Just as Lotus 1-2-3 and Framework let you manage all that data that flows over your desk, there's a new kind of software that will help you better manage your time.

I'm not talking about "calendar" programs that send little "tickler" memos that remind you to visit the dentist or pick up the laundry or do other trivial tasks. I'm talking about real world "project management" programs. That's software that lets you map out, monitor and model how you can invest your time to get your projects finished on schedule.

All managers manage projects. Those projects often incorporate dozens of key tasks, each with severe constraints on both time and money. Too often, the schedules, resources, and relationships of various working groups, and the critical points where they all intersect, reside in the manager's head. Project management software offers a dynamic and interactive way to examine the status of a project and explore a variety of "what if?" contingencies.

Most of the packages rely on the well-established Gannt chart or "critical path method" techniques of project representaion. The Gannt represents a project as a set of tasks charted out on a time line, while the critical path approach not only addresses tasks but their associated resources, like money.

Using a PC, one can graphically display all the charts and timelines on screen and then twiddle with them.

For example, what if task A is two weeks late? What if the fixed costs are allocated differently? Suppose a couple of key tasks may cost a few thousand dollars more than expected. What is the cost of the delay in finding another supplier?

These are precisely the sorts of questions that managers have to address if they want to squeeze all the cost efficiencies they can into their projects.

Of course, these software packages can also chart the actual course of the project and serve as the basis for status reports. Project software can be both an historical record and a forecasting tool for the manager.

In essence, look at project management as a living database that injects the key dimension of time into the planning process. I'll bet you any sum of money that there will be a spate of software products that link this vital time element to exisiting database and spreadsheet programs such as Lotus and Framework.

The folks at TRW, the giant aerospace company, have conducted extensive market surveys and have determined that several packages can meet their needs -- which are pretty rigorous. John Gerwatosky, a TRW manager, says that the project software management packages "let us do in hours what used to take us weeks" and give project managers "a very cost effective way to trim time off their projects."

One package TRW likes is Task Monitor from Monitor Software in Los Altos, Calif. Another is Trakker from Dekker Ltd. in San Bernadino, Calif. A third package on the recommended list is Qwiknet from Project Software Development Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. They all run off the IBM PC and should use a hard disc.

The Qwiknet package is mouse-and-menu driven and very easy to learn. Unfortunately, the graphics are less than outstanding. But the Qwiknet product is an important harbinger of things to come because it is designed to be a bridge between the data stored on the PC and the data stored on a mainframe.

That means that if you're a project manager at a big company, you can update your schedule and resource information by tapping into the corporate mainframe. Similarly, we will soon see local area PC networks sharing project managment information so that everybody can be kept up to speed on the status of a project.

There are other good project software packages. I like MacProject, which is designed to run on Apple's Macintosh. The graphics are outstanding, and with its menu structure, it's a snap to figure out. Alas, who knows when MacProject will materialize on the computer store shelves?

One note: most managers have their own style of planning and monitoring projects. The software they select should reflect that style. Who wants to shoehorn one's management priorities to fit the strictures of the software? Project management software can really expand a manager's abilities to know what's going on and what might go on in the future. We think it could be the next major selling item for the office PC.