Just ask Dave Banko how he used to track time and progress on projects. "We didn't," says the project manager at Pentamation Enterprises Inc. in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a maker of administrative software. "We made up project plans for customers and never did anything after that. We used paper time charts."
Banko is not unusual.
Project managers say really managing projects is almost impossible. Current client/server tools are hard to learn and complicated to use, they say. Many are not well-integrated and perform erratically. As a result, team members ignore them, leaving project managers guessing about project status.
Executives resist them, fail to become engaged and thereby increase the risk of project failure.
No wonder 84 percent of information technology projects come in late, over budget or not at all, according to The Standish Group International Inc. in Dennis, Massachusetts, which has an ongoing "Chaos" study looking at thousands of IT projects through surveys, focus groups and interviews.
The Web may begin to change that by putting everyone on the same page - literally.
The first wave of Web-based project management tools focuses on time and progress reporting, and early adopters say they are well-integrated, reliable and easy to use. Team members use any PC anywhere to report progress on an individual project's Web pages. The tools compile that data into up-to-the-minute snapshots on the project manager's Web page.
There's also an executive Web page with a high-level view of all current projects.
Vendors are working to bring additional tools to the Web, including project planning and corporate project portfolio management, but the first modules already address a key problem.
"One of the main reasons projects fail is communication," says Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group. "The Web is a great communicator. It offers a lot of promise."
Even so, it will take more than tools to turn project management around. "A fool with a tool is still a fool," Johnson says. "The Web doesn't change that."
But users believe that by tightening communication and providing a common view of multiple projects, the Web may provide the backbone for the formal, disciplined project management that has eluded IT.
Project management as we know it is an exercise in looking backward, says Tom Jakab, program manager at Medrad Inc., a Pittsburgh-based supplier of radiological equipment. "People manage projects like they're sitting in a rowboat: facing where they've been, but they can't see where they're headed."
That's because it's been very difficult to update projects in a timely way. For example, David Chard, systems integration manager at British Aerospace in Farnborough, England, is implementing enterprise resource planning software.
"At the moment, we have a monthly reporting cycle, and the cycle can be very onerous," he says. "By the time we have all the reports together, it could be six to seven weeks after problems first arose."
Some project managers don't use electronic tools at all. "We issue a paper turnaround document, and people mark it up with a pen and return it," says Steve Toll, a schedule coordinator at the diesel division of General Motors Canada in London, Ontario. "Then that is incorporated into the schedule, updated and reissued on paper."
The first Web-based project management tools - from vendors including Primavera Systems Inc. in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania; ABT Corp. in New York; PlanView Inc. in Austin, Texas; Welcom in Houston, Texas; Business Engine Software Corp. in San Francisco, California; and NexPrise Inc. in Santa Clara, California - let project managers see a project's status today in order to plan for tomorrow.
That's made a dramatic difference to Banko, who's used Primavera's Webster since February. Previously, project team members filled out paper time sheets that were later typed into a database, then exported to a different database to estimate progress against the project plan.
To get a visual representation, the information would have to be re-entered into a separate graphics program. The complexity of time reporting often tied up the system, keeping project managers out.
With Webster, each team member has a personal Web page with a list of activities and a weekly chart indicating what he's expected to accomplish.
"It works as a 'to do' list from the project manager to the team members," Banko explains. "They can see what they're scheduled to work on. The 'hours-to-go' field can be updated to tell the project manager whether they're ahead or behind, and adjustments can be made in the project plan accordingly.
"This enables real-time information with one clean database," Banko says. "Project managers get accurate information, and it's a lot less work for them to maintain."
View From The Top
Web tools also offer an overview of all projects, something that's much more difficult to achieve in a client/server environment, where each project has its own discrete file, says Geoff Ables, a project manager at First Union Corp. in Charlotte, North Carolina. "It's never going to be easy, but the Web makes it a lot easier," he says.
With PlanView's Reporter, Ables can use the overview to improve project management processes. "We can summarize results and look for patterns," he explains. "If we see that Step 3 is a bottleneck in 90 percent of projects, we can resolve that."
The simplicity of Web-based tools engages executives as well, and because the Standish study has found that executive backing is a prime indicator of project success, keeping them involved is critical.
"If a managing director feels he has to go to class for three days to use tools, forget it," says Larry Sisemore, manager of process and technology integration in the IT division of Federal Express Corp. "But I can have them click to the Web site and it's already organized for them. They can break it down and get these beautiful graphic dashboards of information on each project."
To achieve any benefits, team members have to use the tools, of course, and they're not always willing. "They tell us that it takes too much time to learn a new tool," Sisemore says.
That's because many client/server tools require team members to learn a complex project-planning module to report time and progress even though they never do any project planning.
Web tools simply separate the two functions. As a result, Web tools take minutes, not hours, to learn. "That turns everyone's thought process around," Sisemore explains. "Then we say it's Web-based, and that's exciting to any wirehead. They'll try it, and it's so simple they accept it."
The tools offer users more than simplicity, Ables says. They can improve the quality of their lives.
"Before, I might schedule Bob for 10 hours on this project," he says. "Now I can see Bob already has 50 hours of work scheduled [on a different project]. Individual schedules are going to be a lot less crazy."
Knocking Down Boundaries
Using the Web makes distance less of an issue. That's important for Banko, whose projects include remote trainers and installation teams.
"They may not be in the office for three or four weeks straight, but they can dial in and directly access the Web page," he says. "It keeps it all in real time, even with remote customers."
The tools also facilitate complex project partnerships. British Aerospace, for example, has multiple-site projects with outside partners including overseas companies and suppliers. "Web-based gives us the ability to pull all that together in a timely manner," Chard explains.
But you don't have to be virtual. "Internally, as an intranet tool, it's a whole lot easier to maintain than anything client/server-related," Banko explains.
Time Will Tell
Despite users' enthusiasm, Johnson says the biggest challenges are still ahead for Web tools. "We've seen great success with them in smaller projects, but smaller projects generally succeed better than bigger ones," he notes. Can the Web turn big projects around? "The jury is still out," he says. "It's too early. But it does offer a lot of promise."
However promising Web tools may be, Ables cautions that the bottom line in project management is people. "Tools help, but to manage a project well you need a corporate culture that fosters teamwork and quality and thinking through projects from beginning to end," he says. "If you don't have the culture, the tools won't do any good."
(Melymuka is Computerworld's senior editor, management.)Web project management pros and consPROS*Easy to learn*Easy to use*Attractive to wireheads*Attractive to executives*Access through any PC anywhere*Facilitates communication, timely project updates*No client administration*No client maintenance*Provides high-level, multiproject views*Simplifies resource planningCONS*Version 1.0 tools; no track record*Scalability unknownMarket playersVendors that make Web-basedproject management tools:
Primavera Systems Inc.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Business Engine Software Corp. San Franciscowww.businessengine.comNexPrise Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.