Microsoft Project Keeps Tasks on Track

Project is an already strong contender that will get even stronger with the Project 2007 release.

For straightforward, competent project management and scheduling, readers say Microsoft Project fits the bill. Its easy integration with the rest of the Microsoft Office suite, easy-to-use Gantt charting, scheduling features and its ability to support anything from a small department to an entire enterprise make it the tool of choice for most Microsoft shops.

Microsoft Project

Although readers say it does have some nagging issues, many of those should be addressed in the 2007 version, scheduled for general availability early this year. For now, however, users are mostly satisfied with the 2003 version.

Microsoft Project comes in two flavors. Project Standard comes as part of the Microsoft Office suite and is a stand-alone, single-user tool. Project Professional has all the features of the Standard version, but it's designed as an enterprise-level tool. It works with Project Server to provide collaborative project management capabilities.

Given the choice, most readers say they'd prefer the enterprise-level version, although few have the necessary resources available. Project Professional costs as much as $999 for a single user license. When you add the $1,499 license for Project Server, the overall solution can get pretty pricey.

"Right now, we're all on Standard, so it's totally stand-alone data," says Donald Wood, a systems analyst for the executive branch within the IT unit at the Department of State Health Services in Austin, Texas. "I wish we could get Project Server so we could start tying all our project data together. When we tried floating the idea of buying Project Server about a year or two ago, it just died. Upper management seemed to think it was a frivolous expense."

Those who have made the jump to Professional and Server say it's well worth the investment. They would never go back to the stand-alone version. "It forces my culture here to be better at project management. Because it provides this enterprise-level view, it shows that you need things like a project manager and a resource manager," says Collin Quiring, PMP, MCP and CIRM at Resource Management Professionals LLC in Siloam Springs, Ark. Quiring is currently using Project Professional and Project Server 2003.

Collin Quiring, Resource Management Professionals LLC

Besides tools for actual project management, the software also forces a structure on the process. "It helps you start defining roles in the company. You can start teaching people about how to think about project management," he says. "Plus, when you have an enterprise view of all your projects, suddenly the awareness level goes up. It's easy for everyone to see how changes made to project two affect what happens with project one."

The Two-Month Surprise
The enterprise view, which is called the Portfolio View, could even pay for itself in certain circumstances. Quiring says it's helped his company avoid what he calls "the two-month surprise." By that he means something that happens today to delay or impede a project but has results that only become apparent two months down the road when it's too late to change the outcome.

"The Portfolio View is what sold me," he says. "When you go to the Project Center, it has graphical indicators. Green is good, red is bad. You can see at a glance what's on time and what's not on time -- or what's on budget and what's not on budget. That makes it all worthwhile."

This view is particularly important for organizations juggling multiple long-term projects. "With the enterprise-level view and reporting, you can show them that this million-dollar sale today is wonderful, but two months from now, we won't be able to produce because we have four separate million-dollar sales hitting the same ship date," he says.

Regularly updating the Portfolio View is a good practice that will ensure that no slippage goes undetected. "If you do the update cycle every week, you know that in the worse case scenario, you'll be one week late. There's no two-month surprise anymore," Quiring says. "You can go back and set customer expectations. It gives you time to react."

Project Server also provides granular security and collaboration tools. "It synchronizes with Active Directory pretty easily," Quiring says. "When you add a user to a group, you can set security at the user or group level. Then you can build views, and put the views into categories. Then you apply security to those categories, enabling users to see certain views based on the category."

You could, for example, produce reports for the executive board complete with full financial updates and forecasts. From that same data, you could also generate background reports without dollar figures for the rest of the employee base. Project Server also provides strong security at the SQL Server level.

User Be Gone
However, Quiring says, there are some caveats when tying Project and Project Server to Active Directory that the documentation should spell out more clearly. For example, when a user leaves the organization and their user ID is deleted from Active Directory, it can wreak havoc in Project.

"That's a downside we learned the hard way," he says. "If somebody leaves the company and IT deletes their user ID, Project Server will choke on that. People can't just automatically be removed from schedules if they're an assigned resource because the Project Server system tries to go out and find them and it can't. You end up with all these errors."

What's not made clear in the documentation is that you need to delete the resource from Project Server before you delete it from Active Directory. "If you remove them from Project Server first, there's no problem. But that's one of those things you learn by trial and error."

The enterprise version of Project does sport some strong collaboration features, however, especially on the e-mail side. "If you're a project manager, resource manager or even the administrator, you can set it up to automatically e-mail you when a certain resource is going late on their task or has a new task coming up," he says. "That's a great feature."

Quiring would prefer that e-mail capability to extend beyond Project users, though. "It would be better if the functional managers, who may not even have access to Project, could get that e-mail too. Then they would know their employee is late, without me having to forward the e-mail to them."

What To Expect in Project 2007

Here's a look at some of the features Microsoft is expected to add to the project management and scheduling toolset of Project 2007:

  • Manage non-working time: Project 2007 will support named vacations. You'll also be able to set up alternative work weeks to help users control and understand when certain resources are available.
  • Change highlighting: When you make changes to a project, all affected task and resource fields will be highlighted. This lets you see how changes affect the dates of successive tasks, summary costs and so on.
  • Multiple-level undo: You'll be able to reverse the most recent series of changes, and undo and redo changes made to views, data and options. You can also undo actions or sets of actions from macros or third-party applications.
  • Visual reports for Excel: You'll be able to use Excel to produce charts and graphs based on Office Project 2007 data. It will also support PivotTable views and charts.
  • Visual reports for Visio Professional: You can build work breakdown structures or resource diagrams in Office Visio Professional. With data-driven diagrams, you can show progress bars, flag important tasks, color-code on cost or create custom diagrams to match project needs.
  • Task driver pane: This will show you prerequisites and resource constraints that affect the start date of a selected task. You can click these drivers to link to relevant information.

For a more detailed list of new features forthcoming in Project 2007, go here. -- J.C.

Project Standard has the same resource scheduling and tracking capabilities as the Enterprise version, but at the desktop level. Users can see their projects, all their assigned resources and where project schedules may be hitting or missing deadlines. For the most part, Standard users are happy with Project, although they bemoan the lack of enterprise-level collaboration features.

"I wish Microsoft would add some collaboration features into Project Standard," says Justin Clutter, chief technologist at AppServe Technologies LLC in Dallas, Texas. "It would be great if you could e-mail project tasks out to people. That's something you need Project Server for, and of course that's more expensive because you have to purchase the Project Pro license and a server license and everything else. Still, a little bit of collaboration in the standard version would be nice."

Changing Colors
Readers say there are some key features missing in both the Standard and Professional versions, including multi-level undo, color-coded change tracking and improved visual reporting.

Project 2007 will sport multi-level undo, which every reader insists is essential. "With Project 2003, when you make four or five changes and then change your mind, the undo feature is pretty bad," Clutter says. "You can only do one level and then you're lost trying to go back and change your dates to what they were before."

The new color-coded change tracker and multi-level undo coming in Project 2007 promise big leaps in productivity. "In 2003, you make a change, stare at the screen, hit the undo button and let your eye catch whatever moves," Quiring says. "So you hit undo, redo, undo, redo. And if there's more than one screen's worth of tasks, you have to scroll down and repeat the whole process, which is tough." In 2007, that will change. "If you make a change, it will show you everything else that changed as a result and it's all color coded," he says. "It's much easier to track the changes."

Other users need a way to highlight or color-code critical tasks. In fact, Angelo Arcoleo, master scheduler at ITT Space Systems Division in Rochester, N.Y., says he has Visual Basic programmers adding that to the 2003 version. "I had friends of mine develop a program to do driving paths and driving tasks," he says.

Clutter would also like to see better use of color-coding. "I'd like to see a highlighting feature where, as you set up a project, it automatically highlights a task if the duration is too long or if resources are over-utilized," he says. "Right now, it doesn't flag those very clearly." Fortunately for Arcoleo and Clutter, better color-coding and highlighting are expected in Project 2007's feature set. Project 2007 will also have more visual reporting features.

Clutter says reporting will definitely be better in 2007. "With 2007, you'll be able to do visual reports, so that it will actually build charts and graphs and deliver that information up to management via Project," he says.

Other features Clutter would like to see, but are not expected to be included in 2007, include a print to PDF feature and better integration with Microsoft PowerPoint. The ability to print to PDFs would help him communicate with clients who don't have Project. Better integration with PowerPoint would also help share Project timelines. "I'd like to take a Project and turn it into a presentation," he says. "As a consultant, it would be nice to take a plan built in Project, go to a prospective client and flow it into a presentation."

Still, Project is a good tool to have in your toolbox, in its current version and certainly in the forthcoming 2007 version. None of the currently missing features are show-stoppers. "Project may not be as specialized a tool [as] Primavera-which is a pretty expensive program," Clutter says. "But if you want something that's basic and can handle any type of project, Microsoft Project is perfect because it's a good price point, it's very easy to use and it's a stable app. For simple project management, there's no better tool."

More Information

For a more detailed list of new features forthcoming in Project 2007, go here.


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