Suggesting alternatives to Microsoft Project for large companies that are dedicated to formal project management (PM) is kind of like suggesting alternatives to Microsoft Office. The reaction will be about the same: "Yeah, that's cute, but we have that covered."
But as a consultant, you may find yourself working with clients that don't have a formal Project Management Office (PMO), have no investment in a PM framework or technology, and frankly find the whole discipline a little bothersome. Still, you have details to wrangle and communications to keep clear. Enter the cloud, and about a million companies offering varying levels of PM functionality with no ramp-up costs or long-term commitment.
The economic upside to cloud PM tools is obvious (particularly if you just need to write a three-month subscription into your pass-along costs), but another key benefit is the wide range of tools that are available. Not every client wants to see a Gantt chart - in fact, some of them are going to balk at the notion of weird, gear-headed PM lingo. The cloud lets you shop not only for short-term PM solutions, but the right fit for a client's culture and needs.
In this post, I highlight five cloud-based products that reflect the wide range of options in the market. You can always go for a hosted Microsoft Project service or take a look at the heralded Tom's Planner, which is a great tool that will cover almost any PM need. Whatever you decide, be sure the solution includes SSL-level data security (for some products, that's an upsell point) and easy export to CSV format - some people are not happy with anything but a spreadsheet.
The Zoho Projects toolset is about as comprehensive as you are likely to find in a cloud-based PM tool, and is ideal if you are orchestrating a project (or projects) across a virtual team of internal and external resources. It's a safe bet that much of the available functionality is an offshoot of Zoho's cloud-based CRM suite. There's actually a built-in Wiki (remember those?) and Chat option; overkill for smaller projects, but a nice add-on if you (or your client) wants to ensure all communication is captured. There's also a meeting scheduler that ties into the work calendar that offers more flexibility than simply setting up meetings as tasks.
A built-in meeting scheduler is just one of Zoho Project's comprehensive management tools - there's even an option for a chat client. (Click the image to enlarge.)
Users are unlimited on all Zoho Projects plans, which are fairly a la carte in their options. Pricing runs from $20 a month for 20 projects for the extremely limited Express plan - no task reminders to team members, for example. For about $95 a month, you get more punch across all categories, including an integrated bug-tracking platform and the ability to edit tasks in Gantt view. The monthly subscription prices are higher.
Planbox is a business-centric tool that uses the language "initiative" instead of "project" to describe those collections of work you are trying to keep under control, and the mindset extends to the software's functionality. It's a good fit for anyone (say, a consultant) who wants to track the cost benefit of an effort. You can assign dollar values and weighting points, in addition to standard importance rating for tasks. File attachments (another must for almost any PM software) are a tad hidden, but they are there.
Tasks in Planbox can be assigned dollar values and a wide range of ranking criteria, driving a bottom-line approach to project evaluation. (Click the image to enlarge.)
An iteration model allows you to replicate work frameworks and tasks over multiple time periods. You could, depending on how fastidious you are, use this feature to simply block out a recurring monthly gig, such as scheduled QA or freelance writing (if you are really crazy). Reports include planned vs. unplanned work and iteration burndown - again, very business-centric.
Pricing for Planbox is on a per-user model, at about $4 a seat monthly.Read about three more cloud-based PM tools.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.