Project management heads uptown

Project software builds its bread-and-butter scheduling and budgeting into a critical role

This guide is supposed to be about project management software, but it isn't really. How could it be?

The category began decades ago as an electronic version of construction managers' tedious, timeline-like Gantt charts and budget spreadsheets. But in recent years it has evolved far beyond the desktop to become just one, albeit vital, tool among many now used to capture the risks and rewards of projects, portfolios and entire programs.

The interesting action, in fact, has not been in the project management software itself, but in the other enterprise tools.

Vendors admit that the technology of basic project management has been pretty much settled for years, and within the category, Microsoft Project dominates, years ago becoming the de facto standard desktop and small-workgroup project tool. So vendors have focused instead on developing features'such as team Web portals, document repositories, and workflows'for managing and analyzing multiple projects. This catwalk-level view is often called enterprise project-management (EPM).

The bird's-eye view is found in project portfolio management (PPM) software, also called portfolio management and, less frequently, enterprise portfolio analysis. It is often said that such software, geared to nontechnical executives but usually shared with all stakeholders, helps users decide what to do, not how to do it'the province of project management.

Portfolio management pulls together cost and revenue numbers'not just from project management, but from other sources such as human resources and enterprise resource planning software'to present an analysis of projects grouped in portfolios.

A handful of vendors, notably ProSight Inc. and Metier Ltd., focus exclusively on portfolio management, relying on third-party software for project-level data. A few others, such as Pacific Edge Software, sell their own enterprise project and resource management modules as part of a broader portfolio management line.

Many long-standing project management vendors, such as Artemis International Solutions Corp., Niku Corp., PlanView Inc., Primavera Systems Inc. and Welcom, have added portfolio management features to their legacy tools or come out with entire new portfolio management programs. And ERP giants Oracle Corp. and SAP America Inc. offer project management applications that run on top of their platforms.

Aligning business and IT goals

Tying project data to agencywide financial- and resource-planning tools allows the kind of alignment of IT and business goals that is called for in recent federal initiatives, such as the President's Management Agenda and the Federal Enterprise Architecture.

Some vendors explicitly support related budgetary reporting requirements, such as those specified in the Office of Management and Budget's Exhibit 300.

Many also tout support for ANSI/EAI 748, a standard adopted by the Defense Department for applying earned-value management systems to government programs and projects. Earned-value management or analysis is a method for assigning dollar values to planned and completed work, and is regarded as a decent early-warning system of problems in a project.

In the corporate world, IT governance'or governance in general'is the hot buzzword for portfolio management and project management software vendors, as public companies struggle to meet the post-Enron accounting requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Project management software also is frequently sold in packages tweaked for key vertical businesses, such as the engineering, construction, aerospace and defense industries, but increasingly for newer business tasks such as new product development and professional services automation.

The accompanying chart includes both desktop and enterprise project management tools, as well as offerings from portfolio management vendors. Not shown are programs, such as Web portals, that rely on a separate product for their basic project-management functions.

I have also omitted purely Web-based software such as Project.net and Eproject, which, though worthwhile and surprisingly robust, do not appear to have much traction in government.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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