How to Choose Project-Management Software

No matter how superb a project manager's organizational skills may be, project-management software is a boon. When your project is sufficiently complex, you can use software for a wide variety of tasks, including storing and retrieving important information; analyzing and updating that information; and preparing presentations and reports that describe the information and results of the analyses.

The available software falls into two categories: stand-alone specialty software and integrated project-management software.

Stand-alone specialty software for project managers

Stand-alone specialty software consists of separate packages that perform one or two functions very well. The following types of specialized software can support your project planning and performance:

  • Word processing: Useful for preparing the narrative portions of project plans, maintaining a project log, creating progress reports, and preparing written project communications (Microsoft Office Word, for example)

  • Business graphics and presentation: Useful for preparing overheads and slide shows for project presentations and developing charts and artwork for written reports and publications (Microsoft Office PowerPoint, for example)

  • Spreadsheet: Useful for storing moderate amounts of data, performing repetitive calculations, running statistical analyses, and presenting information in chart formats (Microsoft Office Excel, for example)

  • Database: Useful for storing and retrieving large amounts of data for analysis and presentation (Microsoft Office Access, for example)

  • Accounting: Useful for keeping records of project income and expenses and producing a variety of descriptive and comparative reports (Intuit QuickBooks, for example)

  • Time and information management: Useful for scheduling your calendar, maintaining a to-do list, keeping your address book, and managing your e-mail activities (Microsoft Office Outlook, for example)

In general, specialty packages offer the following benefits:

  • They offer powerful capabilities in their areas of specialty.

  • You most likely have several packages already on your computer.

  • People probably know how to use many of the common specialty packages.

Integrated project-management software

Integrated project-management software combines database, spreadsheet, graphics, and word-processing capabilities to support many of the activities normally associated with planning and performing your project. An example of an integrated package is Microsoft Office Project, although hundreds of such packages of all shapes and sizes are on the market today.

A typical integrated project-management package enables you to

  • Create a hierarchical list of activities and their components.

  • Define and store key information about your project, activities, and resources.

  • Define activity interdependencies.

  • Develop schedules by considering activity durations, activity interdependencies, and resource requirements and availability.

  • Display your plan for performing project activities in a network diagram.

  • Display a schedule in Gantt-chart and table formats.

  • Assign people to work on project activities for specific levels of effort at certain times.

  • Schedule other resources for project activities at specified times.

  • Determine your overall project budget .

  • Determine the effect of changes on the project’s schedule and resources.

  • Monitor activity start and end dates and milestone dates.

  • Monitor person-hours and resource costs.

  • Present planning and tracking information in a wide array of graphs and tables.

As you may have guessed, integrated project-management packages offer benefits, as well as drawbacks. The benefits include the following:

  • The package’s functions are linked.

  • Packages typically have a variety of predesigned report templates.

If you decide to use an integrated project-management package, consider the following factors when choosing your program:

  • Types and formats of reports: Choose a package that supports your reports and means of reporting with minimum customization.

  • Your team members’ general comfort and familiarity with computers and software: Will they take the time and effort to learn and then use the package? Having a package with state-of-the-art analysis and reporting capabilities is no help if people don’t know how to use it.

  • Your organization’s present software: If several software packages are equal in most aspects, choose a package that’s already available and in use because team members most likely have experience with it.

  • Your organization’s existing systems to record labor hours and expenses: If your organization has such systems, consider a package that can easily interface with them. If the organization doesn’t have these systems, consider a package that can store the information you need.

  • The project environment in your organization: What’s the size of the human-resource pool for projects, the number and typical size of projects, and so on? Choose a package that has the necessary capacity and speed.

  • Software used by clients and companies you work with: Choosing a package that allows you to communicate and coordinate easily with your customers’ and collaborators’ software saves you time and money.

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