by Mary Branscombe
Going beyond email – Mary Branscombe looks at tools for getting everyone doing the right thing at the right time.
HardCopy Issue: 63 | Published: May 20, 2014
Project management isn’t as specialist as you might think. Almost every business needs to manage projects that have to be completed by a specific time, fit specific needs and have specific people working on them, whether that’s shipping a product, moving offices or changing Internet provider. Getting such projects done on time and on budget is beyond the scope of a simple to-do list. It involves handling requirements and constraints and changing priorities, working out which competing ideas are possible and which will be the most valuable to the company, tracking how different parts of a project are going, and keeping everyone updated.
That doesn’t mean you want to put full-power project management tools on everyone’s desk. Not only can that be prohibitively expensive, but you don’t want to make an executive who only needs to monitor progress on a number projects wade through an interface designed for juggling details. Instead you want a system that lets you communicate the costs, goals and progress of a project, and the availability of the people involved to everyone who needs to be up to date.
But those who are running projects do need to work with detailed calendars; they do need to assign resources and manage conflicts, measure progress and track what’s changed, see multiple projects and consolidate them if necessary, and possibly manage a whole portfolio of projects in a co-ordinated way. They also need to be able to give managers their schedules, get the latest costs for the finance team, and give their bosses the strategic overview, and that means being able to check whether everything is on track and on budget – and if not, why not.
Meanwhile, those working on projects need to see their allotted tasks, fill in timesheets and flag up problems, both before and after they happen, preferably without leaving the tools they’re actually working with. Executives and strategic planners need a portfolio view where they can see costs, constraints and potential results across multiple projects, allowing them to set priorities at a higher level and have that cascade down to specific projects and workers. And all of this needs to be done not necessarily in the same tools, but in a set of tools that work together seamlessly and give you the features you need, rather than swamp you with everything that’s possible.
Furthermore, with the increasing drive for mobility and collaboration between partners, suppliers and customers, you need to look at cross-platform tools and may want to consider a cloud-hosted system that can make it easier to get everyone connected.
Oracle Primavera P6
At the high end are large-scale portfolio management packages such as Oracle Primavera P6, which has optional modules for risk analysis and contract management and can integrate with Oracle enterprise applications, including cost control apps and enterprise document management. There’s also an API for customisation, and if you want more than the integrated reporting you can add the Primavera P6 Reporting Database to export information to your existing business intelligence tools.
Although Primavera P6 Enterprise Project Portfolio Management 8.3 runs on premise, it’s a Java server and (unlike older versions of the software before Oracle bought it), you work with it through a web interface rather than desktop applications. There is a free Primavera Team Member app for iOS and Android to let users to view and update schedules, plus a web view optimised for use on tablets where you can also delegate tasks.
At the opposite extreme, Mindjet has a version of its mind mapping software called ProjectDirector that lets you draw projects as connected maps of tasks on virtual whiteboards, linking in files stored on cloud services such as Box or OneDrive. You can still allocate tasks and see calendars and a ‘health view’ showing if the project is on track, but this is a much more free-form way to input projects.
ProjectDirector builds on the project management tools already in MindManager, which lets you import Word documents or drag emails, tasks and contacts in from Outlook (via MindManager Server) to build a project plan. You can also import from Microsoft Project to get a new way of looking at your project, or export the plan you make in MindManager to Project when it’s time for formal project management.
Microsoft Project 2013
Microsoft Project Professional 2013 is the latest version of the best-known and longest surviving project management tool, available as desktop software and as a cloud service that integrates with a wide range of other Microsoft tools. There are also multiple viewers and third-party tools that work with the Project file format.
Project 2013 shares the uncluttered interface of other Office 2013 products, and although there are plenty of new features, the emphasis is on collaboration through integration with other Microsoft tools, and through the cloud. You get the choice of using just the desktop client (if you have only a couple of users), letting multiple Project users collaborate through SharePoint, running Project Server to give you web access as well, or paying monthly for the Project Online version. This runs on Office 365 and comes with your choice of web-only access or standard and professional versions of the Project application, which you can stream on demand to PCs that you’re using temporarily.
The new Project Overview makes it easy to check the state of a project, while the new reports for dashboards, resources, costs and tasks in progress give inexperienced users the most useful toolset, without having to drop out to Excel or Visio as was necessary with previous versions. There’s even a project to teach you how to run projects, if you’re starting one from the standard templates. Visualising events is much easier too: instead of only being able to highlight the critical path, you can now colour-code different levels of importance, so you can see at a glance all the tasks that are OK to slip, for example.
You might still want to drop into Excel, though. For example, you can use Excel’s Power Pivot and Power Query to make burn-down charts showing how much you have left to do before project end date. Project also integrates with Lync, so you can check whether a participant is free to talk, then send a text message or make a VoIP call straight from Project. However the most important integration is with SharePoint.
The Project Web App that comes with Project Server and the Project Online service looks remarkably like SharePoint – which is not surprising as that’s what it’s built on. The latest version of SharePoint itself also has basic project management features built in. As well as the familiar SharePoint tasks, team sites include timelines showing how those tasks fit together in a schedule.
And you can blur the lines between SharePoint and Project even further. If something you’ve been managing as a SharePoint task list starts to get too complicated and you need more control, you can use Project Web App to turn it into a full project. You can create a workflow in Visio or SharePoint Designer to choose how you want approvals to work, rather than having to do it in Project. But you can still look at the project as if it were a SharePoint site, and you can use information from Project to create business intelligence reports using the Office 365 Power BI service.
That means a business manager can outline the stages of a project and set the project rules. The project manager can then take over without having to recreate it all, and the business manager can still keep an eye on how things are going.
Managing software projects
Microsoft Visual Studio is increasingly including tools to help with software project management, primarily through integration with Team Foundation Server (TFS) and Visual Studio Online.
Visual Studio 2013 introduced the team room feature. This is a permanent chat room where programmers in different locations can leave each other questions. It also added CodeLens, a ‘heads-up display’ of information about your code. Update 2 comes with a new version called the Incoming Changes Indicator that shows you changes happening in other branches of the codebase, without you having to leave your code.
If you want to co-ordinate a team more closely, TFS gives you a source code repository, using either Team Foundation Version Control or Git, so you can audit changes. It includes tools for collaboration in Team Explorer, ranging from team rooms to marking work items with tags and creating charts that show how your backlog is split between bugs and new features. It also supports Agile techniques like Kanban boards and burndown charts. TFS has a Web Access view that lets you see source code, backlogs, builds, tests, team rooms and other useful information, without having to launch Visual Studio itself.
You can connect TFS to Project so you get much more accurate estimates for the development stage of a project. TFS integrates with Project Server workflows, so if a manager sets the duration for a task and the developer changes that in TFS, the new time propagates back to the Project Server approval workflow.
Having the durations and completion dates coming direct from the live system means project planning can be much more accurate, and it’s easier to see straight away when things are getting off schedule. You can also use TFS for collaboration with managers and the business teams. If you’re under pressure to deliver more than you can actually fit in, you can expose your backlog and start a discussion about what’s achievable.
The cloud version of TFS is Visual Studio Online. The basic Visual Studio Online plan includes Visual Studio Express, while the professional plan gives you a monthly subscription to Visual Studio Professional. Visual Studio Online is particularly good value if several of your developers have MSDN subscriptions for Visual Studio, as they can join Visual Studio Online projects without paying an extra monthly fee.
A decade ago, project management software was the preserve of the experts. Now, with its web interface and a more straightforward set of reporting tools, Project 2013 has become a general-purpose business tool. If you’re running it all in house you can let people work in SharePoint or Project as they prefer, while in the cloud, being able to mix and match subscriptions for basic features and full portfolio management on Project Online lets you keep the costs down, as well as giving users the appropriate tools. There’s even a new Project Lite subscription for users who only need to create and assign tasks, fill in time sheets and see schedules.
More and more of those users will be on mobile devices. Microsoft doesn’t yet have a Project client for iOS or Android, or even for viewing projects on a Windows 8 tablet. However, if you have Project Server or Project Online, you can use the Project Web App in any browser to create projects, view and update tasks, approvals, project summaries and calendars, and view reports.
Because Project Server and Project Online are now so closely integrated with SharePoint, the SharePoint app model works, so you can write your own add-ins or get third-party Project apps from the Office Store (and you can run that as a controlled company catalogue so you’re in control of licensing costs).
The Project ecosystem
There are also many third-party apps that give you views of your project, sometimes with basic editing capabilities. For example Seavus Project Viewer is available in the Windows Store, and on volume licensing from Grey Matter, as well as for Windows, Mac and Android devices, and there’s a free view-only web version. Seavus doesn’t have all the features of Project but it lets users view projects, including charts and tables, and edit their own tasks. You get a similar ribbon interface, and you can open projects from older versions right up to Project 2013 and Project Online, and then share them through SharePoint, Google Drive or OneDrive. You can even share projects directly with other Seavus users without having a server.
The rich ecosystem that’s grown up around Microsoft Project, and the popularity of the Project file format, means that you can use a mix of Microsoft and third-party products to give different users the tools they need to participate in projects.