Online project management tricks

Easier to share, but buy-in still critical.

The term "Project Management" usually brings pained looks to business people because they associate it with Microsoft Project. The tool may make their lives easier, but the software costs hundreds of dollars per user, and worse, the desktop-centric management application of yesterday doesn't fit well with the distributed workforce reality of today. What's more, when you take the plunge, getting up to speed on the methodology takes time before you see results.

But take a look at the modern world of project management software: online, easier to use, and cheaper to try. If you have avoided the pain of project management software in the past, you may be amazed at the growth of hosted project management tools. My search for “hosted project management” returned 2,680,000 hits. That's a lot of project management options. Don't let the project of finding a project management tool drive you away.

Scott Ellis, Manager of the Forensics and Litigation Technology Practice for RGL, recently waded in. RGL provides forensic accounting and consulting services to insurance companies and legal groups wading through sometimes millions of documents and accounting records. These may be on paper, electronic files, or subpoenaed hard drives. Projects may use as many as 40 employees spread throughout RGL's 23 offices worldwide, all digging into thousands of data items for every job. (Compare Forensics Tools)

Ellis describes RGL as a “firm that embraces project management philosophy and techniques but hasn't, up until now, codified that philosophy with any sort of a firm-wide protocol.” Even if RGL is bigger than your company, it has the same problem you do: a need to be better organized that is up against employee resistance and the “We've always done it this way” attitude.

Microsoft Project, the long-time leader in desktop PM software, had a presence in RGL, Ellis says. “Microsoft Project is used, but not widely. It's not a tool conducive to sharing because it's all on the desktop.” Since a single project may run across many of RGL's small offices, a desktop-bound solution wouldn't work. Ellis and other RGL managers had their fill of trying to juggle e-mails, spreadsheets, Microsoft Outlook shared tasks, and paper notes to manage big projects. So Ellis went searching for a better answer.

At a conference in Las Vegas Ellis met some people from Clarizen, a company with the tag line of “Projects Made Real.” He looked around at the conference and didn't see anything he liked better, so he tried some Clarizen demonstrations. “I got a good response from Clarizen, and some training,” says Ellis. So he signed up for a few licenses to try to manage an insurance project RGL just received.

“There are seven parts to one huge insurance loss,” Ellis says. “The managing partner must know where all seven parts are at all times.”

Ellis just named the single best way to introduce project management into a company. “The person at the top said everyone must use this so he knows what's going on, so people are using Clarizen.”

Typically, any new project management application -- or any other application for that matter -- will be welcomed with open arms. By that, I mean all the employees will say it sounds great, but I have two arms open wide to carry all the work I have now, and no time to learn something new.

“The magic argument to get someone to try project management? Tell them it's easy to use and makes their life easier,” Ellis says. “It helps you keep things balanced.” Even better is the manager at the top using it and demanding others do as well. When you get management support and an internal champion, employees will get with the program. They'll still complain, but they'll get involved.

Try to narrow down your choices for project management software by trying a few of the online services. Names I hear from friends and readers include Basecamp, Viewpath and Liquid Planner. The Zoho suite of online software includes Zoho Planner, free for small projects and a limited number of users. Each of these, and all of the other choices, let you try the software before paying. So try a few and see what happens. The life you organize may be your own.

Besides Project, Microsoft offers a number of Dynamics applications that handle some part project management. I checked the main Dynamics Web page, but I'm still not clear on which Dynamics version -- ranging from GP to NAV to AX to SL -- works for which projects. If you know, leave a comment and explain.

Spreadsheets and index cards work up to a point. But online project management tools cost less today and do more with less effort than ever before. With the right online tool, you can organize your projects without aggravating all your coworkers. Or you can aggravate them via an online project management system, rather than through e-mail and phone calls.

Having an audit trail of who dropped the project ball, online and available for everyone to see? Priceless.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.