Good Ol Project Days

Project management systems ain't what they used to be (thank goodness).

All this talk nowadays about 10-year anniversaries has got me thinking back to 1995 and those halcyon prebubble days, although Im not thinking about Windows 95 or "Start Me Up." Nope, Im thinking about a fresh-faced young whippersnapper and the products he was reviewing then, in his sophomore year as a PC Week Labs analyst.

As you may have guessed, Im talking about myself. Back in the last millennium, I covered a lot of technology areas for PC Week (now, of course, eWEEK). But one beat stands out among the many I covered—not because it doesnt exist anymore or because it was groundbreaking, but because it has changed so much as to be hardly recognizable anymore. Project management.

Some of you younguns who fancy yourselves project managers may think you know what project management is. But I reckon if I got 10 of you in a room, I couldnt get you all to agree on a definition or on the products you would use to handle project management.

This wasnt a problem back in my day, when you knew a project management application when you saw it. It had hierarchical views of tasks, a main Gantt chart view for the projects, maybe a PERT chart view, and good reporting capabilities. If it had anything in the way of groupware, it was an e-mail link, and there was no reason to be linking up or "integrating" the project management application with other applications.

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Nowadays, though, its hard to even tell a project management application when you see it, what with all the newfangled "alternative" ideas. Why, some of the solutions that businesses are using now for project management tasks dont even call themselves project management. Theyre known as process or portfolio management, knowledge management, or portals. Even collaboration systems and groupware claim to do project management.

Many of the project management products I reviewed back in my salad days are gone now. Some are still around, although they have been changed to try to appeal more to the new ways of working. But the writing is on the wall for project management.

Even the big dog of the whole category, Microsoft Project, has seen better days. Sure, theres a Project 2003 and even a Project Server for collaboration. But during several meetings with, and in many presentations from, Microsoft during the past couple of years, company reps hardly ever mentioned Project when talking about project management. Instead, they talked about the SharePoint platform and the advanced collaboration features in Office.

I guess I shouldnt dwell too much on the past. As is often the case, the new ways are probably for the best. And when you think of it, the project management of old was pretty limiting, with companies expected to use the same system for everything from developing software to managing processes to building widgets. Now, systems that best fit the jobs at hand can be used to manage them.

Doing a project that requires lots of human collaboration? A portal-based system with robust workflow and collaboration not only centralizes all your work but also makes sure it is up-to-date and seamlessly integrated with affected systems. Need to handle procurement and other process-oriented tasks? Theres a whole category of BPM (business process management) systems that offer a level of project management.

And because these modern systems are based on standards and common systems such as XML, Java and .Net, they can be easily integrated with other key systems and customized to meet companies specific needs.

Yeah, the choices and capabilities are better these days. Of course, this means a lot more work for companies looking into project management. Now you must know your specific needs, look through a whole host of diverse possible solutions and make sure you choose one that not only meets your needs now but will meet your future project needs as well.

It sure was easier when a project manager was just a project manager. But, while Ill always remember classic project management tools and my early experiences with them, Ill be happy if I never see another Gantt chart.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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