As consultants or IT providers to end user organizations, it sometimes seems that the old adage about the cobbler’s children having no shoes applies to the way that we manage our own application needs. Informal or ad-hoc methods of managing projects are no longer acceptable to project sponsors and management. Qualitative and measurable expectations for measuring systems development have become popular, using industry standard estimating and software quality methodologies. If you are a software development project manager, the key to managing your projects better is to review your current PMIS capabilities and assess the ability of a collaborative tool, like Microsoft’s SharePoint, to address the technical aspects of managing projects.
As defined by the Project Management Institute, a PMIS is a standardized set of automated project management tools available within an organization and integrated into a system. In a perfect world, a PMIS will solve every project manager’s nightmare: project information distributed in multiple locations and versions; status reports in e-mail; project schedules in a USB drive; forms and templates in the network share without traceability, audit trail or version control. In addition, a PMIS should support most, if not all, of the communication and collaboration needs of a project environment. Though the PMI does not specify which tools to use, SharePoint can be customized to meet the communication and collaboration needs of a project environment.
SharePoint’s goal is to allow individuals in (or connected to) an organization the capability to create and manage their own collaborative websites. SharePoint users don’t have to be technically savvy. They just need basic Windows and Microsoft Office skills and know how to use a browser. Any individual with appropriate permissions can create, customize and manage sites. SharePoint has evolved since its initial release in 2001 to become a foundational technology. The latest version is SharePoint 2010. This blog covers the SharePoint 2007 version. View a comparison between the editions. The “free” component is known as SharePoint Foundation 2010 (Windows SharePoint Services – WSS 3.0 in SharePoint 2007). This version gives you all the capabilities for document management, sharing and collaboration that is needed for a PMIS. The SharePoint Server product can be viewed as an add-on to provide more advanced features.
The key PMIS objectives that SharePoint can meet are:
- Centralize Project Information – e.g. project contacts, calendars, task lists, resource lists, documents, templates, forms and checklists.
- Facilitate Team Communication and Collaboration – including scheduling meetings, project announcements, jointly developing proposals and requirements, change requests and informally brainstorming project strategies.
- Streamline Project Reporting – by simplifying project tracking and status reporting.
SharePoint provides Lists and Document Libraries. Lists are mainly used for storing information. You can create custom lists, where you decide the columns, their sequence and positioning with flexible ways to present and upload or download the list. Documents and Libraries are the main repository for organizing documents in SharePoint, allowing you to arrange them in hierarchies and customize the columns that the documents can be tagged or categorized by. SharePoint makes it easy to mass upload documents and then add project specific columns that can be used to group and filter the view. Document contents in SharePoint projects can be indexed and accessed via the SharePoint Server search.
Ensure Project Document Integrity
SharePoint’s greatest benefit is to empower the PM’s ability to present the right data at the right time to the right audience. Some SharePoint features that can help the PM achive this are:
Document Versioning. SharePoint’s Document Library allows you to setup versioning, with major and minor revisions supported. This is useful for project requirements and project plans that will be reviewed and revised. Comments can be added when each version is saved. You can review the version history for tracking and recovery purposes.
Using the check-out/check-in feature, a document can be checked out from a document library, thus preventing changes by other users until the document is checked back in. Even when checked back in, the locks can be retained, and other users can check out that document in view-only mode. The check-out/check-in feature helps to protect document integrity, which is critical in any project.
The Content Approval feature prevents users (other than the content contributer/author) from viewing documents until they have been approved by an “approver”. The content contributer will be notified whether the content was approved, rejected or is still in a pending state. Approvals can be delegated by creating a special permission level and associating it with the document library. Sharepoint has standard permissions such as : Full Control, Contribute, Read Only and None. Rights can be inherited from the parent or overridden at a specific level in the site.
Automating with Workflow provides the capability to automate human-based approval processes. In a PMIS, the built-in three-state workflow can be used to automate the change control approval process. It enables collaboration by automating the movement or list items through a specific sequence of actions. Three state workflow is available in the SharePoint Foundation “free” version and there are additional workflow events available in SharePoint Server/MOSS. By creating a custom column in a document library called CR Status, a Change Request Review and Approval procedure can be created. The procedure caters for sending notifications to the approver when a document has reached the correct status, and then updating the workflow settings to the next status and status action.
Facilitating Team Communication and Collaboration
SharePoint has incorporated web based tools to provide collaborative activities such as brainstorming, sharing lessons learned and continuous process improvement. Project teams can use wikis, discussion boards, document workspaces, and meeting workspaces.
A wiki is a site where visitors can easily add, edit and remove content, and put it into a structure that can be easily searched and cross-referenced. Software coding and help text standards, user testing rules and other descriptive and prescriptive based content can be organized and accessed in the wiki.
A discussion board enables asynchronous or offline communication, with the advantage that all members can view and participate in the postings. A discussion board can be useful in establishing the cutoff for a software release, where the deployment builder will start a post, and all developers can specify the development tasks they would like to include in that specific build.
A document workspace is a temporary work area where documents can be placed. Specific authorities control access to the workspace. Microsoft Office applications have a Publish -> Create Document Workspace to enable easy setup of these temporary work areas. This is useful for very early versions of documents that need to be worked on in order to become ready for publication as an official project document.
A meeting workspace is a temporary central location for meeting documents. Without SharePoint, meeting documents are usually sent via email and become out of date and disconnected from other meeting documents. The meeting workspace will send out invitations with a link to the meeting workspace location, which allows meeting organizers to manage the documents centrally with appropriate security (which is impossible with email attachments). After the meeting the documents can be updated based on the meeting action items.
Streamline Project Reporting
SharePoint ‘s presentation for different users is configurable using themes and a customized home page. For a project sponsor or executive, the home page can show highly configurable lists, containing project tasks and project risks. A list can be presented as a GANNT view (like MS Project), or a datasheet, or a calendar view. This allows you to present a project plan graphically to management, based on the information needs of the decision maker. Custom views can then be applied personalized queries and reports.
SharePoint Alerts provide a convenient way to send email notifications about project information status based on specific criteria and frequency. Alerts can be applied to monitor changes in both lists and document folders.
Management Dashboards are an interactive summary that consolidates, aggregates and arranges project measurements, such as schedules and budget tracking. The dashboard is displayed on a single screen with drill down facilities, so that key performance indicators can be monitored at a glance. The US Federal Government’s Stimulus Spending Tracking website uses SharePoint 2007 with drill-down dashboards to allow transparency in how stimulus funds are allocated to federally funded projects.
Dashboards are created using web parts, which are customizable software components, that are added on a page. Without any programming they provide features like :
- Displaying graphical or chart-based representations of high-level project information
- Allowing external information from other systems
Web parts can be created using Microsoft SharePoint Designer, Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, LANSA Open for .NET and other tools. The picture above shows a Sharepoint 2010 home page mashup containing web parts built using LANSA Open for .NET for dashboard graphs and transactional data from backend systems. There are a large number of web parts available as freeware or commercial products. Other ways of integrating with line of business data are with Microsoft’s Business Data Catalog (BDC) or tools like MashPoint .
Knowing that SharePoint has the capability to generate dashboards, it is critical to identify what types of project information will be required by a specific stakeholder. If a project sponsor or customer requires high-level schedule or budget information, you want to ensure that you have the appropriate source data lists in SharePoint.
Getting Started with Sharepoint
A PMIS should be configured to fit your organization’s processes, as well as the type of project. SharePoint allows you to save a site structure as a template that future project sites can be based on. So, varied projects can have their own layout, collaboration and reporting style. SharePoint comes shipped with some useful site templates.
A pilot project is an effective way to sell the benefits to stakeholders, especially when compared to existing tools and processes. The pilot adopters can then act as internal supporters and provide user support within the organization in learning, adapting and improving the utilization of SharePoint as both a PMIS tool and as an organizational tool across the enterprise. Like in any project, provide a way for your users to give feedback about the PMIS. Allow them to provide comments on the usefulness of the PMIS, components that could be enhanced or should be removed.
Sharepoint will not replace a project methodology, hands-on management and human communication. However, SharePoint (even WSS alone) is a great platform on which to build your project management infrastructure. It addresses the difficult task of making sure project information and updates are transferred and received effectively by all appropriate team members, so that required actions can be taken.
You can accomplish a very practical and effective way to manage projects using SharePoint as a tool. Windows SharePoint Services (which is free) or the Standard version of MOSS should get you started effectively. Following your project methodology, using SharePoint as the PMIS Repository, will ensure you get the time to refocus your energies on the actual project deliverables.