Project management for the enterprise

The focus of the new release of Microsoft Corp. Project 2003 is clearly on the enterprise. For starters, new tools and features let managers draw from resources enterprisewide to meet project demands. And a reworked version of the company's Project Web Access — available through the Enterprise Project Management Solution — gives everyone the ability to view project details and contribute to the process through a Web browser.

I was also impressed with Project 2003's tight integration with the entire line of Microsoft Office products, which facilitates the movement of data among applications.

The Project 2003 family actually comprises three products: Enterprise Project Management Solution, Project Professional Edition and Project Server.

The standard edition is the most basic version of Project. Most improvements show up in the user interface. Microsoft officials have gone to great lengths to allow users of all Office 2003 products to take advantage of external resources, such as the Microsoft Office Online Web site. Of course, that means you'll need an Internet connection to get the full benefit of new templates and updates and to contact other users.

Many usability improvements target the user. The first thing you notice after starting the program is a new pane on the lefthand side of the window. It defaults to Getting Started and includes links for Microsoft Office Online, getting the latest news about Project, a search box and buttons to open or create a new project. Other panes include Search Results, Help, New Project and Shared Workspace.

The company offers a number of resources to help users get started, including online interactive training. I found the "Dig deeper into scheduling" course to be a good introduction for anyone unfamiliar with Project's basic functions. There's also a handy quick-reference card that summarizes the concepts covered in the lessons.

Four new menu items titled Tasks, Resources, Track and Report contain lists

of common functions needed for basic project management. Selecting Define the Project from the Tasks menu starts a wizard with detailed step-by-step instructions in the Project Guide pane on how to start a project. Each successive item in the

menu follows the order of typical tasks you would need to accomplish to completely define your project.

Project Professional 2003 includes a new Project Data Service with multiple application program interfaces (APIs) to make it easier to integrate with existing enterprise data. Project Data Service uses Extensible Markup Language and Simple Object Access Protocol for all communications and secure access. These features give information technology development staff new options for customizing Project to meet specific needs.

Finally, if you want to collaborate with other team members, you'll want to incorporate Microsoft Project Server 2003. When integrated with other Microsoft server technologies — including SharePoint Services — Project Server allows users to access the system via the Web, standardize project management processes enterprisewide, and view and manage resources enterprisewide.

In short, you can begin with simple stand-alone project management tools available in Project Standard and work your way up as needed to a fully functional, enterprisewide workgroup project management solution that is tightly integrated with Office and, potentially, other third-party tools.

Time entry, for example, is one of the biggest integration challenges for most high-end project management tools. Most organizations use some sort of standardized employee timekeeping application tied into payroll functions. Project Web Access includes a timesheet API, making it possible to integrate with third-party timekeeping software. There's also a way to add a menu item to the Project Web Access user interface to make it easier to get to the external application.

The Project add-in for Microsoft Outlook makes it possible to view and update project-related tasks in Outlook. By default, you have to manually import task

assignments into an Outlook calendar from Project Web Access. It is possible, however, to configure Outlook to automatically import and update at a specified interval.

Office integration also includes Visio 2003 for importing dates and tasks into a Visio drawing. Any graphic created in Project can be imported into Visio for further annotation or enhancement. Additional functionality in the form of downloadable Visio add-ins makes it possible to create organizational charts based on a Project work breakdown structure.

One of the most improved areas of Project 2003 is its graphical information display. Of particular interest are the resource information charts that show in graphical and tabular form the availability of resources enterprisewide. Previous versions allowed you to get at some of the same information, but it was typically based on a subset of the enterprise's projects. Creating summary charts across all projects in a large organization helps to put the big picture in a form suitable for presentation to managers.

The updated and greatly improved Project Web Access makes it possible to perform the vast majority of project management tasks without leaving your Web browser.

Many of the complaints about the previous version — such as a lack of printing support — have been addressed. What's more, adding the ability to create ad hoc queries and print the same type of reports that you can get from the full product make Project Web Access a real contender for all but the most hard-core project planners.

Although Project 2003's project management tools don't set it apart from

other, higher-end programs, its integration with the Microsoft Office suite will appeal greatly to agencies and departments that use Office tools.

Ferrill is a freelance writer in Lancaster, Calif. He has been using and writing about computers and software for more than 15 years. He can be reached at Paul.Ferrill@verizon.net.

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