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  1. 1. Working Together, Apart The Web as Project Infrastructure by Gordon Benett, Managing Editor, IDM One of the more effective methods of organizing and tracking work is management by walking around: the simple act of popping your head in a team member's office and shouting, "Hey James! How's it going?" Do this across the team a few times a month and your project will either perform, or you'll know you need a new team. Trouble is, today's "teams" often have upwards of the half-dozen people it's feasible to visit in a stroll, and these folks may well be scattered across your city, state or continent. The solution is to visit project resources virtually rather than physically, a variation that might be called management by flying around -- except that travel takes place in cyberspace, and you need not leave your office to do it. Virtual project management (VPM) is the Information Age equivalent of management by walking around. Most recently, the rise to dominance within organizations of Internet-based collaboration tools offers new possibilities for web-based project management. In this article I'll discuss the value proposition for web-based VPM, focusing on a couple of software products that illustrate both the potential and current limitations of the medium. Interestingly, some of the best real-world Java applications implemented today support collaboration. Doing, sharing, measuring "A virtual project is a collaborative effort towards a specific goal or accomplishment which is based on 'collective yet remote' performance," according to a seminal paper on the topic [1]. Another source sets "working together, apart" as the goal of enterprise networking [2]. These modes of work share a need for management tools that enable communication and coordination at a distance. In addition, many projects require the concerted effort of several individuals sharing a common set of tools. For example, an engineering team might use a computer- aided design (CAD) program to develop and compare design alternatives without holding a physical meeting. Look at the kind of project management activities associated with this process:  A task must be defined to develop alternative designs based on project requirements  Resources -- people, time, expenses if any -- must be allocated to the task
  2. 2.  The team members involved must communicate before and during the task, both with each other (design issues) and with the PM (administrative status reporting)  The PM needs to track the task, and based on performance relative to allocated resources, administer course corrections. There is room in these activities for several layers of information system support: • Communication implies e-mail, phone calls, memoranda (hopefully as e-mail attachments but possibly as paper), and other media. • Collaboration goes beyond basic communicating to sharing design information, which for all but the simplest projects will reside in specialized repositories such as CAD programs, CASE tools, simulation software, etc. • Tracking and leveling resources are functions performed by traditional PM products. In addition, some organizations are required by regulation or committment to a specific methodology (e.g., ISO 9000) to maintain complete configuration control over project artifacts. A pharmaceutical firm, for instance, might need to store not only the final specification for a new drug but all alternatives and iterations leading up to it. In such cases the dimension of process management can consume more resources than the projects themselves. Now do it virtually Drug manufacturers and bridge builders weren't exactly on hold until the advent of distributed computing. All of the activities mentioned so far have been handled for years -- since the start of the Industrial Revolution, in a sense -- with pencil and paper and human ingenuity. How do electronic information systems change this, and how do web-based applications in particular add value? Communication This is networking's quick hit. E-mail allows ideas to flow asynchronously (i.e., without parties online at both ends), enabling work to flow across holidays and time zones. E-mail also creates with no incremental labor a searchable audit trail, key to many formal processes. Taking this idea a step further, consider how products like Microsoft® Outlook™ support and extend project communication. Outlook integrates a multi-protocol e- mail client with directory, scheduling, and journaling functions. Through journaling, the process of keeping a record of work performed, Outlook extends the concept of automatic audit trail creation to include phone calls, faxes and other non-integrated communications. Unfortunately, Outlook97 happens to be painful to use and miserably insular when it comes to sharing project info. But the integration potential is there, and hopefully will be better realized in future releases. Meanwhile, similar functionality is on tap in competing Web-based messaging clients, such as Netscape Communicator™ and Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes 5.0 client.
  3. 3. Remote collaboration The ability to "work together, apart" is hardly possible without shared storage and concurrency control -- solved problems, thanks to client/server database technology. A good example of a product that enables web-based collaboration is NetObjects TeamFusion, reviewed in this issue of IDM [3]. TeamFusion facilitates the construction and maintenance of complex web sites by multi-developer teams. In addition, TeamFusion allows contributors not directly involved in web development to add content through a form-based Java applet, accessible with any browser. Browser-based project collaboration is going to be one of Java's "killer apps," you betcha, and a theme you'll see more of in Part II of this article. Of course, Java isn't the only distributed computing platform on the block. Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM), lately folded into a new marketecture called DNA (Distributed interNet Architecture), holds out much the same prospect as Java for providing remote access to shared workspaces and applications. CORBA, on the other hand, does not. While the Common Object Request Broker Architecture standard is arguably more mature and better integrated than DNA, it lacks the the visual control elements present in both Microsoft's ActiveX and Java's AWT. This relegates CORBA to adding value behind the scenes while Java and DNA duke it out on your desktop. Project management Integrated messaging tools like Lotus Notes and design collaboration tools like TeamFusion do a good job within their respective domains. When a project manager needs to lay out tasks, assign resources and track performance, however, she must look elsewhere -- specifically, to project management software. PM software adds value by facilitating the administrative chores associated with teamwork, from schedule production and cost estimation to critical path analysis. "Is the project on target?" PM software's agenda is to answer this question, and as anyone familiar with tools like Microsoft Project, Primavera Systems SureTrak Project Manager or Scitor Inc.'s PS6 can attest, they do little else. These products are intended for use by professional managers, not by the members of a project team. They add no value as task collaboration tools because they don't understand the vertical knowledge of specific problem domains. This kind of tool is, of course, indispensable within a narrow administrative domain. Some products, like SureTrak Project Manager from Primavera Systems Inc. and Microsoft Project 98, can publish current project data to a web server, making status information and associated files available to all comers through a standard issue browser. Web publishing is much more efficient from both a cost and client configuration standpoint than the per-seat licensing model of older PM products, which required every user who might conceivably need access to install a full copy of the client software. Both SureTrak and Project 98 also feature extensive e-mail integration. In SureTrak's case, users can send messages about project data, screen captures, and
  4. 4. selected activities through a gateway called Primavera Post Office to team members who can then review, approve and merge updates back into the project schedule. Microsoft Project 98 goes these workgroup capabilities one better by giving users a choice between e-mail and web-based communications [4]. These features bring aspects of "management by walking around" to the virtual project realm. It's important to remember, though, that collaboration in PM software remains strictly limited to project management functions. Even best-in-class products like Project 98 and SureTrak Project Manager can't "reach out and touch" vertical applications, for instance a drafting tool such as AutoCAD for construction projects, or Rational Rose, Rational Software Corp.'s system modeling tool, for software development projects. As a result, teams have had to turn to a hodgepodge of non-integrated tools, each of which supports a facet of virtual work -- project/process management, project communication, or collaboration on project tasks. Only recently have tools capable of providing a complete process management framework for virtual work begun to appear. Web-based project infrastructures Let's recap. Virtual projects -- "working together, apart" -- require communication, collaboration and project management. The present generation of software aims to support work within each of these domains by leveraging client/server technologies such as shared data access, standards-based messaging and browser economies. But not until now, with the impending rise of web application technologies such as Java, ActiveX and XML, have project teams had access to integrated environments that bridge project domains. The goal of integrated process management through a suite of cooperating tools seems at hand. Next issue I'll describe how corporate webs are becoming project infrastructure. In particular, I'll profile two web-based products that support virtual project teams. One is Mesa/Vista Project Manager by Mesa Systems Guild, Inc., a high-end offering that provides comprehensive process management through a rich mix of Java, JavaScript and XML technologies. The other, WebProject by WebProject, Inc., offers a more traditional PM feature set enhanced by an all-Java implementation. Citations 1. Terry Krile & Dr. Paul Juell, Proceedings of the Small College Computing Symposium (SCCS'97), "Virtual Project Management," North Dakota State University, March 1997. 2. R. Grenier and G. Metes, Enterprise Networking: Working Together Apart. Digital Press, 1992. 3. In late 1998 NetObjects replaced TeamFusion 1.0 with Authoring Server 3.0, reviewed here. 4. Microsoft Project 98 Product Enhancements Guide, article on "Web- based Workgroup Features."
  5. 5. Business processes are becoming increasingly virtual -- staffed on the fly by transient, dispersed teams. Achieving to potential under these conditions requires a distributed project infrastructure that helps people communicate, collaborate and manage shared tasks in an integrated way. Part I of this article outlined requirements for such an infrastructure, pointing the way to solutions that leverage intranet technology. In Part II we ask how well current product offerings are meeting these requirements. The answer, in a word, is "imperfectly," but the prognosis has never been better. To gauge the state of the practice I'll focus on two web-based products, both available now, that support virtual project teams. One is Mesa/Vista Project Manager by Mesa Systems Guild, Inc. [1], a high-end offering that provides comprehensive process management through a rich mix of Java, JavaScript and XML technologies. The other, WebProject by WebProject, Inc. [2], offers a more traditional PM feature set enhanced by an all-Java implementation. The process is the solution Calling Mesa/Vista project management software is a bit like calling Microsoft a PC software vendor: it conveys a duplicitously thin sliver of truth. Mesa Systems Guild was formed in 1990 by a management team from Cadre Technologies, Inc. (now Cayenne Software, Inc.), maker of TeamworkTM, an end-to-end software engineering tool. From this background comes Mesa/Vista, a project environment built upon web technology. Mesa/Vista adds value through process integration rather than project management. The product's agenda includes web-based communication, which is where the e-mail or HTML publishing capabilities of most PM software leaves off. Yet Mesa/Vista has no native ability to produce Gantt charts or histograms, to level resources, or to track budgetary estimates. Instead, Mesa's product interoperates with a wide range of design and project management tools, including (as of this writing): Cayenne's Teamwork, Rational Rose 98, TD Technologies' SLATE and Microsoft Project. Mesa also sells a Developer's Kit for creating custom interfaces to other analysis and design applications. I said in Part One of this essay that virtual projects entail communication, collaboration and management as a multi-dimensional whole. Tools that service only one or two of these needs offer limited gains to distributed team members, forcing them to manually integrate and update across applications. Mesa/Vista ambitiously aims to cover the virtual project waterfront. It does so not through a surfeit of features, but by acting as a rich services environment that understands a variety of vertical project applications called plug-ins. Some of the services Mesa/Vista provides are similar to those available in Lotus Notes or other groupware products. For instance, Mesa/Vista gives users the ability to define roles, and to filter large volumes of project data on that basis. Fine- grained access control based on user profiles is also available. In a nod to
  6. 6. Microsoft Outlook's journaling capability, Mesa/Vista can log action items and project events. Documents such as meeting minutes and other supporting files can be moved to the web server (using HTTP upload) for secure access by team members. Mesa/Vista's document management features are a subset of the full-strength library services found in Lotus Notes or Open Text, Inc.'s Livelink Intranet. One powerful plus is Mesa/Vista's ability to put any file under version control. Businesses with well-defined regulatory or in-house methodologies will welcome this feature, easily invoked by clicking a button. Access to managed documents is subject to check-in/check-out and automatically generates an audit trail. Mesa's wise inclusion of versioning makes the absence of indexed search from Mesa/ Vista all the more mysterious. According to the company, full-text search will be offered by mid-year. I'd like to see them embed something like Verity Inc.'s OEM software, which can read and index office document formats such as Microsoft Word. Notes and Microsoft's Index Server incorporate the Verity engine (reviewed in IDM last September). Browser-based groupware features give Mesa/Vista its process orientation; the tool assumes that projects take place in a managed context, and is tailored to facilitate the activities and record-keeping that context entails. But Mesa/Vista is much more than a groupware wannabe. Keep in mind that the features I've described to this point form a horizontal service layer, on top of which Mesa/Vista supports supports tight integration with design and project management tools. Groupware and traditional workflow products offer nothing like this -- one reason, no doubt, why Mesa's customers include pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories and the Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC). Mesa/Vista is uniquely suited for managing multiple distributed projects that take place in a formal process context. To understand just how unique Mesa's product is, I suggest you visit their web site and take the Unguided Tour. (The Guided Tour is cute but limited in scope.) Here I'll give an example illustrating Mesa/Vista's plug-in approach, which differentiates it from every other project environment I'm aware of. Example: Mesa/Vista Tool Integration Imagine that you're the team leader of a software design project code-named Corker, and you need to review the status of a change order (CO) that resulted from a fix during acceptance testing. Since Project Corker is being managed with Mesa/Vista, you can do this from anywhere using a web browser. Once you log in, you query the change order and click on the resulting hyperlink to bring up the Microsoft Project Gantt chart. Mesa/Vista displays third-party application data like MS Project files through Java applets called plug-ins (no relation to Netscape's browser API of the same name). As a result, you're looking at the latest Project export data, which indicates that the CO of interest is in testing. By right-clicking tasks in the Gantt chart you can pop up menus of relevant actions. Note that this is much richer functionality than the graphic hot spots available with static Gantt chart depictions made, for example, with Net-It Software's jDoc technology. Mesa/Vista understands the task semantics and gives you
  7. 7. appropriate options. For a testing task, these might include Show Test Plan, which you click to bring up the underlying documentation. This could be any type of information displayable in a web browser, but since Project Corker was designed using Rational Rose you have direct, lightweight access via Mesa/Vista's Rose plug-in to the full UML specification. Action items can be initiated, and e-mail linking project documents sent, directly from within the Vista environment. Mesa/Vista is hard to categorize because it stretches the categories into which we traditionally place aspects of project work. This is just the kind of "stretch" we need to envision tomorrow's fluid collaborations, however, for which Mesa/Vista is conceptually well prepared. With the addition of LDAP directory services and a solid search engine -- both promised by mid-year -- Mesa's product will set the project infrastructure standard. WebProject: the future of web-based PM Like Mesa Systems, startup WebProject Inc. was formed by an entrepreneurial management team. But in contrast with Mesa's systems engineering pedigree, WebProject founder Chris Ritke came from Scitor Corporation, maker of the estimable Project Scheduler series of project management software. As a result, WebProject hews closer to the traditional PM feature set, which it powerfully extends with an all-Java implementation and intelligent web-based design. WebProject targets the "collaboration and communication" aspects of teamwork, but its collaborative features are closer to those of Microsoft Project 98, which puts project status data on the web, than of a shared working environment like NetObjects TeamFusion or Mesa/Vista. On the other hand, WebProject does an excellent job of facilitating distributed decision-making through an integrated tool suite that includes real-time chat, a voting/survey application, e-mail notification, and threaded discussion groups. WebProject's use of multiple windows lets teams hold virtual status meetings with concurrent access to project data. Furthermore, to help WebProject users create effective virtual workspaces, the vendor offers an online meeting facilitation service through its consulting partner CONSENSA. Alongside these communication features WebProject offers a unique Java-based project management system. The product's PlanTrack module allows authorized users to define projects, tasks and resources from any web seat. Web Project does an impressive job of emulating familiar PM tools such as timelines and histograms in Java. Projects can be imported from or exported to the major PM software formats, including Microsoft Project and Scitor PS7. This is a healthy nod to legacy projects, allowing WebProject to pick up existing resource lists. A bigger step in this direction would be access to LDAP directories. No distributed project management tool should be without this key service interface.
  8. 8. The product's commitment to Java has advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, WebProject achieves its goal of platform and location independence -- the only PM software of comparable sophistication that does so. Shared project information held in relational databases can be accessed from anywhere using JDBC. But on the server-side, where WebProject's resource management and query engines live, Java's performance is not especially scalable. Also problematic is the inability to print Java-generated displays such as Gantt charts and resource loading histograms. These are limitations of the Java language that will fade as the platform matures. What WebProject offers in spite of these caveats is a distributed project communication environment that makes unprecedented use of client/server web technologies. For a more detailed look at WebProject, check out the online help system or download a 30-day trial version of the software. Thinking ahead This article began with a description of the challenges facing virtual project teams -- resources convened rapidly to collaborate remotely in pursuit of shared goals. Meeting these challenges takes more than a set of discrete messaging and project management tools. Most of today's software takes a discrete approach. The second part of this article focused on two products that aim at, and achieve, higher integration. Mesa/Vista emphasizes teamwork in a formal process context. WebProject distributes complete project information using Java. Both products facilitate communications, manage access and run in a standard issue web browser. Both products point the way to a generation of collaboration software that can meet virtual project challenges. The rise of web integration frameworks such as LDAP, JavaBeans, DNA and XML is laying the foundation for work that bridges geography, time and project domains. As a result, I am confident that integrated process management will become the state of the practice within a few years, and features such as those described here will enter the software mainstream.