When managing large IT projects, you can face communication chaos that eats up valuable time. E-mails come and go, to-do lists get passed around, e-mail files get lost in mailboxes or returned because they were too big, and tracking assigned tasks becomes a nightmare. Using Microsoft Exchange and Outlook in combination with Microsoft Project doesn’t always solve your problem. Often, you’re at a client’s location and you cannot access your company’s Exchange Server from there. Even if the client has installed such a collaborative environment (Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes, for example), you’re not always able to access it from other locations due to network restrictions, authorizations, and firewalls.

The solution to all these project management problems is to use a Web collaboration tool. With Web collaboration, you can share files, hold discussions with your consultants and clients, publish announcements, view other consultants’ schedules, arrange meetings, assign and track tasks, and have all your important lists online. I’ll explain how you can use one such collaboration tool, eProject Enterprise 5.0, to coordinate your projects from the Web.

Sharing files
One of the most useful features of eProject is the Documents folders, where you can share your files and documents. You can share your presentations, reports, deliverables, meeting minutes and agendas, contact sheets, and any other file you have in your personal project folder on your PC. When you add a new file, you can define its permission level, which allows you to define the users or user groups that can have access to the file. For example, you might want to share the draft versions of your deliverable with your team only. As soon as you have the final version of the deliverable, you can grant access to your client.

You can also have version control over the documents that you upload. Those of you who use Microsoft SourceSafe for development are familiar with this concept. When you want to edit an uploaded file, you check it out, which gives you exclusive editing access to the file, preventing accidental editing of the file from another user. Once you’re finished editing, you check it in again. The previous versions of the document are kept so you can have a version history of your documents.

Another nice feature in the Documents folder is the document workflow functionality of eProject. After uploading the document, you can submit it for approval. You can select which users you want to approve the document—your project manager and your module manager, for example. They get notified via e-mail about your request, and when they download and approve the document, you get a notification that the document was approved (or rejected). They can also post comments without approving the document, so you can upload a newer version for reapproval. Once the document is approved, you can release access of it to the client and have a notification sent to the client (Figure A).

Figure A

Discussion board—announcements
Ever tire of CC-ing everybody in an e-mail message to announce a meeting? How about receiving all those replies from people who clicked Reply To All? With the discussion board in eProject, you can hold both your internal consultants’ discussions and the discussions with the client on the discussion board. That way, your inbox doesn’t get overwhelmed and you can keep track of the discussion without lost messages and “I told you that” arguments. You can also mass-mail members of the group just by checking which users or groups of users you want to receive an e-mail notification of the posted item.

You can create a new discussion by posting an initial message in the discussion board. There, you can select which members will have access to that discussion. Also, you can select which members of the discussion will receive the message in their e-mail inboxes. All members who reply to the posted topic have their messages hosted under this discussion (Figure B).

Figure B

Calendar sharing is always the most useful features of a collaboration program; eProject supports this feature and integrates it with the other modules. For example, if an approval of a document has to be sent by a certain date, this appears as a deadline in the calendar of the user who will approve it. Also, if a certain task has to be ready by a certain date, this task appears in the assignee’s calendar.

The consultants have the option to add their own appointments to this calendar. For example, if the project manager wants to schedule a meeting, he or she can check the individual calendars of the participants and then create a new entry in the calendar for the meeting. As is the case with everything in eProject, an e-mail notification can be sent to all the participants (Figure C).

Figure C

Task list
Assigning and tracking the lifecycle of tasks is an important role of a project manager. A project manager usually has a project plan in Project or Excel and assigns tasks with a deadline to the individual consultants. If the task is overdue, it becomes an issue and is tracked in the Issues list.

With eProject, a project manager can assign and track tasks online. As a first step, the project manager can import his or her existing project plan from Project 2000. After that, tasks can be assigned to users with the appropriate deadlines. The users optionally receive an e-mail notification about every task, and their calendar is updated appropriately. In the lifetime of a task, they can update the percentage-completed factor of the task. They can also automatically update their time sheets with the work hours spent on the task, using this data to bill the client. On completion of the task, a notification is sent to the project manager that the task is finished.

The Gantt chart of eProject creates a Project-like environment where the project manager can add, edit, and assign tasks. The project manager can link tasks just by dragging and dropping one task to another. Alternatively, the project manager can use the task list if he or she selects to have only simple task assignments (Figure D).

Figure D

Time sheets
eProject can also help consultants create time sheets. At the end of the day, you can go into your time sheet, select the project worked on, enter the task performed, and enter the billable and nonbillable hours worked. At the end of the week (or when the project manager has decided), you can submit the final time sheet to the project manager. The project manager maintains the submitted time sheets of all the project members and can export the time sheets to Excel for reporting and client-billing purposes.

You can then select one of the tasks you were appointed (from the task list or the Gantt chart) and update the number of hours and the percentage-completed fields in the time sheet. This updates the task list and informs the project manager if the task is finished (Figure E).

Figure E

Multiple projects, multiple clients
A Web project management tool can help us organize our projects better. It is important that such a tool is Web-based because the members of a group might not always be appointed to the same client during the project lifecycle. A project manager can handle more than one project with the same tool when all of the features integrate in a multiproject environment. This repository of files and group information is always available on the Web during the project. After the project has been completed, everything can be put on a CD to be filed away.

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