Managing Projects Online

Web-based project management is coming to a university near you - maybe even your own.

Many colleges and universities are using it, most have heard of it, and nearly everyone wants to learn more about it.

What is it? Web-based project management (WBPM). This aspect of the unceasing e-business revolution allows schools and universities to establish a site on the Internet for online sharing of programming documents, CAD drawings, budgets, schedules, approvals, punch lists, memos, databases and all pertinent project information.

And if the trends are correct, it will soon be coming to a university near you. At this summer's annual meeting of the Association of University Architects in Chicago, an informal survey found that 85 percent of the university architects had heard of WBPM, and 15 percent were using some sort of WBPM system.

More important, almost all participants said they wanted to learn about this growing technological communications tool.

Taking advantage of the pervasiveness of Internet connections, WBPM systems store project information online and allow project team members with pre-approved status to have controlled access to the information. Clients can directly monitor the status of projects, and systematic recording of communications is possible.

For example, a university can ask for responses to a Request For Information (RFI) response by a certain date. If the RFI deadline is pending and there has been no response, an automatic reminder can be sent to non-responders. If there is no RFI response by the requested date, an electronic record remains indicating tardiness.

If a project budget has been revised, the system can send an e-mail about the change to all project members with authority to view budget numbers. Perhaps most important, a WBPM allows clients to easily monitor all critical elements of the project's development. Images can be posted to show construction progress. Any type of information that can be transferred electronically can be stored at the host server and shared.

Off the shelf At a basic level, there are two approaches to establishing a WBPM system. A college can develop a system in-house or it can use a system developed by an independent software vendor.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has developed a program in-house that is based on Lotus Notes, while Indiana University is using an off-the-shelf WBPM system.

"We wanted to address the limitations of traditional communication," says Theresa Thompson, manager of graphic information/FIMS at the Indiana University Architect's office and the Bureau of Facilities Programming and Utilization.

Thompson says a key element in establishing a WBPM system was providing increased customer service to the University departments her team serves.

The deciding factor in Indiana University's choice of a WBPM system was the speed of establishing the system. That turned out to be a vendor-supplied program that was hosted externally.

"Within one week we were set up and running with information for two projects," says Thompson. "We had about 50 people with access to the system and the training necessary to get them started."

Thompson says the user-friendly interface makes the software easy to use. Indiana University now has six projects of various sizes on the program and more than 150 people were using the system as of October.

"There are WBPM programs that provide more detailed tools, but we find (this program) effectively meets our current needs and is easily learned by the new clients and contractors," says Thompson.

Centralizing information facilitates collaboration and frees up staff members for other assignments.

"We no longer have to broker information," says Thompson. "We spend our time setting up the next project instead of providing contact information and copying documents for project team members."

Do it yourself For its project-management system, the Office for Capital Programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed its own proprietary system, says Clif Carey, deputy campus architect in the office for project planning and facility management.

The system, which uses Lotus Notes/Domino, a web-enabled software program, is called PRZM and is intended to provide comprehensive supervision of quality, schedules and costs.

Projects at the University of Illinois follow six key phases: conceptualization, architect/engineer selection, design, bid and award, construction and warranty. Two pilot projects are using the PRZM warranty phase to test the system. (An overview of PRZM can be seen at www.ocp.uillinois.edu/projects/PRZMntro/Default.htm.)

A combination of in-house staff and outsourced providers are responsible for training on the system. Eventually, online classes will be available to supplement the training.

Web-based project-management sites are all about communication and productivity. More than 25 percent of project time is lost tracking down and distributing information, and communicating changes. WBPM systems that can help recover this lost time are critical to improving project delivery.

A properly established WBPM acts as a virtual filing cabinet. It will:

- Reduce document distribution costs.

- Automatically notify team members about new information.

- Automatically log user activities.

- Archive information.

- Control team-member access rights.

- Provide the tools needed to review documents and drawings.

WBPM systems offer other benefits. With the better systems that use detail logging and archive functions, the ultimate benefit is accountability. This is especially important for successful project management on large projects.

WBPM systems reduce risk when it comes to identifying possible snags that throw a project off schedule. Universities want a quick schedule and expect that all players will meet deadlines, but this is not a perfect world. A university may be able to hold a delaying party accountable and pass the cost of delay onto the guilty party, but the adverse impact on the project remains. WBPM systems allow us to see potential problems with a consultant or issue before impact.

Among the key issues to consider when reviewing a WBPM: ease of graphical navigation; security (who gets in, and who sees what information); a pre-established organization that reflects your project structure; and the ability to customize the look and feel of the program.

Training can be simple, depending on the graphic interface and the program logic. Many of the systems available have intuitive graphic presentations that allow team members to get up to speed quickly.Training is necessary because for most people, this is a new process of working. Initially, the process may seem a little odd, but the benefits are quickly realized.

ROI (Return on Investment) is another tricky area. Schools unfamiliar with these systems must be taken through a cost model in order to understand actual savings. In recovery of reimbursables alone, the system often pays for itself. Another lasting benefit is that at the end of the project, the university walks away with all the necessary project data.

In order to justify the time and money spent establishing a WBPM system, an estimate of cost savings will be required. On a $10 million project, for instance, you can save almost $100,000 by properly using a WBPM system.

Web-based project-management systems come in three basic forms:

- Internally developed sites.

- A monthly service.

- Sites created with software purchased off-the-shelf.

Internal site development uses standard HTML web pages that can be written directly or through web-page development tools. This option can be either a simple, static website or a more full-featured, dynamic website.

The advantages of a static site are its relatively low cost and the developer's control over the site's content and appearance. Also, a project management site can be integrated into a company's overall website. The disadvantage of this type of site is the difficulty of keeping the site updated. This diminishes the collaborative advantages these types of sites should provide.

With a full-featured, dynamic website, a company can create a customized site with only the features that it wants. The downside is the high cost of developing and maintaining these sites. With the availability of high-quality monthly services and off-the-shelf software, it makes little sense for companies to develop their own sites.

Using a monthly service, a project team can get a full-featured, dynamic project website without the upfront cost or technical expertise required for an internally developed site. The service providers typically charge a startup fee, a monthly service fee, training fees and disk-space-usage fees. Using a service allows a site to be established quickly without a major commitment to hardware or software purchases. However, costs for hosting multiple projects could be expensive, especially if a school has many projects. Also, very little customization is available.

If a company opts against selecting a monthly service, it must decide where to host the website. It could host the system in-house, which requires a highly equipped technical facility and staff, or it can use an Internet Service Provider (ISP). An ISP offers less direct control of a site, but can provide an affordable solution.

The basic costs for ISP hosting range from $200 to $300 per month. Bringing a system in-house would cost $5,000 to $10,000 in equipment costs and $10,000 to $50,000 a year in administrative costs, depending on the number and complexity of the sites you are hosting.

Whether investigating an outsourced website or considering an in-house system, schools should conduct a thorough cost analysis to stay on top of the constantly evolving price structure of the software and hardware options.

Some of the project-management systems that are the easiest to use and the most user-friendly are not necessarily the most expensive. Features with elaborate viewer and redline mechanisms, for instance, actually are used rarely among the players on the team, while documentation features that are genuine timesavers often get overlooked.

Being able to get at project information from any web browser is quickly becoming the industry standard. Schools and universities increasingly are more sophisticated about how their projects are managed. They want to know about problems (forecasts of budget overruns) sooner rather then later.

Two new technical advancements are quickly changing the landscape. Contractors are accepting e-mail as the new mode of communication. Telephone bandwidth is being improved to make communicating over phone lines a reality.

To help you evaluate WBPM systems, consider these factors:

- Software industry alignments.

- Partners.

- Enterprise-level software.

- Is it fully integrated with CAD/redline capability?

- Customization of folders.

- Cost of archiving/documentation/activity logs.

- ODBC Compliant.

- Is special software required by all users?

- Automatic cross reference of all messages.

- Future changes expected.

- Can it import/export from accounting software?

- Current users.

- Initial cost to set up.

- Cost per project.

- Cost per seat.

- Cost per month.

- Cost to archive on CD.

Following are some vendors who provide software to assist with web-based project management.

- ActiveProject - www.activeproject.com

- Bidcom - www.bidcom.com

- Bricsnet - www.bricsnet.com

- Buzzsaw - www.buzzsaw.com

- ProjectNet - www.cephren.com

- Constructware - www.constructware.com

- e-Builder - www.e-builder.com

- Prolog - www.mps.com

- ProjectWise - www.projectwise.com

- ViaNovus - www.vianovus.com

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