Project management in the information age
The rapid proliferation of electronic mail, relational databases, groupware, local and wide-area networks, online services and the Internet allows personal computer users to communicate with each other in new and exciting ways. As personal computers evolve from desktop productivity tools to communications tools, a fundamental transformation of the organizational role of these computers takes place as well. This transformation has special relevance for project managers.
Communication of key project information to involved parties is a critical element of successful project management. For example, project managers need to communicate assignments, notify project members of changes, track progress, consolidate information, and communicate status to their teams and upper management. These activities can occupy the bulk of a project manager's time. Fortunately, integration of project management software with new communications tools can help automate and streamline many time-consuming and tedious activities.
At the start of a project, passing on task assignments to team members is a critical communication challenge. By integrating e-mail with project management software, as was suggested in a recent PM Network article (see Bringelson and Rad's “Electronic Project Group Meetings: Taking Advantage of Technology,” August 1995), custom mail messages with embedded forms can be created automatically from the project management software, detailing tasks, deadlines, and estimated duration for each project team member.
Automatic delegation of task information to team members via e-mail provides several important benefits. First, no re-keying of data from the project plan is required, eliminating tedious and possibly error-prone work. With the appropriate software or some custom programming, data can be exported directly from e-mail to the team member's online task list. Second, when team members respond and commit to doing tasks by certain dates, a virtual “paper trail” is created automatically—a useful reference should disagreements about commitments occur.
Once the project is under way, compiling status information becomes critical. Again, automatic e-mail forms generated by project management software provide an ideal vehicle for reporting this information to the project manager. The project manager simply presses a button, which sends a custom e-mail message to all project team members asking about the status of each of their tasks. The team members fill out the form and return it via e-mail to the project manager.
The forms ensure a consistent format for status information. More importantly, the project manager doesn't have to type in the status on each task. This burden is appropriately delegated to the people actually responsible for the tasks. The project manager can then accept, reject or modify each form as appropriate. If accepted, the data is automatically entered into the project file.
Multiproject Reporting Systems
Senior managers in most companies want to look at project status information across multiple projects. Many executives consider project status information a critical component of their Executive Information Systems (EIS). In many cases, management is solely interested in readonly access to top-level project status across the organization. However, for this information to be meaningful and accurate, there must be a consistent methodology across the company for how projects are defined and reported. In addition, the company may need a welldefined security scheme to protect this data and provide appropriate access only to authorized individuals.
One solution to these issues is to use project management software as a frontend to feed a relational database that rolls up project data from across an enterprise. This solution generally requires that the project management software be able to read and write to databases via Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) drivers. Once consolidated in the central database, the data can be integrated with other relevant database information, such as costing or timecard data, and reported on. This approach also allows for greater security and data protection (i.e., backup) once the data is in the central database.
An even newer technology for solving multiproject reporting problems with potentially less effort exists in groupware products such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange Server. These groupware products are similar to relational databases but can handle unstructured data very well, and also provide messaging, replication and security. They make information available throughout an organization.
Project management software can take advantage of these products by making it easy to post project data files into the system. For example, Microsoft Exchange has “public folders,” which can contain data such as project data files. The public folders are replicated from server to server throughout the network and have built-in user security. The folder has a tabular layout, where each file is like a record and represents a separate project. Assuming the project files support OLE properly, each of these files can include data such as project name, owner, cost and finish date, represented as fields for each record. All file attributes are viewable in the public folder view without the user having to physically open each file. However, if the user double-clicks on any file, the file is opened and launched with the appropriate software.
At this point, without significant programming efforts, an EIS system is created, whereby senior managers can view the public folder with all the various projects and their top-level data. Multiple views of these files (such as projects by city or by owner) can be created and stored in the public folder. A similar multiproject solution could be created with Notes.
Integration between online services (or the Internet) and project management software offers an opportunity to make large amounts of project managementrelated information available to users. Today, most manuals and online help systems for project management software focus on helping users use the software. However, many users also need help with the overall discipline of project management. On-line services offer the possibility of providing the equivalent of hundreds of books and thousands of templates to help with virtually any concept or type of project. Even more value can be added by integrating online services with the software to make accessing the appropriate information easier.
With the increasing prevalence of electronic communications, project managers should be able to get more communications support from PM software. Accuracy, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness of compiling and communicating project information increases the effectiveness of the savvy project manager. And, as project management software becomes more and more useful and compelling, it could significantly increase interest in the discipline of project management.
Jon Reingold is general manager for the project business unit at Microsoft Corp., where he is responsible for the design, development and marketing of Microsoft Project.
PM Network • May 1996