A Better Way To Manage Product Development

Aug. 23, 2001
Here's a little of what to expect when you participate in a development project that's managed online.

Scott Hamilton
Framework Technologies
Burlington, Mass.

Edited by Paul Dvorak

Welcome to a new way to participate in product development — through a project Web site. By conducting projects through the Web site from Framework Technology, for example, team members can view documents, add comments and markups, send e-mail to team members, and track progress on project activities.

After creating a project Web site with, for instance, ActiveProject, team members can publish project information — as simple as a single CAD drawing or as complex as an entire product model — to the project site. Team members, customers, and vendors can review CAD drawings, mark them up, and add comments from any location with a browser.

Project elements help organize, structure, and find information. For this project, they appear in tabs at the page top.

Tcomms help drive content across teams and projects. For instance, they can specify must have information such as a due date for an RFI, a part price, or department code.

Key project data, such as schedules like these, are easily published, shared, and marked up.

In real time, the entire team can view, discuss and mark up new product ideas.

How are things going? Project statistics let managers quickly identify and react to project roadblocks.

An OEM you work with may soon ask your design team to contribute its know-how to a project it's working on. But don't jump in the car for a meeting just yet. This project will be different. For one thing, the time frame for its completion will be shorter than you've previously enjoyed. To accommodate the time crunch and ensure the project comes in on budget and on schedule, all communications with the OEM will be handled over the Web.

Thanks to an emerging class of easy-to-use software programs focused on collaborative product development (CPD), such as Framework Technologies' ActiveProject, your project team members will only need a standard Web browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer to participate. The hosting company, using the World Wide Web, will post and maintain the project site. It will be the medium for sharing all project information and drive it's collaboration and communication.

The project Web site provides a common workspace for team members. It's a central repository and access point for all project-related information. The site also provides a way to manage that information and lets users easily share it with team members inside and outside the organization. The project Web site can also be a series of secure, dynamic Web sites that are part of a larger corporate intranet, providing an overview of the entire project with links to all project information.

For those creating a Web site, think about how it will be used. Ask these questions to project team members and managers. The answers will guide its design:
• What is the general organization of the project across departments and the enterprise?
• What is the schedule and phasing for the project?
• Who should be on the project team? Do you want or need a team directory that includes names, phone numbers, roles, and e-mail addresses for all consultants and team members who will be using the project Web site?
• What are the relationships between team members? Who is working for whom? Do you have contractors, consultants, or vendors who need to access certain project information?
• Who is allowed to do what? In other words, who is authorized to view, modify, add, and review specific information, and when?
• What office and interoffice document-management and communication systems does the project team currently use? Do you want to recreate some or all of them as tracked communications?

The answers to these questions assist with setting up the project site. It's a simple process. Start with a project template screen and label the tabs in accordance with your project's organization and the framework you developed answering the questions above. Next, within each tab, create elements or containers for specific information items such as documents, links to Web pages, CAD drawings, pictures, and video files.

For example, a project site for a new product may contain an element for each category of deliverables. Project elements, such as its budget, specifications, and CAD models, hold information items and additional elements. These create a hierarchy that makes sense to project users. Finally, specify which project tabs each group of users can access.

The data viewed and maintained on the site is organized into three basic categories: Information items, tracked communications called tcomms, and comments, markups, and parameters. Tcomms are customized online forms that let team members exchange project information. For example, your project might use tcomms to transmit action items, requests for information, engineering change orders, and purchase orders.

Tcomms differ from ordinary email in several ways. First, they are tracked within the project Web site instead of through a separate e-mail application. Because tcomms are an integrated piece of the project, each stays with a specific piece of project data and is archived to it.

A comment is a piece of text attached to an information item. Comments are entered and viewed in a separate comment window. You can search the project Web site for text contained in a comment. In contrast, a markup is a graphical comment on an information item. Markups contain graphics and text. You can draw various shapes as well as overlay text on an image of the item. And a project parameter is any piece of data shared by members of a project in summary or report format, such as a project budget.

In addition, three concepts drive the use and sharing of project information: publishing, subscribing to it, and ownership. For instance, you add content to the project Web site by publishing information. Published content is available to all team members. They can view, preview, download, markup, and comment on it using a browser, when granted access to the tab on which the information is published.

Of course, certain areas of project Web sites are more important to specific team members. To make sure you are notified when information in these areas change, subscribe to it. Users subscribe to tabs, project elements within tabs, or to specific parameters on the parameter page.

Subscribers receive e-mail notices when new content is published or modified in the subscribed area. They also get e-mails related to published content such as comments, requests for information, tcomms, and new markups.

The publisher of an information item is its owner. As an information item's owner, you can republish it, edit its properties (display name and description), or transfer it to a new owner.

To show how a project Web site could work, imagine you're a manufacturer looking for a way to cut product life cycle and get new products to market faster without increasing expenses. It will require compressing the development cycle through better communication and coordination with an extended development team. The team needs continuous access to technical information and a way to minimize communication errors and delays.

A Web-based system allows publishing all information regarding new product lines on secure project extranets. The intuitive nature of the system means no training is required to access and review information such as CAD files, documents, and spreadsheets.

When external partners need a file, they can pick from a variety of CAD formats to ensure compatibility with their own CAD systems. Team members, whether external suppliers, design partners, or members of the internal team, can instantly see and simultaneously share files on the Web site. For collaboration, they can brainstorm solutions online to overall design or component problems without traveling to each other's offices. The Web also slashes time usually spent trading e-mails, sending faxes, or waiting for overnight deliveries. More importantly, because teams interact in real time, they resolve issues more quickly and leverage each others input in a way not previously possible.

When team members subscribe to specific project areas, such as the styling of a faucet handle, they are updated by e-mail when significant new information is added or noteworthy design changes are made. This way, team members are kept in the loop, preventing them from accidentally advancing outmoded versions of the design.

When team members need a piece of information, but are uncertain who has it, they issue a request-for-information (RFI) tcomm. The project manager then assigns ownership of the RFI to an appropriate person, and tracks whether or not they have delivered the information. Ownership and tracking avoids information roadblocks that slow a project's progress.

A personalized project "My Page" lets each member see their deadlines, posted data, comments, and action items. A Project Dashboard delivers all critical information directly to the manager. The Dashboard features project status reports, calendars and project parameters. The Dashboard lets managers identify program-level problems early in development, and more accurately track project priorities and resources. As a result, they can proactively address project problems and resource roadblocks before they undermine the project.

On the corporate level, project managers and executives can keep close tabs on the project's progress and monitor its execution on an Executive Dashboard. This lets them keep an eye on the projects in their portfolio. If a project manager or executive sees that a crucial project element is "red lighted" for example, they can drill down in the project site for more details, and take appropriate action.

By letting team members easily share and collaborate around project data, the online system puts people and ideas, not information, at the center of the process. Most importantly, individuals can leverage each other's ideas, and focus their time, energy, and creativity on designing and building innovative products.

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