Posted by: 4c Systems | 13 February, 2008

Glossary of common Project and Resource Management terms – Part 1

In common with most professions, there’s a lot of jargon associated with project and resource management, which many people may not fully understand. Since this terminology is also used in project and resource management software, we thought it would be helpful to provide explanations of some of the common terms.

What is a Project?
Before going on to look at some specific terms, we ought to understand what we mean by a Project.
Prince2 defines a project as ‘a management environment that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to a specified business case’. (“Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2”, Office of Government Commerce, 2002.)
According to Wikipedia, ‘the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that business and science projects involve “a collaborative enterprise, frequently involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim”.’

How do you define it in your organisation?

Glossary 1

  1. Activity or Task?
  2. Baselined values
  3. Critical Path and Float
  4. Gantt Chart
  5. PERT Chart
  6. Phase
  7. Project Management Methodology
  8. Task Dependencies

1   Activity or Task?
Phases are useful for summarising the major chunks of work in a project, but when it comes to estimating how much time you will need to do the work, it makes sense to break each phase down into smaller units.
There are usually at least 2 levels of breakdown inside a phase. The first level of the breakdown is often called an Activity. Activities are smaller chunks of work, carried out by multiple resources (skills and/or people), and can run both in sequence and in parallel (i.e. two or more Activities can take place at the same time).

Project Management - Activities

Project Management - Activities

Activities are broken down into smaller units, which traditionally were seen as pieces of work carried out by one person or at least one skill resource. These are often called Tasks (but can be called Activities just to be confusing!). However, in less formal breakdowns, Tasks can have multiple resources assigned.
There are two main advantages to breaking the project down into tasks in this way:

  • It helps to identify the individual pieces of work that you need to do – if you don’t think at this level of detail you may forget essential elements of the work which could actually be quite lengthy to carry out.
  • It is easier to estimate the time it will take one person to do a small piece of work than how long it will take several different sorts of people to do a larger piece of work

As a result, the estimates are likely to be more accurate.

2   Baselined Values
When you have made your plan, it’s a good idea to baseline or “freeze” it. This gives you a benchmark against which to measure the actual performance of the project as it progresses.
Planned dates for the whole project and for individual elements (phases, activities and tasks) can be compared with the actual dates. This will highlight if the project is likely to be late.
If you can compare planned hours and costs with actuals, this gives you the ability to calculate Earned Value, which can give you a measure of performance. This can be useful when comparing one project with another.

3   Critical Path and Float

When you have (or the software has) worked out the earliest and latest start and finish times, the tasks which have a gap between these times are said to have Float, i.e. they can move without affecting the overall duration of the project.

Other tasks have no Float, and because any delays to these tasks will affect the project duration, they are called Critical Tasks. At least one path through the network can be traced following these tasks, so it’s called the Critical Path.

If you want to reduce the overall project duration (bring forward the end date) you have to find a way of reducing the duration of the Critical Tasks; or you can try changing the dependencies so that some of them run concurrently.

4   Gantt Chart
A horizontal bar chart on which projects, activities and/or tasks can be plotted against time. The bar chart can be refined by the addition of extra information such as:

  • Task Dependencies and the Critical Path
  • Baselined values
  • Float

It is often useful to display a resource histogram below the gantt chart. The software you use may allow you to move the bars forwards and backwards to change the pattern of resource allocation – this process is called smoothing.
Some software allows you to show a cost histogram instead of the resource histogram. This might be mapped against a budget line: moving the bars allows you to smooth the pattern of expenditure to keep within the budget.

5   PERT Chart
A PERT chart is used to define and display the Task Dependencies. It’s a representation of the logic of the relationships between tasks. Traditionally, it was used to calculate the earliest and latest start and end times for each task, and hence to work out the Critical Path. Nowadays, given task durations and dependencies, scheduling application software can work out all the times and mark the critical path at the touch of a button.

Here’s an example of a software-drawn PERT Chart:

PERT or Logic Chart

PERT or Logic Chart

6   Phase
A phase is a stage of a project. In many project management methodologies such as Prince 2, there is a requirement to review the project at the end of each phase, to gain approval for moving on to the next phase. Hence phases usually run in sequence (i.e. normally you cannot have two or more phases running at the same time).

Phases or Stages

Project Management: Phases or Stages

Whether or not you are using a formal methodology, it is useful to break the project up into phases, because this helps you to focus on a section of the work in order to plan it in more detail.

7   Project Management Methodology
Organisations recognise that projects should not be allowed to proceed without being actively monitored and reviewed. In order to provide a formal structure for this process of review, many organisations adopt a project management methodology. They may use a standard one like Prince 2 or they may devise their own (perhaps based on a standard methodology).
A key element of a methodology is that it focuses on deliverables – all the tasks and activities are directed towards delivering something (a document, a plan, a tangible product). Planning when those tasks and activities will happen is only part of the process.

8   Task Dependencies
Often, tasks within an Activity are linked together in a sequence, i.e. a successor task cannot start until its predecessor is finished. If you’re making a cup of tea, you can’t boil the kettle before filling it with water (well, you can, but that can have disastrous consequences!). This is called a Finish-Start dependency.
However, some tasks can be carried out at the same time: while the kettle’s boiling, you can put the tea-bags in the mugs. You can start both tasks at the same time, but the tea-bags must be in the mugs when the water is boiling. You could set a Start-Start dependency on the two tasks, but it’s probably better to set a Finish-Finish dependency.

Project Management - Task Dependencies

Project Management - Task Dependencies

Some people use the Gantt Chart to draw dependencies, but a better tool is a PERT chart or network plot.


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