Project Management Software

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project Management Software comes in many degrees of sophistication and prices range from $50 to $20,000 or more. The Project Management Software itself doesn’t make you more effective; it just makes you more efficient. The software doesn’t teach you how to define the scope, communicate with the project sponsor or make clear assignments to your team members.  It just lets you do these and many other tasks more efficiently. Let’s talk about the types of Project Management Software available for the kind of projects you manage.  This will let you pick a Project Management Software tool that’s right for you and the organizational setting in which you work. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Why Use Project Management Software?

Picking the correct Project Management Software product to build your schedule is a key to consistently finishing your projects on time and within budget.  The software lets you schedule the critical project management steps more efficiently than using a yellow notepad or an Excel spreadsheet. It allows you to quickly and efficiently complete these critical steps:

  • Spotting problems early, not after it’s too late to fix them
  • Optimizing the use of resources so you finish as early as possible
  • Updating the project schedule in a few minutes each week so you know where you are
  • Updating everyone’s schedule quickly when things change.

No matter what size your project is, you should use Project Management Software to save time and get the data you need. It is valuable on small projects and a necessity on larger projects. There are thousand of project management software packages on the web, in the cloud or that to you can install on your PC or Mac. Even the free Project Management Software products that are available are worth using. Software will save you hours making your plan and schedule and reporting actual progress to the boss. The time you save will allow you to manage the project team and anticipate/solve problems. That makes you a more effective and successful project manager. People who try to manage projects using a yellow note pad or spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel waste hundreds of hours, even on a small project.

How to Use Project Management Software

First, you will use Project Management Software to develop the schedule. You’ll enter data about the deliverables in the work breakdown structure (WBS) and the people who will be doing the work. This includes the hours of work each task requires and the availability of the team members assigned to teach task. With that data, the software can calculate the duration of the tasks and the entire project. It also produces a schedule for each team member. The schedules show the team members when they are supposed to start and finish each task.

project softwareYou’ll also use Project Management Software to track progress on the plan that the project sponsor approved. The software compares how the project is actually doing versus the plan. To do this, the software uses the data you enter every week from the project team members’ status reports. It will automatically compare what’s actually happened to what should have happened. This lets you spot variances to the plan and take corrective action to fix the negative variances.

Project Management Software Survey

As project management has become more important in organizations, the number of Project Management Software products has increased. In our latest survey of Project Management Software products, we found over 500 legitimate products. (By the way, we don’t sell any software.) There were hundreds more products that didn’t meet the following minimum criteria:

  1. Produce a Gantt chart that clearly communicates the start and finish date for each task and their sequence.
  2. Calculate the duration for each task and the entire project from work and availability data
  3. Generate graphics and data comparing actual performance to the baseline project schedule.

If those three criteria are all you need, there are plenty of Project Management Software packages costing $25 or less that will meet your needs. You could also spend thousands of dollars for packages that don’t do much more than those three features; they just do it fancier. Before buying any software, you need to decide what you want it to do for you. There are additional capabilities that even a new project manager starting out on a small project should get from their Project Management Software.

So let’s explore which of the following categories fits you best.

Project Management Software For Small Projects

Project managers in this category often plan and schedule with only durations, not estimates of work and resource capacity.  Many times they don’t need to develop or track a project budget and status reports only track completion dates. At this level, the organization usually does not consolidate or “roll-up” all the projects into a project portfolio. It also doesn’t manage the total use of all the people who work on projects.

The low-end Project Management Software products are fine for project managers who want to automate the process of building plans, preparing occasional status reports and producing simple Gantt and PERT charts . There are plenty of packages that will automate these basics for you. There is no need to invest the time to master the more advanced products. For under $125, there are products like: Gantter or Quickbase. Most computer and business supply stores carry these less expensive products. There are also a number of web-based products at this capability level.

Project Management Software for Medium-size Projects

As the scale of projects grows and their impact reaches beyond one functional unit, demands grow on the project manager’s techniques and the Project Management Software capabilities.  Software that is a static representation of start and finish dates won’t meet your needs. You need to use software tools that simulate the project and reschedule and optimize it every time there is a change. You can’t re-enter start and finish dates every time something changes in the schedule. You need Project Management Software that can control the sequence of tasks with predecessor relationships. Predecessor relationships connect tasks that must be done sequentially, concurrently or consecutively.  As an example, Task A must finish before Task B can start. Or Tasks A and B must finish at the same time (or begin at the same time). The software helps you build project plans based on estimated hours of work and predecessor relationships, not just start and finish dates. Those dates change frequently throughout the life of the project. Project Management Software that uses predecessor relationships lets you update the schedule in 10 minutes each week. No more hours spent crunching calculations and doing data entry.

Project Management Software at this level also gives you the ability to enter estimate-to-complete data. This allows you to gather data from your project team members about when they’re going to finish their task(s). Then you use the software to forecast when the entire project will finish. This makes your status reports more complete and lets you communicate to the boss that you are in control of what’s happening on the project.

Budget is now an important issue in planning and tracking. You require software that gives you the ability to budget and schedule internal employees was well as external consultants, vendors, equipment and travel expenses. These products include critical path and resource leveling tools. And because you are building more precise work-based plans, the Project Management Software will produce more advanced earned value reporting and slack and delay reports for fine-tuning the schedule and resolving variances.

The cost of this project software takes quite a jump in price to the $300-$500 level. The learning curve for these software tools is much steeper than the prior level. The big market shares belong to Microsoft Project and Primavera (Oracle) products.

Project Management Software for Larger Projects 

On larger projects, you will need the ability to schedule and track progress using work estimates. You also need to track actual work completed versus the baseline plan. You shouldn’t use estimates of start and finish dates. You should be scheduling and tracking with estimates of the amount of work and the duration, not finish dates. This allows you to avoid surprises, especially those surprises that come just before the scheduled finish date. Then t’s too late for you to fix them. You have an early warning system if you estimate both the amount of work required to do the task and the amount of work remaining on a task. The latter is reported by your team members in their weekly status reports. It’s important to have the software track resource utilization and the workload for each team member. This gives you the facts needed to shift resources between tasks as problems arise and more resources are needed.  You need the ability to display critical path, slack (also called float) and delay for each task. This allows you to quickly shorten the duration and decide what tasks you should assign to people when changes occur. You need to make weekly adjustments to resource assignments as new projects start and old ones finish or slip. All professional project managers use Project Management Software with these capabilities. Microsoft Project has all these capabilities in the desktop version and it is an excellent Project Management Software program for larger projects.

Project Management Software for Multiple Projects

The requirements for sophisticated Project Management Software products grow when you start managing multiple projects. In this situation, you are probably operating in a mature project organization that manages resources across all projects. There are executives who are accountable for portfolios of projects. You need a set of Project Management Software tools to consistently plan projects, set priorities, allocate resources to projects based on those priorities and track their progress through completion. You now need to consolidate (roll-up) multiple projects and provide consistent information so executive decision-makers can prioritize projects. You must also allocate resources and schedule and track a pool of people working on multiple projects. This process is a lot more complicated than it sounds. It requires organization processes for portfolio management and Project Management Software that can identify conflicting demands for the same resources. It must allow the executives to set priorities among projects that require the same resources. Here are other requirements the Project Management Software must provide:

  1. Visuals that compare the actual to the baseline schedule and budget. Display slack and delay for schedule and resource optimization.
  2. Report by task, major deliverable, resource and the department the resources came from. Earned value, cost and time variances are also required reports.
  3. Base the schedule on work estimates, not just start/finish dates. (You can skip it if finishing on time is not critical in your organization.)
  4. Calculate duration based on resource availability and work required (resource-driven scheduling).
  5. Schedule people for a portfolio of projects based on project priorities.
  6. Automatic resource leveling to ensure no resource is assigned more work than they can do.
  7. Archived database for future project estimates.

At the strategic project level, you need Project Management Software that can allocate people’s time based on the priority of the task or project to which they’re assigned. Resource-driven scheduling uses predecessor relationships, not start and finish dates. This combination of features saves you lots of time. It also gives you the tools to quickly quantify the impact of changes the project sponsor wants to make. Project managers routinely deal with sponsors who are several organizational levels above them or who sign their paycheck.  In these situations, you can’t argue with the sponsor about the best way to do the project.  What you need is data to quantify the impact of changes and model alternative ways of solving problems.  Having that data gives you more credibility with the sponsor.  It also gives the executives solid date on which to make their decisions. They don’t have to pluck due dates and budgets out of the air.

In addition to time-saving scheduling and analysis tools, Project Management Software should also archive data for use on future projects. Incredible value comes from archiving data on every project. The right Project Management Software tracks actual performance in terms of hours of work and completion dates and builds a database for estimating on the next project. The archived data makes future estimates easier and more accurate.  Microsoft Project also has all these capabilities in the desktop version.

Project Management Software Summary

Project Management Software products come in many levels of sophistication with prices ranging from free to $20,000 or more. No matter what size your project is, you should use Project Management Software to save time and get the data you and the project sponsor need. It is valuable on small projects and a necessity on larger projects.

You can learn how to use project management software in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with an expert project manager who is your instructor and coach. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with them as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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