Why Small Businesses Will Like LiquidPlanner

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For all that's fabulous about online work-automation tools, there remains a steep hill to be climbed: Yes, Google Apps (Stock Quote: GOOG), Microsoft Office Live (Stock Quote: MSFT) and Salesforce.com (Stock Quote: CRM) all sound great, but figuring out which one will work for you is a major pain.

We here in Blumworld have been doing our part, slowly but surely working our way through the work-automation-tool universe. We have tested, at length, Microsoft Office Live, Google Apps and Basecamp, the project-management tools from 37 Signals. And now we are embarking on our next victim -- eh, "test!" -- LiquidPlanner (free for nonprofits, $30/month/seat, or $300/year/per seat).

The Bellevue, Wash.-based online collaboration and project-management-tool company was started in 2006. Over its relatively brief life, it has grown to be an industry innovator with more than 500 deployments and several thousand users. The software has a typical project-management interface, a la Microsoft Project, but it's been heavily modified for Web-based collaboration. The company has also introduced a very interesting idea into project management software: The code attempts to diagram the probability that a project will be completed, which heaven knows is what we all really want to know.

Here are my early impressions over our first round of deployments.

What You Get

LiquidPlanner, like most others in the space, puts all tasks, schedules, documents and comments about a project in a single place that you and your employees can find. Believe it or not, that's actually sort of a commodity these days. But LiquidPlanner deserves credit for doing a nice job with these basics.

Sign-up is easy and free for the first month. Simply enter your name and email address and some other information, like the correct time zone. (Don't forget the time zone, which is the source of project-management woe for those who work across the country.) Once that's complete, there's a series of reasonable online tutorials for getting started.

Big note: Take the tutorials! It is simply too much to expect these poor software offerings to somehow magically intuit what it is you and your business are looking for. So take the time to figure out what the software intends. There is just too much on the line these days to be an instruction-manual bigot.

Back to LiquidPlanner: The software creates a series of work spaces, online lists and charts organized by different types of information. There is a dashboard, a planning area, a place for collaboration and other features. And the code packs a reasonable amount of information in an equally reasonable amount of space and effort. Multiple projects can be grouped by specs, testing or support. They can be grouped again by priority, business unit, individual person, load level, work share, hours, comments -- basically, any filter or tag you specify.

The system is robust in early testing and is filled with all the standard project-management features: dependencies, dates, estimates on completion and all the rest. It even accepts uploads from Excel and other software. While perfectly nicely done, none of this is unique.

What is unique is the concept of the range of outcomes on a given project. LiquidPlanner has an interesting feature that graphically estimates the completion dates for a task as a range: The earliest date, the latest date -- and a concept I love -- the most likely date. These variables are then rendered as percentages. And those percentages are shared throughout the software package.

The effect is powerful. For example, the due dates for research on our next round of stories began to get backed up. I was late, as always. So the software realizes that the subsequent steps of writing, proofreading and other functions are being delayed. So they were flagged for being more risky. Better yet, as we adapted to those risks, say, by moving dates, rescheduling or bringing new elements and resources into play, all that new information flowed through to the rest of the software and the company where everybody could see. Pretty darn slick.

What You Don't Get

An answer to all your problems: Yes it's lovely, but there is plenty of work in getting LiquidPlanner to work for you, at least to start. Laying out jobs takes time and effort. You have to be careful piecing together assignments. And expect to be clear about training your people: Brain cramps await in getting the hang of this baby, particularly for the technophobes in your business. The concept is a lot to digest. For you, for your people and for your business. So be patient.

Bottom Line

LiquidPlanner is exciting stuff. For $3,000 a year for a 10-person company, the software is an affordable way to get on top of your business systems. For sure, there will be issues, but if you're thinking about upgrading your project-management tools, LiquidPlanner is definitely worth being on your short list.

I can't wait to see how this tool shakes out in my shop over the coming months. Stay tuned.

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