Microsoft Project has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a simple DOS program in 1984. Via an ever maturing desktop version, Project is now part of the Office 365 family, with a strong "online" variant and a powerful "server" product. 

What was particularly interesting to see was the amount of Project news coming out of Microsoft Ignite earlier this year. Is the product line undergoing somewhat of a renaissance at Microsoft?

What’s New?

A host of new features were announced that will affect the desktop client, Project Server and Project Online. So what’s coming later this year with Project 2016?

1. Simple Resource Management

Resource management has long been a missing feature in Project Server. The 2016 release starts to fix this, with new features like resource "Heat Maps" — a traffic light color-coded dashboard giving "at a glance" views of over or under resource allocation. Also part of the 2016 roadmap is a feature called "Resource Engagement," designed to address common pain points of Project and Resource Managers. More is expected to be announced on this new feature very soon.

2. Multiple Visual Timelines

Project 2013 gave us the ability to visualize the progress of a project along a timeline. Project 2016 can manage multiple timelines for a project and lay them out on top of each other, making it easy to differentiate between various phases of a project without losing sight of the overall vision.

3. An Improved UI and Help System

All variants of Project have been complex to use. The new "Tell me what you want to do" feature improves on the standard canned help text with an interactive search bar, reducing the time spent searching for rarely used functions. Microsoft have also teased the introduction of more formal longer form tutorials down the line.

An Important Tool for Microsoft

Project Online joined Office 365 back in 2012, but Microsoft currently appears to be really pushing the full power of the product. We caught up with André Silva, senior product marketing manager for both Project and Visio, and asked him if this reflected his experience:

“Microsoft Project has always been a hugely important tool for us, and indeed for the many hundreds of thousands of people that rely on it every day to run their work. However as we embrace the mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more, it gains an even greater importance for us. Office 365 represented a historical step in the transformation of the way in which our customers work, and Project Online now gives all kinds of organizations the ability to achieve more. We are particularly excited about what Project 2016 offers, both the Online, Server and desktop versions and look forward to seeing how companies use these enhanced tools.”

A Practical Case Study

So how are companies using these "enhanced tools"? The Microsoft customer success stories page is a good place to find out. Filter by "Project" and some big names come up, companies running large projects on a regular basis. Let’s look at one, Arup.

Arup was founded in 1946 and offers services covering all aspects of the construction process. It is known for its work on projects such as the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Center, the High Speed 1 railway between London and Paris, and work on both the 2008 Beijing and London 2012 Olympics. In other words, big projects with suitably big project plans.

It determined that Microsoft Project Online would be the perfect fit for their portfolios, giving its workforce easy access to project data anytime from any location. Carolyn Bundey, manager of the Global IT Portfolio Management Office at Arup, explained further:

“Our strategy is cloud first wherever possible. With an online project management solution, we can report on projects using live data with a system that ties into other processes, such as service and change management.”

Project Online is now also home to the Arup IT Project Pipeline — a Fort Knox of ideas for future development. For many this will sound similar to the way in which SharePoint and more traditional aspects of Office 365 are often used. Clearly, Project offers a much more structured approach, but it is interesting to see how Project, as part of Office 365 (and the integration that this brings with SharePoint, Yammer, people and maybe even soon Delve), can be practically applied to offer more than the sum of its parts. Certainly Arup seem to have found it useful. Bundey continued:

“It only takes a couple of minutes to create a project or program within Project Online. Each has its own Project Details Pages — including a built in schedule template and a connected Microsoft SharePoint site with risk and issue logs. I’m saving a couple days work on each new project, and that time saving adds up with an annual portfolio of approximately 180 projects.”

Arup is far from alone in using Project in this way — further exploration of the customer stories site reveals companies as diverse as Xerox and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health are using the product.

So, perhaps Microsoft's new found enthusiasm for Project Online and Project Server is actually rooted in the very same principles that have seen Office 365 grow and flourish in recent years. That is, that the real power in cloud productivity tools lies in integrating multiple features and functions, and better mimicking how users actually work in real life.

SharePoint has undoubtedly been a powerful platform for many years, as was Yammer before Microsoft bought the company. Combine them inside Office 365 however, and the end result has inspired brand new tools like Delve. The sum is much greater than the parts.

It seems Microsoft is now seeking to show customers that Project Online can have a similar journey, as part of Office 365. Looking forward, it will be fascinating to see how Project 2016 delivers on this vision.

Title image by Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert