I was recently checking out a project management software package and looked at reviews to see how this application compared to others. What I found was that on the day that I checked, there were 460 software applications that were advertising themselves as project management software. That is a lot of choices!
It brought me back to a question that I have often been asked, “Do we need project management software?” I have come to the conclusion that for most projects and project teams the answer is, “No.”
The Purpose of Project Management Software
Let’s step back and consider the purpose of project management software. The software is to assist the project manager and project team with planning and tracking of project progress. If it doesn’t provide timely and accurate information, it is not meeting its purpose.
When project management software is being used correctly it is great. It is a consolidate repository of project information. Depending upon the software application, it can analyse the project plan from a cost or schedule perspective. It often can be used to do “what if” sensitivity studies of various project scenarios and options. It will generate reports and analysis on a variety of important project attributes. It can be emailed or shared with team members anywhere around the world and instantaneously updated to show current status. Good grief, what’s not to like?
Well, all of this capability comes with a burden on the project team. They must actually use the software for it to do any of those things. And that is the problem. Despite the claims of the software developers and their marketing organizations, most of these applications are not so intuitive that you can just immediately start using it with no training or orientation. And the more powerful the software, the more training it takes to know how to use it well.
The Burden of Project Management Software
That is where the problem comes in. The software must be used by everyone on the project. Team members must use the features correctly and they must be disciplined enough to use it continuously for the information in the software to be complete and accurate. If the team members do not keep the information current, or worse yet, don’t even initialize a project plan with an accurate representation of all the activities, the information coming out of the software will be worthless. In fact, making decisions based upon what is in the software will often create project problems that would not have otherwise existed.
So why doesn’t the project manager mandate that everyone use the software? The characteristics of a project and project team make that a virtually impossible task. A project is a temporary endeavour. Many project team members are not permanently assigned to a project team; rather they are working part-time on the project with responsibilities in other areas. Even if they go to the training program for the project management software, they will only use the software with a portion of their day-to-day work and only for a short time. Within a few months they have probably forgotten almost all of the training. So when assigned to another project, it is back through training again. This takes time and money.
In addition, for most team members, maintaining the project information in the software is not seen as being value-added effort. As far as they can see, it is only used to make pretty charts for management. The time they spend keeping the information in the software current is time they do not have available to do the actual project work.
The bottom line for many team members is that working with the software is difficult, awkward, unfamiliar and a waste of time. And it only takes one team member that does not keep the information accurate and current to destroy the validity of the entire project plan and status.
How to Use Project Management Software
So what is the answer? I believe that there are actually two answers; based upon the characteristics of the project.
On large complex projects, the project management software is an absolute necessity. I managed large complex defense projects thirty years ago. Back then I needed a project management team of five to eight individuals just to keep track of what was happening, maintaining the budgets, tracking the schedules, doing risk analysis, and preparing project status reports. Today, all of that could be done in the software.
This is a tremendous savings in effort and improvement in accuracy. And the benefits grow with the project complexity. The key is that all the project information is accurately entered and maintained in the software. Therefore, I recommend that on large complex projects, the project manager, and maybe one or two others on the core team, should be trained and competent users of the software. But don’t annoy and irritate the rest of the team. Many project management software programs have excellent import functions to bring information into the project file. Give your project team simple forms or templates and have them use those. Then import the information. The project file will be much more accurate. Yes, it is a little more work for the project manager, but accuracy and completeness is well worth the extra effort.
For small simple projects, don’t waste everyone’s time trying to get things into project management software. Otherwise you soon find that maintaining the software is a bigger project than the actual project work. Run your projects with post-it notes on a whiteboard (similar to an Agile Scrum Board) or with a simple spread sheet being used as a repository of project information. A project manager on a small project is free to use a software application. But don’t burden the rest of the team with it. They have lots of other work and learning a new software application is low on their priority list.