As an article in CIO recently reported; many industries are facing a dearth of project managers with the skills and experience required to support organisational goals. Project Management is a highly skilled profession, with its own qualification system. The software which allows project managers to do their jobs also demands a steep learning curve and a real understanding of the theory behind the practice.
For established PMOs and project management professionals, tools such as Microsoft Project provide the flexibility and complexity they need to plan for any eventuality. However, given the shortage of trained PMs, how are smaller teams running ad hoc projects meant to plan their tasks and resources? Consultancy might be a sensible route for larger projects, yet smaller teams might value something more instant and collaborative – and this is where Microsoft’s new Office 365 Planner could prove very valuable.
Planner was announced on the Office 365 blog towards the end of September 2015. It has not yet been released, but we can expect widespread access in early 2016. It is likely that Planner will be another of the free products included in your Office 365 subscription.
Planner aims to provide a simple, collaborative method for teams to plan projects and tasks. Microsoft has chosen to represent projects as Boards and tasks as Cards. The Boards in Planner are reportedly based on the idea that companies sometimes use physical whiteboards to plan projects and attach paper cards to these to represent individual tasks that need completing.
A screenshot released in the Office blog gives us a preview of what we can expect this to look like:
In the example above, Planner is being used for a small marketing campaign. The wider page is the Board, and it holds all the Cards in place. The marketing team in this example have added cards for a Facebook campaign, the Launch event and a budget (among others). The Cards are also ordered into columns called Buckets, which are arranged around a theme (such as social media).
Each Card on the Board can be assigned to one or more employees. These effectively amount to that person’s tasks over the course of the project, with deadlines included. One of the most powerful aspects of the Cards is how well integrated with the rest of Office 365 they will be. Microsoft have explained that project members will be able to interact with many other areas of Office 365 through their cards. For example:
- Office 365 Groups. By linking a Board and its Cards to project teams created in Groups, progress can be discussed fluidly in the digital workspace that Groups provide.
- SharePoint Online. Users will be able to attach documents to Cards and then edit these straight from the Card in Office online.
- Outlook. Cards will integrate smoothly with Exchange, so when a team member is assigned a new task they will receive an email notification – and can also receive notifications of updates and reminders of deadlines.
- Yammer. If your company has a strong culture of using Yammer, Cards can also work well with the social network and be used in a similar way to Office 365 Groups.
A final feature of Planner which is particularly exciting is the Hub. The Hub will be a space where teams can visualise the progress of all projects via a series of interactive graphs and charts. Being able to see clearly how the project is proceeding is very helpful for team members to gain a sense of perspective and avoid last minute rushes. The Office blog screenshot below gives us an idea of what this would look like:
Where might planner excel?
At Program Framework, we are very excited about the potential of Planner. While we don’t see it replacing established PPM tools, it will provide a tool that smaller teams who simply don’t need a full time Project Manager will find incredibly valuable. Microsoft also highlight its value in other areas including education and we would also add that it might be really helpful for community groups too.
Planner looks like it will be intuitive and easy to use. Adding new tasks, resources and goals simply takes nothing more than a click of a mouse and integrating information from other parts of Office 365 will be easy, too. The fact that this should all be available on mobile via the Cloud is also very compelling.
Project Managers seeking a tool that can give fine grained detail of project timing, resource allocation and financial controls will likely find Office 365 Planner somewhat limiting – it clearly hasn’t been designed for their needs. Nonetheless, Planner will fill a gap that smaller teams running ad hoc projects have long needed filling. We’ll be keeping a close eye on how Planner evolves and the impact it has on collaborative project management in the months to come.