Project Management Software – Making You More Efficient

Any project manager in the modern age cannot hope to monitor and control the various aspects of their projects, resource pools, timelines and ancillary data by hand. There are simply too many variables nowadays. And trying to do things ‘old school’ may be nostalgic to some, but will likely be viewed as antiquated and inefficient by most.

When it comes to gauging the performance of an individual, that person’s productivity will likely be an area of focus. How quickly an individual can take assignments given to them, perform necessary research and/or operations on those tasks and then provide a result to their respective stakeholders will likely be scrutinized. Slow response times, especially in circumstances where stakeholders, sponsors or direct superiors are expecting quick turn-around time are not likely to be viewed very favorably. From the standpoint of the project manager themselves, slow response times or inability to utilize modern methods to perform key tasks can also affect the project itself, in that using antiquated concepts or methods can increase the likelihood of problems going un-noticed. And an individual who cannot grasp the new technologies at their disposal could very well make themselves obsolete.

Fortunately, in our modern tech world, there are numerous technologies at the disposal of the project manager that they can leverage to better serve their duties and allow them to be as efficient as possible. From the standpoint of this post, rather than going through every software suite available in the public domain, we will instead focus on some of the key areas that a project manager should be using some form of software to track specific pieces of information (Although some specific common examples will be provided). Towards the end of this article, a link will be provided to a Wikipedia article that performs a comparison of various software packages available to the end-user that the reader can then research on their own and choose which-ever solution best suits their needs.

Schedule Management

The project schedule is one of the most important and visually referenced things in the project management space. A quick point to a chart that shows where things are and where they are going to be is one of the quickest ways to convey status to stakeholders and sponsors, as well as the project team. The schedule itself denotes the key milestones for the project and outlines the main delivery dates of various project outcomes.

For the most part, any sort of charting utility can easily convey the project schedule. What is beneficial in many cases for the project manager is to also keep multiple versions of the schedule in place, with some being more detailed and granular (for tech deep dives or for reference by the project team) and perhaps one that is more high level that is shared with the stakeholders and sponsor. Making this chart available in some easily obtainable and dynamic format (i.e. a web page access) will also make the schedule ‘on demand’ from the standpoint of those that wish to view how things are going. Additionally, by making the schedule a single point of reference will reduce the likelihood that multiple and inconsistent soft or hard copy versions of the schedule may be floating around.

Regardless of what utility a project manager may decide to use to showcase and update the project schedule, it is important that some modern piece of software is leveraged. An advanced solution would actually aggregate data points from various sources automatically to keep the schedule up to date.

Budget Management

Many projects will have some intrinsic costs associated with them. While not always the responsibility of the project manager to track these costs, if the situation does arise, it is important to catalog all aspects of the budget in detail. As one can imagine, when you are dealing with a budget, there is going to be a fair amount of math involved. And regardless of the fact that the math in an of itself is at the elementary level, when you begin to span across large cost structures and various budget metrics, it is extremely important that one perform the tasks of calculation as accurately as possible. A small error in a seemingly trivial calculation can cascade into other areas of the project and even affect the outcome of the deliverable itself.

With that being said, when it comes to tracking costs, there are copious ways to perform this that are at the disposal of the project manager. Probably the most tried and true software package in use now would be the ubiquitous spreadsheet, such as Excel. It is designed to handle cells of data in a matrix format which is exactly what one would need from the standpoint of a project budget. Depending on what software suite you may be using to track other areas of the project, it may be possible to link various tasks and resources with costs, which would make things far easier from a modification standpoint since a change in one area would automatically relink and adjust other values. For those familiar with MS Project, it capable of this type of granularity from the standpoint of managing the schedule, tasks, resources and costs. (Although generally, it only catalogs resource costs) Your own company or organization may also have an online or SAAS driven utility that can achieve the result of managing the project budget. Work with your PMO (if it exists) to determine best practices in this regard.

Tracking Resources (and Tasks)

Most projects are going to have some set of individuals assigned to them. Smaller projects have small resource pools while larger projects can have dozens or even hundreds of people involved. Tracking all these people can become daunting especially when you add the complexity of partial resources, whereby individuals are loaned to the project at a part-time basis. Ensuring these individuals are properly tracked from a resource perspective is extremely important and the project manager has to become a bit of an artist to get the pieces to fall where they should.

When it comes to how one tracks these resources, it is extremely prudent to ensure that the tracking of tasks is done at the same time. Keeping resource tracking and task tracking in separate locations or through different methodologies will add an un-necessary layer of complexity that the project manager does not want to contend with. Invariably, the tasks will be handled by the resources so it seems only logical to keep both tracked and synchronized. Various ways are available to achieve this. The aforementioned MS Project does this very thing, although many other tools suites that perform functions like Agile management, defect management or requirements management will often have these facilities as well. Perform some research into these options and as always, ensure you leverage what tools your own company or organization have made available.

Communication Management and Collaboration

Having a proper communication plan for the project and being able to properly leverage that plan is an extremely important condition that the project manager must meet. We are, after all, the de facto ‘leaders’ of the project and will often function as the vanguard of questions that arise regarding the project or its status.

Communication is not just about email or phone, it is about having ways for you to communicate with the project team members, stakeholder, sponsors and potentially customers on the various aspects of your project. Additionally, those individuals will also likely want an effective way to communicate with you and each other. This is especially important if you are dealing with a project that spans geographies, time zones and even language barriers. Additionally, making sure your communication system can also distribute information in the form of documents and key pieces of content related to the project is important.

With that being said, it is often advantageous to utilize some sort of online web-based communication offering that can handle things like email, group dialog, documentation and project status all in one package. In this vein, an advanced content management system can be chosen which facilitates all of the above. There are various solutions available that can be set up internally (wikis, sharepoints) or leveraged from external vendors (Salesforce, Microsoft) that provide all this functionality in one package. For the more savvy project manager, some of these utilities also offer integration capabilities that allow you to leverage existing tools you may be familiar with or are in use within the company and plug them into the communication system. Whatever solution you choose will depend on the complexity of your project, your own technical knowledge and advanced software skills as well as the preference of your organization. As always, speak with other project members or get guidance from your PMO in this regard.

Decision Analysis

While this concept may be outside of the scope of many project managers, it is worth mentioning. Making decisions is a common occurrence not just for the project manager. But unlike specific day-to-day options that you may contend with, there are advanced mechanisms for making specific types of decisions, such as which project the company should back or how the company portfolio should be aligned. These are high level decisions often relegated to those in the upper management chain of the company. Nonetheless, a very senior program manager or business analyst may be required to perform some of these calculations.

Decision analysis often involves things like decisions trees, tornado diagrams, Smart Grids or SWOT analysis. Whatever the technique, the concept usually involves numerous calculations that eventually find their way into charts and summaries for the management team to review.

In these circumstances, there are software packages that exist that one can leverage. The ubiquitous MS Excel has the capabilities (via macros and advanced plugins) to facilitate some of these calculations. Other software suites mentioned above also have portfolio analysis tools as part of their package and can also be used in this regard. The main point to remember here is that while the calculations may be complex and the data collection difficult, the end result should always be something very easily readable and presentable. If it is one thing executives hate is clutter and excessively long PowerPoint presentations. Whenever you are performing this type of analysis, ensure that you provide details of how you reached your conclusions in ancillary documentation or an appendix, but keep the actual data presentation as terse and direct as possible. Many of the software suites at your disposal will help you achieve exactly that.

Note: Integration Considerations**

While this was mentioned in the previous paragraphs, it is important to re-emphasize the point here: whatever solutions you are using to get your job done, try to keep that list of tools small as well as ensuring that they have some effective way to communicate with each other either through integration points or import/export capabilities. Failing to do so or picking solutions ad hoc will result in you having multiple software packages at your disposal that are mutually distinct. Thus, any type of aggregation of data or comparison will become very manual. This is not only tedious but VERY error prone. So when performing your own research on which tools to use, try to find solutions that can perform multiple tasks effectively and ascertain whether they can integrate with tools you already use.

**Conclusions and Reference**

As indicated above, there are various areas where software of some type should be used to catalog and track the various aspects of a project or program. As one would expect, copious software packages and suites are at your disposal which are too numerous to review in all detail. The following link provided below provides a comparison of several solution suites and what functionality they expose. Use this to narrow down your selections depending on your needs and then perform your own cursory review and analysis to ascertain which solution is right for you.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_project_management_software