Deep Dive to Project Management Systems

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In my earlier article on this subject, “Choosing a Project Management Software“, I provided a short overview to the process of selecting a project management system. Based on questions and feedback that I received about the process, I feel that a more detailed and in-depth review is required so the purpose of this article is to do just that…

A good Project Management System is an essential tool for the project’s success for both project manager and project team.

A very experienced project manager once told me that performing the role of Project Management without a good system is like performing a job of an architect and having to explain the requirements for the construction of the house to the construction company without any drawings. A good Project Management System is an essential tool for the project’s success for both project manager and project team.

How to choose a good project management system? Well – Let us deep dive and try to answer questions like:

  • Who needs a project management system
  • What are the main considerations for choosing one
  • What are the basic functionality requirements that a Project Management system should include?
  • Are there any industry-specific issues or recommendations?
  • What systems do we recommend?

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1. Do I need a Project Management System?

Project Management deals with the planning and control of projects in accordance with timetables, resources and budgets. Many project managers (regardless of the size of the company or project) very frequently find that alongside the familiar routine project tasks, they also have to manage complex and unpredictable tasks, that increase the level of the project risk and include factors of uncertainty.

So how a good project management system can help you? Well, every project manager knows and recognizes the importance of meeting deadlines throughout the project lifecycle. While there are numerous project management methodologies out there, with different definition and concepts, I guess you will agree that all typical projects usually have the following phases:

  • Project Initiation – At this stage, the project goals, high-level schedule and project team are determined.
  • Project Planning and design – an essential step that includes preparation of a work plan according to the timetable, resources, budgets and risks.
  • Project execution – carrying out and implementing the project’s activities in accordance with the work plan.
  • Project Control – Performing control activities such as steering committee and periodical status meetings, budget reports and issue tracking and corrective actions
  • Project closing – Completion of all project tasks, checking project success compared with the initial goals, lesson learning and final reports

Now the main question is how to ensure the implementation and quality of hundreds of the elements that take part in the project? How is it managed and carried out while ensuring on-going customer satisfaction along the way? Moreover, can you do it without a good management system?

I have the experience of implementing project management systems in several companies, and especially in the IT organizations that I managed. I can personally and  honestly testify that not only that a good Project management system that can help – it increases the chances to have a successful project and allows the project manager to deal more with the project key activities and less with the mess and administration – and here is the main reason:

Complex projects usually have large budgets and tens of tasks managed and performed simultaneously, one after the other. This level of Project complexity should not be allowed to be managed intuitively management, but need a tool for planning and execution. A good and professional project management system should be the project manager’s partner during the lifecycle of the project. You can consider it as an additional manager in your project team that takes care of the documenting every aspect of the project and helps you in meeting the deadlines and objectives of the project, ensuring the quality of work, while minimizing the cost of the project and achieving customer satisfaction.

As an avid fan of risk management (in general and specifically in projects), I want to emphasize the critical impact of a good project management system in reducing and managing project risks.

Each project include a certain element of uncertainty and risk factor. Risks cBusiness crisis, probleman be related to lack of knowledge or budgets, to external dependencies and many other factors but the main thing is that a good project manager should be aware of them and manage them on an on-going basis. Elements of uncertainty and risks may have a critical effect on the execution of the project and its results. However, an improved management capability of the project, including the ability to identify unexpected problems on time and have them mitigated or reduced on time. This can only be achieved with the assistance of a project management system as these tools are based on the principal of the breakdown of the project tasks, determining the start and end times of each task, establishing relationships between the tasks and resources necessary to carry them out.

So… do you need a project management system?

Today project management professionals have plenty options to select from project management software vendors. The real question before you can select project management tool, is to know what do you really need?

Some project management professionals have reasonable idea about following

  • What are problem/pain areas in current project management process which my organization wants to address?
  • What are limitation of the existing tools (or lack of having tool) that my organization currently uses?
  • That translates into exactly what capabilities in the PM tool, does my organization need?

On the other hand, few other project management professionals do not have definite answers to this question or even in many cases, users have not even thought about these questions. It is not uncommon to hear that project managers make a decision regarding project management tool by references.

Going by general experience – success rate, adoption and realized return on investment (RoI) of project management software are higher if customer has fair idea of what they are looking for, there is a match between maturity of organization & capabilities of tool. In the process of selecting project management software, professionals build a perception about a tool based on specific reference, be it feedback from colleague/vendor/competitor or marketing material, experience through a trial or demo, and cost considerations.

2. The Main Considerations for Selecting a Project Management System

Here are few guidelines/tips to help you make right decision of selecting a project management software.

First few questions that you should asked yourself

  • Is your project team working in across multiple locations?
  • Is your project team size is around/ more than 10?
  • Are there project communication challenges e.g. team members are not informed when a project schedule is changed, or you have to keep polling to collect latest project status?
  • Is project team facing issues in working together, collaboration that you realized?
  • Above question also translates into how do you manage project communication is it primarily through emails, sending spreadsheet and other documents?

If your answers to these questions is big YES or even largely Yes, you are certainly need a collaboration, project management system. The platform which needs to be technology driven, that will save lot of trouble, productive time for you & your team, it will also day to day life simpler for you & your team. Thus you should scout for right project management software.

Readiness of your Organization

Now – this section is extremely important! Although you or your company think you need a project management system, it does not mean that, your organization is ready and mature enough in order to be able to implement such a system. The answer to this question should be looked at in two aspects:

  • Processes – maturity in terms of project management processes/practices
  • People – who is driving, managing and reviewing project management processes

Carrer and success, organizationTo get deeper understanding of your organization’s readiness you can quickly check

  • Who are the project stakeholders – internal, external (government)?
  • Are project managers formally trained and certified (e.g. are they PMP®)
  • What are expectations of stakeholders in terms of
    • Auditory, legal, statutory compliance requirements?
    • Expectation of specific project management methodology (agile, traditional, scrum, Kanban, etc.)
    • Processes being followed e.g. change management, schedule baseline, critical path, resource capacity planning & allocation, requirement management, requirement traceability, risk management, incident management, etc.

As you will notice, if there are none-to-basic expectations of project management processes or non-existent demand for certified project management professionals, then company can settle with to-do list and basic collaboration tool.

However if expectations of project management processes is greater, so is project management professionals, then organization cannot rely on manual mechanism to manage projects. Greater the maturity level of an organization, project management professionals need comprehensive project management system to manage processes and delivery projects.

Addressing pain areas or problems which your organization is facing

It is very important to understand the pain areas or problems your organization is facing in terms of project planning and delivery e.g.

  1. If project planning, communication and tracking progress is a concern for you, then you will have streamline process of project scheduling (tasks, milestones, WBS, dependency, resources assignment), automating project communication (project activities assignment, status change, change in project plan, etc.), means to track project progress (tracking project schedule – on track or behind, cost, billing, resource utilization, etc.).
  2. If effective management of project resources is critical for your organization then one can emphasize on resource management capabilities (processes & tools to enable such) thereby managing resource rates, resource roles, resource allocation, resource utilization, resource estimation, resource load reports, resource billing rate, resource pool, etc..

Basically, it is about knowing your most critical requirement manage project, streamline processes to deliver projects. And once you know such requirements or expected capabilities and desired support for project management processes, it will be lot helpful and easier to select the right project management tool.

For this purpose, project management professionals/ company owners/ senior managers will have to prepare a list of required capabilities of tool in following categories

  1. Must Have: List of features must, in a PM tool, without which it will not work for company
  2. Nice to have: List of features, not really required but if available, they will add value
  3. Not required: Capabilities which are best avoided – either they are not useful or might increase complexity of the tool resulting lower usage/adoption of tool

The next step is to prioritize the above categorized list of PM tool’s requirements, create a checklist of features and use this checklist to compare features of Project Management Software provided by shortlisted project management software providers.

Key Considerations in Choosing a Project Management System

A Good software management software should be easy to operate, convenient and user-friendly. There are many project management systems in the market and the differences are not that big. So what do you have to take into consideration when choosing one?

Planning Abilities

Having the ability to carefully map out an entire project from beginning to end with all required tasks included is the basis of a solid project management system. This enables project managers to ensure tasks are defined and assigned, while also showing how they influence each other so tasks proceed in the proper order. A good system generally enables project managers to map out:

  • A detailed listing of all tasks to be completed along with their description and scope
  • Task assignments to individual team members
  • Time estimates for each task to keep all aspects of a project moving forward toward the stated deadline
  • Interdependent tasks and how they relate to each other so it is clear what steps must be completed before other tasks can begin

Task Management

Complex projects can have a lot of moving pieces that must be managed for the entire project to reach successful completion on time and within budget. With that in mind, task management capabilities tend to be very important when considering project management tools.

This aspect of a project management tool merges with planning abilities, but enables more granular assignments and descriptions of each task, or mini-project, within a larger project.

Good Systems enable project managers to:

  • Completely define each individual task along with outlining its instructions and specifications for completion
  • Assign individual tasks to the appropriate team members for completion
  • Set deadlines for each task contained within a project
  • Receive notification when individual tasks are completed

These abilities combine to keep projects moving forward while ensuring all team players understand their individual responsibilities.

Sharing and Collaboration Features

When complex projects involve a lot of shared documents and notes that must be accessible to the entire team, tools that enable sharing and collaboration on project-related materials can prove valuable.

The project management tool can serve as a central storage house for all important documents while sparing team members tons of emails that might prove difficult to sort through as the project progresses.

Tools that offer sharing and collaboration abilities simply create a neater space to store, work on and retrieve project-critical materials. They can also make it easier for team members to keep up with project documents and prevent the loss of important materials as complex projects progress.

Some project management tools include sharing and collaboration features within their design. Other options, however, do exist as standalone features. When selecting project management software, it is important to determine if this feature should be included within the system or if an alternative method, such as use of Google Docs, makes more sense for the company in question.

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Price

Generally, pricing is an important consideration for just about any firm. While larger corporations may find this less of an issue, smaller firms can carefully review the options and compare the benefits versus the costs to determine the best overall package for use. There are some project management systems (usually web-based) that charge flat monthly fees and allow unlimited collaborators. Others that might charge group rates rather than by-the-user licensing fees. Options with these payment models can serve smaller company needs better in some cases than more costly per-user-based pricing models.

It may also be a good idea to determine if a new project management system will help reduce costs elsewhere by reducing labor, enhancing efficiency or replacing other software. The potential for cost savings can make more expensive programs with more robust features beneficial purchases, even for smaller firms.

Project management software packages are designed to make sure all key players stay on task as complex projects progress. With no shortage of options available on the market to meet project management needs, it’s important for firms to carefully consider their specific needs and weigh them against different project management tool options within their price ranges.

Flexibility, Scalability and Support

Earlier era of IT management has changed. Earlier organizations used to invest heavily in IT infrastructure – hardware and software. This has been typically considered as a risky game. If your decision turned out to be correct, you could expect good RoI else, it will be considered as a sunk cost; organizations did not have any other choice but to include these cost as over-head cost without realizing any benefit (in short negative returns).

  • Flexibility/Scalability – The other option you have is going agile. The latest set of online web-based project management software provide you a flexibility to start small (more like pilot team, pilot projects), once you are sure that it really works for your organization, you can scale it to the level you desire. Even this scale up or scale down is really seamless, without any extra effort or cost.
  • Support – Ideally, you should select a tool that would require minimum amount of support. Yet you need a vendor who is willing to support you for implementation of project management software – during trial, during smaller implementation and even when you are scaling your operations. You need to check what all mechanisms are as they may include elements such as:
    • Dedicated support portal
    • Email based support
    • Phone based support
    • Step by step guide, easy on-boarding for new users
    • Arranging demo/sessions to train/hand-hold users

customer service

Security

This is someone a technical section and I recommend that you will consult your IT team on this, but you have to remember that for any software and especially for online software, the most important factor to check is ‘Security’ of the software and security of our data. Here is a check list to ensure how much a given software is secure

  • Different User roles and Roles management is available
  • Different access and permissions to these roles
  • Secured Socket Layer (SSL) Certificates
  • Well established processes to control infrastructure access and access to customer data.

Vendor Reliability

One can rightly expect the software to be most reliable, but at the same time, you have to keep in mind that no software in the world is without any flow. The biggies of the IT world – Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, IBM and almost all market-leading vendors keep broadcasting patches/bug-fixes for their decade old software. The crucial aspect in such cases is to check whether a given vendor is responsive and supportive or not.

Irrespective of whether you decide to install the project management system on-premise or decide that it is hosted (on cloud) software, you should check the vendor’s capabilities in terms of

  • Frequency in which vendor has been releasing newer versions, incremental updates to existing versions
  • How flexible is the vendor to your feature requests – or do you have to wait for 6 months to one year for your feature request to get reflected.
  • System availability and Data backup – in case of online system you need to check how regularly and efficiently vendor is backing up your data, whether vendor is securely making redundant copies/back of customer data without affecting users’ current operations. Any project management system should be available to its user almost all time.

3. Functionality that you must have

system dataMost of the basic PM system will have basic functionality such as task planning and completion tracking and basic resource allocation. Naturally, if your company is very project oriented then additional functionality is required. Let’s try to break it down to Primary, Secondary and Industry Specific:

Primary Criteria

  • Projects – Display a list of all projects your team is working on and show the status of each. For managers, it’s important to be able to see what’s next as well as what’s been accomplished for each of the projects they are managing. The app should make it easy to see this at a glance. At this point you might want to expand this requirement to Portfolio Management – this is required if your company runs multiple projects that should be grouped, managed and reported collectively (e.g. by products or accounts). This will allow a birds-eye management and views
  • Tasks – Assign tasks to team members. Tasks can be linked to projects and can be tagged for additional context. View tasks in a separate list outside of the project view with the ability to filter by due date, label, etc.
  • Budgeting – planning and tracking project labor and equipment costs, expenses, dashboards and alerts. This may be even further expanded to an integration with your enterprise ERP System (see below further details).
  • Resource Management – allocate and schedule resources, specific skills needs, tracking of under and over utilization and resource sharing
  • Collaboration – Communicate with team members about projects and tasks via in-app messaging or chat. The conversations should be displayed alongside the relevant items that are the subject of discussion. Users should also be able to attach files from cloud storage (Google Drive, Office365, etc) to tasks and projects. This minimizes confusion and ensures that information is linked where it is most useful—in context.
  • Ease of use – PM software is only worthwhile if your team actually uses it to store and manage information about projects. As a baseline standard, communication in the app should be superior to email. Otherwise your team will revert to email and the app will be useless, since the most important information will be stored outside of it.
  • Accessibility – Remote workers use a variety of platforms to do work. The PM app should be accessible on both PC and Mac. A mobile version should be available on both Android and iOS. The mobile version doesn’t have to be completely full featured, but it should include the core task management and communication tools that enable that your team can get things done on the go.

Most of the basic PM system will have basic functionality such as task planning and completion tracking and basic resource allocation.

Secondary Criteria

  • Customizable Tables and Forms – Lists of tasks are often only one part of a project. If your projects typically include lots of data, you may want to consider a solution that includes to customize some tables and forms, change layouts and make it more personal. Some even allow you to build “apps” that are essentially highly customizable tables of information. You can then create web forms to populate your apps with data. You can use these web forms in all sorts of interesting ways, such as tracking applications for a job, managing equipment inventory, or having users submit bug reports.
  • Integrated accounting – As mentioned earlier, in some companies PM systems and ERP systems are tightly connected in order to streamline financial-related data. Some project management systems can also handle accounting tasks, such as estimates, time tracking, invoicing, and job costing. If your team spends a lot of time on these tasks, it may be more efficient to select PM software that includes these features or integrates with an accounting system to provide this functionality.
  • Client collaboration – Do you collaborate closely with clients on projects? Some PM systems allow you to invite outside users to work on projects in a limited capacity. Others include email integration, allowing your team to log client emails in the relevant project for better context. If tracking communication between your team and clients is important, look closely at this feature set.
  • Automation workflows – If you tend to manage the same types of projects over and over again, look for PM software that includes automation, such as repeating projects or automatic task creation.

Industry-Specific Requirements

  • Engineering Companies – Engineering projects involve the creation and updating of massive engineering documents. These documents have 3 main distinctions from “regular” documents and therefore you need to make sure that the support of such documents is listed in your requirements:
    • Size – these are huge documents that need to be stored properly and yet accessible to load
    • Type – As oppose to regular office-type documents, some engineering need special add-ons so you could open them using the PM system
    • Collaboration and Sharing – These projects usually involve external contractors that need to access the document and requires you to buy a system that can be used both internally and externally
  • Software and Hardware R&D Companies (and IT/IS Organizations) – Such organizations might look for project management systems that support these specific requirements
    • Different process types – There are various methodologies for SW and HW development processes (Waterfall, Agile, SCRUM, lean etc.) and although all of them can be broken-down into tasks, some have specific process requirements that might require a specific module.
    • Requirements Management – This might help in streamline the process between internal customers that produce the list of requirements (marketing, product management etc.) to the development team in order to make sure that all requirements are managed to closure.
    • Issue tracking – a supplementary capability to requirements management. This feature gives you the ability to track open issues (SW bugs, Customer complaints etc.) and add them to the next release of the product

Like4. Our Recommendations

So…. If got this far, you probably wonder what are our recommendations for Project Management Systems, right? Well, although there are many to choose from, the following table will help you to narrow down your options even more:

Functionality Under 50 Users
Project Management
Task Management
Portfolio Management
Project Budgeting
Document Management
Resource Management
SaaS Offering
Recommended Software Vista BillQuick Vista Clarizen
ClearView Procore ArchiOffice Wrike
Visual Planning Wrike WorkFront
Functionality Over 50 users Industry Specific
Project Management
Task Management
Portfolio Management
Project Budgeting
Document Management
SaaS Offering
Engineering Projects
R&D Projects
Recommended Software SciForma AtTask BillQuick Clarizen Wrike Procore
WorkZone Procore WorkZone Wrike Mavelink WorkFront
Mavelink Replicon Clarizen BillQuick
NetSuite
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With over 20 years of experience in SW development and IT Management, Ohad Appelbaum can provide insights to those who are considering purchasing a new software to their company. As an IT executive for more than a decade, in 3 different companies (Internet Services, Hi-Tech and Government), Ohad has managed and supervised the purchasing, development and implementation of dozens of IT and IS systems and projects, in all of the common domains – CRM, ERP, Finance, BI, Manufacturing, Cloud-based system and many more. Ohad has managed large-scale budgets, teams, programs with major vendors and integrator and achieved success and high customer satisfaction in critical IT projects through the years. Ohad holds a bachelor's degree in Computer science and statistics from the Tel-Aviv University and in a bachelor's degree in Business Management and Economics from the University of South Africa (UNISA)