the forthcoming months I plan to cover some of the tricks, tips and pitfalls
that you might come across in using Microsoft Project. If you haven't used Project
before, I hope this article will whet your appetite and persuade you to have
a go. As I intend to concentrate on the basic uses of Project for beginners,
most of what I have to say will apply to all versions from Project 98 to 2002.
Where there are differences, I will point these out, perhaps persuading you
to get the latest version with all its bells and whistles!
What Is Project Management?
To understand project management we must first define what a project is. There
are as many different definitions of a project as there are books written about
it! So I would define project in the following terms:
A project is a unique undertaking that has a clearly defined start and
finish, and requires the management of time, resources, cost and quality.
Thus, as production management aims to achieve a succession of the same product,
project management aims to achieve a single product. It is the uniqueness of
a project and the uncertainty around its achievement that makes project management
an essential art.
A bit of history reveals that project management of a sort has been around
since man began thinking. I'm sure the pyramids had a project manager to mastermind
their completion, but whether they were produced within cost is debatable, though
they seem to have been finished on time! In more modern times, the discipline
of what is generally known as Network Analysis began in the early 1950s, where
in Europe began the development of such techniques as Critical Path Method,
Project Network Techniques and a variety of others. In the USA, with the
development of the Polaris missile system, evolved the technique called Program
Evaluation and Review Technique or PERT.
These simple techniques allowed a project manager to define a series of tasks
that were essential to be undertaken to achieve the product, to link the tasks
in a logical pattern to form a network, and analyze individual task timings
to calculate a critical path to achieve an end date. Thus Network Analysis is
the core technique of all modern project management practices.
These techniques were fine in their concept, but their practical application
needed substantial calculations more suited to a computer. And it wasn't until
the advent of the personal computer that the project management planning techniques
took off, as the PC allowed a project manager himself quickly to produce a plan
and, more importantly, to be able personally to revise that plan in the light
of experience as time went by. He could now assign resources to tasks and level
out their work loads with appropriate costings. The PC has made a project management
software package a worthwhile investment.
Thus, it is important that you understand the principles of project planning
before applying them to a project management software package like Microsoft
Project. I wrote an introductory guide to network analysis some years ago and
have attached this to the Project MVP Website: http://www.mvps.org/project/networkanalysis.htm.
Follow through the example diligently making sure you understand the arithmetic
as you go along (it's only adding and subtracting!) and at least you will be
able to understand the technique of listing tasks, linking them, adding durations
and calculating the critical path.
What Can Microsoft Project Do For You?
By now I'm sure that you will have concluded that the PC is an ideal machine
for doing the calculations for you. However, which ever project management software
package you have, the machine cannot do four things:
- it cannot create the tasks for you
- it cannot create the logic relationships
- it does not know the duration of each task
- it cannot possibly know what resources you have to apply to the tasks
Thus, the drawing up of a network chart showing the logic is an essential part
of the paperwork and that must be done before putting information into the computer.
By having the paperwork as complete as you can get it, the entry of data into
the computer becomes a simple routine.
So what can Project do for you?
First and foremost it is only a tool that project managers can use. It does
not do project management for you; neither does ownership of the product make
you a project manager!
- As such it can do the calculations accurately for you. Imagine doing the
forward pass using calendar working days, taking into account national and
company holidays! Doing the backward pass is even more mind boggling and prone
- It makes visible the parameters it needs (have I forgotten something?) and
any problems (like unacceptable circular logic).
- It allows "what-ifs?" to make changes to the project and see the
effect of those changes before finalizing your plan and committing it to work.
- Once your plan is in action, it allows progress to be tracked so that you
can make adjustments to keep on target.
- And finally it is a tremendous aid to communication:
- There are built-in reports to print.
- You can export to PowerPoint for presentations, to Word for detailed
reports, to Excel to do intricate cost analyses, and to Access for manipulation
of project data.
- You can send information by e-mail.
- You can pass information over networks and the Internet.
Have A GoTry It And See!
So, if you have a project and want to use Microsoft Project, try out the Guide
to Network Analysis first and then have a go at entering some Tasks, their
Duration and some logic links. Use Project's Help menu to guide you through
this, or use its Tutorial.