How to evaluate project management software

There are a lot of options out there. Here are some questions to ask to help you find the best one for your company.

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There are many reasons to seek out collaborative project management software for projects. For one, the number of tasks, the complexity of tasks and the need to pull together large project teams across many geographies requires it. Second, the collaboration-oriented work habits of millennials who are fast taking over the workplace almost demand it. Third, running large projects with many complex and moveable parts is difficult to do--and hard to keep within budget.

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The message for project managers in the disciplines most likely to use project management (e.g., IT, engineering, construction, etc.) is that they should be encouraging collaborative project environments and that they should also be using a project management software that fosters collaboration and project transparency.

The historical head-and-shoulders leader in the project management software space since the mid-1980s, when its earliest version appeared is Microsoft Project. Many companies invested into Project as a Microsoft technology that went along with Microsoft Office at that time. These companies developed internal expertise on Project, and it was natural for organizations to continue using Project, because they had the skillsets.

However, those of us who first used Project, recall that it was a monolithic project management software that resided on single desktop computer and, in the early days, required a full-time system administrator to keep project tasks updated. Microsoft has refined its product since then, moving into the cloud to facilitate collaboration, but so have many other project management software providers such as Liquidplanner, Workfront, FreshDesk and others.

So if you are looking for a collaborative project management software, how do you figure out what makes the most sense for your situation?

Choose software that fits your company's size

If you are in a large organization with many different participants in your projects worldwide, you will want project management software that offers 24/7 service and support from the cloud in any time zone. This ensures that your staff, no matter where they are located, can get a question answered and have 24/7 access to the software. Conversely, a smaller business with a leaner budget and administrative staff will want a project management solution that is affordable and easy to use.

Consider user experience

Ease of use is also extremely important. Project staff members change, so learning curves must be minimal. The software should be highly intuitive, so that anyone can easily update his or her tasks.

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What features are important?

Of course the ability to collaborate is important -- that's a given. The software should be able to provide real-time collaboration and social media-style commentary on project issues. But here are some other features you'll want to look at:

  • The software should be able to provide timeline alerts, dashboard and summary-level progress reports, and an ability for those receiving these reports to drill down into the details as needed.
  • On an administrative level, project managers should be able to set permissions and different levels of visibility and access for project members, depending on their project roles and responsibilities.
  • Project management software should also be able to show task dependencies, pointing out any situation where strings of tasks can be impacted if a certain critical path task is not completed on time.
  • Finally, project management software should be intuitive and easy to use, as most vendors in today's software marketplace do not provide comprehensive training and learning aids.

Does it fit your company's culture?

Many project management packages provide these functions, but they don't necessarily fit every company's culture. For instance, some companies already have a great deal of experience using a project management software and already understand its value, while others do not and should start with a more simplistic and easy to use package. For this reason, it's a good idea to try the new software before deciding to buy and implement it. You can do this by identifying a very small project that needs doing, and use the software with a team that uses both senior and inexperienced personnel. This allows you to test the software for both functionality and ease of use.

Consider affordability

Finally, especially for small companies who are concerned about costs associated with project management software, there are now many affordable options available in the cloud marketplace that price on a per user basis, or by subscription.

Regardless of the project management software choice you make, the software's movement to the cloud has expanded its collaborative functionality. This gets people talking, getting together in group problem solving, and getting projects "unstuck." While the jury's still out, it bodes well for better project success rates than we have seen in the past.

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By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...