Web applications for the SME

Although I’m primarily a project manager (and a business manager) in the real estate and construction sector in a medium sized business, Europtima, I’ve long been interested in IT and how it could be best applied to business tasks. A colleague with a large UK consulting business recently told me that they had invested $9 million in a new software platform and were now concerned that it might never work effectively.  Like many people in SME’s, I’ve never had the luxury of multi-million dollar budgets, but I’ve seen my share of horror stories of mistaken investments in IT.  My own mistakes have been mainly at the cost my time, which I could have probably better used on something else, but have led to some useful solutions to our business needs using self developed, low cost and open source software.

In this article, you can read about my experiences and my recommendations for useful low cost web applications for knowledge, project, document, and cost management for businesses similar to mine in the construction and real estate sector.

Early experience of web development

From 1995 I took a keen interest in the Internet and WWW and was soon publishing a number of web sites, including that of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh which I published for 5 years for an annual fee of 100 of the best tickets in the house plus free use of function rooms for my theatre guests. Although I enjoyed publishing the Lyceum’s site, the demands on my time, particularly as the theatre moved towards on line booking, became so much that I had to relinquish it to a commercial outfit.

At this time, like many, I was primarily coding static pages in HTML with a little javascript and some cgi/perl scripts to process things like contact forms. I used some commercial perl scripts hosted on my servers to provide some interactive sites such as bulletin boards e.g. Project Management Insight, which is unfortunately no longer functioning although it built up a community of several hundred registered users.

The coming of the dynamic web site

However, as the web was becoming more interactive I began to take an interest in dynamic web sites interacting with a database at the backend. I then extended my knowledge of coding into ASP vbscript and SQL initially to develop content management systems for web sites.  Although ASP runs on Microsoft servers and is a Microsoft propietory web scripting language, the hosting cost, including the cost of providing databases, was the most attractive option at the time.

Optimum Manager

Optimum Manager Screenshot

Optimum Manager Screenshot

This then led me to developing a secure content management system (CMS) for our company web site in Poland (feel free to visit – it’s appearance is a little tired and a refresh is one of my ongoing projects). The content management system provided the ability for non-specialists to create web content such as news releases and employment opportunities.

This led to a more extensive CMS, which became known as ‘Optimum Manager’, providing not only the ability to update the web site, but also features such as:

  • contact database,
  • staff directory
  • file uploads and downloads for templates, procedures, technical and other information.
  • user access control levels

Other development within Optimum Manager included timesheets and some other features which haven’t been implemented.

Optimum Manager contains many thousands of lines of code and the initial development took place in fits and starts over a period of about a year. Its development continues intermittently.

It’s not used as much as I would like, although it is a useful tool.  With hindsight, the amount of effort which went into the development of the application detracted from the creation of content and promotion of it as a tool.  In addition, part of the business under the direction of the CEO has gone off on another direction – backwards! By backwards I mean to creating new systems such as timesheets which are a client server model and require software installation on the users’ computers – a major task to roll out and support for an organisation with staff in many diverse locations.

Optimum Cost Manager

Optimum Cost Manager

Optimum Cost Manager

As a project manager I was faced with keeping track of costs, orders and payments and all the other financial aspects of the project. Although many project managers are happy to attempt to manage this on a spreadsheet I found it to be laborious and prone to error, which led me to developing an MS Access database for my own use.

When I found myself collaborating with others, I split the database to have the database on the office file server and the software program on the user’s desktop.

This worked well when collaboration was within the office only, but the pain and pitfalls of database replication and merging to permit working in more than one location was a problem.  As a business with offices and projects in many locations throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa a different tool was needed – a web application where the end user needed only a web browser.  My experience with Optimum Manager set me down the road of developing Optimum Cost Manager, which is presently in use on a number of projects.  Optimum Cost Manager features:

  • user access control levels
  • creationof cost breakdown structure
  • budget development
  • supplier register and contact lists
  • purchase orders
  • payment certificates
  • change control
  • cost forecasting
  • financial reporting
  • client access to view the financial data for their projects

The application is generally welcomed by our project and cost managers and their customers.  The road map for further development of this application includes:

  • risk management module
  • issue management module
  • cash flow module

Document Management Systems

Document Management Systems (DMS) have become increasingly common on major projects.  My early experience of them was, frankly, not encouraging.  To be successful they require administration and buy-in from the entire team.  However, I first saw them being imposed by clients who ignored the need to establish a proper system for their administration (perhaps they were reluctant to pay someone to undertake the task having spent so much on the software, or perhaps the suppliers’ salespersons gave the impression that the system was easy to operate, etc.) and didn’t include requirements to participate in contracts they had drawn up (prior to our appointment).  My experience also included a financial management system operated by a major IT company on their projects which was so slow as to be virtually unuseable!

However, it’s not possible to keep fighting the demand for this type of application for ever.  A bit of research on the web revealed that there were vast numbers of systems claiming to be the ideal solution for the construction industry. One of my colleagues was tasked with further investigating and selecting a system which we could recommend as best suiting our requirements.  As a result we’re likely to plump for Conject PM.

Optimum KnowledgeBase

Optimum KnowledgeBase Screenshot

Optimum KnowledgeBase Screenshot

As part of my personal research into DMS and CMS, I looked to see what was available written in ASP, where my experience lay, and which could be installed on my own web servers.  As I was primarily looking for something which was open source or at least low cost, I found that the available selection was very limited.

However, I could see that a number of likely open source candidates were available written in PHP. As a regular user of Wikipedia, I was attracted by having a knowledge sharing system which would be more versatile and useable than that provided by Optimum Manager.  With a little trepidation and with no experience of PHP, I decided to give Dokuwiki a whirl, primarily because it was very similar in function to Wikipedia, but using flat files didn’t need a database installation.

Much to my astonishment, I had Dokuwiki installed and running in about one hour! What a change from the months of sweat creating Optimum Manager.  The Dokuwiki installation has been a little customised and badged as Optimum KnowledgeBase.  At present the content is being built up prior to its launch to staff.  Around 90 pages presently exist with more in preparation.

A Dokuwiki installation is possible on any web server running PHP, but the preferred stack is Linux, Apache, and PHP.  My installation is on an MS Windows Server with IIS (MS Internet Information Server) and PHP, which causes a few minor irritations.  So the present road map for Optimum KnowledgeBase is:

  • Migrate to a Linux/Apache server set up
  • Develop more content
  • Develop a couple more Flash tutorials
  • Roll out to staff

Optimum PM

Optimum PM Screenshot

Optimum PM Screenshot

Dokuwiki, although it has some features of a DMS, is lacking in some areas.  As a short term solution to a need to create a sharing platform on a project, I investigated open source offerings for document management.

After some deliberation, I decided to trial dotProject which requires a LAMP stack. This is a bit more difficult to install than Dokuwiki, but was nevertheless reasonably easy. This time rather than install the software on one of my existing hosted Windows servers, I set up a hosted linux server and a mySQL database before installing the dotProject software. With the installation of a couple of plugins to extend its capabilities and some minor modifications I had the application up and running in a weekend. The application has now been put into operation as Optimum PM and offers:

  • project management with some basic workflow
  • resource allocation
  • scheduling and reporting in form of a Gantt chart or task listing
  • contact list
  • user access control levels
  • file storage with versioning, check out, and customisable folder structure
  • shared calendar
  • smart searching
  • forums
  • help desk

Optimum PM is currently in use on some projects in Libya, but will be replaced with Conject PM. The workflow features are really not sufficiently automated for mega projects and it lacks in browser rendering for file types such as AutoCAD, but for the day to day small to medium projects it’s more than sufficient.  The road map for Optimum PM is:

  • tackle some minor bug fixes on the email notification
  • roll out to the business as a general project and document management tool for use on the day to day projects

Other Web Apps

There are many other web apps out there which are useful to business and low cost or free.  Examples which spring to mind include:

  • Google Calendar – shared calendars can be created and if you have MS Outlook on your desktop the Google Calendar can synchronise with your version of Outlook.
  • Goolge Analytics – ideal and free tool for monitoring use of your company web site
  • Linked In – business orientated social networking site
  • WordPress – the ideal tool to create a blog for your business.

I plan in future to write a more detailed post on the opportunities in this area.

My Pick of Web Apps for the Medium Enterprise

Knowledge Management Project and Document Management Cost Management
Application Dokuwiki dotProject Optimum Cost Manager
Licence Open Source Open Source Proprietary
Source http://www.dokuwiki.org http://www.dotproject.net Contact
Prerequisites Web Server running Linux, Apache and PHP 5 Web Server running the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) Web Server running MS Windows Server, Internet Information Server and an MS Access database
Hosting on your own servers Yes Yes No
Hosted solution Yes Yes Yes

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