Project tools for the rest of us--rise of the team

Introduction

While the traditional project management (PM) software market is growing slowly (at an annual rate of 4.5% for the period 2003-2008 according to IDC), one of the key industry trends is integration with other collaborative, content management, and portal software. In fact, the team collaboration software market is growing at a much higher rate, 27%, than software in general, 6% (IDC, 2005), reflecting recognition by CIOs that collaboration increases productivity and makes project success more likely (Henrie, 2005).

These statistics reflect a number of trends, including:

  1. Movement away from a data-centric interaction model towards a people-centric one. This new model is achieved by integrating in the project collaboration application new features which enable person-to-person interaction from within the project context.
  2. A shift from complex products used by professional project managers to easy to use products used by non-professionals and the entire project team. Organizations today seem to want project management capabilities to be acquired by more of their employees.
  3. Adoption of products with decentralized architectures, reflecting the way people work today. Specific changes in hardware and software technology have facilitated and accelerated this trend, resulting in “smart clients” that allow users to work both online and off.

To illustrate these points, examples will be given using the Groove Networks collaborative platform, recently acquired by Microsoft. For comparison purposes, other examples are chosen from products that integrate with the Microsoft SharePoint collaborative environment, such as the Microsoft Office Enterprise Project Management (EPM) Solution.

Part I – Trends

A number of business and technology drivers are causing change in project management software and its relatively recent marriage to collaboration. The main business drivers are:

•  Cost-cutting, with reduction in travel made possible by real-time collaborative technology

•  Globalization, with geographically dispersed business units and partnerships

•  The way we work today – online, offline, with flexible hours, from various locations, and various time zones

These business drivers in conjunction with rapid adoption of new technology such as presence awareness in collaborative applications including Instant Messaging (IM), web-based application-sharing and other team coordination functions, have facilitated the following trends in project management software:

From Data-centric to People-Centric

For most of us, our first exposure to project-oriented software tools was either a home-grown database application designed to fit the specific needs of the organization we worked for, or Microsoft Project, which was until recently a stand-alone desktop product. As seen in Exhibit 1, there has been an evolution in PM software over the last fifteen years beginning with a stand-alone data-centric planning tool for the project management professional, that evolved to a database-driven client-server model in which other team members could report time and cost data. Once data was stored in a database, various reports could be generated, including different views and reports for different kinds of users.

With the rapid adoption of the Internet in the nineties, the web browser became the standard user interface. While this is suitable for simple data-gathering and most types of display, project planning is still typically done in a desktop tool. This is the case with Microsoft Office Enterprise Project Management (EPM) Solution. The project plan is created with Project Professional 2003 and then published for viewing by project team members and consolidated reporting for management consumption.

PM Software Evolution

Exhibit 1 PM Software Evolution

The advent of collaboration technologies have allowed new project management applications to be developed that no longer focus exclusively on the data, but now allow people to communicate within the application itself. This focus on communication has created a people-centric model for project management, also known as the ‘connect-and-communicate’ model, which is aimed much more at project execution and less so at the planning and control aspects of project management. Recent examples of applications that marry project management with collaboration include Documentum eRoom 7, Oracle Project Management 11i, and Groove Virtual Office Project Edition.

From Project Software for Professionals to Software for the Whole Team

Research has shown that organizational networks in which the participants can communicate with other members lead to more creative problem solving and task completion, as well as greater adaptability (DeLisi, 2005). This is especially important when employees need to resolve business or technical issues on-the-fly with customers, partners, or others who are not part of the same organization. Much of the success of the business transaction and ongoing relationship depends on how quickly and painlessly business can be transacted, which in turn, depends on how quickly and painlessly people can gain access to each other and to the information needed for rapid and correct decision-making.

To this end, the ability to have a project schedule co-coordinated across various organizations in a cross-firewall scenario, coupled with the ability to communicate with those external team members, has become a major requirement for many projects. Once project software is to be used across different organizations however, there is an inherent need for increased usability, as one organization cannot typically dictate or control software training programs for the employees of the other organizations. At the same time, it becomes more important for everyone to see and resolve issues connected with the project schedule, as much of the distributed nature of the work is a direct consequence of the distributed nature of the skill set required to complete the work.

The result has been a drive towards ease-of-use, as business managers or domain experts with no specialized training in project management or traditional project management software are now required to lead project teams. These people can be found in professional services, marketing, industrial design, pharmaceutical research, public sector, and almost every industry. They typically would not have found Microsoft Project to be the right tool and therefore would have used Excel. However, while it is possible to maintain a ToDo List in Excel, the software does not schedule out a plan based on tasks and durations, which is what most people need. Furthermore, if there is a date change, Excel is not designed to regenerate new start and stop dates for follow-on tasks, with a new project completion date.

Today there are tools for people for whom a ToDo List in Excel is not enough and Microsoft Project is not the right tool due to its complexity or cost. Tools specifically designed for today's ‘business manager as project manager’ include eProject and Groove Virtual Office Project Edition.

Decentralized architectures for decentralized project teams

A problem posed by web-based applications for project management is that the project schedule and other important information is unavailable without network connectivity. This is out of sync with the way people work today, which tends to be online and off, mobile, and from multiple locations. While traditional project management applications have not yet adapted to the new model, there are several solutions to the problem:

  1. A distributed architecture, in which each team member has the needed application(s) and data on their machine(s), with automatic re-synchronization of data whenever the machine connects to the network. This is the approach taken by Groove Virtual Office Project Edition, allowing users to work online or offline. On re-connecting to the network, unread markers appear automatically to notify users of new or changed information, from project tasks to documents or discussion items. The use of unread markers, previously used by document management applications, have been only recently introduced in project management applications. Exhibit 2 illustrates unread tasks.
    Unread markers flagging new or changed tasks

    Exhibit 2 Unread markers flagging new or changed tasks

  2. The ‘smart-client’ approach, such as Microsoft Office Outlook. Outlook users can use their email program online and off. The application is smart enough to know whether it is on the network or not, and will automatically start sending/receiving emails when re-connected. More applications will be written to work this way in future, supporting offline work with ease, allowing people to work without regard for lapses in network connectivity.
  3. Proactive downloading – With repositories such as Microsoft SharePoint, users can download information they need for offline work. Currently this applies to documents only, not to the project schedule. However, if the project management application allows downloading of tasks to Outlook, users can still see where they should be spending their efforts, even if they cannot see the entire project schedule.

Part II – Technology

From command-and-control to connect-and-communicate

The trends described in Part I, in conjunction with the trend towards distributed work, have resulted in a shift in the workings of the project team from command-and-control to connect-and-communicate. This change is reflected in available software.

Traditional project management software supports the activities of the project manager – primarily schedule creation, and management functions such as administration of progress reporting. The model is one of ‘command and control’, whereby the project manager is either the only one who has a complete picture of the project plan and its current status, or is the only one who can give permission to view the plan to others. Using the Microsoft Enterprise Project Management (EPM) Solution, this is done by creating the plan in Project 2003 and ‘publishing’ it for viewing. Once published, the project manager determines which groups see the entire schedule and which are restricted to their own tasks.

Project plan in MS Project 2003

Exhibit 3. Project plan in MS Project 2003

Reporting progress on a task from MS Project Web Access

Exhibit 4. Reporting progress on a task from MS Project Web Access

In the example shown in Exhibit 4, the project manager must approve the progress report provided by individual team members, one of the controlling aspects of project management. This function as currently implemented in traditional PM software results in increased administrative burden since every progress report arriving by email must be individually approved by the project manager.

Today's software is trending heavily towards a ‘connect and communicate’ model whereby the entire team has a common understanding of the project schedule and status and every team member can communicate with every other team member to help resolve obstacles as they occur.

This trend is positive in that better and more timely communications result in fewer mistakes, enhanced productivity and improved morale. The administrative burden of the project manager is reduced in that individual team members report their progress directly for their tasks, without an explicit approval required by the project manager. The project manager monitors whether specific tasks and the entire project are on track, and only gets involved in a specific task for the purpose of removing obstacles to a timely delivery within budget and quality standards.

Technology to connect-and-communicate

It has become clear that our ability to team well in a global resource pool is limited by our ability to manage resources when working at a distance. Studies indicate that the major difficulty encountered by distributed project teams is in the area of project management communications. In fact, Gartner Group recently gave poor commitment and communications as one of the top five reasons why so many offshore projects fail (Niccolai, 2005).

Not surprisingly then, that some of the major changes in project management software recently have been in the area of communications – integrated voice and data communications in the same user interface as the Gantt chart – allowing people to quickly and easily resolve important technical and business issues in the project context. Other changes support the way we work today – online, offline, mobile and distributed.

Presence - Presence services enable users to log onto the Internet from any location and have their online/offline status available to their contacts and shared space members. Presence is a productivity enhancer in that we know when to start a conversation to bring someone's attention to an issue or try to resolve it on the spot. We don't waste time and money leaving telephone messages or sending email – we get it done when our colleague is available to get it done. We are also able to take advantage of times when our colleagues in Asia or Europe are working late – we can see that they are still there and can start a conversation in real-time.

Multiple Computers - Many information-intensive workers today use multiple computers: potentially a desktop and laptop at work, a home office work station, plus one or more machines at customer or client sites. To support this, innovative licensing schemes such as that used by Groove Virtual Office permits the software to be loaded on up to five machines for the same user account. This in combination with the automatic synchronization of workspaces, allows a user to move between various machines without any need to manually transfer data.

Offline Work - When users unplug from their network, they need to continue working while their computers are offline. While some workers switch online by substituting devices such as the Blackberry to continue using email and instant messaging, other applications such as Microsoft Outlook or Groove Virtual Office run locally on the desktop, so when users disconnect, they continue to work with local data. As seen in Exhibit 2, unread markers may be used to flag new or changed information for the user's attention upon re-connecting to the network.

Tools for the Project Team - Not every project requires the same tools. While an image viewer is important in engineering design, a document review tool is more important for a team preparing an RFP. Very few platforms however, allow different tools to be added to a workspace in support of different projects. For the most part, traditional project management software still concerns itself with project planning and reporting of progress against plan.

On the Groove Virtual Office platform, every team adds the tools it needs to its workspace from a long list of native Groove and partner-supplied tools. In this user interface, users are able to move between tools by clicking the various Tool tabs at the bottom of the screen, as seen in Exhibit 5.

Unified Interface for Essential Project Team Tools

Exhibit 5. Unified Interface for Essential Project Team Tools

In a recent pilot by Steelcase International, it was found that this ability to customize the workspace was a key component in the success of their pilot program. The Steelcase.com Internationalization team was tasked with localizing the Steelcase.com website, available only in English, into a number of other languages within a short timeframe. They created a workspace and added the following tools:

•  Files tool for content creation, including copy and visuals

•  Document Review tool for content review and approval

•  The Project tool for managing tasks

•  The Discussion tool for asynchronous communication seen by all team members

Seen in Exhibit 5, the user has selected the Project tool and is sending an instant message to an online colleague from within the project interface. Groove Chat and Instant Messaging for in-the-moment communications are part of the platform and do not need to be added.

Cross-firewall work

Relay services allow communication between two clients when peer-to-peer communication is not possible. For example, if two Groove users are behind firewalls that will not allow inbound connections, all communication occurs through the Hosted Relay Service via the Internet. This process occurs transparently to users, who simply invite colleagues without regard for whether they reside within or outside of their own organization's network.

The importance of cross-firewall was recently highlighted by the acquisition of Groove Networks by Microsoft (Microsoft, 2005). While Microsoft already had a solution for team collaboration that can be integrated with their project management solution, they gained the following:

•  Easy cross-firewall data sharing

•  Totally secure extranetable workspaces

•  Online/offline work – the ultimate ‘smart-client’, allowing applications and required data to go with the mobile worker, without regard for network connectivity

•  Automatic re-synchronization of data and change notification after disconnected work

Summary

The organizational trend towards more project-oriented work, often lead by business people or domain experts with little knowledge of project management, has coincided with easy-to-use PM software that supports the work of entire teams, not just the planning and reporting funcions of the project manager.

At the same time, the trend towards distributed teams has been supported by greater use of communications and real-time technologies in project software. In fact many new applications of the last five years have married project management and collaboration features to create team-centric project software.

The following table highlights some of the differences between more traditional project management software, using Microsoft EPM as an example, with participatory project team software, using GVO Project Edition as an example.

Feature/Benefit Microsoft EPM Groove Project Edition
Presence – see when colleagues available Not integrated. Can use Windows Messenger but all contacts seen, not by project Built-in, always on. Team members seen within project UI.
Multiple computers – work from multiple locations Most MS software now licensed for use on two computers with the same user id No synchronization Licensed for use on up to 5 computers with the same Groove account.
Automatic synchronization of workspaces on multiple computers.
Offline work PM sees entire project plan in MS Project 2003.
Team members see tasks in Outlook if using add-in
Every project participant sees all information for the projects that they are a member of.
Inherently online/offline
Tools Project only. Can be integrated with SharePoint for Files and Discussion. Many built-in tools available and many more available through partners. Custom tools may be created
Cross-firewall work Using Microsoft Office Project Server 2003 External Connector Inherently cross-firewall
Integrated real-time communications None built-in. Windows Messenger may be used for IM Built-in voice and text real-time and asynchronous communications
Enterprise standardization Templates and design guides Templates
Resource allocation and control Enterprise-wide Workgroup oriented

It must be borne in mind that Microsoft EPM was by design an enterprise project reporting and control application while Groove Virtual Office is by design a collaboration platform. Now that Microsoft owns both, there is a possibility at least that enterprises could get the best of both worlds – the easy cross-firewall collaboration so useful during project execution, plus the enterprise rollups and reporting required by large organizations for management oversight.

References

DeLisi, P., (2005, February). The Human Side of Collaboration, Optimize, 40. Retrieved from http://www.optimizemag.com/showArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=QRQSLRFGYJX0IQSNDBGCKHSCJUMEKJVN?articleID=57703087

Henrie, K. S., (2004, July). All Together Now, CIO Insight, 41, 77-82

Microsoft press release (2005, March 10th). Microsoft, Groove Networks to Combine Forces to Create Anytime, Anywhere Collaboration. Retrieved from http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/features/2005/mar05/03-10GrooveQA.asp on March 10, 2005

Niccolai, J. (2005, June 22). Gartner: Five Reasons why Offshore Deals go Bust, Network World Retrieved from http://www.networkworld.com/news/2005/062205-offshore.html

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.

© 2005, Brigitte Hayes
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada

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