OpenProj - the free project management tool
NOTE: The OpenProj free project management tool has now been superceded by ProjectLibre. The new program is also free for any use and is based on OpenProj. Anyone who wants to develop plans and perform real tracking should now install ProjectLibre. Much of this article can be applied to the new free program. A separate article now provides an in-depth analysis of ProjectLibre.
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the upgrade path for OpenProj users
Project managers can use OpenProj, a free task tracking application, when creating effective plans. OpenProj delivers functionality that rivals the capabilities of commercial software. This can save thousands of dollars in startup costs. Of course, saving a lot of money can be foolish if the required tasks can't be done. This is not the case with OpenProj. Luckily the OpenProj application gives managers a full set of tools that are typically used to track projects. Useful aids such as critical path analysis, resource tracking and task comments are all present in OpenProj. The tool is ideal for simple project management but is capable of larger efforts as well.
The best way to understand how a project plan may be created using OpenProj is to study a realistic example such as the one below. This example, while simple, provides a step by step description of typical actions that a project manager might use to establish a viable plan using OpenProj. You are encouraged to try a similar example on your own.
For the purposes of the example project plan, the following assumptions are made:
- the OpenProj software has already been installed and correctly configured on a workstation with an attached printer
- the goal is to launch a new marketing effort in 6 months, called "News Shower"
- there are three full-time staff resources, including the manager
- budget is not a consideration
- schedule is the primary consideration
- the target implementation date is 6 months away but is not an absolute fixed date
Step 1: Create the project plan shell
The first step is to use OpenProj to identify the basic parameters. The manager starts the OpenProj application and presses the "Create Project" button. The file is named, ("News Shower"), and a starting date is given. You can forward schedule which is the default. This allows you to enter the required tasks and OpenProj will calculate a completion date. If required, you can schedule a finish date and have OpenProj work backwards for you. This alternate method works best if there is a hard drop-dead date, such as a launch date. The project manager can also add initial project notes. These might refer to locations of phase initiation documentation or other optional information.
Step 2: Identify the resources
Use the resources view to enter the particulars of all of the project team. The names and roles of the team members can be specified. If required, you can enter hourly rates, overtime and availability information for each team member. For this example, three 100% resources will be entered.
Step 3: Identify the high-level tasks
For this example, the project is similar to an earlier effort that was completed successfully. That work required tasks for initiation, research, contracting, development and launch. The project manager enters these tasks into the Gantt view of OpenProj. The duration estimates are based on the values previously seen for similar tasks. There is no ordering of tasks or dependencies. The raw Gantt list is below.
Notice that the task "Application Development" is shown with a red duration bar while all other tasks have blue bars. This task is identified as the project critical path. It is the longest running task in the project. Since all tasks default to the start date of the project, the analysis of the critical path is quite premature at this time. The project manager must now modify dependencies.
Step 4: Identify the task dependencies for critical path analysis
During a effort, some tasks can't start until others have been completed. This is true for the "Test launch" task. There is nothing to test until the development is completed. As well, the "News Shower" launch is dependent on every other task. The project manager, in discussions with team members or sponsors as appropriate, determines the task dependencies. The modified Gantt view now shows a realistic schedule.
Notice that there is now a critical path, shown as a red bar, that is comprised of two tasks. The other tasks are completed in parallel and don't affect the critical path. At this point, no resources have been assigned to the tasks. No tasks have been split into components.
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Step 5: Assign project resources to tasks
Each of the tasks can have one or more resources assigned. The column "Resource Names" on the Gantt View allows direct data entry of this information. Enter the name of a resource in the field. The default action is to have each named resource work 100% of their time on the task. The field also supports the direct entry of multiple resources. Enter the resource names separated by a semi-colon. For example, "Bill Jones;Cathy Evans", will specify that Bill and Cathy are each assigned to the task. This divides the initial duration in half. If required, the project manager can specify that a resource is only able to work part-time on the task. Enter a percentage after the resource name in brackets such as "[50%]". Here is the plan now with resources assigned.
Notice that many of tasks have been shortened due to having multiple resources assigned to them. The overall project duration has been reduced to 18.5 work days.
Step 6: Task elaboration
An important feature of project management applications is the ability to allow the manager to split tasks into smaller sub-tasks. This can allow better accuracy in schedule estimating. It also allows team members to be specified in a just-in-time fashion for their assignments. The example project has some opportunities for task elaboration.
Step 7: Evaluate the project plan
With all of the tasks entered, and sub-tasks specified, the plan has really evolved. It now shows a lot of information which can be useful in project reporting. The first item is the critical path. This of the highest importance to the project manager and the organization. Reports showing the tasks can be presented to company executives. An analysis of work loads can be done. Task reports can be printed. In time, as completion percentages are entered for tasks, the project manager can run status reports showing progress and schedule tracking.
While further work on the example project plan is required to show the full abilities of the OpenProj application, it is quite evident in these presented steps that it is quite helpful to the project manager. From the graphical presentation of the critical path, to resource balancing and task elaboration, OpenProj gives the project manager a set of functions that help to monitor project performance. Many project managers do not use comprehensive tracking applications such as OpenProj due to the cost of the commercial software. Others believe such tools to be difficult to use. OpenProj is obviously an improvement when evaluated on cost but is also easy to use compared to commercial products.