Better than homemade
BY DAVID E. ESSEX
Lose the sloppy Word tables and makeshift Excel schedules. Microsoft Office-based tools can turn everyday desktop software into a sophisticated project tool.
BUSINESS ARTS INC.
PROJECTSHEET 1.1.2, TASKSHEET
1.0.2 AND TOPSHEET 1.0.2
Requires: Microsoft Excel 2000 or later for Windows. (Excel 2003 or later is recommended.)
Price: For single-user license: $240 bundled; $120, $90 and $90, respectively, when sold separately
AT A GLANCE REVIEW
(5*s is best)
Ease of Use:*****
Project Management Support:***
Microsoft Office Suite has long been the desktop companion of team members and the sidekick to full-fledged project management tools. Recognizing Office's centrality in project collaboration, Microsoft has steadily upgraded the suite with links to Microsoft Project and other Office applications. But their most serious project management power has long been provided by so-called add-ins and other applications that integrate closely with Office. Here are two of the most professional-quality, reasonably priced examples.
BUSINESS ARTS PROJECTSHEET®, TASKSHEET™ AND TOPSHEET™
Unlike add-ins, Business Arts Inc.’s software doesn't use macros or visual basic for applications programming, avoiding the need for formal installation. More importantly, it circumvents pop-up security warnings that can slow user interaction and burden IT departments.
Instead, the programmers tapped Excel's ability to lock certain cells—an effective though minimalist technique that, unfortunately, also prevents users from changing column widths and using some Excel features. It's a tradeoff between the ability to customize and ease of use that might grate on people who know their way around Excel. ProjectSheet, TaskSheet and TopSheet, however, let you change many elements, notably column headings.
The three programs come separately or in a discounted bundle. ProjectSheet—the most important one—is the basic scheduler, TaskSheet handles task details, and TopSheet summarizes and collates multiple ProjectSheets or TaskSheets, which makes it a rudimentary portfolio manager.
Because its goal is simplicity, ProjectSheet does little more than let you create, format and share a basic schedule. It lacks most of the automation and calculation capabilities of real project management software, but does enough to keep the schedule honest by flagging dates that exceed either the target start or target finish date for the project. Users simply enter the number of workdays needed for each task, and the application calculates dates.
Users can force different tasks to the same start dates by giving each the same identifying character in a special Link column. It's hardly a sophisticated feat of programming, but the software is smart enough to change a task's date when you assign it the same link as another task. In addition to traditional “forward from start” planning, a “backward from finish” mode determines the latest date that you can begin a project and still finish before a hard deadline.
ProjectSheet's presentation tools might be its strongest feature. It offers a bar-chart print format that produces something close to a basic Gantt chart, complete with notated task dependencies. But I question why this view isn't also in the main Excel-based data-entry screen.
The suite seems overpriced for what it does, and it doesn't help that the vendor only lets you e-mail project sheets to other license holders. There's also no way to import Microsoft Project files directly, though the company says it might add that feature in the future. In the meantime, you can use Excel as an intermediary to convert ProjectSheet schedules, albeit awkwardly.
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To its credit, Business Arts doesn't make exaggerated claims for its simple-yet-elegant software, stating up front that it is best used for moderately complex projects or for front-end planning.
KM SCIENCES iS*PROJECT PROFESSIONAL XE EDITION
iS*Project isn't a true add-in. However, many of this standalone product's key functions depend on Office, including the optional Excel dashboard, which color-codes critical issues and lets managers drill into project tasks and other customizable details. It also can modify Outlook to show team members their iS*Project tasks. Using the dashboard, users can click through to task details from Outlook and use it to submit status reports.
Although the separately sold, similarly priced MSP version lets you import and export Microsoft Project files, iS*Project provides a complete project planning and collaboration environment that's easier to use than Microsoft's sometimes awkward software.
However, like Microsoft Project, it relies heavily on separate entry screens for resource and task management that take some time to learn, which made me question the value of switching. I realized, though, iS*Project does double-duty as a friendlier task management and scheduling tool with basic portfolio analysis, document management and collaboration platform—for a fraction of the cost of other enterprise-class programs.
Basically, project managers can build templates that can be used to create new projects and then tasks can be shared with team members using Microsoft Outlook. It's not a scheduler per se, but a sophisticated task manager that displays tasks sequentially in a top-down, nested hierarchy that resembles a Windows file directory. Executives also can view both task details and high-level portfolio summaries, either in the main iS*Project interface or in a summary view in Excel.
Perhaps its robust reporting capability is the best feature. A task database keeps a log of status reports, which helps managers pinpoint project accomplishments and trouble spots. While the reports themselves are plain, the flexibility is a perk, thanks to a solid database-query tool.
I would have given iS*Project the highest performance rating. However, I encountered some false starts and technical problems during the installation process, which requires you to first install Microsoft's SQL Server Desktop Engine database and related software. iS*Project was harder to use than the Business Arts suite in part because it relies too much on separate data, reporting screens and Windows file utilities.
Either product provides a quite workable compromise between homemade Office applications and high-end enterprise software—as long as you understand their stark differences in feature richness, flexibility and ease of use.
KM SCIENCES INC.
iS*PROJECT PROFESSIONAL XE EDITION
Requires: 1GB RAM or higher, 1GB hard disk space, Windows XP or Windows 2000/2003 Professional or Server, LAN, optional Microsoft Excel or Outlook for project managers’ workstations; 300MB hard disk space, optional Outlook for team members.
Price: $129.95; Microsoft Outlook client software: $29.95
AT A GLANCE REVIEW
(5*s is best)
Ease of Use:***
Project Management Support:****
David E. Essex is a freelance journalist specializing in IT.
PM NETWORK | MARCH 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG
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