Six Views of Project Management Software

There are many software applications that can help with project management tasks - but also many different opinions about what types of functionality you might want.  In this article, revised in June 2010, we round up the types of software and the vendorswhat nonprofit  project managers to understand what software has been useful to them.

 

 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.

 

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 dependant tasks — for instance, an indication that one task must be completed before other tasks can begin.

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. Read more about diagramming tools in Visual Presentations Made Easy with Diagramming Software.

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.

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-list spreadsheet) can be an easy document-sharing method that both technical and non-technical audiences can adapt to easily.

 

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 Calendarr, 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.

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.

 

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, 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 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 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

Managing Nonprofit Technology Projects
This event wiki includes notes from a series of live events hosted by Aspiration and Idealware.

Review of Manymoons, with a Comparison to Central Desktop
Alexandra Samuel of Social Signals provides a review (including a screencast) of Manymoons, and talks about how it fits in with Central Desktop and other tools they're using to manage projects.

Project-Management and Workflow with Basecamp
Alexandra Samuel of Social Signals provides a detailed view into how her team works with project-management tools, including Basecamp, OmniPlan, Remember The Milk, and Google Spreadsheets.

Getting on Top of Your Task List

Steve Backman presents a look at the various tools you can use to manage your task list.

Collaboration That Works at ONE/Northwest
ONE/Northwest shares its collaboration and project-management process and software, including Basecamp, DotProject, and Salesforce.

 

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:

This article was edited by Idealware; any errors or omissions are solely Idealware's responsibility.

 

 

License: 
Copyright © Techsoup, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

Comments

I switched to Dooster

As a freelancer, finding a reliable cost effective tool has been an issue. Luckily, I discovered www.dooster.net It helps with all my collaborative tasks.

Online Project Management Software

BamBam! is complex online http://www.dobambam.com project management software . Tool is integrated with Chime - Time Tracking Software and Springloops  http://www.springloops.io Version Control & Deploy .

Futures:

Custom workflows, agile support, advanced tasking, milestones and permissions settings all highly adjustable to different users’ needs.

 

 

Would you be able to

Would you be able to recommend any project management apps that allow you to schedule when you will work on different tasks like a calendar and also give reminders when you are meant to start?

Tracking time

Tracking your time properly is definitely paramount. I'd highly recommend  TimeSheet Reporter (http://www.timesheetreporter.com), which allows you to track time via MS Outlook.

 

Cheers.

A project management is one

A project management is one such approach in terms of industrial segment where in the overall efficiency of the tool makes a difference in order to achieve the desired end result. The virtual assistance in terms of the project management sould be broken down into tasks that could be assigned to the sub ordinates by the leaders and manage the things in order to get the project completed. For a better output I have always been a part of the cloud based prject management solution from Replicon - http://www.replicon.com/project-and-program-management

Leveraging Email for Project Management

Another system you might consider is TrackerSuite.Net (http://www.TrackerSuite.Net), a Web based system that leverages email clients including Microsoft Outlook, IBM Notes and Gmail to simplify and automate business processes, including Project Management, Time Reporting, Help Desk Services, Purchasing, Resource Management and more. These applications are modular, allowing organizations to select the tools they need to assemble the solution they want.  They also integrate with each other, allowing users to charge time against project tasks or support tickets, or tying purchases to projects, for simplified job costing and accounting.

TrackerSuite.Net leverages email to simplify and automate workflow, including timesheet and purchase order approval routing, project request management, timesheet and status report reminders and more. Users can even surface TrackerSuite.Net within their email clients.  Users of Microsoft Outlook can create tasks, documents and support tickets simply by dragging and dropping an email into a TrackerSuite.Net folder.

A free trial is available, after completing a registration form on the website.

Online Project Management Software

 Thanks Laura. I'd like to put foware that greate project management software should cover 4 key areas; managing budgets, managing scope, managing teans and managing project plans. ProjectManager.com can handle these 4 areas and more. A few of the names in your list are more task based callaboration tools than a "real world" solution that a professional project manager would use. Cheers.
 

Free Construction Software

There are a lot of types that have been left off this list.  My first reaction is that many of these are really collaboration types rather than project management tools.  Many people think that using a collaboration tool is the equivalent of using a project management tool.  It is not.

Project Management

 Lot to read but definitely some good content.Usually people don't have time to analyze each and every aspect and some softwares offer little in the basic version confusing a user if he should spend some more in something he is not sure of. I have tried Wrike , Basecamp Activ Collab, Asana , ProofHub ( www.proofhub.com)  and liquid Planner, but I liked ProofHub and found it the best of all. It's basic version offers everything and I can try until I am a fan of it..... :) 

FREE ONLINE Project Time Tracking From I-workforce

This is a nice post

Thanks…
Try our timesheet software fully functional for 180 days
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 I am sure these tools would

 I am sure these tools would be top 10, but I also believe you have missed some top brands in time tracking, such as Replicon Inc.  

Project Management software

 Hey Laura,

We used many of those tools, all with different positives and negatives. We ended up using http://www.protasker.com as our project management tool. It works best for our agency. It came down to 4 things for us: Clearly understanding our needs, knowing the technical level of staff and clents, understanding staff capabilities, and knowing your customer. After we understood those things, we were able to make the best decision. 

 

Project Management

 For a successful project management you need to have a time tracking application to track all hours you work on a project. For more transparency these project should be able to be split into different tasks. You can then use the data to optimize the calculations for future projects!

Why are these apps so boring?

I couldn't agree more with Dhan -- a PM tool no one will use is worthless.  I've spent 20 years using these things -- long before they arrived on the web -- and the one thing that never changes is they're as fun as watching paint dry.  That, and they're all about tasks (duh) and treat the people doing the tasks like resources you feed to-do lists to.  Maybe that's why keeping my team using them has always felt like pushing big rocks uphill.

I just released a site that I hope addresses both issues.  It takes the classic PM app and turns it on its head.  It makes it about people and helping them work together, get recognized for their contributions and find challenging and enjoyable work.  And once you get that part right, in my experience, the tasks take care of themselves, don't they?  Check it out here: http://propstoyou.com

Acceptability, Transparency & Accountability

That's a great compilation.

These tools works best only when they are accepted by users. Tools are accepted by users only when they are easy to use, do not need heavy configurations, training, demos or reading through materials, etc.

I would like to add one more aspect of these tools that project management tool need to instil transparency & accountability among team members. ZilicusPM does this well. It offers comprehensive project management capabilities like project planning, gantt chart, scheduling, issue management, risk management, timesheet tracking along with document management.

 

I would definiltey recommend ZilicusPM for effective & efficient management of projects'

Link : http://www.zilicus.com

Tour: http://www.zilicus.com/tour

 Thanks for sharing, but you

 Thanks for sharing, but you forgot to add Comindware - http://www.comindware.com/

They use graph database and it gives unique flexibility to their products, you can track tasks, issues, automate workflows, and more.

Thanks for collecting

Thanks for collecting detailed info and sources of project management softwares. It is a great help. I notice that only few softwares are providing full features to cover all the possible requirements of a user. ProjectAbility (http://www.officeability.com/social-intranet-collaboration-suite/project...) is one of the few softwares that can do most of what you said above. If you have tried it, it would be nice to hear what you think and maybe share with others here.

Software that does it all

Great article and resource for people interested in implementing project management software for their development team. It is interesting how there are services that offer 1 piece of the puzzle really well, but it is harder for companies to deliver all of the things listed above and still be great software. Another software application that can do most of the things that you mentioned is OnTime, it is from http://www.axosoft.com/ and I would be interested in hearing if you have heard of them or used them in the past?

Cheers

Project Management Software

Hi Laura,

I have tried a number to the software tools you mention in your article (MS Project, Basecamp and Central Desktop) but have found Swiftlight (http://www.swiftlightsoftware.com) to be really helpful in terms of both managing my projects and presenting them in PowerPoint presentations to the Board. You should check it out.

Thanks for all of the interesting articles and info!