Your Mac can help you deliver on time, to standard and within budget

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 09/91 item 04 - scanned

I nearly choked over breakfast when I read Alison's editorial (Inside MacUser, Vol. 7 No 17, 23 August 1991, p5) on project management. I got to the bit that said, "Most Mac users don't see the point of project management software" and "the time and energy spent learning these programs could be better spent doing real work" and, for a moment, I thought she was endorsing these unworthy thoughts. The fact is that project management does sound dreadfully dull. But it is exactly the sort of application for which computers were put on this earth. It's probably relevant to more business buyers of Macs than graphic design, one of the big success stories of the Mac world.

Before you glaze over, I'd better say something to catch your attention. How about Money! Quality! Deadlines! These are what project management is all about. How many projects involving more than one person and more than a few activities ever hit or exceed those three targets?

No. Please don't go. Let me tell you something else. The application is easy to understand and easy to use. I reckon the basics are easier to understand than a spreadsheet. You start by listing activities. If you were building an extension, these might include 'draw plans', 'get permission', 'dig foundations', 'buy bricks', 'order cement' and so on. That's probably what you do already, so that's easy.

Each task will take a certain amount of time. Ordering bricks occupies a tiny amount, but waiting for the damned things is another matter. So you could include waiting for bricks as an activity. You might then define how much effort you expect will go into an activity. 'Build walls' could be six days, for example. Then you could plot which activity can't be done until another is finished. For example, you can't build walls until the bricks arrive.

All the project management packages I've encountered allow you to easily construct a network diagram based on this kind of information. The project management package automatically figures out the project completion time, based on the duration of each activity on the critical path. In any network there's at least one route which has no spare time at the end of each activity before the next one starts. That's called the critical path. The only way to speed the project is to find ways of shortening one or more of the activities on the critical path. You might throw more people at 'build walls', for example. Or you might get people to work overtime.

As you shorten activities, a new critical path may emerge. And the project management package will let you know as soon as it happens. If you've shortened the wall-building time, you might then find yourself with a delay while you wait for the roofing materials to arrive, so you've speeded the project but introduced some waiting time too. The good thing about computer project management, like spreadsheets, is that you can play 'what if' until the cows come home. With paper-based project management systems, you generally give up after trying out two or three possibilities.

And that brings me to the other problem with paper-based systems. As the project progresses, it's a real pain having to update the details. With a computer-based package, you can easily slip in real figures and watch the computer revise the schedule. You can respond to changing circumstances quickly. You have more control.

You may decide that you don't mind a bit of slippage on the overall deadline if you can even out the use of your resources. You might not want to hire two cement mixers to deal with a peak in the middle of the schedule. You may prefer to delay the start of an activity until one mixer is free from an earlier activity. Some packages let you carry out this kind of resource levelling.

If all goes to plan, you hit the deadline, keep the cost within budget and finish the job to the required standard. With a project management package, you can instantly decide what the effects of a change in deadline will be on cost or how the project will be affected when activities run late.

From simply organising the best sequence of activities and producing a schedule, to full-blown resource management and costing, project management packages have much to offer. They can be used on projects with 20 to to 30 activities and upwards. These tasks might even be performed by outsiders. In the software publishing business, for example, you not only have developers, but also manual writers, printers, box makers, beta testers and so on. They can all be managed more effectively with a project management package.

I fear Alison was right when she said that "most Mac users don't see the point of project management packages". I hope that's no longer the case.