Project management?portal-style

Agencies that want outside help for project management, but don't want to pay high consultants fees, have a new alternative: an Internet-based project management portal.

Robbins-Gioia Inc., a management firm in Alexandria, Va., has launched PM Boulevard, an online project management tool that combines free information with a subscriber section that has additional services available for a fee.

Patricia Davis-Muffett, director of marketing for the company, said PM Boulevard was designed to fill a niche. She said most consulting contracts are between $200,000 and $1 million. Many smaller agencies and companies "wanted smaller, cheaper consultations," she said, but trying to conduct quick-hit consultant jobs would be neither cost-effective for Robbins-Gioia nor particularly useful for agencies or companies.

"We decided an e-commerce model would be an excellent solution for these folks," she said.

The PM Boulevard portal offers visitors the ability to correspond with Robbins-Gioia experts about project management and to get an assessment of the state of an agency's project management endeavors. It also offers an online training center, access to a pool of Robbins-Gioia information about project management and a bulletin board for project managers to communicate with one another.

It is a solution that other big consulting firms, such as Ernst & Young and Arthur Anderson, have turned to as well, although PM Boulevard is unique in its focus on project management. In addition, IBM Corp. recently announced that it had launched an online consulting service for electronic-commerce issues.

Online consulting, said Marianne Hedin, research manager for International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., is "a burgeoning market that is in its infancy." She described it as "the wave of the future."

"They're starting to get wind of the fact that this is something they should have discovered a long time ago," Hedin said. "Suddenly, you have IBM online doing it. So people say, 'Hey, what's going on here?' "

She said online consultants now are mostly targeting small and midsize companies. But that will change, she said, because large corporations are beginning to demand that they have access to online consulting, too.

That demand, said David Baltaxe, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc., Sterling, Va., is something consultants should be cautious about feeding.

"They're going to have to be careful how they manage that, so they still can provide high-value services without cannibalizing some of their higher-end offerings," he said.

Robbins-Gioia, which does about 60 percent of its business with the government, has applied to have PM Boulevard placed on the General Services Administration schedule, and they plan to target the federal market for the product, she said. They are waiting to see if GSA approves their application.

Davis-Muffett said the tool would probably be most useful for small agencies or for pockets within large departments, instead of being something used agencywide.

The service, which was introduced to the market in July, will cost $1,500 for one person for three months, which includes seven hours of consulting time with a Robbins-Gioia consultant. For longer contracts, people get price discounts, and they also receive, proportionally, more one-on-one time with a consultant. Subscribers to PM Boulevard gain access to the member portion of the Web site through passwords.

Davis-Muffett said that several potential clients have said they would like to integrate PM Boulevard into their company's internal intranets.

"With the way project management organizations are going - towards Web-based solutions - a lot of project management offices are trying to manage their offices through intranets," she said. "This fits in well. PM Boulevard can be an extra resource for virtual project management offices, so they don't have to have depth in every project management discipline. They can have experts on call."

Ten people work on the PM Boulevard project, she said. In addition, Robbins-Gioia has employed between 40 and 50 experts who will answer project management questions through PM Boulevard, in addition to their other responsibilities.

The so-called "Ask the Expert" service lets clients correspond with Robbins-Gioia experts about their projects, who research the questions and respond within two business days with an opinion.

The "Knowledge Center" is filled with articles and other project management information that Robbins-Gioia has been producing and filing away for 20 years.

In the assessment portion of the service, clients fill out a questionnaire about their project, which then is analyzed by experts. They respond with lists of problem areas and recommendations for how to best move forward with the project.

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