Product review: Project 2000 leverages the Web

Many enterprises view project management as a top-down process, so there's little opportunity for feedback from those who perform the actual tasks. Still, this situation isn't totally the fault of your executives. To date, project-management software hasn't been very team-centered; nor do most desktop packages permit data from smaller subprojects to be easily consolidated for corporatewide reporting and analysis.

Microsoft Project 98 suffers from these limitations, but judging from my experience with its first public beta release, Project 2000 does not. Thanks to a Web-based companion product, called Project Central, team members can enter information about their own tasks into an overall plan and track projects without having Project 2000 installed on their desktop systems.

For project managers, the main application expands the reporting and scheduling features and provides more flexible views of project information. Furthermore, large organisations should appreciate the simplified database format, which contributes to much faster performance and allows project managers to consolidate projects from across the enterprise.

Collaborative tracking

After installing the Project Central Server on my Web server, I immediately let team members participate in planning a project. Using the Project Central Client, individuals viewed their assigned tasks and time lines, which I initially established using Project 2000, in Personal Gantt Charts. Furthermore, the excellent browser interface made it very easy for them to view tasks by project or task characteristics such as a start or finish date.

Just as important, the display's outline format helped us notice when tasks were missing from the original plan. Any team member who spots an omission may insert a new task in the appropriate part of the project. The project owner then decides whether or not the new task becomes part of the master plan.

Tracking a job's progress is often the toughest part of project management -- but not with Microsoft Project 2000. Using Project Central's Time Sheet, team members can report their progress on each task. One time-saving feature, Auto Accept Rules, let me, as project manager, accept the hours reported without any review as long as the hours fell within set guidelines.

Moreover, Project Central let me create a customised report form complete with prompts that helped team members fill out a status report. The software then merged all individual reports into a group report for presentation to executives -- a function that eliminates cutting and pasting text from individual reports.

More useful project information

Project 2000 introduces several features that help project managers organise and schedule data. For example, Grouping let me organise tasks by a customised field, such as cost code, and color code related tasks within a list view. Pioneered by Primavera Project Planner and Sure Trak (Project 2000's closest competitors), this is a very valuable way to summarise costs or other aspects of a project.

I particularly liked Project 2000's new Network Diagram, called the PERT Chart in previous versions. Beyond filtering tasks by department or deadline, for example, multiple formatting options allow you to highlight selected tasks, such as those belonging to a certain person or team, within the context of the whole project.

In the scheduling area, as well, I found Project 2000 to be superior to Project 98. For instance, each task may have an individual calendar, meaning work can be easily scheduled to occur on certain days. And you may now assign fixed or variable costs to materials and resources, yielding more accurate cost estimates.

What's more, Project 2000 now lets you "contour" resource availability. In other words, the number of a particular resource, such as programmers, can vary over the life of a project. And tasks can have one of 1,000 priority settings (compared to 10 values with Project 98).

When I levelled my test project after employing these new features, the schedule was about two months shorter than the schedule drawn up with Project 98.

Of course, Project 2000 is still a work in progress, and the beta had some rough edges. For instance, the Project Central Server required manual setup, and some help files were missing. Still, I didn't notice any major problems with the central parts of the software. It looks as though Microsoft is poised to deliver a product that brings much of the power of vertical market solutions to a broader base of enterprise users at a fraction of the cost.

Mike Heck (mike_heck@infoworld.com) is a contributing editor and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys, in Blue Bell, Pa.

THE BOTTOM LINE: BETA

Microsoft Project 2000, beta

Summary: Project 2000 lets team members participate in project planning via the Project Central Web server. Furthermore, the core Project 2000 application delivers improved database capacity, better performance, and more flexible viewing and reporting of project information.

Business Case: Through its new Web component and other improvements, Project 2000 should handle enterprise-scale projects better than Project 98 does. The cost of deployment and support, because of the bundled Web application, is likely to be lower than that of competing solutions.

Pros:

+ Can see tasks and report progress using Web companion+ Flexible viewing of project data+ Redesigned scheduling engine improves database performance+ Handles large, consolidated projectsCons:

- Beta is incomplete

Cost: $499; $199 upgrade

Platform(s): Windows 95/98, NT 4.0, 2000 ProfessionalShipping: First quarter of 2000Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.; (800) 426-9400; www.microsoft.com

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