Getting a grip on your project management software options
There is a dizzying array of project management software on the market today. If you’ve spent time researching your options, you already know it can be tough to get a grip on all the different functional options available and which programs are right for you. There are programs designed for internal project tracking and those more oriented toward client work. Some options are tailored to construction projects, others to professional service work, and still others optimized for systems or business development projects.
The benefits of finding the right program are enticing though. The right project management software promises improved project visibility, tools for promoting collaboration and creativity, and increased efficiency executing project work. The goal of this article is to provide you with an overview of each of the three main functional areas that make up the project management tools available to you: project planning, tracking, and collaboration software. With better insight into the software features available to you, you’ll be in a stronger position both to identify your software requirements and to find the programs that match your needs.
Positioning for success with project planning functionality
What’s the scope of the project? Who should be involved? What does project success look like? Project planning software provides a mechanism for answering these critical questions. Yet, project planning software tools still seem a bit, well, underappreciated.
Tactical project management tools—such as those that address task management and scheduling—seem quite indispensable in today’s business environment. Isn’t it time that we take the same attitude toward strategic project planning tools?
After all, it’s hard to go more than a few days without running into some restating of every business management pundit’s favorite Sun Tzu axiom: “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.” If we really believe that, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the project planning software available to us?
The answer is clearly, yes. If we believe in the importance of getting project schedules detailed into hyper-granular Gantt charts, surely we can promote project planning beyond the limits of individual email accounts and desktop file structures. Let’s take a closer look at some of the software tools available for managing key project planning tasks:
- Project ideation. Project planning is what happens when you consider the scope of a project, who will be involved, and the goals—right? True, but it’s also happening before that. Many organizations, particularly those managing internal development projects, are beginning to take a more rigorous approach to capturing project ideas and prioritizing them. Project ideation technologies are starting to show up more frequently in project management suites. Tools like survey and interview capture programs are designed to tap employee insights regarding business areas that can be improved. Prioritization dashboards, often involving polling and rating functionality, provide a means of managing which projects deserve attention.
- Project scope. Identifying project scope is a critical piece—perhaps the critical piece of project planning. Writing clear project scope statements is a bit of a skill though. Collaboration tools, form based document templates, and access to scope statements from previous projects provide assistance for project scope authors. Entity relationship diagrams, SWOT analyses, Venn diagrams, and a variety of other project modeling tools can be useful in the planning work that precedes project scope documentation.
- Work breakdown structures. A work breakdown structure provides an inventory or decomposition of the work that will go into successfully completing a project. Work breakdown structures are most commonly represented in a flow-chart like format, and tools that allow the creation of WBS documents are often found in project management programs.
- Project team rosters. Assembling a project team is another fundamental step in project planning. Project team management tools can handle not only the tracking and storage of project team member skills and certifications, but also management of their level of access to documents and utilities within the software, often on a project-by-project basis.
- Project budgeting. Project budgeting is a discipline and a craft in it’s own right. Not surprisingly, for this very reason, many project management tools leave budgeting to other software modules that are specifically designed for it. However, there are many project management programs these days that now include project budgeting functionality within the broader application suite as an integrated function. Some important budgeting features include estimating, line-item cost breakdown assignments, what-if scenario forecasting, and actual cost variance comparison tools.
- Change management. Project planning doesn’t occur exclusively at the beginning of a project. Change is inevitable and often it’s necessary to make changes to the work breakdown structure or even the project scope document. A normalized structure for managing change orders is an important component of any project management program. A structured approval process within the software tool is critical to ensuring that the changes support the interests of the project stakeholders.
Managing task assignments and scheduling with project tracking features
Who does what? When does it get done? How long do we have to do it and where are we at with task completion? Keeping projects on track and productive is often a product of how well your organization can answer these critical questions.
- Task assignment and scheduling. Managing tasks assignments and scheduling work can be complex. To keep up with this complexity, a large variety of different scheduling models and approaches can be seen in project management software. Check-list and to do style task registers are common. Calendar tools are generally directly provided by the project management software, but the integration of 3rd party calendars is not altogether uncommon. The ability to filter tasks based on task assignment, task attributes, and timeframe is an important basic feature for keeping up with scheduling when there are a large number of tasks present. Similarly, many systems will incorporate rule-based alert notifications related to upcoming tasks, task completions, or other indicators.
- Gantt charts. Gantt charts provide a means of viewing the dependencies between tasks. Gantt charts visually represent the connections between what work must be completed before other work can be tackled. Gantt charts are also utilized to track the completion of project milestones.
- Progress tracking. Progress tracking utilities provide a means of quickly identifying where a project is relative to completion. Task completion dashboards are common features. Dashboards will generally display a percentage to completion, as well as provide filtering capabilities to identify what work remains.
- Time tracking. A lot of managing projects is managing time. Often it’s critical to track time inputs on various projects for billing purposes. Frequently, time tracking is used for internal tracking purposes, such as monitoring project completion and identifying how long tasks will take on future projects. Features that allow for identifying time intervals and measuring time are frequently found among the utilities provided by project management suites.
- Resource allocation. Project resources frequently go beyond the skills and time of project members. Very often specific materials and equipment are required to complete projects. The ability to view and resource availability and manage can be a critical component of successful project management. Resource scheduling functionality can mirror labor scheduling in terms of the usage of resource registers and availability schedules.
Fostering creative collaboration with communication tools and document management software
Collaboration presents significant challenges. How do you effectively manage the interchange of ideas and documents between project members? How do you ensure project members are working on common resources? How do you maintain transparency and accountability when project contributions are shared?
As easy as it is to advocate the ideal of collaboration, it can be just as difficult to effectively realize it. Seemingly, there are obstacles everywhere to facilitating strong project communication. Distributed workforces are increasingly common. Your organization may need to manage communication with other business partners or inter-departmentally. It can be challenging for project members, especially those contributing to multiple projects, to keep others up to date on their work.
The good news is that there are more software options than ever for handling project communication, document management, and even meeting facilitation. Let’s examine them in more depth:
- Email and email integration. An email based communication system is the centerpiece of most project management collaboration tools. In many products, email integration will allow users to handle emails from within their standard email clients (such as Outlook or Gmail), while capturing email communication so that it also can be viewed from within the project management suite.
- Message boards, wiki’s, and instant messaging. While email is the workhorse of many project collaboration systems, it’s not the only mechanism for communication. Wiki’s can be useful for capturing documentation that needs to be referenced frequently or continually updated. Message boards and forums can promote more interaction than direct emailing. Instant messaging provides the benefit it’s name suggests—allowing project members to rapidly communicate on a direct basis.
- Document management. Many types of project work include the creation of a large amount of documents. Managing document exchange via email or 3rd party file-sharing sites has some problems associated with it. It is difficult to stay abreast of current versions, doesn’t allow for clear visibility into version histories, and is a more time-consuming method of passing documents between project members. Document management systems offer a host of advantages. Multiple file format support, audit trails identifying change histories, and managed shared access to common documents present a much more robust solution.
- Meeting coordination. Enterprise class project management solutions are increasingly providing meeting tools. Web-conferencing, audio-conferencing, and screen-sharing technologies are appearing more frequently in the more capable solutions available.
Taking the next steps
If you are at the point where you are ready to find which project management software options are right for you, we can help. Through a brief phone call, our software specialists will look to better understand your business and software needs to help you locate a handful of solutions appropriate for your requirements. Get started today!