ONE MORE TIME: How To Choose Project Management Software
I rarely get through a week without a call about project management software. A few callers will inquire about the PMI Software Survey. Unfortunately, the last update to this valuable reference is about five years old, making it virtually useless. Most callers are hopeful that I will be able to recommend one or more project management software packages to them. But this is dangerous. Software tools should be matched to the kind of project work that your organization does, and to the way that your organization manages them. These tools are an extension of your non-automated practices and procedures, and must be consistent with them and with your business culture.
There is a marvelous assortment of project management software tools available, for most computer platforms. But, you can't just pick one out of a catalog without first conducting a carefully structured examination of your needs. We can be fairly certain that if you are not using project management software to assist you with your project work you are missing out on an exceptional management aid. The bottom line is that anyone who is using a word processor, or a spreadsheet program, or hand-written reports to handle the scheduling and communication functions of their projects is failing to take advantage of the excellent and inexpensive tools that have been developed specifically for that purpose. You need not have large projects, or complicated projects, or be a project management or computer guru to justify using today's project management software. But, which one of these gems is right for you?
HOW DO I FIGURE OUT WHAT TO BUY?
If you, like many others, are intimidated by the mass of available project management software products and vendor claims, we can suggest some steps to ease the process of determining which product is right for you. But, first, you need to step back and think about how the software might be used and who will use it. Here are the initial stages of the process required for you to define what your needs are.
The first step is to clarify your methodology. Forget about computers for the moment. Examine the way that you manage projects. Figure out what kind of scheduling, resource planning, and cost control you do now, and what you would like to do. To do this, you should consider the following actions
- Identify your project management stakeholders. Locate all of the people who should have inputs into the choice and design of the system. Get their input.
- Put together an evaluation team. Select interested parties from among the stakeholders to participate in the selection process.
- Identify system interfaces. Consider the connections to other systems and data. For instance, will you need to download timesheet data from the corporate mainframe?
- Gather information. Accumulate data on available project management software and about issues concerning the implementation of such systems.
- Hold workshops and brainstorming sessions. Get the interested parties together for indoctrination and discussion. Get people to talk about their project management concerns, aspirations, and remedies.
- Review your current project management methodology. What kinds of projects do you manage? How many? How big? What project management processes do you employ critical path scheduling? resource planning? resource usage tracking? budgeting? cost tracking? What about level of detail? Reporting? Summarization and exception needs?
- Assess the adequacy of your current methods. What are you doing now? What aspects do you want to retain in your new system? What needs to be improved or added?
- Consider the corporate culture and system users. As a carpenter learns to work with the grain of a piece of wood, you would be wise to work with the grain of your organizational culture. Select a methodology and system that is consistent with that culture and, therefore, is more likely to be supported.
You will want to ask such questions as: Do I manage or participate in more that one project at a time? Do I need critical path scheduling? What kind of time units do I use (days, hours, weeks, shifts)? Are resources and costs integrated into the schedule, or managed separately? If the later, do I want to integrate them in the future? (This is certainly advisable.) What kinds of reports do I issue and to whom are they issued? Do I manage resources across projects? How do I resolve resource conflicts?
The objective here is to develop a needs analysis. Once these needs are identified, you can convert them to a project management software selection specification. Then you will be better able to sift through the volume of available software, as you will have a better idea of what you are looking for. Your needs will drive the selection process, rather than the general attractiveness of the available products, or vendor hype. In order to develop the project management software selection specification, you may wish to consider the following activities:
- Establish a framework (outline) for the selection criteria. Organize your selection criteria into such categories as:
- scheduling items
- input and display formats
- resource definition and availability
- resource assignment
- resource leveling
- cost planning and budgeting
- resource and cost tracking
- schedule progressing
- import/export of data
- tabular’ presentation modes
- graphic presentation modes
- user friendliness issues
- Define the selection criteria items. In each of the above areas, itemize the specific characteristics and needs.
- Understand the available options. Survey the available products and the way that they provide the project planning and control capabilities. Learn what is available in the way of features and functions so that you know what the choices are.
- Make assumptions about your specific criteria. From your list of selection criteria items, specify the particular needs and attributes desired. Prepare a proposed specification, and circulate it to the stakeholders for validation and comment.
- Rank (prioritize) the criteria items. For each of the specification items, assign a weight factor on the basis of (1) required, (2) very important, (3) preferred.
A GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF TRADITIONAL PM SOFTWARE
In order to better understand the available options in today's popular project management software, let's look briefly at the general makeup and functionality of these products. The first thing to address is the question of functionality and usability as a function of the computer platform.
When project management software was first developed in the late 1950s, the basic computer environment consisted of mainframes. The user communicated to the mainframe via punched card input. Later, as the so-called minicomputers came into vogue, many megaprojects were able to dedicate the entire computer to management of such projects, and considerable project management software was developed to support this environment. Now, the most common project management situation consists of smaller but multiple projects, and there has been a solid shift toward use of the microcomputer for project management applications.
The PC (DOS) environment has been the dominating microcomputer platform. The Macintosh has received increased attention recently, growing from about three popular products in 1989 to almost a dozen in early 1991. A few vendors also support the Unix operating systems. But the overwhelming choice of developers and users of project management software is the PC. Within this platform there are several options. One concerns the screen environment, where users now have a choice of character-based or graphical (pixel-based) approaches. The latter is often referred to as a GUI (graphical user interface). While Microsoft's Windows is the best known GUI, many project management software developers use their own design to embed the graphical capability directly into the basic DOS environment. The systems that use a GUI will generally be more pleasant to use, as the finer resolution of the bit-mapped display can present more data in a more attractive and readable manner. But the GUI need not be a dominant item in your list of criteria.
The other key option is product power, which can be described as the combination of product functionality and flexibility. For the PC platform, there have traditionally been two basic levels of power. The high-end products have usually been priced at $2,000 to $5,000. These products usually try to bring mainframe power to the PC, and, for the most part, have succeeded in doing so. Certainly, there are differences in the PC and mainframe capabilities, but these differences are more likely to be a direct function of the platform (speed, capacity, number of users, etc.) rather than related to actual product functionality.
Many of the high-end project management software products for the PC are also available in DEC VAX versions. There are also several products that are for DEC platform only. These high-end PC (and VAX) products, in many respects, offer the best of both worlds. They may be able to offer high-end functionality while bringing the inherent user friendliness of the PC to the user. While most of these products could be quite a stretch for the novice user, they have been incorporating GUI-type interfaces and other visual and operational aids that help to make the programs more responsive and less intimidating than they used to be.
The low-end class of products is anything but that. While priced at under $1,000 (most common list price is $695), many of these products can seriously challenge the higher group. The line between the groups is becoming quite fuzzy and the differences cannot be described by a simple, general statement. Subject to this caveat, we can say that the typical low-end product may have a smaller capacity, weaker reporting, and faster operation (for the smaller databases) than the high-end products. There will generally be a slight tradeoff of functionality for user-friendliness, but these have to be looked at on a product-by-product basis, rather than as a class.
For instance, at this writing, Scitor's Project Scheduler 5 and Microsoft's Project for Windows have become extremely popular products in this class. However, two other long-term providers in this category have recently stretched the boundaries, in both directions. Computer Associates’ up graded SuperProject 2.0 ($895) offers functionality and flexibility that might not be expected in this class of product. And Symantec, distributor of the popular TimeLine software, has just introduced anew, Windows-based, low-end project manager, On Target ($399). Although lacking the traditional resource leveling and backward scheduling functions, it still is a true critical path scheduling system. It is aimed at the novice user, who may be willing to sacrifice some functionality for price and ease of use.
Even Project Scheduler 5 and Project for Windows, although offering a good balance of power and usability, each have areas where they excel or are weaker than the other. This is why it is so important for you to develop your own needs analysis and selection criteria. No one can tell you which of these products is best for you unless the specific product attributes are compared against your criteria.
DO YOU NEED A FULL FEATURED PM SYSTEM?
A full featured project management software package will usually support three primary project management functions. These are scheduling, resource planning, and cost management. In the planning phase, they will allow you to establish a baseline (target) schedule, to develop a supporting resource loading plan, and a budget for the project. Because the software provides a means of integrating the three, any change to the schedule will show the impact on resources and costs.
Although most of the available project management software provides all three primary project management functions, there are other options. If you do not wish to automate your resource and cost activities, there are a few products that just do critical path scheduling. They usually provide strong schedule presentation capabilities, centered around the ubiquitous bar (Gantt) chart. If you're absolutely certain that you will limit the software use to just scheduling, these products can do the job. But, you can also get the full feature products, and start off using only the scheduling features. Then, if you wish to get into the resources or costs later, you will not need to acquire or learn a new program.
Certainly, the full featured programs have a lot going for them, and can be recommended for most situations. But, there can be no doubt that even moving to a basic scheduling program (from nothing) will put you in a much better position to improve your project planning, your response to project opportunities, and your communication with others about the project plan and progress.
You don't need critical path scheduling? No problem! You can find a few programs that are “date keepers.” You can make a list of tasks, and enter the task start and completion dates. You can let the program draw Gantt charts of the data. These are quite satisfactory for communication and presentation. They are often used to create schedule charts for proposals. But don't mistake them for project management software. With such limited programs, you lose the ability for schedule analysis, and for automatic updating of schedules when tasks slip or the work scope changes (which always happens). With a critical path program you have the option to employ both protocols. You can use the CPM capability, where applicable, but can still impose specific task dates where you want to.
So there you have it. There is a wide range of project management software available to you, running from date keepers, to basic critical path schedulers, to full featured project management software (both low-and high-end) for the PC and Macintosh microcomputer platforms. There are also full featured products for Unix, VAX, IBM mainframe, and other computer platforms. The more you go up the scale, the more your investment in learning and hardware, as well as software, with the usual benefit of greater functionality and control.
In future columns, we will continue to delve more deeply into these product categories, and to provide specific information on what is available. But please remember: If you are about to invest in project management software, you should also invest in the up-front analysis of your specific needs. It is quite probable that the cost of this evaluation phase will exceed the actual purchase price of the software. But in terms of true life-cycle costs, it will be a good investment. After all, what is the real cost of implementing the new computer-based capability, including training and software maintenance. And what is the real cost of having to do it all over again if the first choice was a poor one. If the investment was intended to improve project performance, the potential gains will far outweigh the costs. So it should pay to take the time to do it right.