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Managing and prioritizing tasks is key to meeting business obligations. Almost every business professional has a method of managing small projects and effectively collaborating with others to get the job done. But can yours be improved?
I recall one client who proudly showed me his task management system: He neatly printed each to-do item on a sticky note and slapped it on the bezel of his computer monitor. When a task became high priority, he moved the paper higher on the side of his monitor and shifted the other notes lower. When he was very busy, the notes overflowed to his desk, marching in two regimented lines down each side of his monitor to his keyboard.
Sadly, his home-grown project management system crashed one night. A new office cleaner came in and diligently cleaned his monitor and desk. The next morning he found all his precisely arranged stickies stacked in one neat pile by the phone. He spent half an hour resorting his task priorities.
There's no excuse for sticking to a paper-based project management system when several simple Web services can now do the job so much better. These services also help ensure that all project team members are quickly updated about changing deadlines and new developments.
I like QG|Software's 5pm, a relatively inexpensive ($18 per month and up), easy-to-use project management service that can help you prioritize your tasks and manage smaller projects. It sports a good-looking user interface that is more customizable than most other Web-based services.
5pm is no Microsoft Project: It can't easily manage large or long-term projects. However, it lets you create and update tasks and projects either on the Web or via e-mail. Visually appealing timeline charts let you quickly check your progress. 5pm can also integrate project deadlines with some calendar services.
Overall, 5pm offers a well-rounded array of project management services that should suit the needs of most light-duty users.
No Credit Card Required for Trial
Signing up for an account is simple. You don't even need to provide credit card info for the free trial. 5pm supports most popular Web browsers, including recent versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.
You will need to select your own subdomain (something along the lines of "mycompany.5pmweb.com") in order to log on to the service and to enable e-mail integration. Several short video tutorials provide basic instructions on how to use the service.
After you log on, you'll see four tabs down the left side of the display: Projects, Timeline, Reports, and Profiles. You'll probably spend most of your time working in the Projects tab. Clicking on it shows a list of projects in the left pane. When you click on a project, a list of project details, such as tasks and progress indicators, appear in the right pane. Simply hovering over a project for a couple of seconds will provide more details in a pop-up info window, a nice touch.
I also like the way you can customize the look of 5pm, simply dragging columns to change widths or resort data. 5pm can even integrate with calendars that support iCalendar feeds, such as Apple iCal and Mozilla Sunbird, so you can check on your project deadlines in the calendar app. Such data synchronization works with Google Calendar, too, but for some reason (the company blames Google), the process is much slower than it is with the Apple and Mozilla apps.
You can enter projects and tasks directly using the Web interface; alternatively, you can create them by sending e-mail to your custom 5pm address. You can also use e-mail to add up to 20MB of document files and update the percentage completion of a task. Parameters in your e-mail subject line let you specify more details such as start dates and deadlines.
5pm's e-mail integration makes it particularly easy to update project information using a mobile device. Even if your small mobile display is inadequate to show 5pm's Web interface, you can still tap out an e-mail to update a project's status.
5pm supports four types of users so you can fine-tune service access. Administrators can do everything; users can edit projects and tasks for teams to which you assign them; external users can view projects and tasks for their teams; clients can view and edit their own projects.
How 5pm Stacks Up
I've discussed other project management services in a previous column. 5pm handles more than the popular Basecamp, but still manages to be easy for a project management neophyte to understand. It doesn't, however, offer all the current capabilities of the higher-end Wrike, which recently added Wiki-like knowledge collaboration.
Five paid plans for 5pm are available, with costs ranging from $18 to $175 per month. The basic plan supports five users, ten active projects, and 250MB of data storage, while the high-end plan allows unlimited users and projects, and caps storage at 5GB. A 14-day free trial is available.
Basecamp still rules the roost when it comes to entry-level project management services. But if you'd like something a little slicker, then consider 5pm.
Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your connected small-to-midsize business via e-mail . PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.
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