Project Management 2.0

Posted by Thomas Scovell on Wednesday, August 1st, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

The Internet has long been a boon to project managers. And before that (remember those disconnected days?) many offline software applications were as well. But apart from the ubiquitous Microsoft Project there have been few specific applications for project management. Project managers have mostly filled their planning and communication needs by cobbling together systems from more generic applications. Most individuals I know in the profession spend a good portion of their day switching between two applications–Excel and their email client, with the occasional foray into Word and Project.

The Internet–even early on–offered a number of tools to project managers (PMs). The primary application, email, offered quick and documentable communication with clients and staff. Surely, for the passive-aggressive PM, there is nothing better than being able to send a “so… that work you were assigned last week–how’s it looking?” email.

Since the advent of web apps some of the more common project management tasks, aside from communication, have been attacked from various angles. My first experience with a PM specific web app was PHProjekt in the late 90s. PHProjekt is a PHP (if that wasn’t obvious from the name) application you install on your own server. It provided task assignment, discussion forums and bug tracking for members of a project team and stake holders. I used it successfully on a number of projects with development teams–but it always lacked the polish and ease of use necessary for me to risk introducing clients to it.

Web 2.0 is many things, but part of the value of the movement is in the simplicity and polish of the applications: pulling ideas back to the essence, eliminating feature bloat, and executing well. 37Signals wrote a book on this aspect of Web 2.0, and have produced a range of applications with the philosophy in mind. Basecamp is one of these applications–and one which no feature on project management would be complete without looking at.

Basecamp et al.

Basecamp is most certainly Web 2.0. But what is uncertain is just how useful it is. In the past couple of years, I’ve had several clients begin a project with the intent of using Basecamp as the primary means of collaboration–only to have it fall by the wayside a few weeks into the project. Its feature set is ostensibly quite useful, with messaging, milestones, file sharing and so forth. Members of a project team can use these features to assign tasks to one another and keep track of projects. But it is a bit too egalitarian to allow project managers to do their job well. Users can assign tasks to members but it is up to them to log in and tick them off. Therefore, the core tasks of planning and tracking a project must be done outside Basecamp (e.g. MS Project), requiring double data entry for tasks and milestones. In addition, personnel who need to keep track of their hours will have to do this elsewhere–aside from ticking off their completed tasks in Basecamp.

Using Basecamp for traditional project management can be cumbersome for all concerned. As a file repository, the application is adequate but that’s not a sufficient value that it justifies the cost. A project management application must save a PM time. Basecamp and its many clones attempt to aid collaboration and communication for team members, not those managing them. Basecamp is a tool for projects, and it might suit some–but it is not a project management tool.

However, Basecamp, for its many flaws, shines in its ability to involve clients and other stakeholders–and it is quite easy to use. Zoho suite’s PM app, called Projects, has a similar feature set and shares this ease of use, ensuring clients won’t be scared off.  Its interface allows PMs to safely share project deliverables (visual screens, documents, etc.) with customers, so in a sense it’s more of a “project site” application. A huge plus is that it’s free for managers of open-source projects.

Sometimes a business just can’t risk hosting sensitive project data with another company. Or perhaps the feature set of a particular tool isn’t quite right, or needs closer integration with existing tools. In these cases a self-hosted application may be the solution. Activecollab is an obvious go-to in this case–an open source, self-proclaimed rip-off of Basecamp. Initially, the app appeared to have potential. However, a few months after its introduction the project went from open source to closed and updates have been slow in coming.  PHProjekt, mentioned earlier, is still around, as are Project Open, Streber PM and DotProject. None of these apps is stellar, but any of them could be a good starting point for your own organisation’s in-house system.

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It’s also important to realize that none of these apps will help you manage bridge-building or other feats of engineering. Theoretically they could, but Web 2.0 project management apps are primarily focused on the lighter end of project management–web design, software development–rather than on multi-year infrastructure planning projects.

A piece of the pie

In addition to Basecamp and its friends, there are loads of tools that assist with a particular piece of a PM’s work load. These include project sites, timetrackers, to-do lists, bug trackers, billing applications and more. A project manager could spend the best part of his day juggling a number of apps and moving data between them. What PMs really want is an app that does it all–a project portal that would serve as the dashboard for managing an entire project. Is there such a thing? Certainly, a number of applications are trying, and each is coming from a slightly different angle. The diversity could suit PMs who have industry-specific needs or who have business processes that differ.

Wrike allows you to manage tasks and assignments and follow up on their completion with staff members. Allowing you to assign tasks to a user at the same time as you email them about it (by cc:ing a Wrike email address) is the one nifty feature. Oh, and I think they claim to have invented the Gantt chart. At $49 for 15 users it is not only far from a complete solution, it is awfully expensive. But if task tracking is your primary problem as a PM, it could be a solution for you.

Unfuddle is targeted very specifically at managers of development (coding) orientated projects. The primary features include bug tracking and subversion source control integration. Basic milestones, team messaging and time tracking are included to allow a PM to manage development via features and bugs assignment. However, it feels a bit more like an application for a lead developer than a PM.

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Dev Shop is similarly for development projects but offers more for their PMs. My favourite feature is the analytics it includes to help you track a particular developer’s performance against your and their estimates for job timing. The system builds metrics allowing users to increase accuracy over time when assigning a task to a project and a user. The way it ties a project’s requirements to the whole is also very PM-centric and helps you keep track of the big picture.

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Veetro’s focus is squarely on the money. Veetro is unique among these apps in that its project view begins before the sale. Included are a proposal writing tool and CRM/lead management features. The actual in-project functionality is fairly weak, preferring email marketing to resource-management tools. Post-project it shines more with invoicing functionality that can be tied back into time sheets or project estimates. For the business development and financial-focused PM with less hands-on PM work to do it might be rather useful.

Proworkflow is a comprehensive application for project management (doing most of what the apps mentioned here do) which might also appeal to studio/general managers–the advanced reporting and multi-project overview let you get an excellent view of all the projects running.

Project Insight is a very serious app. There are no visual shades of Web 2.0 about it at all–except for an odd gradient–and it certainly doesn’t make your job feel any more exciting. But it does some seriously decent things. Number one is the level of integration with Microsoft products. Just the ability to import MS Project files alone makes it worth a look for PMs who can’t give up that habit. But for non-PM staff in a project it also has Outlook integration to synchronize tasks and calendar events. Many people use Outlook as their primary means of self-organisation. Bringing the application there definitely improves your chances of getting people to actually use the system–and getting buy-in is important. As a PM, getting buy-in is the single biggest issue I’ve found with getting teams into any new app. Users want to know what’s in it for them. Project Insight’s templating of project timelines, resource management, expense tracking, and document approval pipeline features are also great time savers. The main downside is the limited (7-day) trial period. We’re very used to Web 2.0 apps offering free base accounts that allow us to properly get a feel for an application, or give it a test-run. With PI you’ll need to just take the plunge.

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As it stands, there’s no magic bullet out there to make PM painless–but many of us should be grateful for that, since it keeps us employed! Integrated web-based tools, such as the ones featured, will continue to improve. Meanwhile, for those using a set of tools, applications that provide APIs can be customised. Freshbooks’ integration of Basecamp illustrates this kind of customisation quite well.

Comment(s)

  1. Rick Mason on August 01, 2007 at 08:51 AM:
    What a great summary!  Thanks!
  2. gary on August 01, 2007 at 09:28 AM:
    have you heard of goplan ? we are busy trying it now, very similar to basecamp.
  3. Xin on August 01, 2007 at 05:50 PM:
    I tried out goplan for a while. It has some good functionalities. The website was too slow for me to use it for project work.

    Out of all the PM tools mentioned, devshop looks promising. I love the different metrices.

  4. C on August 01, 2007 at 05:56 PM:
    What about Merlin or Omniplan?
  5. Mark Phillips on August 01, 2007 at 06:49 PM:
    Thank you for the informative article.

    I would be very curious to hear your take on Vertabase Pro (http://www.vertabase.com).  We’ve been in the market since 1999 and are often a head to head competitor with PI.  (Though many of our clients say it does make their job more exciting : )

  6. Ajay Parasrampuria on August 02, 2007 at 11:23 PM:
    Very informative. Thanks.  In our experience any tool is a good starting point but the key to PM success is in defining the processes one will follow using the tools, else its gets into an Info overlaod scenario
  7. Projity announcing OpenProj a free open source rep on August 03, 2007 at 02:37 PM:
    Projity is announcing OpenProj at LinuxWorld. It has a huge following and set of endorsements. WOW !!!!  I downloaded and it is a complete replacement of Microsoft Project and it is free and available on Linux, Unix, Mac or Windows. Here are a few links:
    http://blogs.zdnet.com/open-source/?p=1257
    http://www.linux-watch.com/news/NS2396922192.html
  8. Thomas Scovell on August 03, 2007 at 05:22 PM:
    Mark – Thanks, I couldn’t include everything in this round-up unfortunately, I’ll check out your product for a separate review.

    Gary – goplan feels a little much like a pure basecamp “clone” so it didn’t warrant a separate mention, i’m keeping an eye on it though.

    Ajay – agreed, I wish it were as simple as finding a silverbullet tool!

    Others – thanks!

  9. Christian Watson on August 08, 2007 at 11:52 AM:
    Let’s not forget about trusty old Excel as a PM tool (http://www.smileycat.com/miaow/archives/000130.php).  It’s amazing the amount of functionality you can cram into a spreadsheet.
  10. Steve on August 08, 2007 at 12:44 PM:
    I’d like to clarify a few things about Project Insight.  The software implements quite a bit of AJAX, particularly on the task list where users can edit tasks in-line, manipulating the task order, predecessors, multiple task resources, all while being able to drag columns drag and drop tasks without a full post back.  There is also a user portal which uses AJAX as well and web services API’s that can be programmed to.

    The Project Insight system is well entrenched in the Web 2.0 model.

  11. Thomas Scovell on August 08, 2007 at 03:05 PM:
    Most definitely Christian, as I noted in the intro, “Most individuals I know in the profession spend a good portion of their day switching between two applications–Excel…” – but Excel is hardly web 2.0! ;)

    I also prefer using excel a little more simply than using it to fake gantt charts which are done better in project – something like joel spolsky’s “painless software schedules” (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000245.html)

  12. Thomas Scovell on August 08, 2007 at 03:25 PM:
    Steve – thanks for the feedback. The web2.0 reference in regards to PI was related to the visual design – the most superficial layer of web 2.0, not the functionality – which as I noted is excellent.

    I’d still like to see a less limited trial account so users could try the software for an entire project lifecycle before committing though. Certainly that’s something people are used to.

  13. Garry Roberts on August 13, 2007 at 03:15 AM:
    Thanks Thomas! Useful information indeed. I have one addition, however. We’re practicing scrum in our team and we’re using Wrike to make the process smoother.  It helps a great deal! And the price is not that big, it helps us save and make a lot more money. By the way, there’s one more interesting overview at PCworld.com, concerning Basecamp and Wrike.
  14. Valerie on August 28, 2007 at 03:09 AM:
    Thomas, thank you for your opinion on Wrike. It�s always very important for us to get any feedback, whether people love our product or criticize it.

    We also would like to comment on your short review.

    You were so right in saying that we all are very used to Web 2.0 apps offering free base accounts that allow us to properly get a feel for an application. It�s a pity you haven�t mentioned that Wrike has an absolutely free version that has the full set of our features. You also haven�t noted that anyone can try out Wrike over 30 days with any of our paid plans.

    We�re afraid that you�ve misunderstood some information in our corporate blog. We treat the Gantt chart invention with all proper respect, and we also care about copyright laws. We offer our subscribers a simplified version of a Gantt chart and call it timeline. It allows anybody on a team to view and reschedule project plans from a personal account.

    We totally agree with your saying that a project management application must save a PM time. That�s why it�s such a pity that you haven�t mentioned that Wrike�s �nifty� e-mail integration feature actually saves a PM time on phone calls and meetings, as he and other team members are immediately notified if there is any progress in the project work. Wrike moves the burden of updating plans off the project manager and distributes it among team members.

    Anyway, thank you for your time and attention to our tool. We know that there is always room for improvement, and we work hard to make Wrike even better. We hope that someday, when you have a closer look at our application, you�ll change your opinion on it.

  15. Thomas Scovell on August 28, 2007 at 03:41 AM:
    Valerie thanks for your feedback. Only one app I looked at didn’t offer a free base account (project insight) and I applaud Wrike for giving people a decent go at your application before (and without) paying.

    One other commenter has already said they love Wrike and don’t find the cost an issue. I did find it high for the breadth of the feature-set compared with some of the other apps looked at however. But as I noted, if it solves specific issues one has as a PM it may be a good fit and fairly priced. It really does depends on one’s needs. In this case I was looking at applications through a lens of the “full project lifecycle” rather than solving specific PM issues.

    I look forward to seeing where you take your product next so feel free to ping me with any updates.

  16. Manav Sehgal on November 03, 2007 at 12:05 PM:
    Thank you for an interesting post and the reader comments.

    I am wondering why was AtTask (http://www.attask.com) not addressed!!

    AtTask claims to have Apple, CBS, Toyota and Disney on their client roster. And they don’t cost much as compared to some of the solutions you talk about.

    I am evaluating hosted solutions for integrated globally-distributed project management for enterprise scale web projects.

    DevShop looks cool and easy. However, AtTask seems more Enterprise 2.0 ready. What do you folks think?

  17. Sim Batlanki on November 07, 2007 at 04:22 PM:
    Manav,
    We are currently evaluating these tools and our opinion is that AtTask is a good tool but some tools like ProjectInsight or Vertabase or EasyProjects.net have more integrated allround features. One of the major requirements is Microsoft tools integration if your team is predominantly using them.
    Good Luck,
  18. PMWizard on December 13, 2007 at 02:18 PM:
    To address Sim’s post – AtTask’s product @task DOES have integrated features – such as Microsoft Outlook, QuickBooks, and Salesforce – AND it runs on mobile devices such as the iPhone. The on-demand product is browser, platform, and database independent. It also has multilingual support in Frend, English, Spanish, German, Chinese and Japanese. I doubt ProjectInsight, Vertabase, or EasyProjects.net have such robust functionality. We have used @task for two years now – and it meets all our needs to a T – and then some.
  19. Valerie on February 05, 2008 at 07:41 AM:
    Hello Thomas,

    Let me share Wrike’s recent updates with you. Now, besides a platform for collaboration, task organization and management, Gantt charts and e-mail integration, Wrike offers time-tracking. The time-tracking feature has a very simple interface, however it solves many problems of professional services providers that need to bill their clients.

    For more details: http://www.wrike.com/blog/02/03/2008/Track_time_spent_on_your_tasks_in_Wrike.

  20. John on February 24, 2008 at 09:12 AM:
    Nice review. We also tried a few PHP project management apps years ago, when our only options were a few installable open source apps. We ended up using one but had to modify it quite a bit to suit our needs. The open-source products are great because they are free, but the moment you have to customize anything you find yourself regretting having installed it; the code is usually a mess. Now there are many web-based options to meet many different needs. Our solution was to build our own web-based service. Check out Intervals, our humble contribution to this space. We’ve tried to fill the niche between basic apps, like Basecamp, and complex apps, like Microsoft Project.
  21. Daniel Barnett on April 05, 2008 at 07:03 PM:
    Hi Thomas – fair revue on my company, Veetro.

    We’ve taken your comments, and those from our users on board and have rebuilt the application from the ground up.  New interface, easier getting started, better project management and integration with PayPal, Google Payments, Gmail and more.

    Oh – and we’ve also renamed Veetro 2.0 as WORKetc – http://www.WORKetc.com

  22. ian harrison on October 17, 2008 at 01:31 AM:
    Thomas,
    Very interesting piece. I think you have summarised the market for web2.0 tools well. One thing I would like to add it that most of the tools you list I would argue are project collaboration tools and not project management tools in their own right. You explained this point in your coverage of basecamp. It is becoming quite difficult for users to distinguish between “true” project management tools and lighter weight project collaboration tools. Both have their place – but we should be clear about the distinction. A PM tool should attempt to help the PM witl ALL aspects of their job (if possible) and also their team when working on projects. And not lets forget the people sponsoring the project – they need tools to help them also. I would argue that a true PM tools should include aspects such as: planning, scheduling, resource calendars, time tracking, collaboration, resource planning, reporting, dashbords / monitoring etc. We are vendor in this space, if interested take a look at http://www.iplanware.com. More than happy to offer people a 30 day eval so they can see the difference between PM tools and project collab tools. As I say – both have their place – but lets be clear about the differences. Most PM tools are now called “PPM” or “project portfolio management software” to avoid this problem.
  23. Yoggi on November 24, 2008 at 09:46 AM:
    Thanks thanks and again – thanks :)
  24. Mark on February 03, 2009 at 10:14 AM:
    Hello, as an update to this conversation, I just want to fill you in on Project Insight.  I have been using this application for two years now and agree with most of the previous comments.  They recently had a new release and it now has a VERY user friendly and web 2.0 interface.  The upgrade has greatly improved my experience and it is more customizable than ever.  They just keep improving the product and focus on their customer needs.  Project Insight has all the features we need and ease of use to go with it.
  25. Johanna Lake on April 17, 2009 at 08:37 AM:
    You should not miss Teamwork – version 4 is quite user friendly and powerful: http://www.twproject.com
  26. stevejeff on May 13, 2009 at 05:43 AM:
    I don’t wanna write a story here. Just try PlanningForce from http://www.planningforce.com/ ,Its really good.