So, we’re at the start of a new project and I thought it was a useful time to reflect on the range of tools we’re using in the early stages of the project for collaboration and project management. These tools cover communication, project management, task management and bibliographic management.
For small projects we’re using the One Page Project Plan, an excel template from www.oppmi.com This uses a single excel worksheet to cover tasks, progress, responsibility and accountability and also some confidence measures about how the project is progressing. We’ve used this fairly consistently for two or three years for our small projects and people are pretty familiar with not only how to use them for projects but also how to read and interpret them. You can only really get about 25-30 tasks onto the OPPP, so it will be used to track activities at a relatively high level although we can reflect both the work-package level and some tasks within each work-package. Tasks are generally described in the past tense using words such as ‘completed’ or ‘developed’, so although it does give a reasonable overview of when activities are due to be happening there is less of an appreciation of the actual activities taking place in each time period. There’s a space on the page for a description of the status and that can be used to flag up what has been completed, or any particular issues. For bigger projects several OPPPs might be used, maybe with a high-level overarching version.
To organise and track the tasks in the project we’re using Trello. This openly available tool lets you create a Board for your project, and then arrange your tasks (each one termed a ‘card’) into groupings. So we’ve got several Phases for the project and then To Do, Doing and Done lists of tasks. You can add people to the cards and send out emails to people, set deadlines etc. You can easily drag cards from one list to another, create new cards and share with the project team. We’re only using the open/free version not the Business Class version and it seems to work fine for us. Trello worked pretty well for our digital library development project, particularly in terms of focusing on which developments went into which software release. So it will be interesting to see how well it works on a project that is a bit more exploratory and research-based.
Looking at what work has already been done in this area is an important part of the project. So at an early stage we’re doing a literature review. That’s partly to be able to understand the context that we’re working in and to give credit (through citations) of ideas that have come from other work, but specifically to look at techniques people have been using to investigate the relationship between student success, retention and library use. We’re not expecting that there will be an exact study that matches up with our conditions (the lack of student book loans data for one thing), but the approaches other people have taken are important for us to understand. We’re also hoping to write up the work for publication, so keeping track of citations for other work is vital. To do that we’re using RefMe and have setup a shared folder for the members of the project team to add references they find. RefMe seems to be quite good at finding the full references from partial details, although there are a few we’re adding in manually. To help with retrieving the articles we’re adding in the local version of the URL so we can find the article again. The tool also allows you to add notes about the reference, which can be useful. RefMe has an enormous range of reference styles and can output in a range of formats to other tools such as Zotero, Mendeley, RefWorks or Endnotes for example.
To keep interested parties up-to-date with project activities we’re using a wordpress blog, for this project the blog is at www.open.ac.uk/blogs/LibraryData. We’re fortunate in that we’ve an institutional blog environment established using a locally hosted version of the wordpress software. Although it isn’t generally the latest version of the wordpress blog software, there’s little maintenance overhead, we can track usage through the Google Analytics plug-in, and it integrates in with our authentication system, so it does the job quite well. We’ve used blogs fairly consistently through our projects and they have the advantage of allowing the project team to get messages and updates out quickly, encourage some commenting and interaction, and allow both short update-type newsy items as well as some more in-depth reflective or detailed pieces. They can be a relatively informal communication channels, are easy for people to edit and update and there’s not much of an overhead to administration. Getting a header sorted out for the blog is often the thing that takes up a bit of time.
Other tools and tools for the next steps
The usual round of office tools and templates are being used for project documents, for project mandates and project initiation documents, through to documentation of Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies, Stakeholder plans and Communications plans. These are mainly in-house templates in MS Word or Excel. Having established the project with an initial set of tools, attention is now turning to approaches to manage the data and the statistics. How do we manage the large amount of data to be able to merge datasets, extract data, carry out analyses, develop and present visualisations? Where can we use technologies we’ve already got, or already have licences for, where might we need other tools?