One of my first tasks as project administrator was to identify a Project Management System for the Connected Histories team to use. As an information professional, with a background in libraries management, and a techie at heart, this is the sort of challenge I relish.
Over the years, I have selected and implemented a wide range of organisational tools for various projects, and I am very comfortable with new systems. I considered what we would want from a project management system for this particular project, and came up with a list of criteria against which to evaluate prospective tools:
- Task Management facility which included subtasks, reminders, task delegation and notifications or reminders of deadlines
- Communication features which allowed for face time, email, online chat
- Secure document storage and management, which offered version control and document sharing for collaborative working.
- Reporting tools such as graphs, Gantt charts and flexible reporting facilities, allowing for the monitoring of progress.
- Budget management features
- Project calendar and calendar sharing
- CRM facilities (Customer Relationship management) for storing contact information of people connected with the project.
- Accessibility – mobile apps; desktop app and online services
I investigated a range of different options before selecting Bitrix. There is both a free and paid version, and while it is not designed for research project administration, it is the one free tool that ticks all the boxes above. It has an impressive range of functions. It’s easy to create and assign tasks, adding deadlines and tags, documents and comments. It includes email accounts, if wanted, but works with existing email addresses. The system includes customer relationship management, budgeting tools, and a range of reports that are customizable, although this requires an understanding of database structures. There is a desktop app, allowing for live chat, and face-time calls. Of all the tools I tried, this has the best functionality, although it is not as simple in appearance as others, contributing to its lack of success for this project.
Some of the data with which we are working in the project is confidential, and data security is paramount, particularly for the data received from the BBC. This had to be stored securely, and after a period of time, we were able to arrange a separate, secure server. This meant that there would always be elements of the project that would be housed separately, creating an additional level of complexity.
However, it was the human factor that I did not consider sufficiently, particularly the varying levels of engagement with the digital world and technology within the team. While I loved Bitrix, the team found that having to learn a new system was cumbersome, and complicated. There is a tension in academic circles between the way administrators work, and the way academics work, and sometimes what works for an administrator is not suitable for an academic. Ultimately we decided to stop using Bitrix.
Through a process of trial and error, looking at what everyone was using, and the programmes they found accessible and easy to use, we have settled on a ‘system’ that works for us, using a variety of programmes, rather than a single umbrella tool:
- Data storage for working documentation is on the University’s Box system, and although we regularly discuss where in particular things should be stored, it allows everyone access to all of the documentation.
- We have a secure server for the BBC data
- We use email, (mainly Outlook, provided by the University) and I tend to attach documents, or include links to the document in Box.
- I send out a weekly roundup of Project information (our Friday Update) and this is extremely effective.
- In the update, I include a list of outstanding actions. I keep these listed in my Outlook tasks so I can monitor what needs to be done.
- I manage the budget in spreadsheets, and all of the reports from the Finance System come as spreadsheets.
- We have a separate project email account that includes a project calendar, which is shared with the team.
- Reporting systems are not ideal, but reports can be collated if necessary
On reflection, for similar projects in the future I would:
- Take more time to see what is currently being used by team members, and whether it is suitable. People can be reluctant to embrace yet more systems, and sometimes the best answer is to work with something that integrates with what they are already using.
- Keep my own system for managing the project, probably spreadsheets, but distil these into a more engaging format for the team.
Ultimately, I think there is a gap in the market for a project management tool which is free, and suitable for research projects – providing the level of complexity needed for the administrators, and an engaging, easy to use front end for academics. Are there any developers out there who would like to collaborate on developing one?
Denice Penrose, August 2019