IT projects quickly become tangled if they’re not performed with a good project management methodology. PM tools are critical because they define and track tasks, note task dependencies, and identify the mission-critical chain of events that must be minimally completed before a project goes live.

Of course, PM tools also bring their own challenges. In classic project management, if your project team exceeds 30 people and contains hundreds of tasks, a part-time or even full-time project administrator is dedicated to keeping the project management software updated. At best, the project team can expect to see one project update per week. All of this makes the idea of collaborative, online project management — where project task definitions and updates are decentralized and owned by staff members — very enticing.

Cloud-based online project management facilitates social networking, and it gives the entire project team access to real-time data and a set of standardized project tools. But activating this approach is by no means automatic. There is a list of things that CIOs and their project managers should consider before making the move to online collaborative project management.

1: Don’t forget that what you are buying is a tool, not a cure for poor project management

Historically, project management is one of the most difficult areas for IT to do well. It demands a technical command of the project and also the ability to converse and work well in plain English with internal users and even end customers. No project management solution “makes up” for this. If you don’t have the right people running your projects, you will still have a problem.

2: Introduce the new methodology to your team

Any time you change your work methodology, there is likely to be anxiety because both end users and IT already have a set way of doing their work. People are also naturally anxious when they are told they will be using a new tool. The fear is that the training on the tool will consume so much time that it will interfere with the work that they are expected to get done. Rather than just foisting a new PM methodology on your team, spend the time with them to explain why you are looking at the methodology and how you believe it will benefit the team and the company. The more your team is informed, the better they will perform.

3: Always pilot any new project methodology first

If you decide to make a move to online collaborative project management, it is best to isolate a small project that allows both IT and end users to see how well the new solution actually works in your environment. Your team can audition the new solution, identify its strengths and weaknesses, and determine whether it is a good fit for your projects. The pilot team can also identify key training and culture-change points that might have to occur within the company or in IT for the new product to be successful. As part of the pilot effort, you should also acknowledge the possibility that the solution may not be successful, and that you may need to pull the plug if the pilot results aren’t what you expected them to be.

4: Decide how you will handle project task dependencies

It’s great that everyone will be able to key in their tasks, estimates, and status, but there are still touchpoints in classic project management that online collaborative PM software might not cover as well. At some point, someone with an overall knowledge of the project has to put in task dependencies. Individuals on the team may not be equipped to do this, so dependency identification is still likely to be a centralized task.

5: Verify the accuracy of the project reports you receive

“Ownership” of work is a great concept that can be enhanced when people are empowered to estimate and complete the tasks they are assigned, but it is not always the best way. Tasks can be under- or overestimated. And there is always the possibility of someone declaring a task “done” when it isn’t. In short, there still needs to be hands-on monitoring and “walking around” in the online collaborative world to ensure that the project really is on track.

6: Know when you have to step in to manage communications

The great thing about online collaborative project management is that everyone operates with the same set of data and tools. This simplifies communications. However, the ability to socially network in real time also sets up the potential for destructive communications (perhaps slamming the project, a person, or an approach to a project). This erodes team morale. The project manager needs to stay on top of communications to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

7: Never give up “eye contact”

Especially on mission-critical projects where much is at stake, the best project managers use direct interaction and “eye contact” with team members. This allows managers to gauge the comfort and confidence levels of their teams — something that project management software has no way of showing.

8: Choose a great vendor

You ideally want a vendor that not only provides a project management package, but that also has a support and development staff with expertise in project management. This vendor should be willing to meet your SLAs in project management and should demonstrate financial solvency and a product vision to assure that it will be around for the long haul.

9: Have a project management contingency plan

When you take your project management methodology to the cloud, Internet connections can fail and your team may suddenly find itself offline. Always have a PM backup plan in case the cloud service fails. The good thing about project management is that it can usually survive for a day or two without updates — but you still want to know what your needs are so you can arrange for the proper contingency and failover requirements.

10: Take advantage of all the product features

All too often, the tendency is to just get going with a new product once the team reaches a comfort level. When this happens, you fail to get everything you’re paying for. Online collaborative project management offers new modes of social networking, project collaboration, and real-time updates that are unheard of in the classic project management software. So it’s important to commit to continuous training on the product, including its advanced features.

The good and the bad

Have you moved to online collaboration for your projects? Share your list of pros and cons with other TechRepublic members.