Do not overlook the possibilities of project management software

Project management may not be the most glamorous software category, but it benefits
from automation every bit as much as word processing or accounting.


Over the years, I've used project management programs to plan everything from an office
move to a construction project. I've also used it to do research and write books.


If you've ever tried to balance resources to complete a complex project, I don't have
to tell you how hard it can be to invest enough attention in the right places at the right
time. Yet many potential users don't understand how project management software helps with
this mind-bending chore.


Resources are the materials, worker hours, vehicles, outside vendors and other
consumables you draw on. No matter how many are available to you, a project will always
require trade-offs in assigning them.


Ideally, no part of the project should get more or less than is necessary to complete
it in a timely, efficient way.


The management dilemma is to determine which parts of the project depend on other parts
and which are independent, then to divide resources evenly among dependent tasks, or to
take resources from an independent task and assign them to one with higher priority.


Assigning too many people or machines to the wrong task can delay the project.


No project ever runs exactly as planned. People quit, weather interferes, parts arrive
late and easy tasks turn impossible. That's why resources might have to be reallocated
weekly, daily or even hourly.


Choosing the right project management package depends on the complexity of the project,
your familiarity with the tasks and whether you will create presentations to explain your
planning to others.


I've always liked products from Primavera Systems Inc. of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. The latest
is SureTrak Project Manager. At $400 for Microsoft Windows and IBM OS/2 versions, it's
near the high end of low-cost project software and not for novices. But it automates many
planning tasks.


For more power and features, Primavera offers a workgroup version, the $4,000 Primavera
Project Planner.


If you regularly manage complex projects, SureTrak has many features you want. If your
projects are simpler, Microsoft Corp.'s $470 Project is the better bet.


Project is capable and easy to use under Windows, MS-DOS and Apple Mac OS, but it lacks
some advanced features. It can't help you replace a lost worker or vital piece of
hardware.


But it will help you create easy-to-understand presentations that help explain to your
management why you made the decisions you did.


If you're familiar with project management, need little in the way of reports and don't
mind learning new software, the $150 TurboProject from International Microcomputer
Software Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., can manage bigger projects than Project or even
SureTrak can. The Windows package is versatile, if you can decipher the technical terms in
the interface.


When your projects are small, or you can't change the way resources are allocated, then
you don't need project management software. Even though it automates a lot of the
drudgery, this software requires work. It's a time saver when you need it, a time waster
when you don't.


For more information on how project management software can ease your workload, check
out the World Wide Web sites at http://www.pmi.org and http://www.projectmanagement.com for
tutorials, links and utilities.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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