Teamwork Made Simple

CHRIS SCHAUB USED TO SPEND MORE time with a clipboard than with a compiler. As a software development manager at Thomson & Thomson, Schaub had the tedious job of updating the project schedule by asking all of the developers how far along they were on their assigned tasks. He was also responsible for distributing the Gantt chart that tracked their progress to all the team members, at the cost of considerable time and toner.

These days, Schaub's job is much simpler. "You want to know where the project is?" he asks. "Log in and look at the collaboration tool."

Since early 1999, Schaub and the 15-person development staff at the trademark and copyright research company in Quincy, Mass., have used Inovie Software Inc.'s TeamCenter as a collaborative project-management tool. Thomson & Thomson is one of a growing number of companies whose development departments have embraced collaboration tools. Although IT departments are early adopters -- these software packages are natural extensions of what managers are already doing with a project-management package or paper -- most of these project-collaboration tools are general enough to be used by any type of team. The software's key capabilities -- chat, discussion forums and resource-allocation features -- overcome the problems that arise when teams consist of people in different physical locations and when workers simultaneously juggle several projects. Once, software tools for programming teams meant a code repository and a bug-tracking database. But as companies find themselves hiring distributed project teams and juggling multiple simultaneous projects, they are turning to tools that provide the communication and resource-allocation features that traditional programming utilities lack.

According to David Coleman, managing director at San Francisco-based Collaborative Strategies LLC, another factor driving IT departments to use project-collaboration tools is a growing realization within companies that writing software involves more people than programmers and more processes than churning out lines of code. Teams can consist of business analysts, quality-assurance testers and upper-level management, among others. And these expanded teams are not sharing just code, he says; they're sharing questions about code. Issues like determining which projects will have the best rate of return, matching skill sets to project needs, and coordinating the testing and fixing phases of the debugging cycle dominate the discussion.

Rushing to fill the project-team void are collaboration-centric products from new vendors like Inovie, Instinctive Technology Inc. and Netmosphere Inc., as well as project-management solutions with expanded collaboration features from established vendors like ABT Corp., Planview Inc. and Primavera Systems Inc. Even programming-tools vendors such as Rational Software Corp. have joined the party.

It's difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison among these products, but all of them rely on the Internet and intranets to provide a foundation for collaboration. People are just starting to realize the benefits of the Web as an interactive medium, suggests Coleman.

Also, these tools let team members access the project documentation and status files appropriate to their job functions. For example, a programmer could see which tasks he was assigned and read the latest bug reports, but he wouldn't be able to look or amend the budget. This is a different workstyle than the one driven byy most project-management tools, in which a chart is maintained solely by a project manager.

The other features these tools offer depend on their heritage. For example, a project-management and collaboration tool like TeamCenter tracks multiple projects at a task level, including a Gantt chart view; maintains a shared space for projects where multiple users can access documents such as proposals and specifications; and supplies forums for questions and discussions. It doesn't offer any development-specific capabilities, however, like a bug-tracking module. A pure collaboration product like Instinctive Technology's eRoom features a shared directory for project files and discussion forums, but no integral Gantt charting or software-development tools. Netmosphere splits its project-collaboration framework into two pieces: a shared directory for project files and a scheduling and task module.

None of these products specifically targets IT organizations with software-development tools, such as debuggers. They have chosen to be generalist tools, adaptable to any project, from designing a software application to planning a company retreat. The collaborative tools that descended from project-management suites, like Primavera Systems' TeamPlay, PlanView's PlanView Software and ABT's Results Management Suite, are firmly grounded in traditional project-management methodologies and have additional features for tracking project metrics, allocating resources, and communicating and collaborating among team members.

Other vendors target different vertical markets. Rational has added collaboration capabilities to parts of its Rational Suite. NexPrise Inc. has customized its ipTeam collaboration product for engineering organizations, especially companies in the aerospace, automotive and high-tech fields. Cubus Corp.'s ReviewIt solution targets architecture, engineering and construction firms. Because the market offers such diverse tools, picking one depends less on the features and capabilities of the products themselves and more on the goals of the individual users.

Geography Gyrations

For Allan Tate, program manager at Schneider Automation Inc., a developer of industrial automation systems in North Andover, Mass., geography drove his decision to invest in Rational's products. His company is the result of a merger among various organizations located in France, Germany and the United States. Rational's ClearCase appealed to him for its distributed-teams support, which allows him to tie together the company's remote locations. Rational's integrated set of development-centric modules provides a way to unify the work processes of 150 developers and testers, who come from disparate national and corporate cultures.

Although Tate is banking on measurable ROI from Rational in the form of improved efficiency and higher product quality, he's had to bring in other tools to beef up the suite. Its shortcoming, he points out, is that it is not a complete distributed environment. Not all the modules in the suite have multisite capabilities -- ClearQuest doesn't support a replicated database, for example. He was also dissatisfied with the way project archives were distributed, so he integrated Rational with Lotus Notes in order to organize project documentation.

At Priceline.com, the name-your-price e-commerce site, CIO Ron Rose doesn't want to use his project-collaboration system to connect with people across the ocean; he wants to connect with people across the hall. His goal is shortening time-to-market, which means coordinating the work done in the IT department with that in the product-development and marketing departments. He's aiming for one to three months between idea and execution of all projects; his current time-to-market ranges from three to nine months. He's in the process of bringing Primavera's TeamPlay into the Stamford, Conn.-based e-commerce company in order to provide a prooject-collaboration system for 200 people, including the entire technical department and their colleagues in accounting, business development and upper-level management.

One way Rose thinks he can achieve that three-month goal is by tapping into hard-earned wisdom acquired during previous projects. Rose's IT department modifies the software on the Priceline.com Web site as frequently as 150 times a month. By using TeamPlay to manage those changes, he can capture information to improve future projects: information like what tasks are required to build a new product, accurate estimates of time to complete tasks, and where the pitfalls are. In addition, Rose hopes TeamPlay will help him manage dozens of simultaneous projects by enabling him to maximize his people resources and determine which projects give the biggest bang for the buck.

Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says that CIOs like Rose are on the right track. "There's a need to manage across projects, not just individual projects," he says. One project has an impact on all the others, he explains, so he favors tools that start with collaboration first.

The Right Mix

Although none of these tools is the perfect blend of features, IT managers are finding that they are mature enough to become an essential part of their development toolkits. For the most part, Christopher Anderson, a principal with custom software development house Eques Technology Corp. in Wellesley, Mass., hasn't had problems integrating Instinctive's eRoom into his best-of-breed set of project management, development and collaboration tools. The company has moved to a Hollywood model of development teams -- that is, bringing in specialists as needed to fulfill a particular contract. eRoom enables Anderson to collaborate with people working in places like the Ukraine and India. It also works well with the Microsoft Project and Word applications Eques already relied on; Anderson can launch those applications from eRoom. That ability was important because Anderson didn't want to reinvent the wheel. "We wanted to use the tools we were already using, just use them more efficiently," he says.

Anderson chose eRoom because collaboration was the missing piece in his best-of-breed approach. He was relying on the telephone and e-mail; not only was this expensive and cumbersome, but he risked corrupting or losing large files that were sent through e-mail. Making sure everyone had the most recent version was a headache as well. With eRoom's central repository, everyone stays current, communications costs have decreased (in two months he saved enough on phone bills to pay for eRoom) and productivity is up. "If I were to take it away, I don't know how we'd operate," he says.

This story, "Teamwork Made Simple" was originally published by CIO.

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