@task announced its new Stream platform at the annual user conference in 2010. Stream “combines the power of social networking with the structure of project management,” says the press release. “Stream empowers teams, increasing their acceptance of, and participation in, the project management process. With Stream, front-line conversational information and commitments flow upward, enabling greater accuracy in projections and more well-informed decision making.”
I’m sure many people read the press release and thought this was another company jumping on the social media bandwagon, but when I spoke to Adam Michaelson, product manager at @task, he told a different story.
“About one and a half years ago we came to a point where we felt like we were at relative parity with the rest of the industry in relation to features, planning resources, portfolio management and so on,” he said. “We saw a big problem that we think everyone realises but no one addressing – the adoption of enterprise project management tools. These are great for planning but unless you have everyone engaged in entering in the data, all the planning and recording tools not as powerful as they could be.”
@task realised that this was one of the main drawbacks with enterprise project management software for project and portfolio management. If you don’t put the data in, the reports out aren’t worth having. And who wants to type numbers in to a software tool? It’s not an easy thing to get project resources to do, as they don’t get any personal value out of it.
“We wanted to address that problem,” Michaelson continues. “We were also seeing a disconnect between management and those people in the trenches. Not because of a particular industry-standard approach to project management, more because of a culture that demonstrates lack of trust, lack of communication, and project teams not executing as well as they could be because of lack of unity.”
@task did a lot of research with customers and non-customers regarding how project management software was used in the workplace and then they started working on solutions to address those problems. “For the past year we’ve been working on this design and taking it back to customers to get feedback,” Michaelson says. “There are lots of different tools emerging right now that incorporate elements of social media. That was really not our objective – it wasn’t about getting in Twitter-style conversations or Facebook status updates, it was all about getting engagement with the tool. It turned out that we incorporated several elements that you will find feel familiar.”
He’s right – the changes to @task really do look like they have social media roots. It’s a very conversational interface, where users can post updates, ask questions, comment on each other’s progress and generally interact without ever having to leave the project management software.
Everything is within a few clicks. “Enterprise project management tools do not have reputation for being very friendly,” Michaelson says. @task prompts the user for qualitative information and asks them to commit to a date by which the task will be done. “Dates are set by humans not a system,” Michaelson says. They can change the date, but any change is an extra data point for the project manager, not a committed change. By changing the date, a note goes to the project manager who can decide whether or not to accept the new date for the schedule. Neatly, the dates show up as green or red depending on whether they are before or after the delivery date, and the Gantt chart clearly shows the impact of slippage on the critical path.
“We’re not asking for percent complete,” says Michaelson, “this is seen as arbitrary. We wanted to catch something more earned value-centric, so we are asking for hours to complete now.” This gives a more rounded picture and feeds into the other financial management features in @task.
The point of all this interaction and commitment from the team and “engagement” is partly to encourage conversation about changing dates and project slippage before it really becomes a problem for the project. This, and the other features around project and team member status, could be really useful tools for the project manager.
@task will begin a limited beta release of Stream this summer and plan to have the product generally available in 2010. It will be free to current customers, so they will have a large user base to provide feedback as to whether these features actually make a difference to the teams using it. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” says Michaelson. “The past six months have been mostly validation with customers. The overwhelming response has been very positive. We’ve been cautiously optimistic, and we wondered if we were talking to the wrong people.” @task went to show the new improvements to some not-so-friendly project management teams and “really didn’t get too many negative reviews.”
If even the people who don’t like your software like your software, you must be on to something good.