Project management collaboration tools

Introduction

Two things that are consistent in today’s business environment are technological advances and increased complexity, including globalization (Friedman, 2005). Many businesses are now using virtual teams on projects and to solve problems. An important use of technology in the work place is collaborative tools to support virtual teams. Collaborative tools, which are known as collaboration systems and groupware, are “IT-based tools that support the work of teams by facilitating the sharing and flow of information” (Haag, Baltzan, & Phillips, 2008, p.572). Please note the terms collaborative tools and groupware will be used interchangeably in this paper and generally reflect the preference of the research and researcher being discussed. The objective of this paper is to show the benefits for virtual teams, but information will also be presented on new, innovative ways of using technology to collaborate throughout business and online communities.

Traditionally business was done face-to-face, meaning organizations needed to be in close proximity, or travel was required. In the 20th century, new technological innovations, such as telephone calls, electronic data interchange (EDI), fax machines, and e-mail were developed as alternatives to face-to-face meetings. Current technological innovations include Internet forums, online chat, video conferencing, web conferencing, application sharing, electronic calendars, project management systems, workflow systems, Web sites (intranet, extranet, and Internet), wikis, and open source. The biggest innovation is not just in the technology itself, but in how it is actually applied to solve business problems. This paper specifically focuses on the project management needs of information technology (IT) project teams, including virtual and cross-culture teams.

Why Collaborative Tools Are Needed

Traditional Face-to-Face Meetings and 20th Century Alternatives

Traditionally, business has been conducted in face-to-face meetings, which is still the most effective way when logistics allow it to be practical. But, unfortunately, due to travel costs and time, this is not always possible. In the 20th century, alternatives to face-to-face meetings were made available due to advances in technology. These alternatives included person-to-person telephone calls, teleconference calls, electronic data interchange (EDI), fax machines, and e-mail. These were all important advances at the time, but now today’s business environment in the 21st century has become much more global with the need for more technological advances for improving team collaboration because teams can be far apart, even in significantly different time zones.

Business Environment Changes and the Need for Virtual Teams and Collaboration

To explain the global business environment we find ourselves in today, in The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman (2005) named 10 forces that flattened the world:

1. November 9, 1989—the fall of the Berlin Wall and the corresponding raising of Microsoft® Windows in personal computers around the world

2. August 9, 1995—Netscape goes public with the personal computer platform transforming to an Internet platform

3. Workflow software—transitioning from just communicating with computer to truly collaborating

4. Open-sourcing—leading to empowerment of individuals around the world

5. Outsourcing—paying another company to perform a specific function you previously did for yourself

6. Offshoring—moving an entire function, such as a factory, to another country

7. Supply-chaining—connecting global markets and providing for greater specialization

8. Insourcing—collaboration creating value horizontally

9. In-forming—availability of information by the internet

10. The steroids—digital, mobile, personal, and virtual technological enhancements

Many of these forces have to do directly with collaboration and the tools that support it. Friedman stated that the convergence of these flattening factors was “the creation of a global, web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration—the sharing of knowledge and work—in real time, without regard to geography” (Friedman, 2005, p. 176).

Another factor increasing the need for collaboration, especially across cultures, is the outsourcing movement. Due to lower labor costs, significant amounts of IT work, especially software development, are being outsourced to other countries (Holmström, Fitzgerald, Ågerfalk, & Conchúir, 2006).

The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, are another reason for the increase in virtual teams and their collaboration needs. Air travel for meetings has become more expensive, riskier, and with the new safety measures, more of a hassle. In addition to the increase in expenses for businesses for travel, some employees are now not willing to take the personal risks and endure the personal inconvenience of traveling. Another factor for decreased business travel and an increase in telecommuting is the recent increase in fuel costs.

Other changes in the business environment include mergers and acquisitions and telecommuting. When companies merge with and acquire other companies, it usually means additional locations for employees to be based. So instead of having all members of a project team co-located in one physical place, they are now more likely to be geographically spread out. Telecommuting continues to increase, with more and more employees working out of their homes and in need of collaboration tools (Turban, King, Viehland, & Lee, 2006).

Another reason for the need of collaboration tools is the challenges of virtual teams working across different cultures (Stewart, 2006). Culture is the “sum total of beliefs, rules, techniques, institutions, and artifacts that characterize human populations” (Ball, McCulloch, Frantz, Geringer, & Minor, 2002, p. 303). The six rules of thumb for doing business across cultures are (Ball et al., 2002):

  1. Be prepared,
  2. Slow down,
  3. Establish trust,
  4. Understand the importance of language,
  5. Respect the culture,and
  6. Understand components of culture.

Having collaborative tools can be beneficial for following these six rules of thumb. Wang (2006) addressed international project management as the most important area today. There are several differences and challenges of working across cultures (Trompenaars, 1997) and collaborative tools can help to overcome these challenges. Global project managers have to deal with much more complex issues than in the past, and technology is a key to success. Technology needs to be used effectively to all of its ramifications (Clelland & Garies, 1994).

Technological Advances and 21st Century Collaborative Tools

Project management benefited from many technological advances of the last half of the 20th century such as the fax machine, personal computers, laptop computers, cell phones, and personal digital assistants (PDA). The biggest technological advancement at the end of the 20th century was the Internet, followed by wireless communication and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) (Friedman, 2005). All of these are utilized in providing collaborative tools for virtual teams. Tapscott and Williams (2006) considered the convergence of these new technologies mixed with demographics and global economics as the creation of the first category six business revolution (based upon hurricane category ratings of 1 to 5). Some of the most important collaborative tools that will be covered here are Web conferencing, knowledge management, and enterprise project management software (Hildebrand, 2007), blogs, wikis, podcasts, and RSS (Mentrup, 2006), which are critical for success with virtual teams.

Percent of employees that use each application (Mirapoint, 2007)

Exhibit 1 – Percent of employees that use each application (Mirapoint, 2007)

Mirapoint (2007) researched the evolving enterprise collaboration needs. Exhibit 1 shows the current percentage of employees that use the types of collaborative tools installed in their respective organizations. They performed a stratification of users by usage of collaborative tools. Thirty-three percent of users were considered heavy, 45% moderate, and the remaining 22% considered light. This stratification is important because users can be segmented for the most appropriate technical solution. “The power users need full access to software like Microsoft Exchange or IBM Lotus Notes, which support the multiple communications methods they require to perform their jobs. Moderate users, who can include remote users, can be supported by Web-based messaging solutions” (Mirapoint, 2007, p. 3).

The IT research firm Gartner predicted “the collaborative software and knowledge management market will generate $3.9 billion in new licensing revenue in 2005 and grow at average annual growth rate of more than 9% annually through 2008” (Jedd, p. 38).

Web Conferencing

Technical Foundation and Differences from Predecessors

The predecessor to web conferencing was face-to-face meetings, followed by teleconference calls. As teams became geographically dispersed and face-to-face meetings were no longer possible, the new virtual teams utilized teleconferences. Originally, this was limited to just a telephone call, but after the implementation of email, presentation slides could be distributed in advance of the meeting. While a significant step forward, the slides were static and could not be changed in a way that all of the participants could view during the meeting. The presenter also had the burden of reminding all of the participants of what slide they were currently on.

Web conferencing allows presentation slides to be seen by all participants in real time. It is also not limited to presentation slides, but can include any type of software that be run on a personal computer (PC), and participants can also be granted permission to take control of the software.

Benefits

The leading web conferencing products today are GoToMeeting from Citrix, Office Live Meeting from Microsoft, MeetMeNow from WebEx, Acrobat Connect Professional, and Netviewer one2meet. In a vendor independent survey of these web conferencing (or online meeting) tools, GoToMeeting had the highest overall score (Publicare Marketing Communications website survey of online meeting tools). Based upon its position in the market, when looking at the benefits of web conferencing, we will focus on GoToMeeting. In business, GoToMeeting can be utilized for sales demos, training, or collaboration with remote team members. Key features include the following:

  • Intuitive user interface: easy to understand controls enable you to start and join meetings in seconds without training;
  • Share keyboard and mouse control: securely collaborate on documents in real time;
  • Instantly change presenters: enable any participant to present to the entire group;
  • Drawing tools: draw, highlight, and point to items of interest right on the screen;
  • Desktop recording and playback: record meetings to review or share later;
  • Specific application sharing: for added privacy share only the application you choose;
  • Integration: access GoToMeeting through Microsoft Office, email, or instant messaging applications;
  • Macintosh attendee support: Macintosh users can join and view GoToMeeting sessions; and
  • Reporting: get detailed reports for trend analysis and ROI validation (GoToMeeting website fact sheet).

With these features applied to the previously mentioned applications, benefits for the organization and its customers include the following:

  • Increased productivity by improving presentation and collaboration capabilities,
  • Reduced travel and operational costs,
  • Increased sales and improve customer relationship management (CRM) by enhancing interaction with customers and prospects, and
  • Expanded access to business partners and subject matter experts regardless of location (GoToMeeting website fact sheet).

Obstacles

Based upon the Mirapoint (2007) survey on collaborative needs, the greatest challenges for deployment are security concerns (39%), corporate culture (39%), and user training (37%). Included in the security concerns are intellectual property and confidential business information, along with Security Exchange Commission (SEC) and other regulatory requirements. Corporate culture requires proper change management to go along with the technical functionality being implemented. Users of the collaborative tools need to be aware, have the proper skill developed and be motivated to make the change a success. The management of change levers to satisfy this includes communication, training, incentives and rewards, and organization alignment.

Knowledge Management

Technical Foundation and Differences from Predecessor

Before knowledge management systems were invented, attempts were made to capture and share knowledge; they just were not nearly as efficient. Capturing knowledge goes all the way back to taking hand-written notes and sharing them with others. Then typewriters appeared which made it easier to share knowledge in a legible format, followed by photocopiers, which made it easier to mass produce for those you were sharing it with. But this was still a linear one way process. Storing files on computers was next, which made updates possible, and with the implementation of networking, the ability to share files. But the ability to organize and retrieve knowledge still left a lot of room for improvement.

Knowledge management “involves capturing, classifying, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing information assets in a way that provides context for effective decisions and actions”(Haag et al., 2008, p. 576). Knowledge management systems (KMS) “support the capturing, organization, and dissemination of knowledge (i.e., know-how) throughout an organization” (p. 576). “

Content distribution is an important peer-to-peer application on the Internet that has received considerable research attention. Content distribution applications typically allow personal computers to function in a coordinated manner as a distributed storage medium by contributing, searching, and obtaining digital content, migration, their support for encryption, access control, authentication and identity, anonymity, deniability, accountability and reputation, and their use of resource trading and management schemes” (Androutsellis-Theotokis, & Spinellis, 2004, p. 335).

Exhibit 2 shows the various categories of knowledge management systems along with their purposes, and the examples of the underlying technology that make them possible.

Categories of knowledge management systems (Raman, 2006)

Exhibit 2: Categories of knowledge management systems (Raman, 2006)

A blog is a journal on the Internet (the name comes from “web log”). A blog can “even double as an official record of a project” (Mentrup, 2006, p. 28). It allows everyone on the project team to read it and update ever they chose. The information is stored in chronological order and is easily searchable and can include crosslinks. It can also be used to get new team members up to speed quickly on a project.

Wiki, a Hawaiian word for quick, is “a freely expendable collection of interlinked web pages, a hypertext system for storing and modifying information —a database where each page is easily editable by any user with a forms-capable web browser” (Raman, 2006, p. 59). Wiki technology is capable of supporting the requirements for collaborative knowledge creation for both corporate and academic environments. Wiki technology is based upon open source software, and there are several wiki engines (or wiki clones) available. Wikis are great for documents that need to be edited by multiple team members.

Other collaborative tools for of sharing information include RSS, podcast, screencast, and instant messaging. RSS is an acronym with multiple proposed origins including Remote Site Syndication, Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, and RDF Site Summary (Brown, Huettner, & Janes-Tanny, 2007). RSS allows content to be monitored and distributed (“fed”) to team members (Mentrup, 2006). A podcast allows audio files that can be share with project team members over the Internet. A screencast is similar to a podcast with “a recording of computer screen output, usually containing audio narration and published as a video file” (p. 29). Instant messaging can be used to information in real-time messages (Brown, Huettner, & Janes-Tanny, 2007).

Benefits

Friedman (2005) showed the value of knowledge management with several examples of applications in today’s business environment. Specifically in the field of project management and virtual teams, Besner and Hobbs (2006) when researching the perceived value and potential contribution of project management practices to project success, concluded that “tools related to organizational learning and memory as among the tools showing the greatest potential for improving project performance” (p. 39). While Brodbeck (2001) in his research on software development projects concluded that communication is significantly more important in the late stages of the project life cycle, while the prevailing view is that communication is important throughout the project life cycle (Schwable, 2006). Lessons learned are a key area of adding value by capturing and sharing knowledge for future projects (Ewusi-Mensah & Przasnyski, 1995). Utilizing technology such as knowledge management software also is very important to keep virtual team members connected (Smith, 2006). Kennedy (2008) found Microsoft SharePoint as a very impressive tool with features including document management, versions control, wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, workflow, and other project management tools and compared its impact for collaboration with that of PowerPoint for presentations.

Reich (2007) created a “framework identifying the key areas within IT projects where knowledge-based risks occur. These risks include a failure to learn from past projects, competence of the project team, problems in integrating and transferring knowledge, lack of a knowledge map, and volatility in governance”(p. 5). Based upon Reich’s research, it is important to establish a learning climate, establish and maintain knowledge levels, create channels for knowledge flow, develop team memory, and use a risk register. All of these needs can be met by properly utilizing a knowledge management system.

Tapscot and Williams (2006) defined a wiki as more than just software that allows multiple people to edit a Web site. To them “it is a metaphor for a new era of collaboration and participation, one that, as Dylan sings, ‘will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls’”(p. 18). A wiki is collaborative software that facilitated knowledge management with groups (Raman, Ryan, & Olfman, 2005). The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is the best known application of wiki technology (King, 2007), but the same technology can be utilized for knowledge management throughout an organization, especially for project management with virtual teams.

Obstacles

A big argument about knowledge management is always the technology. It is still said by some that, except for needing a large data base and a search engine for a repository and for locating expertise, the technology to enhance the average knowledge worker’s productivity and/or efficiency is straightforward…it is more complicated than that. (Gray, 2007, p. 273)

It is important to get the correct database as foundation for your knowledge management system (Song, Nerur, & Teng, 2007).

White (2007) found that it was important that the intranet strategy for your knowledge management system, properly set expectations, have a mission statement, and an emphasis on decision making. From a technology perspective White stated that content management software and search functionality must be reviewed and upgraded on a regular basis, and that taxonomy also needs to be considered as part of the strategy.

Enterprise Project Management Software

Technical Foundation and Differences from Predecessor

Initially, projects were scheduled using pencil and paper. Eventually, the military developed several handwritten techniques such as Gantt charts to show a timeline and PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) and CPM (Critical Path Method) for scheduling (Marchewka, 2006). In 1990, Microsoft released Microsoft Project which brought project scheduling to the desktop, a significant advancement at the time. It allowed project schedules to be easily updated, and charts and reports to be created from the data. Over time the Microsoft Project functionality continued to grow, but it was still just a single-user product. If multiple projects were using the same resource they would have visibility of the other project and erroneously assume they could consume 100% of the resource. Also department- and enterprise-wide reporting was not possible.

With the implementation of project management offices (PMOs) one of the big opportunities was to consolidate project data and do status reporting, monitoring, and project portfolio management for all projects under the PMOs control, but the proper tool was needed. An enterprise project management system (EPMS) is that tool. It has a common database for all project information for the organization. For example, HP uses Primavera as an EPMS based on an Oracle database on a UNIX platform (Kingsberry & Stewart, 2003). EPMS is an advanced form of a project management information system (PMIS), which is defined as “an information system consisting of tools and techniques used to gather, integrate, and disseminate outputs of project management processes. It is used to support all aspects of the project from initiating through closing” (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2004, p. 368).

Benefits

A project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (PMI, 2004, p. 368). The Standish Group studies IT project success, and for a project to be considered successful it must meet all three of the triple constraints: budget, schedule, and scope. In their CHAOS study in 2002, only 34% of IT projects were successful (Marchewka, 2006). This is an important improvement over the 16% and 28% of the original 1996 and 2000 studies, respectively. But unfortunately, 51% of projects remain challenged, defined as being completed but missing one or more of the triple constraints (budget, schedule, and scope). The remaining 15% of projects are canceled before completion and considered failed.

Lynn Crawford (2006) researched the development of organizational project management capability and found the importance of a PMO helping improve project success. A key tool for a PMO is an EPMS. Ibbs and Reginato (2002) found that more mature project management practices leads to better project performance and more consistent and predictable project results. An EPMS is a key tool for implementing, monitoring, and continuously improving mature project management practices.

An EPMS provides one resource pool for the entire organization, so resources are not over allocated. Virtual project team members are looking at the same project data, regardless of their location and time. It also provides valuable real time data about all projects for upper management and the PMO. There is only one system of record for project information. Security can be easily set and updated for the appropriate update and read access.

Establishing a project management methodology is a best practice for promoting project management success (Charavat, 2003, Cormier, 2001). A methodology, by definition, is a defined and repeatable process. The purpose of a project management methodology is to provide a model approach, promote the use of best practices, and to clearly define what you are doing, so you can improve it. Key components of a project management methodology include a framework, guidelines, techniques, templates, samples, roles, project plans, milestones, and phase exit reviews, and a focus on operational readiness and management of change (Stewart, 2004). An EPMS is a valuable tool in implementing an enterprise-wide project management methodology. In the case study of HP, Primavera was utilized to provide scalable base project schedules with links to all of the enterprise project management methodology templates and documents (Stewart, 2004).

Another valuable benefit of an EPMS is project portfolio management, which allows an IT organization to manage their investments in IT projects similar to how a financial analyst manages an investment portfolio or an employee manages their retirement portfolio. This provides upper management in the organization valuable information on how much of the resources are going to the types of IT work such as innovation, infrastructure, and maintenance (Levine, 2005). Project portfolio management can also be used to review how well the IT strategy and execution is aligned with the organization’s business strategy (Chan, Huff, Barclay, & Copeland, 1997; Hirschheim & Sabherwal, 2001).

An EPMS allows metrics to be easily tracked on project progress and success. Research on IT project failures found “that long before the failure there were significant symptoms of ‘early warning signs’ of trouble” (Kappleman, McKeeman, & Zhang, 2006, p. 31).

Obstacles

The biggest challenges and obstacles with implementing an EPMS are like those with other enterprise-wide systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP). This includes the software costs, consulting fees to implement the system, redefining processes to ensure everyone is using the EPMS, and training (Haag et al., 2008). Fortunately customization, integration, testing, and data conversion should not be of the same magnitude as an ERP implementation. Another challenge is the management of change. Loyal Microsoft Project (or other stand alone systems) users may not immediately see the benefits for the organization of everyone using an EPMS, so they need to be made aware, trained, and motivated for the transition.

Determining the Best Tool

Several different types of project management collaborative tools have been discussed. But just as a hammer is a great tool for working with nails, but not with screws, so a project manager need to determine which collaborative tools are best for the task. Exhibit 3 assists in this process.

Determining the Tools for Specific Tasks (Brown et al., 2007)

Exhibit 3: Determining the Tools for Specific Tasks (Brown et al., 2007)

Additional Reference Material

A great resource for additional information about project management collaboration tools is Managing Virtual Teams:Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and other Collaborative Tools (Brown, Huettner, & Janes-Tanny, 2007). Other valuable books for learning more about this subject include:

  • Binder, J. (2007). Global project management: Communication, collaboration, and management across borders (1st ed.). Burlington, VT: Gower Publishing Company
  • Gartan, C., & Wegryn, K. (2006). Managing without walls: Maximize success with virtual, global, and cross-cultural team (1st ed.). Lewisville, TX: MC Press.
  • Kazanchi, D., & Zigurs, I. (2005). Patterns of effective project management of virtual projects. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.
  • Kock, N. (2008). E-collaboration in modern organizations: Initiating and managing distributed projects (1st ed.). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
  • Lipnack, J., & Stamps, J. (2000). Virtual teams: People working across boundaries with technology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: The Penguin Press.

Web sites with additional information include:

Conclusion

The global business environment is changing with the need for more virtual project teams. Recent technological advances have provided new tools for team members to collaborate with and remove the barriers of location and time. Web conferencing allows the teams to meet online and collaborate in real time. Knowledge management allows data to be collected and easily shared with other team members. New tools for sharing information also include blogs, RSS, podcast, and wikis. An enterprise project management system allows project information to updated real time and shared with team members along with upper management and the appropriate PMOs.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Jake Stewart
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado

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