Microsoft focuses on centralized planning

Project managers know that without proper organization, projects can easily turn into nightmares. With hundreds of tasks to complete and many of employees to co-ordinate, project management software can sometimes be a lifesaver.

Redmond, Calif.-based Microsoft Corp. hopes to ease the pain of project management with its new suite, Project 2000. The company has added Project Central, a Web-based companion product that enables collaborative planning among workgroup members and project managers, to its project management tool.

“The key things that we were looking to bring out in terms of functionality were to increase team productivity, to increase individual planner productivity and to increase the overall organizational productivity of a company,” said Margie Leslie, business tools marketing manager for Microsoft.

According to Leslie, server-based Project Central displays key project pieces, such as new tasks and reports, on a Web page, simplifying access to project data for all team members. Managers decide which projects will be available under Project Central and set team-member access. Users can then view their personal Gantt charts showing assigned tasks with timelines, delegate tasks to co-workers and perform various other functions.

“Project Central is the biggest feature in Project 2000,” Leslie said. “We’re now able to extend the use of Project to a lot more users within an organization. It’s a central data store where all of the information is captured.”

Project managers can consolidate status reports into a summary report made available for everyone. Project Central requires both Windows NT 4 (with Service Pack 4 or higher) and Internet Information Server.

In the future, however, Leslie said she would like to see further development of the Web collaboration component.

But it’s Project 2000’s ability to centralize resources that draws Chuck Thibodeau, account manager at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based services firm Pcubed.

“Now I can store all of my projects to a database. Before I had about 12 project managers working for me, and access to all their plans was (through) flat files stored all over the network that I had to pull together,” Thibodeau said. “With Project 2000, I can have them stored directly to the database, and I can pull from one central location.”

Thibodeau said Project Central allows him to interface with the resources he needs to complete projects. “When I create a project plan and I assign somebody a task, they log into Project Central and accept that task, and see when I expect them to start it, finish it, and how much effort I expect.”

His employees can then communicate back to Thibodeau about those requirements.

But Thibodeau would like to see a few more elements added to the software in future releases. “I would like to see more robust resource forecasting,” Thibodeau said. “I would like some more graphical tools within it to help me do some what-if analysis.”

Like Thibodeau, James Giraud also thinks Project 2000 is a very useful tool.

In fact, Giraud, senior project manager for Toronto-based software development company Navantis Inc., said Project 2000 is an essential part of his methodology.

“When we’re building large projects where you’ve got schedules that go over hundreds and hundreds of tasks, it’s impossible to manage without a tool like that. It’s integrated into just about every stage of work that we do at this point,” Giraud said.

For Navantis, the key ability of Project 2000 is how it deals with ranges of estimates. “You can generate estimates that go from an optimistic estimate to a pessimistic estimate rather than just saying a project will be done on X date,” Giraud said. “It’s a more realistic way that software development gets done.”

But the documentation of Project 2000 could be more industry specific, he added.

“They’ve tried to create a generic tool; it would be great if they would have some supplemental tool kits that dealt with specific vertical industries.”

Giraud also feels that Project 2000 needs better integration with the Web.

“When you’re trying to manage a team of developers that are working together, the actual amount of input that actually has to be done via Project Central can be daunting in some situations. You may spend four hours on a task over several days. Project is not that capable of collecting information easily,” Giraud said.