Pushing project management to the collaborative Web

Demo Fall 2008: New apps promise better control, communication across groups

The increased use of the Web for collaborative activities, from music sharing to restaurant recommendations, is beginning to creep into business for useful things. At the Demo Fall 2008 conference in San Diego, several companies demonstrated collaboration systems for project management designed for workgroups of various sizes.

All were under development, so the final quality of these applications is unknown. Still, they showed possible options for Internet-delivered project management tools that could be useful both within IT and across the business.

[ Demo Fall 2008 focused much attention on Web collaboration, but there are signs that the Web 2.0 trend has peaked, as Galen Gruman reports. | See all of InfoWorld's Demo coverage in our special report. ]

Online collaboration from soup to nuts
The broadest in scope was Qtask, founded by serial entrepreneur Reichart von Wolfsheild. Qtask provides a hosted application for managing not just work products, such as Word files, project code, and Excel spreadsheets, but also for assigning people tasks, tracking their progress, managing approval, and coordinating the chain of ownership as projects go through the various experts who need to work in it. The app has several roles, including that of a watcher, which lets executives and others track a project without being the direct manager. And every action -- from who worked on what when to who last read a file -- is tracked. The goal is universal visibility, for both accountability and easier ability to adjust the project based on its actual state.

Qtask also manages the communication across team members so the discussions, e-mails, and so on remain available to all participants, as well as for use later on, such as when starting up a similar project. It does not integrate with e-mail systems like Exchange and Lotus Notes, other than being able to send and receive messages via POP or IMAP. The assumption is that people work on and communicate about their projects within the system, not use Qtask as merely a tracking tool.

Von Wolfsheild noted that the repository of communications associated with each project also lets new team members have the discussions history available to get up to speed faster. Because the communication and various versions of the work products are stored, he said, companies could recover more easily if a contractor decided to pull out mid-project because the contractor couldn't take its work with it.

One focus on wikis, another on documents
At a simpler level of project management were PlanDone and Doc Center, both subscription-based, Web-hosted services like Qtask. PlanDone's wiki-based app focuses on project management and scheduling. Like traditional project management tools, it lets you assign projects, assign schedules, and track progress. But its claim to potential fame is its integration of instant messaging and other communications into the project repository. That approach retains the conversations around the project development itself so that context is available to all, as in a wiki, says A.J. Wacaser, PlanDone's president -- unlike traditional IM, the messages aren't transitory.

PlanDone also uses predictive capabilities to suggest individual workers' priorities in order to orchestrate the schedule to increase the chances of meeting the overall project deadlines and to show where each task within a project stands. Likewise, the app shows where individuals stand on each task, which can help managers know who might be freed up for an unexpected project, who might need more help, or where a project bottleneck exists.

Doc Center's DocLanding focuses on documents. You create repositories called points that you can then open up to other users at varying levels of control. For example, you could give clients the ability to review and comment on documents (for which you can black out material you don’t want to share). But you can go further than that and let different points overlap, so different teams can collaborate on a set of documents "owned" by one point. Todd Fishback, Doc Center's president, says this allows cross-team and even cross-organizational collaboration when useful while retaining control over permissions and versioning.

Governing the chaos of SharePoint proliferation
As Microsoft SharePoint gains popularity, internal SharePoint sites mushroom. That creates chaos as to where the "official" version of a document actually resides, versus the various versions stored at other SharePoint sites. And it can cause compliance and security issues because SharePoint sites often aren't managed for access control.

Enterprise Informatics' eB for SharePoint claims to let the business reassert control over SharePoint sites and their contents via policies, while letting users continue to deploy SharePoint sites for their project collaboration. "eB treats the SharePoint sites as a configuration problem," says Rick Berzie, the company's marketing director. So, as a "master" document moves or is copied throughout SharePoint sites, eB detects and tracks the versions, then can ensure all use the same one and that only people who should have access to it in fact do. Enterprise Informatics has long offered enterprise information management tools, and it sees eB as applying the governance of EIM to the ad hoc collaboration of SharePoint.

Help for MSPs' Windows management
Most large organizations have an internal or outsourced help desk to manage PCs, tracking inventory, configuration, and status. But most small businesses don't really manage their PCs, and some hire managed service providers -- usually small shops of a few IT people supporting a few dozen to a few hundred client PCs -- to do it for them. Paragent MSP gives such MSPs a tool to monitor its clients' PCs, tapping into WMI (the native Windows Management Instrumentation API) so they can see, for example, if a PC has a free memory slot to support RAM for a Windows Vista installation. MSPs pay an annual fee of $8 per PC being monitored.

The service includes remote management capabilities based on VNC that let the MSP bypass firewall and other access barriers, so they can more easily troubleshoot user systems, says chairman Jeff Ready.