Web-based project management systems for everyman
by Chris Vandersluis, Contributing Editor
RECENTLY I WROTE that the critical path method (CPM) of managing projects was up for review, that it was time for a whole new category of project management system and that, while we hadn't seen it yet, it was coming. Well, I know Charlie Howe will be looking at some specific systems over the next few months, but I've been taking a peek at some of the new web-based project management systems that are just coming onto the market and I think the changes that these systems represent are something we should all be looking at.
Web-based Project Management? It's Everywhere. Asking for web-based project management brings up over 100 sites on Yahoo and thousands of pages on Alta Vista. I've not exhaustively researched these sites yet, but I've been looking at a number of them and looking at some of the traditional suppliers of project management software to see what's coming out soon.
So far, it's fair to say that web-based project management software is falling into one of two main categories:web interfaces and project portals. There are a couple of other web-based products and services that I'll mention later.
Web interfaces aren't exactly news. In fact, just about every existing project management vendor has such an interface, is working on such an interface, or is wondering how long theycan survive without being able to list “web-enabled” on their brochure.
Some of the interfaces you may have already seen include Primavera's Webster and Progress Reporter, Planview's browser-based interface, and Welcom's Spider. These tools are characterized by being a different interface to the existing project management system. They do not stand alone; to operate, they absolutely require the existence of the project management system.
These first efforts, while interesting, haven't been the tightest of code. They're mostly “thick client” architecture, which means that the first time you download, they do a pretty hefty (by web standards) install on your client terminal. The weaker designs only work on Windows.
“If it only works on Windows anyway, why bother?” you ask. Well, the answer to that is twofold:cost and configuration management. Typically these systems cost much less than their full-blown Windows counterparts and, as a consequence, include only a fraction of the functionality of the parent product. Since virtually all of these products do not require the installation of the full project management tool on each terminal, you can reduce costs significantly when there are team members who only need to update project progress. These web interface products have been designed mostly as update products, allowing project team members to enter their progress and resource usage on each task that was worked on.
Even when multiple hardware support is not available, configuration management is not to be taken lightly. Imagine having to roll out a Windows upgrade of anything to 500 users. If you've done this before, you have an inkling of what Eisenhower must have felt like when planning D-Day. A web-based tool will usually automatically download new versions to the client machines when it accesses the server. There is usually no additional configuration work to do on each station.
The release of MS Project 2000 this spring brings Microsoft to the web interface category, but my first look at “Project Central” shows some fascinating new features that don't appear in the MS Project 2000 Windows interface. In particular, Microsoft seems to have taken pains to include some communications and collaboration functionality. For example, users can “delegate” a task to someone else and create rules on how the progress of that task is reported back to the delegator. Updates are still heading back to a MS Project file though, and the existence of at least one MS Project installation with the project manager is mandatory. Like other web interfaces, the project management interface does not need to be distributed to every user.
So What's a Web Portal and Does it Require a Web Doorknob? A whole new category of product seems to be finding its own niche in the marketplace. At a recent project management conference in Silicon Valley, Calif., the largest exhibitor wasn't any of the traditional vendors. Primavera, Artemis, Welcom and even Microsoft's booths were dwarfed by eProject. “Who?” you ask, as well you should. eProject and a number of other new-to-the-market project management vendors are taking a completely new run at creating project management software. They're working on the growth industries such as IS (the fastest growing SIG in PMI® is the IS SIG which, although one of the newest SIGs, is already the largest!) and there's a bunch of them that are arriving very well funded. My brief search through the Internet found companies with names like Blueline Online, Netmosphere, and eProject. Some of these new companies highlight venture capital investments in the tens of millions, more money than most legacy vendors can put toward new product development.
Communications has been at the heart of advances in project management technology since the dawn of time, so I have no doubt that we'll all be looking at Gantt charts on our cellular phone screens sometime soon.
It's not just new Silicon Valley startups that have jumped into this new category. Welcom has started showing previews of WelcomHome, a portal-type product and Planview has announced its Homeview portal.
This new category of product is designed to stand alone. They are only web-based and, while they all include some kind of rudimentary scheduling, they do not seem to be scheduling-centric. The most often used buzzword here is “collaboration software,” which means I'm not sure what, but it's certain that all of these tools seem to be more about communication than calculation.
Some of the features found in this kind of product include communications tools, automated alerts when something isn't going the way you expect, team bulletin boards for posting news for everyone, documentation collaboration, resource allocation, commitment management, and issue management. Did I mention scheduling? Well, it's there, but it's not a priority. Some of these products link up to external scheduling engines when more horsepower is required, but I haven't seen one of them so far that placed an emphasis on the analytical type of functionality found in resource leveling. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?
The availability of a common network, across which all team members are guaranteed to be connected, makes this kind of product possible. Internally, just different network support would have made such products difficult if not impossible to implement only a few years ago.
Business to Business E-commerce: ASPs. I 'd be remiss in not mentioning a completely different category of service that was virtually impossible before the Web. ASP is a term you've probably heard too much about already and you're going to be hearing a lot more about it in the months to come. It stands for Application Service Provider and essentially means the product functionality that you wish to use is provided to you as a service that you log onto through a network (almost universally that means the Internet). ASPs get their money through subscription costs or through advertisements and the like. Why on earth would someone want to manage their project data on a computer outside the organization? Well, there are a few good reasons:the setup time for you:zero; the cost of software purchase:zero; the cost of in-house servers, databases, support staff:zero; time from when you think up the project until you can enter your first data:under five minutes. On the downside, your data is not being controlled by you. If your ASP decides to get out of the project management business, you could be left hanging. If there is a technical problem at the ASP, you are helpless to fix it. If the Internet suffers technical problems or has poor performance, you are stuck with it. Still, there is a large category of users who may find the ease of setup highly tempting.
What's Next? Well, these days it's tough to estimate beyond a few days, but I've been noticing with interest the highlights at the CeBit show in Hanover recently. All the interest is in WAP—Wireless Application Protocol. It's the newest protocol being adopted by the telecommunications industry for merging digital mobile telephone and online services. Example applications include things like real-time stock quotes from the Internet onto your LCD phone screen and Web browsing. Communications has been at the heart of advances in project management technology since the dawn of time, so I have no doubt that we'll all be looking at Gantt charts on our cellular phone screens sometime soon.
WITH ALL THE DEVELOPMENTS in the market, some of you have been asking for references, so I've set them up on our website. For references to some of the products and services I've mentioned here, as well as previous articles, go to http://www.hmssoftware.ca/techtrends/index. ■
Chris Vandersluis (email@example.com) is president and co-founder of HMS Software, based in Montreal, Canada. He is a member of PMI and the American Association of Cost Engineers, and was a founding member of the former PMI Canada. He has appeared in publications such as Fortune and Heavy Construction News, and is a regular columnist for Computing Canada magazine's project management column. Comments on this column should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 2000 PM Network
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