides for lateral hypertext links. The user can retain this page format and scroll through multiple WBS elements or cost accounts at the same level without having to go back through the vertical hierarchy to select them.)
Some users may still want to print these online documents, and they can do this by using the browser's print option. Since the user, not the designer, controls the fonts used in Web browsers, the user should be told of the font sizes and orientations required for successful printing of the reports. Many Web page designers create a “Frequently Asked Questions” page and link it to their index page. Unlike most other software, Web browser print options do not allow the users to define margins, page breaks, and page headers and footers.
The text portion of reports can be made very attractive on the Web. The designer can specify relative font sizes and insert pictures and graphics with minimal effort. However, browsers' capability to center lines of text or align margins vary greatly. Therefore you should always design your reports to communicate well without the cosmetics of centering and alignment. Some browsers are incapable of displaying graphic images. If you include graphics, make sure you also include a brief description of the image for nongraphical Web browsers. Graphics significantly increase both the time and the memory required for the browser to completely display a page, so try to limit their size and number.
Columnar data presentations can be tricky on the Web. The leading browser features a complicated set of tags to format tabular data. Since these tags are not yet part of the HTML standard, other browsers have not incorporated them and therefore will not properly format data so tagged. However, all browsers understand the <PRE> tag. Items so tagged are displayed in a nonproportional font exactly as they are read from the ASCII file. When formatting tabular data in ASCII files, it is important not to use the tab character to space the columns, because browsers are unable to use tabs. Browser fonts also do not include any line draw characters, so this method of separating report sections must be discarded.
Figure 6. The HTML Code That Presents the Information in Figure 5
Electronic Distribution: Advantages and Disadvantages
The most obvious advantage of electronic distribution is the dramatic decrease in production costs. Cost savings from reduced copying and paper usage are easily quantifiable. In many cases, the requirements for physical storage space for reports may also be reduced. What's more, the turnaround time for report production at the close of the reporting period decreases significantly with the elimination of the usual bottleneck at the office copy machine.
Data presented on the Web is accessible to managers on travel assignments without elaborate remote database access or terminal emulation software. Hypertext navigation capabilities reduce the time it takes people to find the specific information they need to conduct their business. In light of the potential for cost reduction and productivity increases, it's not surprising that managers are turning their attention to the Web for internal communication as well as for external marketing and sales.
One obvious disadvantage to electronic distribution is the impact of network downtime on information availability. If the file server is not accessible, or if the telecommunications capacity of the network is overloaded, then the electronically distributed project information will be unavailable.
Unless your company is running a completely closed network, you must also assume that anything published on the Web can and will be accessible to the world. The Unix operating system that controls most network servers is insecure by design, and recent attempts to overlay protection have been only partially successful. If your project control information is business sensitive, don't put it on the Web!
There are interesting legal considerations if you choose to adorn your Web pages with your corporate logo. Trademark law requires strict protection of logos and requires detailed adherence to sizes and content specified in the trademark application. Allowing other use of the trademark revokes your exclusive claim to that trademark. Since browsers typically write a copy of all text and graphics on an accessed Web page to the user's hard disk (giving the user the ability to produce new electronic documents that incorporate your trademark), check with your legal department for the latest interpretation of trademark and copyright law.
Is the Web for You?
The World Wide Web is based on the concept of expanding communication rather than constraining it. It has enabled unprecedented access to electronic information with very low start-up and access costs. Such features of the Internet as electronic mail and file transfer protocols complement the Web in providing a suite of electronic communication tools without requiring custom software development. The legal profession's ability to interpret and revise copyright and patent law, however, has not kept pace with technological advances. Privacy and data security issues also remain unresolved. Comparing the cost savings and potential productivity improvements with the risks and liabilities associated with public disclosure is the only way to decide whether electronic distribution of project control information is appropriate for your organization.
Paul R. Seesing, PMP, has been designing and building project control databases for over ten years. He is the chairperson of the Electronic Information Committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Professional Communication Society.
PM Network • October 1996