Project management software, social apps swap features

LiquidPlanner is adding more collaboration tools to its online project management application because people, not tasks, create most of the problems in project management. And PBworks is adding task management tools to its wiki (originally PBwiki) because when people collaborate, they usually have shared tasks to accomplish.

It looks like these Software-As-A-Service companies are meeting in the middle, but really they are just pulling good features from each other’s bag of tricks.

I don’t believe either company drew inspiration from the other as much as from customers. PB Works marketing vice president Chris Yeh says PBworks is used by 2,000 creative agencies to manage projects, “so we decided to give them more tools to make things easier.” Thus the origin of PBworks Project Edition aimed at project oriented work like marketing, advertising, public relations and design professionals.

Two new features, Project Management and Multi-space Networks, address the need for better control of tasks and management and make it easier to allow customers and contractors to work together with agencies. The PM tools make it possible to assign tasks and milestones to individuals or groups. You can see all the tasks for individuals across all projects, or all the individuals involved in a particular project. Smaller tasks roll up into larger defined milestones and you even get some graphical charts.

Networks of users for projects and their assigned workspaces can include coworkers, customers and suppliers. Full access control allows you to specify who can see what on each project. This eliminates quite a bit of “document tag” as everyone involved can see the same information on one screen rather than e-mailing documents, spreadsheets and proof pages to each other.

Pricing varies a bit from the standard PBworks pricing of $8/user/month. Project Edition charges $20/user/month, but all the “guest licenses” for clients and contractors are free. If each creative manager adds in a client contact and an outside contractor you’re ahead of the price game.

This pricing model works much like the PBworks Legal Edition, which was released a couple of months ago after PBworks discovered that 24 of the top 25 law firms, or at least some of their employees, were already using PBworks for legal projects. “Legal work is high value, collaborative, and research and writing intensive,” says Yeh. “It’s the ultimate knowledge work and very text oriented.”

PBworks Legal Edition adds a variety of new features to help lawyers and their administrative staffers satisfy client demand for project pricing in place of billed hours. The fee of $50 per lawyer license covers all the lawyer’s assistants and any client licenses, and includes extra encryption and audit tracking over the regular version of PBworks.

While PBworks is enhancing collaboration with task management tools, LiquidPlanner is enhancing project management with collaboration tools. “Project pages have new features like a ‘People’ tab to show who you’re collaborating with on a project,” said CEO Charles Seybold. “We have a new dashboard that provides social project networking using our trusted, flexible team model.”

Wiki pages allow graphics, notes and any other information you can think of show up inside the traditional project management framework. Portal pages show who’s working on which projects and parts of projects, and groups of users can share tasks.

Licenses start at $35/user/month, but outside clients and contractors can access the portal pages on a project for free. The heavy duty PM users are licensed, but the information can go out via viewing portals or by sending snapshots of various charts, grafts and reports.

If you’re used to Microsoft Project Management, you may be a little surprised at the main feature of LiquidPlanner: time planning that uses a range for task completion, not a specific date.

“How can someone give you an accurate time estimate on a job they’ve never done before?” Seybold asks. “I can’t even give you an exact time for my commute to work tomorrow. It may take 25 minutes or it may take 60, depending on traffic. Our software’s ranged estimates take those into account and give a much more realistic view of projects.”

That makes sense to me. If a typical project manager demands an exact time for a task, people tend to take their longest estimate and add 10 per cent-20 per cent to cover themselves. If you think maybe five days but possibly 10, you’ll say 12 just to avoid being hassled after five days if you really need six. If the project manager instead asked for your best guess of the high and low time values, you can honestly say maybe three days or maybe eight but most likely five. More truth in estimates makes for better project management.

“We keep records of every estimate and the actual time the task took,” said Seybold. “You can check the details from the past when working on a new project, and tighten the estimates even more.”

Some of the other advancements include time tracking and invoicing for professionals on the project for billing purposes and improved charts and grafts. But the part I like best? Adding the social aspect of the team into the project management framework.

Does this mean SaaS vendors are trying to be all things to all people?

No, it means two innovative SaaS companies listened to customers and added features to improve their approach to problem solving. So examine your work processes and see if more task oriented wiki pages would help, or if you’re better served by social project management.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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