Office 2003: Is it time for your project team to upgrade?

If you're debating whether to upgrade to Office 2003, here's the information you need to help make that decision. Enhancements to Office 2003 will benefit many project teams.

Microsoft Office forms the communication backbone for many project teams by facilitating the sharing of e-mail and the creation of project documentation such as requirements documents, functional specifications, status reports, and presentations. While your organization may still be running Microsoft Office 2000 without issues, you may also be coming to the end of support contracts and/or have new requirements about how your project teams create and disseminate project information. Office 2003 may offer the solutions you need.

This article focuses on what a project team should consider when debating an upgrade to Office 2003. The new release of Office includes a number of new features that could appeal to project teams seeking an upgrade to benefit group business and work processes. You should consider upgrading to Office 2003 if you are facing a requirement to upgrade your project team’s collaboration tools, electronic communication tools (such as e-mail client and instant messaging), or the methods your project team uses to manage its information.

Collaboration with Office 2003
While many people still see e-mail as the ultimate project team collaboration tool, it has its limitations even in a managed network environment. Prior to the launch of Office 2003, Microsoft introduced SharePoint Team Services (since renamed SharePoint Services), which provides the chief collaboration platform for Office 2003 users. SharePoint Services and other collaboration tools in Office 2003 offer:
  • An online workspace for synchronizing shared documents among multiple authors, including showing changes in revision marks.
  • An online meeting workspace enabling project teams to conduct online meetings with the sharing of agendas, presentations, minutes, and other materials.
  • Document protection, enabling the assignment of specific portions of a document to a particular user, which means the user can edit only his or her assigned section of the document.
  • Integrated instant messaging to circulate quick ideas on a document shared by multiple authors.

While the collaboration tools provided in Office 2003 are no substitute for face-to-face contact among project team members, they are useful to a geographically disparate project team. SharePoint Services also gives project teams a single repository for project information that is searchable and online vs. being stored among the local hard drives and personal network accounts of the team.

Communicating with Office 2003
Some of the biggest changes in Office 2003 are in the new version of Microsoft Outlook, renamed Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, which now sports a redesigned user interface (see Figure A).

Figure A
Office 2003 includes a new Outlook user interface.

One highlight of Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 is e-mail permission control, which enables the e-mail author to choose whether the recipient can forward, print, or cut and paste information to and from an e-mail you send. Another highlight is the capability to share personal scheduling and contact information with authorized users.

Managing information with Office 2003
While ad hoc information management works fine in some organizations, the realities of today’s market may mean your team has to evolve from its ad hoc information methods to more defined and secure information management processes. Office 2003 provides new information management methods, such as:
  • Document protection, enabling the lockdown of content in company-approved document templates. You can apply this protection in either a networked corporate environment or the collaborative environment offered by SharePoint Services. Using document protection in the collaborative environment enables the assignment of document sections to particular users, meaning that assigned users can commit edits only to the sections they are assigned.
  • Enhanced rules and alerts in Office Outlook 2003, which can be integrated into collaborative document workspaces.

The information management features introduced in Office 2003 will probably cause some waves with project team members who may not conform to corporate standards in their documents, but will enable you to preserve the integrity of project artifacts through document protection. I recommend implementing the Office 2003 information management features with suitable introductory training to the team.

Microsoft Office 2003 and XML
Microsoft Office 2003 offers tighter integration with XML across all its desktop applications. The XML integration with Office 2003 provides:
  • Capability to develop your own XML schemas to work with Microsoft Office 2003 application output.
  • Better exchange of data through industry-standard XML between application and back-end databases.
  • Reuse of data.
  • Better options for customizing Office 2003 to work with corporate data.

Microsoft Office InfoPath is an XML-based forms designer that offers project teams another way to collect project and operational data (see Figure B). InfoPath includes a designer tool for designing your own XML-based forms plus a number of example forms, such as Issue Tracking, Status Report, and Meeting Agenda. Whether you opt for designing your own form or adapting one of the sample forms, you can tie the forms into a Web service, URL, or database for collecting and storing form information.

Figure B
The Microsoft Office InfoPath user interface is shown with the Status Report example open for customization.

Changing your workflow and way of working
Before upgrading your project team to Office 2003, you should consider the ramp-up time necessary for the team to become conversant in Office 2003’s collaborative features. Users are going to have to “conform” in order for the collaborative and document protection features to work effectively. You should also consider hardware and network needs for implementing SharePoint Services as well as potential changes in your project team’s workflow.

To upgrade or not to upgrade?
Looking past the arguments that Microsoft Office is a cash cow for Microsoft, this new version of Office does offer some compelling elements in the areas of collaboration, communications, and XML integration that can benefit a project team. In fact, I see Office 2003 as the first Office suite for the project team—rather than for the individual user—with so many workgroup-level features included in this release.

The strongest arguments for an upgrade center on collaboration, communications, and XML integration. However, if your project team doesn’t have needs in these areas, then it might just be prudent for you to put off an upgrade to Office 2003.


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