Project Management and the Web

I thought I’d spend a few minutes talking about Project Management Software and the Web. I know I’ve discussed this topic before in this column but previously the discussion centered around the web interfaces of project management tools which I don’t plan to talk about this time. Instead I’d rather talk about Project Portals.

For those of you who haven’t stumbled across this term before, it’s not too complex. A project portal is essentially a website on which data is available pertaining to the project. In this day of interactive websites, there are often interfaces for interacting with other team members or data elements of the site itself.

Website technology has, of course advanced light-years since the first graphical sites were displayed on Mosaic a few years ago. Now, most sites are database-based and the design and layout of the site have been separated from the management of the content. At one time, websites were managed by the technicians who created them. Now, it is much more common for the website to be created by one team and then managed by the people who wish to distribute, collect or use the data that is contained within it.

Now, why should project managers care anything about what I’ve just said? Well, project management is all about communication right? The most significant challenges facing project managers are all communication related: collecting data from team member, informing team members of information important to them, keeping management; the client; the sponsor; the owners, the end-users up to date on information important to them. Project information also goes well beyond schedule information or even cost or resource information.

A study on document management last year determined that IT professionals spend as much as 30% of their time searching for documents that ultimately are never found. So the information in these documents or the documents themselves are also key. It’s therefore no surprise to find that virtually all the major project management systems have added functionality for tracking project-related documentation in their systems over the last few years.

There’s a huge movement afoot for corporate portal deployment at the moment where many organizations have determined that distributing accurate and up-to-date information to their employees can be done much, much more efficiently through a managed website than any other means.

Project portals have distinguished themselves by integrating directly into the web interfaces of a project management system and then providing management of data, which is already pre-defined as project-related. For example, a portal may have the ability to manage lists. In the project implementation of the portal, this may be applied to a list of risks or commissioning issues. Integration of this functionality with the project management system might include the ability to link any list item to a task in a schedule.

A key tenet of portal technology is the flexibility of the system. It isn’t enough to just track project information and to allow the portal’s content to be managed by a non-technical resource. To really deliver on the promise of a project portal, the system must also support adding additional categories of data and elements to the system. The system has its best chance of being accepted only if the project team members automatically open the portal for all of their work-day needs. Links to project data must be there of course, but also to corporate data, website links, other corporate applications and anything else that may be relevant should be easily findable on the portal menu.

Most project management software vendors have included some element of Project Portal functionality in their web interfaces. That’s certainly the case for Primavera, Artemis and Planview. Welcom Software went one step further and spun off their portal functionality as an entire product called Welcom Home.

In the case of all of these vendors, the portal functionality has been written specifically to support their systems and in each case, the functionality is interesting to check out.

Microsoft Project 2002 includes portal functionality also and of the products we’ve just mentioned, it is the most recent entrant. In Microsoft Project 2000, the “Project Central” functionality provided some web interface capabilities and was not heavily promoted by Microsoft. Project Server 2002 however, is a whole different story. First of all, the web functionality is as interesting as anyone else’s in the industry. What makes the Microsoft entry worth talking about however is the fact that it is based on an entire Portal technology developed by Microsoft called Sharepoint. If you haven’t come across Sharepoint yet, don’t worry, you will. The system is designed to deliver a no-design-required portal where all you have to do is manage the content.

Sharepoint comes in a couple of flavors; Sharepoint Portal Server and its baby brother Sharepoint Team Services. Microsoft Project Server 2002 is based on Sharepoint Team Services.

To distinguish the products by role, Portal Server is really designed as a corporate portal with all the functionality and architecture required to work across as many employees as a company may have. The system is generic, not knowing in advance what types of data or categories of interface might be required. Team Services is designed more for association work. It might be the kind of system you would use to establish a rallying point for a sports league or team. We’ve used Team Services for example, for the Microsoft Project Users Group site in Montreal. You can see the site at: (www.mpugmontreal.com).

The functionality of Sharepoint Team Services is included within Project Server 2002 and represents a fascinating opportunity for project managers. Now, project managers can establish a project website within the parameters supported by Team Services. Document management and Issue management is already part of Project Web Access but other functionality such as list management might track all manners of project oriented data. Contact management can keep track of key phone numbers or team members.

Ultimately what is much more exciting about the entire conversation is where it’s going. As the only project management software vendor in the industry who is also in the corporate portal business, it will be Microsoft I am looking to as the most likely innovator for project-oriented enhancements here.

Originally published April 2003 in PM Times

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