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Fast track: Using project managment

Behind every successful executive there's a team that keeps all the deliverables on track. The secret? Web-based project management tools rein in costs and streamline communications.

No more missed deadlines, unexpected cost overruns, or wasted resources. Web-based services keep your projects on course.

You already know the basic rules of business: wear a clean suit, carry breath mints, and use a firm handshake. But behind every successful executive there's a team that keeps all the deliverables on track. The secret? Web-based project management tools rein in costs and streamline communications.

YES

Take Tom West, president of the Alberta, Canada-based Web development branch of Technical Toolboxes. He was charged with designing a new Web site and publishing research material for his company's largest client, Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI). With PRCI members scattered throughout Europe, North America, and Asia, West needed a way to connect his staff and his client. "With 24 members plus contractors spread out over several time zones," West says, "we needed a flexible application that would let them share files and work together."

Although he had collaborated with clients using desktop applications such as Microsoft Project in the past, West knew the global scope of PRCI's members required a tool that everyone could use."[Microsoft Project] is very capable," he says, "but it's workstation based and has a learning curve that would have been impossible to overcome with such a large group of people spread out all over the world." So West chose onProject, a Web-based project management service, to bring far-flung team members together.

Businesses have used project management applications for years to oversee everything from office construction to new product launches. Web-based project management solutions offer the same benefits, plus the advantage of real-time collaboration, document sharing, and reporting. And team members don't have to be in the same location. They don't even have to use the same computing platform. As an added bonus, Web-based services lower your overhead and don't require much in the way of technical setup.

West estimates he saved at least $150,000 by using onProject—which costs $49.95 per month for up to 20 users—instead of Microsoft Project's boxed software ($500 per seat). Not only did he save money, but West is happy with the results. The project group was up and running in just a few hours instead of waiting days or weeks for tech teams to install software and train them to use it. "A Web-based solution made much more sense," he says. Top 5 Reasons to Use Project Management

1. See results faster.
The more you can divide that mammoth project into clearly defined steps, the more manageable it becomes for your team.
2. Keep everyone in the know.
Keep all project communications and files in the system so there are no excuses for dropping the ball.
3. Curb wasted resources.
Short on time, people, or money? Project management tools tell you what you’ve got and whether you’re using it to your best advantage.
4. Rein in perpetual projects.
Set realistic timetables and critical milestones instead of nursing projects along with no end in sight.
5. Make everyone accountable.
Is everyone on your team doing his share? Run periodic productivity reports to pinpoint problem areas—before your project runs amok.
See productivity of any given employee at a glance—and know who's meeting expectations and who's not.

If a project management solution is not part of your business strategy, you are missing out on a valuable service. Market research firm Gartner predicts that companies that establish project management standards and solutions are likely to slash cost overruns and delays in half within three to five years.

"Project management tools tighten control and help assess and mitigate risks," says Matt Light, research director at Gartner. "Until you break large projects down into smaller tasks, it's difficult to see how complex or difficult a project will be, or what your commitments are in terms of resources." And without the accountability that a detailed outline provides, project costs can easily escalate. "Then not only are you looking at higher costs, you could be looking at project delays and disputes when it comes time to bill," Light says.

Web-based tools offer the same features as traditional software-based project management systems, with an additional benefit: remote collaboration. Over the Internet, everyone involved can share and view documents—they can even conduct live online chats.

Because all you need is an Internet connection and a browser, it's easy to pull staff, outside contractors, and vendors into the process. Joshua Sailor, assistant vice president and executive producer at Princeton Review in New York City, has trained about 20 project managers to use online service Vertabase. "A lot of our projects involve outsourced vendors and contractors," he says. "Because [Vertabase] is Web-based, it lets anyone working on our projects access things from anywhere."

If Sailor alters a project, the system updates everyone involved via e-mail. "I save anywhere from five minutes a day to an hour or more by not having to track down people, make sure things are done, or follow up on jobs," he says.

Project management tools improve efficiency and make it easier to allocate resources by keeping tabs on the various stages of a given project. Before using Vertabase, Julia King, director of production services for RioPort, a digital audio service provider based in Santa Monica, California, says she spent too much time figuring out who was doing what. "Now if we're designing three new Web pages, I can see who's designing which elements and where those elements are in the queue," she says. "And [Vertabase] notifies other people when things are done so the next person can work on his part." In turn, real-time tracking permits King to plan accordingly. "We have more time to plan and more time to think about how we can do things more intelligently," she says.

Reporting features identify workflow bottlenecks before they derail your project. You can also see who made changes or missed a deadline. With every task assigned to an individual or team, accountability becomes nearly bulletproof—a critical component if you don't share an office with team members. "I can see productivity of any given employee at a glance and determine if he or she might be overextended, or if they have time for other things," says Princeton Review's Sailor. "There's no doubt who's meeting expectations and who's not coming up to the bar." Our labs and a group of business professionals tested the three top online project management services.

Six businesspeople who manage projects put three Web-based project management services through their paces in the Ziff Davis Smart Business Labs: Entry.project (from Entry.com), onProject, and Vertabase, which all offer general project management tools. Before testing began, vendors briefed our panel and provided guided tours of each site. Testers then walked through a script that had them explore the site's navigation, create projects, edit existing projects, and evaluate how easy the site was to use.

Overall, testers favored onProject because of its organized display of features and options—and of the three services we tested, more panel members said they'd use onProject in their own business. The My Action Items home page lists events, files, recent discussion board postings, and individual tasks. Icons link to other areas, including a contact manager, a threaded discussion forum, and calendar and project-reporting tools. An online import feature lets you add contacts from existing Microsoft Outlook, GoldMine, Netscape Communicator, and Palm OS files. You can also import from and export files to Microsoft Project 98.

Individual permission levels let you decide whether team members can view and check off personal tasks, run administrative reports, allocate resources, and edit the project schedule. Automatic e-mail alerts ensure that project members stay on top of deadlines. onProject costs $49.95 per month to provide access for up to 20 people, and includes up to 30MB of storage space per account

Testers experienced few problems creating new projects, citing the service's easy navigation and comprehensive features. But when they probed deeper into the system, onProject proved frustrating. Testers had difficulty locating menus to add project managers or team members and couldn't name projects for specific clients. They also couldn't figure out how to add subtasks within the Create New Task window. Unfortunately, when testers attempted to work through these situations with onProject's help files, they met more roadblocks. And tech support is limited to e-mail only.

onProject added a number of new features after our testing finished, including Project Cloning, which allows you to copy an existing project file, and Issue Tracking, which flags potential problems. In addition the company created a My Projects home page, which provides links to all projects in one window.

Compared to onProject's colorful, multilayered interface, Vertabase proved easier for most testers to navigate—initially. When logged in as the administrator, you can view and manage six main topic areas. New and existing projects are viewed and managed from the Projects area. Clicking on Users takes you to a database of names, locations, job functions, and individual team members' skills.

To modify a closed project or create a new one based on an old model, use the Search Warehoused Projects function, which allows you to view by project number, producer, or client. The Timesheet keeps track of hours spent by each team member on each open project. Detailed reports, user access permissions, client lists, and other global settings are available. Like onProject, you can also import or export files to and from Microsoft Project 98.

Although adding a new project and assigning team members went smoothly, testers found they couldn't generate a new client or a producer name within the Create New Project area (you must first go to the Admin area and click on the appropriate menu). While they found it simple to add individual or group tasks, none of them found a way to break down projects into substeps.

Although testers liked Vertabase's context-sensitive help files and online manual, one suggested that a searchable database would be more efficient. Testers were also annoyed that Vertabase does not post its pricing plan. You must call a sales rep to find out that the service starts at $250 per user per year.

Entry.com's Entry.projects is one of the newest project management tools available. In fact, when we tested the service it was still in the beta stage. For a Web-hosted solution you'll pay $625 per month for up to 35 users, with a one-time setup fee of $300 to $800. Entry.projects aims for fast performance—no flashy graphics here. Most of its streamlined interface consists of tabs, text links, and drop-down menus.

Once you've created a new project and established time and cost estimates, notes fields let you track project constraints, completion criteria, key deadlines, and other details. Tasks associated with a project are added to the individual project's home page. When tasks are overdue, e-mail alerts are sent to team members and the project manager. Entry.projects also offers custom access levels to incorporate both onsite staff and outside contractors into project teams.

Entry.projects's snappy performance and consistent interface design impressed testers in the beginning. When you log in, the home page links you to projects you manage or are working on. But when asked to create a project, testers quickly got lost. Among the complaints: Pull-down menus are not uniform in design; work is not saved when exiting a window to enter data elsewhere; and cryptic error messages appear when data isn't entered in a certain format. Testers also were unsure how to add tasks to an existing project. Without an online walkthrough to explain these steps, testers turned to the help and FAQ files. Again, mediocre resources disappointed them. In a rapidly growing market, project management tools must be usable or they'll be shut out.

Collaborative Strategies LLC, a San Francisco-based management consulting firm, estimates that U.S. businesses bought project management licenses for 4.5 million employees last year. The market is expected to increase at least 35 percent annually.

However, our testing shows there's much room for improvement among these applications, especially when it comes to usability. While services such as onProject and Vertabase provide online walkthroughs, these tutorials are not enough—and the lack of such resources could prove troublesome for new users shopping for a project management tool. "Ease of [use] is the most important thing—far greater than features in the beginning—because otherwise nobody's going to use it," says RioPort's King.

If you choose Web-based project management, look for the ability to customize the interface. "We need customization to accommodate the different [international] cultures we deal with," says Technical Toolboxes' West.

As with any Web-based service, make security and information backup priorities. Look for SSL encryption or other server-side security for stored information, and ask about backup protocols and guaranteed uptime. If you intend to share access to project materials with contractors or clients, password protection is essential. Adequate storage space is also critical. All three vendors offer blocks of online storage for each account.