Choosing Collaborative Project Management Tools

So you’ve finally decided that it’s time to automate your collaborative project management process. If you’ve been following along our last few issues you’ve seen that implementing a collaborative project management process is more than just choosing the right tool but you’ve already learned all that so now, we’re presuming that you’re ready to go out there and purchase some software to get that collaboration on its way.

Ok, all of that being said, if you haven’t been following along and you haven’t been thinking about a collaborative project management process, then you should stop here. Choosing project management software without first figuring out how it should be used is a waste of money effort and certainly destined for downgraded efficiency.

If you’ve worked out a collaborative pm process then you should be well on the way to seeing if it could be made more effective by automating it. After all, the first thing you’ll need to do before looking at software is to determine what you’d like it to accomplish. It never ceases to amaze me that companies who otherwise are able to produce remarkable results do not determine software requirements before looking at the software itself.

There are many project management tools on the market that claim to provide or product a collaborative project management environment. It seems somewhat ridiculous given that project management is a collaborative process. You could therefore conclude (as the marketing departments of many project management systems have done) that all project management software is collaborative in nature. So looking through the Internet for a list of pm tools that are collaborative brings up virtually every major software vendor in the industry – not very helpful.

So, it’s best to start with an idea of what kind of collaboration you’d like to facilitate and what collaboration would automating make more effective.

For example, you might decide that automating project report delivery through a browser interface would be great. In the morning, all the people who usually get printed reports would now be able to look at them on their own screen through a browser. Perhaps this would save on paper, or perhaps the delivery would be faster. However, if in this organization, reports are best viewed when printed (perhaps on large-size printer paper) and if the result of automating is simply that the users are all called upon to print their own reports, then this type of automation holds the possibility of making the organization less effective as senior management must now take time to print their own reports when previously they had been printed by a clerk in the pm office.

So start with what you need to automate. Here are some areas you can consider:

· delivery of information about the project to team members, management, clients and sponsors.
· a central point for bulletin board information about project news and project progress.
· a central point for the definition of the project management process.
· a decentralized system for the collection of project status and progress.
· a distributed system for the entry and progress of project issues. On a software project this might be bug tracking.
· a delivery system for project reports.
· a distributed system for collecting feedback from project team members.
· a document tracking system for all project documents.

Virtually anything you interact with anyone else on a project about can be considered when looking for collaborative project management software.

Once you’ve got an idea of what you want out of a collaborative pm system, you should have already defined how this element of your business is managing this without automation already. This should give you a good idea of what advantages you are hoping for from the software you’re seeking.

Then it’s time to actually go and look at software. The Internet is the right place to start but rather than starting with a search engine looking directly for pm software, start with industry specifics. If you’re in the IT sector for example, your search should turn up very different results than if you were in the steel industry looking for shutdown project management systems.

You’ll likely find elements of the tools you’re looking for in other systems so it’s worthwhile to spend a few minutes researching what software is already in use in your company and if these tools can deliver some of the functionality you require.

You should pare down your list to a short list of products you feel best fit your criteria and that you can afford. If you haven’t got your budget firmed up so far, do it now. You’re just wasting your time looking at tools in depth if you haven’t determined that you can buy the one that will make you most effective. While you’re getting money approved, make sure you’ve budgeted for installation, training, technical support and upgrades.

Once you get down to a short list, you’re in for the dreaded demonstration phase. Sharp salespeople appear in your boardroom with projector and laptop in hand, ready to dazzle you with their “enterprise-wide, web-based, collaborative project management environment”. Unfortunately, on its surface, everyone will claim to do the same thing so press these presentations to stay close to your requirements. It’s worthwhile to give the vendors a short agenda to follow and a highlight of the features you’re looking for that are most important to you. Sometimes, the purchasing department asks that the vendors not be informed of who else is competing but I’ve always found it more productive to inform everyone who’s in the game before it starts. It allows vendors to distinguish their offering from those of the competitors. It goes without saying that you’ll have to take any comments from one vendor about another with a grain of salt.

Once you’ve gotten down to your final choice, you’ll be in the implementation phase and here my recommendation is to go slow. Pick the area of collaboration, which holds the promise of the biggest return on investment. Where are you hurting worst and what will be the advantage of improving that area. Implement the features that best support this one area and don’t worry about the rest. In all likelihood, you will never implement 100% of the functionality of the system anyway. You might as well start getting the system to pay you back by implementing the areas of it that will make the most difference first.

Any enterprise system such as collaborative project management software must have both a dynamic product champion and a life of its own. Make sure you know who that long term champion should be and make sure the ongoing use of the system includes regular update meetings with the parties involved to review the use of the system and to discuss how it could be improved.

Originally published in October 2001 in PM Times

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