Project tools take centre stage at Comdex

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The spread of project management responsibilities throughout the enterprise calls for better tools to organize data, according to many exhibitors and experts attending Comdex Fall 2002.

There is a plethora of software applications on display at the trade show that

promise to increase user productivity. Although many of these products are clearly aimed at IT managers, several attendees said the technology must appeal to a broad base of knowledge workers who may have found themselves involved in project management for the first time.

In a panel discussion on project management Jan Sondergaard, an executive with e-business software marker Niku Corp., said many of the tools to date have included some scheduling functionality, but were difficult to use for those outside the traditional project manager discipline. To solve this problem, project managers have sometimes dumped timetable and action items into an Excel spreadsheet, which doesn’t solve the problems. “”That really creates a big mess,”” he said. “”People start making changes on their spreadsheet and you end up asking, ‘Which version of Excel do I believe?’””

On the show floor, a company called Abbyy Software House is trying to help users enter the data in the first place. Its products, which include FormReader and FineReader, have been available in Russia since the late 1980s but have only been shipping in North America since spring. Artur Vassylyev, a field engineer from Abbyy’s Toronto office, said the software allows customers to scan stacks of reports and save them to an Excel file, or export to a database. “”This is the front end of document management,”” he said, an area that is becoming an important part of effective project management.

Burnaby, B.C.-based Creo, has launched version 1.5 of Six Degrees, an application designed to track project items using an interface even more common than Excel: e-mail folders. Using a regular search bar, Six Degrees automatically connects and displays related email messages, files, and people on the desktop so that the user can quickly navigate through projects. For example, a user may have photo in a file and can’t remember why it’s needed or where it can be used. Six Degrees could run a search on that photo file to show all the e-mail messages that refer to that photo file, or simply a list of all the people who sent messages related to the photo.

“”This is really, in a way, ad-hoc project management,”” said David Schuster, Creo’s product marketing manager. “”People are spending something like 50 per cent of their time filing e-mail instead of actually reading it. This is a way around that.””

Dick Farris, president of Primavera Systems Inc. based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., said many in the industry are recognizing that tools have to move away from the “”high priests”” of project management. “”We have a lot of people doing this who aren’t project experts, and nor should they be, because the projects are smaller,”” he said, adding that technology should empower users to take more responsibility for meeting deadlines.

“”Product management succeeds when people believe they own the schedule.””

Ben Galian, a partner in Newport Beach, Conn.-based Artemis Consulting, agreed. “”I’ve run into more than my fair share of accidental project managers,”” he said, adding that tools need to come with structured management processes in order to be effective. “”Unfortunately, a lot of the PMOs (project management officers) don’t want to do the work.””

Boston-based Nobilis Software Inc. is trying to address that problem by putting technology behind the processes as well. It describes its Nobilis Ci on the show floor as a “”process writer”” that automates activities that required a high level of manual intervention. This includes financial reporting, sales or demand forecasting, budgeting, new hire approvals, and expense reporting. In a demo at the Nobilis booth, marketing director David Meiselman showed how a company could send out automatic alerts to traveling salespeople to fill out their expenses when they came back from a trip, perform automatic currency conversion from Canadian to U.S. dollars, and immediately inform the user if they had gone over budget.

“”When we looked at the kinds of processes that customers were doing, nine times out of 10 it was something manual with a spreadsheet,”” he said. “”This is a way for them to establish a best practice without having to mark it up with pretty pictures and hand it to a coder.””

Balancing the process and project management duties can be daunting for IT professionals. John Baldwin, president of The Fountain Group Consultancy, said one of his clients compared his relationship with project managers and business users to that of someone “”between a dog and a fire hydrant.”” That’s because sometimes IT people can create an application that does what it’s technically supposed to do, but doesn’t achieve the kinds of results the project team wanted. “”IT/IS projects are usually considered a failure if it fails in context, not in content,”” he said.

Comdex Fall 2002 runs until Friday.

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