In addition to the existing teaching assignment, the research project work for public and private-sector clients is one of the main fields of activity of the Department of Advanced Mining Technologies of RWTH Aachen University. In order to support the numerous research projects of the university institute a cloud-based project management tool was used so far, which, however, was only partially suitable for the complex communication and multiproject management requirements of the institute. Since spring 2018 the institute's management, project managers, academic staff, student assistants and project partners have been working with the project management and collaboration platform Taskworld to bring more agility, effectiveness and transparency into collaborative components of teaching and research.
The Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT) is a chair at the RWTH Aachen University, which focuses on research and development of new mining technologies. With a combination of basic research, field trials and interdisciplinary collaborations, AMT combines diverse competencies in the fields of machine technology for raw material extraction, maintenance and diagnostics, simulation and engineering tools, rock cutting as well as sensor technology and automation. In line with "Mining 4.0", the utilization of information for process, environment and machine monitoring using sensor technology and modern methods of machine and process data analysis are currently the focus of research.
Project Management Tool was not suitable for multiproject management
The activities of the institute AMT of RWTH Aachen University include the realization of research projects in the field of hardware and software development for the mining industry. So far the project management tool LeanKit covered the project work. The Kanban-based solution was used as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) from the cloud, which proved to be very pragmatic for the existing scope of application. "However, in our day-to-day work with the project management tool, we've missed something critical: each project had its own board with specific tasks and project milestones, but there was a lack of a superordinate dashboard level to make multiproject management manageable. Instead of keeping track of the relevant project correspondence and current project progress at a glance, updates and new comments were only displayed at the project level. As a tool for communication, the tool was also not sufficiently usable because it requires each employee to click through each project to see what has been done and what is to do. We saw this as a major shortcoming in our day-to-day project work, with the result that our own work organization, the agility in Kanban project management and the tool support have fallen by the wayside", explains Dr.-Ing. Thomas Bartnitzki, Academic Board Member and Deputy Director of the AMT. "You know the problem: if you have to look for information, you quickly lose the joy of a system. In the past, this has already led to "map corpses" being created because the projects were not actively managed by the tool. So in early 2018, we decided to replace our project management tool with a new one that better fits our needs.”
The Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies develops i.a. autonomous robotic and sensor systems for mining. (Source: RWTH Aachen Institut AMT)
New solution should allow easy onboarding and clear communication
Afterwards, the team led by Thomas Bartnitzki first gained an overview of the popular cloud-based project management solutions and defined the most important criteria for the evaluation and selection process. It was a general consent that the future solution should run on SaaS to avoid the hassle of implementing, configuring and managing a local OnPremise solution and merely using the software as a service. A research project usually involves a member of the institute's scientific staff as the project manager, the responsible director of the institute, between 2-6 project staff members and various student assistants who assist on a part-time basis. Due to the part-time work and the temporary participation over a period of typically 1.5 to 3 years, it has hitherto proved to be a difficult process involving student assistants in the project processes. A key requirement of the tool was that it needed to be very easy to use in order to enable fast onboarding and effective collaboration over the long project lifetimes of 2-4 years.
Subdivision and breakdown by projects and not only by tasks were very important for the project team. In addition, the new solution should be able to depict a second level of structure for better planning projects in encapsulated "work packages". In the course of the software evaluation process, communication and commenting were also defined as key features to ensure effective exchange and know-how transfer between the project participants. Last but not least, formal criteria such as GDPR compliance and a server location in the EU should be guaranteed in order to meet existing internal requirements for the use of SaaS solutions.
Taskworld was the best match for focus and own working methods
In the second step, the AMT looked at various solutions "hands-on" in test environments and examined their suitability. The project team also evaluated in terms of handling and operability, transparency and clarity as well as their communication features. "The way Taskworld has implemented the dashboard and comment function , was a big plus from the beginning. In addition, it scored with a very simple, intuitive user interface, which was the most important criterion for us, "recalls Thomas Bartnitzki. Thanks to the possibility of depositing dependencies between individual tasks, the structures of several outline levels could also be simulated. Since Taskworld almost completely fulfilled the other requirements such as GDPR compliance, groupability at the project level and most closely matched its own working methods, Taskworld was finally chosen. After an internal orientation phase of 2-3 months, where Taskworld was running with a few projects and the old system in parallel, the institute finally went into productive operation in the summer of 2018 with Taskworld as the leading project management system managing all current projects.
Convenient integration of project partners
The currently 46 institute projects created in Taskworld are subdivided into different areas: i.a. in public research projects funded by the EU or national research programs, industrial research projects, internal projects such as further developments or strategic projects and teaching projects for individual subjects such as exam and exercise planning. Thanks to the possibility of integrating external partners into projects via Taskworld's own guest function, Taskworld is increasingly applied in conference planning or gathering international research groups on a central project platform. If required, the employees at the institute can grant project partners direct access to the project board by sending an invitation link by e-mail. "Since guests see only the tasks or the project, they are actively involved either as observers or task editors, without any time-consuming facilities, authorization concepts or additional costs. In this way, we can not only keep our external clients up to date in a very elegant way, but also centrally manage external service providers. Due to the nature of the event, we are currently handling the entire conference planning via Taskworld, where we have also integrated designers, participant management and other service providers. All coordination and communication processes run centrally via Taskworld, so that all employees involved in the conference planning are up-to-date. Alone, this project already comprises almost 300 tasks today. Not losing track can be a challenge. Taskworld is an enormous support for us in order to be able to effectively govern, steer and monitor even complex projects and tasks", Thomas Bartnitzki sets an example.
Agile project work thanks to effective communication
Particularly in the case of research projects, transparency and traceability in the course of the project are crucial. Due to the fact that important project-relevant correspondence, file attachments and decision-making principles can be stored in Taskworld, decision-making processes can be traced by all project participants, even over long project durations and without additional documentation effort. "The ability to fully retrace the previous communication - who made what decisions and when and why - is an elementary function for our project work that we no longer want to miss today. We have this transparency not only at the level of our individual projects, but also in multi-project management. To see at a glance what is currently going on at the institute - where is a lot of activity, where is little - is especially important for our employees from the steering committee for project controlling. For our scientific staff, on the other hand, the focus lies on a very effective communication. Since all people involved in the project are at the same level of information, the necessary need for coordination has dropped significantly and the communication is very targeted", continues Thomas Bartnitzki. "The communication between the academic staff, the teachers and student assistants is already taking place to a great extent mobile via the Taskworld app, which also ensures that project progress, individual tasks and current deadlines remain in focus. That's why our employees not only use it for agile project work at the institute, but also as a tool for their own self-organization."
In order to introduce the student assistants to the topic of project management and at the same time to make them familiar with the our methods of operation and parlance such as "Milestones", "Work Packages" and "Deliverables", Taskworld is equally used as an "e-learning" and practical exercise tool. In this way not only the essential aspects can be conveyed better, but also responsibilities, deadlines or dependencies between tasks can be realized as "training-on-the-job".