Throughout the stages of a project’s lifecycle, diverse tasks or activities prevail in terms of relevance. Since a typical project usually involves a large number of tasks of varied nature, different types of software packages are needed along the way to help the project manager and project team handle the multiple project tasks efficiently. In this article we will walk you through the most well-known categories of software packages for PM (project management) and we will give you some valuable tips on how to select a PM software package that is right for you.
How do I know what will work for me and what will not?
This seems to be a one million dollar question. Whenever you are considering purchasing a PM software package, there is always a problem you need to solve and the software is expected to be the solution to that problem. The first step in selecting the right PM software package, therefore, is knowing perfectly well what you need the software to do. This includes not only having a very clear vision of what the project is about and the relevance of each of its parts, but also determining what your expectations of the software are. We cannot overstate the importance of having a clear idea of what you expect the software package to solve or how you expect it to perform, because if you fail in this first step, frustration will follow – not to mention you will also have wasted time and money (probably a significant amount of money) on something that just was not what you needed.
So going to the basics, you should first know what type of problem you are trying to solve and then choose the software package that better fits your particular PM needs. Are you looking to manage project tasks and monitoring project execution against the plan and schedule? Is it project scheduling that’s bothering you? Or perhaps you need a tool to create a detailed business plan that will help you determine how much profit the project will generate? All these different sorts of PM problems have resulted in software manufacturers developing and launching to the market a myriad of PM packages. But again, since we want to keep it clear and simple, you should know that there are at least five PM problems that can be addressed with software or software packages:
1. Task/ Time Record Management - These packages allow individual team members to have specific tasks assigned to them, and each person is responsible for regularly reporting their tasks progress in the software package. Although there are some variations among the available products, the Tasks or Time Record modules are usually linked to other modules including Prospects, Contacts, Jobs, Calendar and Internal Forum (a place where team members can post an idea and get feed back from others). The top products in this PM software category are MS Outlook and Lotus Notes, though there are about 50-100 packages available in the market, some of which are web-based. Surprisingly, although the logic under these packages is easy to understand, performance is often far below management's expectations, except perhaps for call centers.
One downside of this type of packages is that they have such a strong tendency to centralize information that they often result in project members turning into bureaucrats. These products entail such an enormous amount of paperwork (i.e. individuals are required to fill out a large number of forms and write a lot of reports) that project team members quickly become tedious about their work and they lose interest. Furthermore, since these reports generally go up high in the organizational hierarchy, people get discouraged to take any risks. As a consequence, individuals completely forget what is important and what is not in the project, they soon develop a very ‘narrow’ vision of what is going on, and they loose all initiative. This, in turn, might negatively affect overall productivity. However, if you need to track and manage the issues that emerge during your project, we suggest you use MS Outlook or the Lotus Notes packages. Now that you know the dangers or traps that you may fall into when acquiring this type of packages, you also know how to avoid them.
2. Bill of Material (BOM) Management or Business Resource Planning – BOM packages function as ‘material management’ software in the sense that they are used - particularly in engineering projects - to keep track of the various physical components of a project (i.e. parts and pieces). BOM programs are focused on specific parts (i.e. a car wheel) and the way these parts will be manufactured. In addition to the Manufacturing module, these packages feature related modules such as Supplier information, Quality and Testing specifications, etc. Enterprise Resource Planning or ERP belongs to this category, with well-known software packages such as SAP, JD Edwards, PeopleSoft, Oracle, and Great Plains. Originally, ERP packages were conceived to integrate and automate all facets of business operations, including planning, manufacturing, and sales, while more recent ERP software products include marketing, inventory control, order tracking, customer service, finance and even human resources.
Most large companies have a corporate ERP in place and in these cases, more often than not, the project team is asked to use it. The major flaw in this type of software products is that since they are focused on production, they lack flexibility in other key phases of the project; i.e. the R&D phase. Also, they ask for too much detailed information at a very early stage of the project, when this data is simply not available to team members. Managing a complex and changing bill or materials with an ERP solution is usually a big handicap for any project team because these packages rarely perform well outside a routine supply and production chain. There is very little room for innovation. Nevertheless, these programs become very useful when the industrialization process starts. At that point, everything needs to be precise and concrete in order to optimize resources and follow the production plan. So in other words, we believe that the main attribute of a BOM management software package is flexibility. Keep that in mind when you select your BOM management software package. In this regard, some PM experts agree on that probably the best software available continues to be MS Excel. In fact, it is a very common practice among project team members to use a simple Excel spreadsheet during the development of the project, which is later entered into the corporate ERP system once the project is finished.
3. Document Storing or Database – The purpose of this type of PM software products is to record all important project information, from client calls to supplier visits, team meeting reports and intermediate project results reports. One disadvantage is that they frequently store not only final but also intermediate reports and documentation. This way, the project office gets easily inundated with documents, with the additional problem that people tend not to be especially enthusiastic about 'properly indexing’ documents – and even if they were, this would be a quite poor use of their time. The marketplace is packed with document storing software alternatives, however, before you make your decision, you should bear in mind that the most important factor your software should have is ease of document retrieval.
There are currently two excellent solutions in the market, both free and available in Beta versions: Google Desktop Search and MSN Toolbar Suite with MSN Desktop Search. Both these tools basically allow you to find anything on your computer since they are desktop search applications which provide full text search over your email, computer files, chats, and the web pages you have viewed. By making your computer searchable, these applications place your information easily within your reach freeing you from the tedious task of manually organizing your files and emails.
Even though you can purchase other document storing and retrieving solutions, in our opinion these two free tools feature significant advantages against traditional applications. Unlike traditional applications that force people to index their documents - either by entering keywords or by placing documents into specific sub-directories - Google and MSN Desktop Search applications place computer files into a shared directory and then let the crawler read and classify the documents during idle time. How is this done? Simpler than most of us would think: the crawler reads through each document and analyzes each word in it. It then creates an index of all the information on the computer. Finally, when a search is performed by the user, all documents containing the specific search word are extracted and shown into the screen, and a brief summary is created. These operations are performed radically faster when the person has written an abstract with a set of keywords for each document.
4. Project-scheduling - These software packages, based on the Gantt-diagram method, are especially useful during the planning phase, which is critical to a project’s success because that is when all the ‘what-ifs’ have to be considered and worked out. After the planning phase is over, project scheduling packages have also found to be extremely convenient in allowing project management to maintain a global vision of the project. Probably the most famous product in this category is MS Project TM, which in our opinion is the best solution for small and medium sized projects. For larger projects, quite common in the construction or IT industries for example, MS Project has the limitation that it can only effectively manage a certain number of tasks, let’s say 100-200 tasks maximum. Thus, if your project is small or medium in size you will probably want to get the MS Project package, but if you need to do project scheduling for a much larger project that will require you to schedule and track some 10,000 tasks, then this would not be an appropriate package for you. Other solutions especially designed for larger projects are available today, although only large corporations and projects with a considerable budget can afford them. One differentiating characteristic of this latter type of packages is that they try to integrate task management with project scheduling. By scheduling efficiently, it is possible to both reduce stress and maximize your project team’s performance. Some PM experts recommend to use MS-project during the planning phase, and later combine it with other PM tools such as MS Outlook, MS Excel and Desktop Search applications.
5. Business Plan and Financial Forecasting - These packages were designed to help decision-makers determine how much money a project will yield, as well as the levers that will influence profitability. For example, they should be helpful in answering questions such as, is it better to invest in a more expensive machine and be able to produce parts at a lower cost, or invest less in machinery and produce a more costly part? Regarding this type of packages, and although product alternatives abound, MS Excel is probably the best solution and the most widely used.
During our many years of PM practice throughout Europe and the USA, we have found a small number of software packages that have proved useful and efficient in their purposes but quite often, we have been disappointed by the misuse project teams today give to software packages and the negative effects that this misuse can cause. We must acknowledge that we are far from ‘ideal’ in terms of software packages. Even after so many years of continuous research and hard work, software manufacturers have only developed products based on certain criteria or problem specifications, which means that these solutions only work well when projects do not differ much from one another. Software manufacturers have failed to develop products that are able to modify its features and behaviors based on past experience; that is, software that learns. We are not the only ones that recognize this problem. Moreover, this is the reason some manufacturers have started integrating project modules in an attempt to produce more comprehensive packages that would be able to solve more of a team’s PM needs than other products alone. One interesting alternative you may want to check out is TeamSide’s Project Management Tool (link to this section), which is fully compatible with Microsoft Project TM and can even be considered as its perfect complement.
Ideally, your chosen solution must achieve the goals you have established for it with a scarce but reasonable room for disruption in terms of implementation and integration. Given that none wants to make costly mistakes, you should make sure that the software you select will meet the needs of everybody involved in the project, and that it provides quality support for the PM process. As the buyer, you should put yourself in the users’ shoes and weigh the products benefits against their limitations, and what the products can deliver against your specific preferences and needs.
Although the best solution depends entirely on your particular circumstances, our final recommendation is that you evaluate your alternatives carefully, check out the different vendors, pay attention to how they respond to your questions and concerns when you contact them and the sorts of guarantees they offer, and ensure you do not select a product that will put your project team into a situation where they loose track of what is really important in the project. This will be the more costly mistake of all.