Using the Web for project collaboration

Consultants who form virtual project teams know that communication and coordination are two major challenges when team members are dispersed. Rick Freedman reviews two Web-based project collaboration tools that can help make virtual projects a reality.

Running a one-person consulting shop has many benefits, including the ability to build targeted “virtual teams” made up of the most qualified individuals for each project. But these virtual teams also present a number of challenges when team members are working miles apart. Project coordination and communication with team members is essential in order to deliver quality results to the client. Without proper coordination and timely communication between team members, client issues that should be addressed immediately can drag on for days. Meanwhile, the issue is deteriorating, and the client’s level of satisfaction is dropping quickly.

While it’s a pleasure to work with great team members who bring strong skills and great customer relationships to the table, the coordination of complex deliverables and schedules can be a real pain. Who committed to deliver what? When was that meeting scheduled? Where are those agendas, minutes, notes, and proposals?

Web-based project collaboration tools can solve many of these problems by providing a central repository for project information and status reports. I’ve researched the online pay-as-you-go project collaboration tools that consultants can use to facilitate the coordination and management of virtual projects. I’ll look at two offerings and help IT consultants decide which solution is the best fit for managing dispersed project teams.

OnProject helps virtual teams work together, apart
The project collaboration Web sites I looked at have many features in common, such as shared calendars, project folders, and discussion forums. OnProject targets shared project management only and offers a complete set of tools and work areas that enable virtual project management.

The site’s tag line is “Working together, apart,” and it’s nicely designed for that purpose. Once you’ve signed on and gotten an account, you’re presented with a control panel that displays your projects, tasks, and communications in a neatly organized way. This is your personal project home page within the OnProject application, and it acts as a dashboard for quickly jumping from project to project and for getting a quick view of open project items and “hot tasks” that require immediate attention.

A series of icons represents your active projects, tasks, files, and discussions. From there, you can drill down to get more detail and access the source documents for further investigation. Selecting the projects icon, for example, allows you to view, add, modify, and update projects and their status.

The project area offers some great capabilities, including a project creation dialog to collect pertinent project data such as name, start and finish date, budget, and resources. You can color code each project and create secure membership lists so project information is available only to authorized viewers. E-mail notification is easily configured so that anyone with an e-mail address can become part of your team. Once a project has been created, a menu bar pops up with a series of icons that allow the creation of tasks, resources, memos, and calendar entries. Every icon leads you to a well-designed input screen that collects the pertinent data and updates the project.

On the downside, OnProject’s discussion feature is fairly rudimentary, resembling the discussion threads on many first-generation Web sites. The reports and entry fields are predefined and are not user configurable, so you’re stuck with what’s provided. I’m currently using this site with some partners to manage a project, and it works quite well. At $50 a month for up to 20 users, it’s certainly a bargain.

ERoom is ideal for multiple, diverse, and highly complex projects
If OnProject is the Chevrolet of Web-based project collaboration, ERoom is the Cadillac. And it’s priced like a Cadillac; compared with OnProject’s fee, ERoom’s monthly fee of $249 for up to 10 users and $599 for up to 40 users is designed for big-budget projects that can carry this type of overhead or for larger organizations that can afford it.

ERoom is more of an extensible collaborative environment, and, while it offers some very complete templates for project management, the site also has environments for performing other collaborative tasks such as product development, human resources recruiting campaigns, and customer user group forums.

For those projects that need ERoom’s added benefits, the value definitely justifies the price. Flexible, extensible, and elegant, ERoom is more of a configurable Web workspace than a project team room. Used by firms such as Ford, EDS, HP, and Deloitte Consulting, ERoom has the ability—through the use of templates and an application development environment—to be significantly extended and enhanced to fit the requirements of any kind of collaborative organization.

ERoom is designed as both a hosted application accessible over the Web and as a packaged application that can be deployed over an intranet. ERoom is in competition with products like Lotus’ SameTime, an enterprise collaboration environment based on Notes.

Check out the series of preconfigured ERooms that do a great job of displaying the features and functions of the environment. Rooms designed for everything from recruiting to proposal development to IT application rollout are tailored for each of those specific project types through the use of customized templates. Once you’ve registered as an ERoom customer, you’re led through the creation of a collaborative room and asked to select one of the templates.

While OnProject offers only a predefined menu bar, ERoom lets users set up a series of icons to represent their preferences for the project workflow. Users can insert elements such as a “Start Here” project orientation document, a methodology flowchart to guide the team through the project life cycle, and a links section so that the client’s homepage, and other external Web sites, can be directly accessed from within the project room. The ERoom environment is vibrant compared with the relatively static capabilities of OnProject. ERoom’s advantages in this area include database support, programming support for external applications such as databases and word processors, and enhanced discussion areas with features such as polling and voting.

Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both published by Jossey Bass. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies, Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

How does your virtual team manage projects? Is a hosted application like ERoom or OnProject used? Post a comment below or send us a note.

About Rick Freedman

Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile...

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