The changing face of project management

Historically, a project has been defined as a time-bounded set of tasks.  That is, a project has a start date, a desired set of deliverables and an end date, along with human and cash resources that need to be allocated to it to make it happen.

So easy to describe, so difficult to do.  A whole market has grown up around project management, from the likes of Microsoft Project through to high-end project portfolio management tools such as seen in Artemis, Oracle Primavera or CA Clarity.  There are also more targeted packages, such as Deltek (aimed more at civil engineering) or AVEVA in the heavy engineering sector.

However, with continuous delivery of incremental improvements being required by organisations and more people across different skills and levels needing to be included in “projects”, it is time for project management software to change.

The way companies work has changed, and this is forcing a redefinition of what is meant by a project.  In many cases, the definition given above is no longer the case: a project may be an ongoing sequence of tasks with less of a defined end point.  Instead, there may well be a series of desired outcomes spaced out along an evolving timeline.  Project members will join and leave as the project goes along in an increasingly ad-hoc manner.  The success of various tasks along the project timeline will define what the next steps are – and whether a project should continue or be brought to a halt.  Some projects will still work to deadlines – many will have review points that act as decision making points, but the project itself may have no direct end point.

For example, consider something like sales enablement.  A company could create a whole set of disparate projects overseen by someone viewing how the salesforce, product development, marketing, logistics and so on are working, trying to pull together different projects and approaches to create a desired end.  Or, an ongoing project could be put in place that leads to continuous reviews where the success or otherwise of a campaign can be measured against how many items sales have sold with a feedback loop being put in place such that product development can change what is provided to sales to meet the customers’ needs.

High-end project management tools can’t do this easily. Users generally have a need to understand the language of a project manager – Gantt charts, critical paths and so on.  They need to come out from the systems that they are used to working with and use specific project management tools.  All of this counts against broad use of project management – yet this may be about to change.

I have been talking with a couple of interesting project management vendors; both have a couple of things in common; each has its own way of operating.

Firstly, Clarizen is looking to make project management far easier to use and understand.  It provides all the standard views and tools that full project managers want – Gantt charts, resource management tools, overall portfolio management and so on – but also brings in social collaboration.  Users can choose to see projects in terms of tasks, Gantt charts, critical paths and so on if they so want, or can see a simple timeline with progress markers showing how complete different tasks within the project are.  A full, audited track of everything to do with a project is maintained in a manner that makes it easy for users to see exactly what is happening – not just at a “task 50% complete” level, but also from a “this person has severe issues around this area for these reasons, and here is what others think”.  Through the use of Twitter-like hashtags and “@” identifiers, Clarizen is making it easy for people to track activities and people throughout an organisation’s work.

As such, it can replace those horrendous email trails that many people involved in projects have had to deal with: trails that are not integrated into the project management software itself, and so lead to issues when decisions are being made at project management meetings. Indeed, it can also include outsiders, who can be sent static or dynamic views of what is happening in a project with granular security controls.

The way that Clarizen is being used by some of its clients shows how it is enabling users to manage their day-to-day lives.  Many users are seeing Clarizen not as a project management tool, but as a life management tool.

The other company I have talked with is InLoox.  It also realises that collaboration is part and parcel of how an organisation operates these days, and it also realised that the best way to get people to use project management is to embed it within an environment that they are already familiar with.  Therefore, InLoox made the decision not to be a stand-alone project management, instead embedding itself into the tool that the vast majority of people are using on a day-to-day business basis – email.  InLoox is an Outlook-native system – projects are created, managed and updated from within Outlook; notifications are made through email messages that take the recipient straight through to the InLoox project environment.  Again, InLoox retains a full list of social comments and interactions around a project – including all emails and attachments that are associated with the project.

By taking old-style project management and making it more user-centric and easy to use, Clarizen and InLoox stand a far better chance of democratising project management.  However, it will need either a change in perception from the prospective user base as to what project management means to them, or some heavy marketing from the vendors to create a new belief within prospective users that these solutions will change the way they work for the better.