One of the social software enthusiast criticisms of traditional project management is that it's a discipline practiced by a relatively small number of people within an organization, and therefore is far removed from the work of most employees. AtTask came to the same conclusion, deciding it needed a new way of more broadly managing the work going on within an organization.
"Most employees aren't project management experts, they're team members," said Ty Kiisel, manager of social outreach at AtTask. "They want to know what they're supposed to do, they want to be able to impact how it's done, and then they want to get to work. They don't care about Gantt charts and critical paths and all those things." For those people, providing "just enough project management is the way to go," he said.
AtTask first announced its TeamHome social task planning and tracking module as a beta last year, and made it a standard part of its project management suite in February. The idea is to get away from "the traditional top-down, command-and-control methodology" of project management in favor of a more collaborative environment, Kiisel said.
For example, when a project manager or supervisor assigns a task to an individual, the individual can either accept it, respond back--for example, to ask how other tasks should be juggled to accommodate the new one--or ask that it be assigned to someone else.
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By providing a social media-like view into the network of people working on a project and their latest activities and updates, TeamHome makes it easier to see which team members are overloaded with work and which ones have free hands, Kiisel said. "Usually, when a team member is swamped with work, no one knows because that's not part of the traditional project plan," he said.
Too often, project managers retreat behind a closed door to devise project plans that wind up with unrealistic timelines--a symptom of being out of touch with what's really going on in the organization, Kiisel said. When the work is made visible to everyone, project managers get a more realistic picture, and team members know what they need to be working on and how it fits into the overall plan, he said.
AtTask is not the only one pursuing a vision of more-social project and task management. Earlier this month, VMWare announced Socialcast Strides, a task and project-oriented spinoff of the Socialcast enterprise social networking software. Startups such as Teambox emphasize social coordination of projects and tasks but don't necessarily claim to be project management tools per se.
One way AtTask distinguishes itself from the upstarts is by using TeamHome as a data source for its main product. "Because this is all feeding into a very robust project management engine, it isn't something that just looks pretty but doesn't go anywhere," Kiisel said. Team members get a friendlier tool, but project managers still get their Gantt charts and other more formal planning tools.
One enthusiastic customer is Ali Dekan, staff program analyst for a major electronics manufacturer. She asked that her employer not be named because she is not authorized to endorse products on the company's behalf, but it's an organization that must coordinate the activities of thousands of engineers around the world. Dekan was hired specifically because of her experience implementing AtTask for another company, and she said the addition of TeamHome has made it much more powerful.
"TeamHome is definitely a contemporary approach to what is a very dry practice of project management. It gives us a way to sell accountability to people who are busy doing other things," Dekan said. Project managers need to know what everyone is working on and the progress they have made, but everyone other than the project manager sees filling out progress report forms as tedious make-work. Thus, the need for periodic meetings where everyone around the table must give a status report. TeamHome can eliminate some of the tedium and a lot of those meetings by fitting into something more like the Facebook status-posting metaphor, where people post their activities and check out what everyone else on their team is working on.
"When you're working with global teams, you can do it in a very timely fashion," Dekan said. "It's a matter of trying to make that kind of communication--well, 'fun' is the wrong word--but making it contemporary is what I think AtTask has done very well."
Kiisel said many customers see a 400% increase in usage of AtTask because TeamHome makes it into something they use every day.
Dekan said she is using the AtTask implementation as part of a move toward a more agile style of development that relies less on rigid approaches to project management. At the same time, she would like to see the system adopted widely enough that it could be used to show how tasks roll up into projects and projects feed into programs that will ultimately include software, hardware, and firmware. "This lets you see all the discrete pieces in a coherent way, and allows you to do it in one, all-inclusive system," she said.
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