A Competitive Edge In Collaborative Work

Project management tool uses Web-based collaboration to track a job's progress

Tom Liddell, vice president of operations at Medical Manager Midwest Inc., juggles about 400 projects that involve 180 people in 14 states. He keeps track of everything through Internet-based project collaboration software from Netmosphere Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif.

Netmosphere's Project Home Page and ActionPlan software products are bridges between the groupware and project management software traditionally used to link teams. Netmosphere's tools allow team members to access a central information store via an Internet interface, enabling them to work in different geographic locations.

Access to information is based on users' roles. For example, only certain people can assign tasks, but everyone can see the completed tasks list. This helps maintain corporate security.

The software relies on integration with external applications to provide the core project management and groupware features, such as Gantt charts and e-mail. In addition, because it's designed to handle multiple simultaneous projects, it has the means to resolve resource conflicts among projects, such as when one team member is assigned conflicting tasks for two projects.

Medical Manager, a South Bend, Ind., developer of software for medical offices, started out using Microsoft Project to organize its work. But Project couldn't keep up with the daily changes to the workflow, says Liddell, and consolidating all his projects into one information stream was nearly impossible. Priority tasks got lost. He found ActionPlan's HotSheet Java client software valuable because it presented individuals' tasks, their status and their deadlines.

"HotSheet gives us the ability to hold people accountable for what they're assigned to do," he says.

Netmosphere CEO Kevin Nickels says his products can help information technology departments save time, maximize resources and master complexity. These benefits are important because IT departments face a shortage of technical people, compressed business cycles and a workload weighted with large-scale initiatives such as switching to the euro currency or implementing enterprise resource planning systems.

The emergence of cross-functional teams that include everyone from senior executives to junior programmers is also driving demand for project management tools, says Nickels. "Most of the traditional views of project management are not collaborative," he says. "I've seen charts where the project manager is drawn as the center of the universe. The executives are on the outside." Netmosphere's tools allow everyone with a stake in a project to participate. "Everybody is on the team, and nobody is the overseer," he says.

Nickels says his company's products are best suited for knowledge-based projects where collaboration is key, not process-oriented projects that have rigid parameters.

Facing Competition

Real-time communication and discussions are Netmosphere's key benefits, says Matt Light, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Although the company has been an innovator in the field of project collaboration, it's still a small player, says Light. The big, established project management companies are already adding copycat features into their upgrades, he says. They may not be as fully collaborative as those in Netmosphere, but they're good enough for many organizations, so Netmosphere needs to keep innovating to maintain its advantage. Expanding into managing and analyzing requirements documents is one possible direction, he adds.

Liddell says he'd like to see improvements in reporting functionality in future releases. He wants to be able to create reports based on the type of project or geography, to see details on certain progress lines within a project and to analyze the overall project portfolio to answer questions about where employees are spending the most time and to identify areas of improvement.

But reporting features are secondary to the collaboration capabilities, says Liddell. Every project goes into ActionPlan. "It's our lifeline right now," he says. "Our whole operating structure is built around Netmosphere."

The Buzz: State of the Market

Collaborative Competition

Netmosphere has two main competitors that offer project collaboration software using Java-based thin-client architectures. It also faces competition from several project management and groupware vendors that are building collaboration capabilities into core products.

TeamCenter

Inovie Software Inc.

San Diego

www.inovie.com

TeamCenter is aimed at much the same target market as Netmosphere's products — teams that are developing products, especially in the technology arena, says Matt Light, an analyst at Gartner Group. Inovie released Version 3.0 of TeamCenter in December. New features include a document repository, a portal that gives individualized views of documents, report writers to tap the integrated SQL database, user roles and Web-based time cards.

WebProject

WebProject Inc.

San Mateo, Calif.

www.wproj.com

Like its rivals, WebProject has a portal for holding common documents for viewing by all team members, integration with Microsoft Project for Gantt-chart time lines and discussion groups for sharing ideas and hosting virtual meetings. It leans a bit more toward the traditional scheduling and tracking features than Netmosphere's products, says Light.

Other Competitors

The only competitor in the groupware arena is Notes from Lotus Development Corp. Several business partners have created project collaboration applications that use Notes as the underlying groupware engine and Domino as the Internet access piece that lets the application support distributed teams.

Primavera Systems Inc.'s TeamPlay, PlanView Inc.'s PlanView Software and ABT Corp.'s Results Management Suite are traditional project management suites that are moving into collaboration.

But the one to watch out for, says Light, is Microsoft Corp.'s Project 2000. The new release ships with a product called Project Central that adds collaboration capabilities, like browser-based access for users who don't have Project on their desktops and views of each team member's tasks on Gantt charts.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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