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Six Views of Project-Management Software

What applications – and kinds of applications – can help you manage projects?

Six Views of Project Management Software 
Idealware - February 16, 2012
What kind of software is out there and which tools might support your organization's particular project-management needs? Idealware shares what nine nonprofit project managers are using to manage their projects.

This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.

So you need software to help with project management. Great! But wait… What do you mean by project management? Do you need to map out project plans and schedules? Collaborate on documents? Track tasks? Time? Documents? Issues?

The definition of "project-management software" varies widely, and your needs are likely to depend substantially on your project, your team, and your project-management style. What's available out there and what tools might support your particular project-management needs? Idealware asked nine nonprofit project managers what project-management software meant to them, and what software they were using to manage their projects.

Their answers varied, but when we boiled it down, project managers were using software to support six different types of project-management functions. This article walks you through those functions one-by-one and the tools that specialize in each function. Then we examine a few tools in-depth that can carry out most or all of these functions in one package.

1. Planning Projects

For many professional project managers, no software can rightly call itself a project-management tool if it doesn't allow you to map out a project's tasks and visually display how they interconnect. This type of project plan provides a powerful way to define the project schedule, understand the critical path for a project, and assess and allocate staff resources. It generally includes:

  • A detailed breakdown of tasks to be completed.
  • Task assignments, identifying who is responsible for which aspects of the project.
  • A time estimate for each task.
  • Links between dependent tasks — for instance, an indication that one task must be

For those who prefer to manage projects this way, there are a number of tools that can help. Microsoft Project (available for qualifying organizations through TechSoup) is a large, powerful, and widely used package that offers a ton of planning functionality. Some find it over-complicated; at a minimum, it will require a substantial learning curve. Many also sing the praises of OmniPlan, a similar, albeit smaller, project-planning package for Macs. Note that both of these tools are desktop applications that assume that there's a central project manager who's in charge of creating and updating the plan. If you're using Salesforce, consider the Salesforce plug-in DreamTeam, which offers project-planning tools combined with more collaborative task- and document-management functionalities, as described below.

Formal, mapped-out project plans are not for everyone, however. Some project managers we spoke with found these detailed plans time-consuming and inflexible, and often so complicated that they discourage updates. These respondents also felt that the Gantt chart visuals typically used by these tools were too complex to walk through with their team members, let alone those outside the core team.

These project managers typically created less formal project schedules or process flows with Excel (available for qualifying organizations through TechSoup), or using diagramming tools like Microsoft Visio (available for qualifying organizations through TechSoup), OmniGraffe, or Gliffy. If you use Excel, you can find a number of free add-on templates for making Gantt charts or other project schedules at office.microsoft.com.

2. Managing Tasks

Task management — the ability to define a task, assign it to someone, create a deadline, and know when it's complete — is generally the most desired and ubiquitous feature in project-management software.

Microsoft Project provides sophisticated, complex functionality for a project manager to define, assign, and set deadlines, as well as to estimate hours for tasks, all while keeping a careful watch on the overall impact those decisions will have on the project schedule and on individual team members' workloads. If you use a server-based version of Project, team members can then see their task list, note the time they spend on each task, and mark tasks as complete.

There is also an entire class of web-based collaboration and project-management software that offers solid task-management support. Basecamp is the best known tool in this area, with solid support for task creation, due dates, and assignments. Central Desktop provides a task-management feature set in the same vein as Basecamp, but with somewhat more sophisticated deadline and time-allocation functionality. Other web-based collaboration and project-management software offering task-management support include GoPlan, Project Desk, Zoho, and DotProject. Keep in mind that with most of these tools you'll face a trade-off:the tools that are easiest to use for less tech-savvy team members, like your decision makers, are likely to also offer less robust functionality.

Don't overlook standalone tools, either. Manymoon, Remember The Milk, and checkvist.com, for instance, provide easy-to-use features for creating, organizing, and sharing task lists.

3. Sharing and Collaborating on Documents

Every project team has documents, and you can substantially increase productivity by providing a central location to store and work together on them. This is especially true for geographically remote teams, for whom collaborating and sharing documents can easily turn into a nightmare of email attachments and mixed up revisions. (Keep in mind, however, that it can be difficult to get all stakeholders in a project to use a tool other than email).

Not surprisingly, collaboration functionalities make up the cornerstone of a number of the web-based collaboration and project-management tools. Basecamp and Central Desktop both offer strong, easy-to-use features for uploading and storing documents, collaborating on documents in real time, and creating wiki-like libraries of documentation. In fact, document-sharing and collaboration features are nearly ubiquitous among the web-based project-management tools: they are offered by DreamTeam, Central Desktop, GoPlan, ProjectDesk, and DotProject. Microsoft SharePoint and LiveOffice also offer some of these features.

There are also a number of tools meant to facilitate document collaboration specifically. Google Docs and Zoho both offer real-time and asynchronous editing, as well as storing of documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. If your needs are not very complex, creating a set of shared Google documents (project specs, task-lists, spreadsheets) can be an easy document-sharing method that both technical and non-technical audiences can adapt to easily.

4. Sharing Calendars and Contact Lists

Well-managed calendars and contact lists can be important to project productivity. If you need to schedule a meeting with several different team members, having access to each of their calendars can save a huge amount of time. If your team is already using Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange, you probably have everything you need in terms of shared calendaring and contact-list functionality. And truthfully, a shared spreadsheet of contact information is likely to work fine for most projects. For calendaring, all of the web-based project-management tools listed above offer ways to create a shared calendar — though it may be hard to get your team members to keep it up-to-date enough to be useful for scheduling meetings unless it's the only calendar they're maintaining. Some of the online project management tools like Basecamp offer tools to integrate calendaring into Google Calendar or Outlook — making it more likely to be used.

If sharing calendars is a key concern, you could certainly also use Google Calendar, which provides strong and very user-friendly functionality for free to keep your own calendar and project calendars, share them with others, and schedule meetings. Google Calendar is part of Google Apps, which allows organizations to integrate team calendaring with team email and document sharing — and is free for 501(c)(3) nonprofits with up to 3,000 users.

5. Managing Issues or Bugs

While a task is typically just a phrase with an owner, a status, and a deadline, many projects require a tool that will also track comments and conversations for line items, rate priorities or difficulties, email updates or other subscriptions to an issue, or attach additional documentation (such as a screenshot of a problem). For technical projects, this functionality is often used to track bugs — technical problems that require resolution — and store lengthy descriptions, comments, and resolutions for each. For other projects, this feature can also be useful as an issue manager — to store open questions or issues that require resolution, as well as what was done about them.

The project managers we spoke to were almost all using issue-tracking applications that were separate from the applications they used for other project-management functionalities. A number simply used Excel; other tools mentioned were Jira, FogBugz, DoneDone, Unfuddle, and Kayako. These tools are typically available for a small fee, from $10-$25/year.
There are also some useful free and open-source bug-tracking software systems, including Mantis, Bugzilla, and Trac. You'll need to install these systems on your own web server, and maintain those servers yourself — making it a better solution for more technical organizations.

When it came to issue-tracking features, most project managers reported a trade-off between functionality that was sophisticated enough to support the internal project team, but easy enough to use for people outside the team to log issues. Tools like DoneDone offer a simplified set of features, yet in a very modern, easy-to-use interface which make them more likely to be used by non-technical people involved in testing software.

6. Tracking Time

If you are tracking consultant time, or creating a process that can be replicated in the future, you'll need to understand how much time team members are devoting to each task. This is simple in concept, but hard to collect in a way that can be easily understood in the context of your tasks and plan. A number of project-management tools allow you to collect time in a way that more or less integrates with your task. Microsoft Project has powerful tools that allow you to request and receive timesheets via email that then flow directly into your plan. DreamTeam, Central Desktop, and Basecamp also provide some time-tracking functionality.

There are also a number of tools that have been specifically designed to just track time. Tools like Toggl, Harvest, OpenAir, ClickTime, SlimTimer, and Markosoft allow one or a number of people to collect the number of hours worked — but you'll need to define a process to make sure the tasks that the time is tracked against will make sense for everyone across a project.

Tools that Do It All

Almost everyone we spoke with desired a single project-management "super tool" that included all of the functionality they cared about. However, no one was using something they were actually happy with in this capacity. In fact, there was little agreement on which functions should be included in such a tool — so it's unlikely that one package will meet all sophisticated project-management needs or all of the areas listed above.

Nevertheless, there are some that merit examining if you need more than a couple of the key project-management functionalities. We've mentioned them all in some context or other already, but they're worth a closer look.

Microsoft Project

The ancestor of project-management tools, with powerful functionality that is beloved by many professional project managers but might be overkill for small or even medium-sized teams. As opposed to many of the other tools on this list, Microsoft Project is strongly focused on defining a detailed plan up front, and then updating the plan over time to account for actual time spent and actual dates hit. It assumes that there will be a central project manager who is overseeing the plan — and that this manager will have a number of hours per week to devote to keeping the plan up-to-date. But with that investment, it offers powerful ways to see the effects of changes to your project, the allocation of your team members, and more.

Basecamp

Easy to use, and widely popular, Basecamp might well be a good choice for teams without complex needs. It's focused on supporting the needs of geographically remote teams, and offers strong functionality in document-sharing, document collaboration, shared calendaring, and notifications when something changes. It's considerably more limited in the realm of planning and even task-management, however. For instance, there's no ability to create dependencies between tasks, see a Gantt chart, or define a calendar deadline for a task. It offers a number of different levels, starting at $24/month to manage up to 15 projects with unlimited users.

Central Desktop

Central Desktop is conceptually similar to Basecamp, but is somewhat more powerful. It's particularly strong in integrating with email-based workflows. For instance, you can not only share documents, calendars, tasks, and get email notifications of updates, but you can easily copy a Central Desktop email address to have emailed comments automatically entered into the appropriate place in your project files. It has a free version that supports up to two workspaces and five users, or otherwise a number of different pricing schemes, including a $25/month plan for up to 3 workspaces and 10 users, or a "community plan" that's simply $3 per user per month. Ask about additional nonprofit and charity discounts.

If Basecamp and Central Desktop look interesting to you, there are a number of other web-based, collaboration-focused tools in the same vein. For instance, you might want to consider GoPlan, DotProject, or Zoho Project.

DreamTeam for Salesforce

Those that are using Salesforce to manage their constituents should consider DreamTeam, which is free to nonprofits and charities for up to 10 licenses. This tool straddles the gap between Microsoft Project and the collaboration-focused web-based project-management tools, with solid support for project planning and Gantt charting as well as the more typical collaboration and document-sharing functionalities.

Summing It Up

So what's the best project-management tool for you? As with any area, it depends primarily on your needs. Are you hoping for a single tool that can provide a bit of functionality in a number of different areas? Or are you really looking for a strong, single-tasking application for an important area like issue-management or time-tracking? Do you need a tool that will allow your internal team detailed control over tasks and workflow, or something that will allow external stakeholders to easily get in and know what's going on?

It all depends on your view of project-management software.

For More Information

Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:

Image: Calendar and tasks, Shutterstock