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Project Management Tools Adopt Activity Streams

Liquid Planner 3.0, Mendix's Sprintr want to provide Facebook-like functionality for project teams.
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Social activity streams are becoming a bigger part of project management software, and at least one new tool is built almost entirely around social style updates and comments.

Sprintr was introduced this week as a private beta by Mendix, the application development and management software maker behind the Mendix AppFactory model-driven development tool and an Enterprise Cloud Dashboard for deployment into public or private cloud environments.

Sprintr is intended to round out a platform built around agile development concepts, and takes its name from the short sprints of development effort proscribed by methodologies like Scrum, said Paul Campaniello, Mendix vice president of global marketing.

"All of the project management tools out there are very, very heavyweight," Campaniello said, and that makes them a poor match for agile projects that are supposed to be flexible and adaptable. "We're providing a lightweight tool that's sort of Facebook meets Microsoft Project."

Social project management has emerged over the past few years as a subcategory for project management software vendors trying to differentiate themselves from dominant players like Microsoft Project. Sprintr and a product update due out later this month from LiquidPlanner attempt to take the concept farther.

In Sprintr, the home page is a general activity stream and each project has its own equivalent of the Facebook Wall. More specific modules like a tool for creating project "stories" (a technique for gathering requirements) also have a wall-like feel to them, including the ability to make comments on stories and sub-stories. The application also provides tabs for mapping out timelines and release schedules, as well as organizing feedback.

In addition to providing a feedback mechanism within the application, Sprintr provides a feedback widget that can be embedded in web-based applications to give developers continual feedback on products once they are released for testing, or into production. Feedback items can then be voted up or down and used to produce a crowdsourced list of requirements for future releases.

Although the free beta may evolve into a freemium product with paid upgrades, for now Mendix wants to use it to attract attention to the rest of its platform, Campaniello said. "I expect it will be free for at least the next year," he said.

While Sprintr is meant to complement Mendix's other tools, it does not necessarily have to be used with them, he said. "Sprintr doesn't even have to be used for application development. We use it internally to plan corporate milestones. You could use it to coordinate with contractors or, internally, to plan what's for lunch."

LiquidPlanner 3.0 also pumps up the emphasis on social collaboration as a means of keeping projects moving. "The central workspace is like a hub for your project--kind of like a Facebook page for your project work," said Liz Pearce, LiquidPlanner vice president of sales and marketing. "You can gather all these comments on specific items, or on your plan, and still have that discussion attached to the specific task." Each item in the plan "is almost its own wiki page, and then we have time tracking and email notifications to go with that. You get that side-by-side, so scheduling and collaboration are always linked," she said.

LiquidPlanner is best known for its techniques for "probabilistic scheduling," which means plans can be formulated with a degree of confidence or uncertainty about the likelihood that deadlines can be met. The new release significantly improves the user interface, making it easier to reprioritize projects and tasks within projects, Pearce said. When you reprioritize, the timesheet schedules for individual participants are updated automatically, Pearce said, "so there's a lot less administrative overhead."

Meanwhile, the social features built into the product help project managers and team members keep tabs on each other. Most of all, the design of LiquidPlanner reflect a belief that the nature of project management is changing, Pearce said. Most project management tools are built to manage one project at a time, "which ignores the fact that people are jumping around, from project to project," she said. "Also, in today's teams, everybody's pretty much a project manager, even though maybe one person has that as a title."

LiquidPlanner 3.0 includes a concept of defining "packages" of projects, or of tasks that span multiple projects, as another way or organizing work. Beyond current projects, the tool can also be used to plot future project, Pearce said. "Ingersoll Rand is one of our customers who is moving to this way of doing it, where you build out a pipeline of projects."

Ad hoc social collaboration is another way of planning outside the lines of project boundaries. Although LiquidPlanner provides application programming interfaces that can be used to connect it with other enterprise social software, Pearce said many of the project-specific discussions may not belong on a general purpose corporate collaboration system like Yammer. "One of the theories we hold is that the most valuable work a social network can do in the organization is around the project because that's what's most closely related to what the employees are doing all day, every day," she said.

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