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Project Management: Picking Out The Right Software For You

Without good project management practices, whether in a traditional office or working on your own as a virtual assistant, you need insight and control over how much a project will cost you, how much time it will take, and what objectives you’re trying to achieve.

One of the ways to better communicate with your working group or boss is by using project management software. However choosing a project management software solution for your project has become more challenging in the past few years as the new options in the marketplace have increased. With a vast number of features and different pricing levels available, making the right choice for your business can be tough. To assist you, read on to find five widely used project management programs you can use to help you plan your next project.

Asana

What it is: Asana is an Internet-based workspace that helps one person to very large groups of people stay focused on to-do items, projects, and deadlines. It allows groups to work together, create tasks, assign tasks to each other, set deadlines, create sub-tasks, store files, sort by people, projects, and tags all in the same program. It's a fantastic way to delegate work to someone and document, with notes and comments, the status of any to-do item. It's Web-based and accessible from any computer by user name and password.

How it will help you: Whether you're the boss or the assistant, Asana makes work easier. Communication will improve dramatically because both manager and employee can, at a glance, understand what has been done and what needs to be done. Scott Hill, a Partner at Mark2media.com says they use Asana as an interactive to-do list. Anyone on your team can and does create tasks. He assigns tasks to one or more people and has the person in-charge follow the task to keep tabs on its progress. This way, the manager can contribute and/or comment when appropriate. “It's great for our business because we need to know what our people are working on,” Hill says. “It certainly beats everyone having their own to-do lists on individual computers, whiteboards, yellow pads, and smartphone apps.”

How to use it:  Hill says Asana extensively manages his entire company. For example, when they rolled out their marketing platform, they created a project entitled "platform." Then, using the Task section, they created "Version 1.0," "Version 2.0," "Version 3.0," and "Version 4.0." Next, they set a deadline for the launch of Version 1.0. After that, they created sub-tasks and assigned each task to one or more people. Once the sub-tasks were created, they completed the created tasks. At regular intervals, they discussed Version 1.0 features and functionality and when necessary took notes and made comments.

Pros: Free for groups under 30, an incredible deal for the features included in Asana, according to Hill. He also adds that Asana users can make suggestions about needed functionality and, lots of times, Asana updates include user suggestions.

Cons: The mobile app is not as functional as Hill would like it to be and it can be a little cumbersome to move a sub-task from one task to another task. You have to first drag it into the main task column then drag it from the main task column to the appropriate sub-task column.

Basecamp

What it is: According to Lew Sauder, Senior Project Manager for Geneca, Basecamp is a cloud-based collaboration tool that can be used to manage a project using task assignment to registered users. It’s also a document repository that allows sharing and reuse of documents within the entire team.

How it will help you: Basecamp allows a project manager to create lists of tasks and assign them to team members. Comments and questions can be attached to the tasks to create an ongoing conversation. Documents can be uploaded to your Basecamp project to share with the team and collaboratively develop with multiple people. Multiple projects can be created for different teams. If anyone is assigned to multiple projects, they can access each one from the main projects page. For distributed teams in multiple locations, discussion threads allow free form text for questions or "virtual meetings" to discuss issues as a team and a shared team calendar makes it useful to track milestones as well as team members' days off, which everyone has access to.

How to use it: Use Basecamp to assign tasks and share documents. If there are business requirements or other documents the team needs access to, they are uploaded to the project and referenced in the task. The assigned person can complete the task and mark it as complete, or create a discussion thread asking questions or making suggestions. The discussions are kept within the project making it available for future reference for the whole team.

Pros: Basecamp is intuitive and doesn’t require a lot of training or technical experience to begin using it.

Cons: On the flipside, Basecamp could use better organization. “It has a good search capability,” says Saunders. “I would rather have had some time of directory structure to organize all of the collective comments from team members.”

Google Docs

What it is: Google Docs is a cloud based office suite of applications and storage, says Chris Ward, Project Management Instructor and Microsoft Office Trainer at CBT Nugget. However, recently, it has also moved its file storage capabilities into Google Drive, which has been a bit confusing to some end users. Overall, Google Docs allows you to utilize a Web-based word processor, spreadsheet application, slide presentation creator, and form generator that is accessible anywhere you have internet connectivity. Users can use a Web browser to access these applications via a Google account that’s free. Companies can also purchase expanded access with Google Apps, which adds email support and websites.

How it will help you: One of keys to good project management is collective communication, which enables project managers to handle multiple channels of communication for their team, stakeholders, and vendors. For example, with Google Docs, Ward has several members of his team working on a spreadsheet that will be a performance report on their production schedule. He also uses Google Docs to have a document that lists upcoming production shoots and what is necessary for each team member to bring and any changes with the production.

How to use it: Project managers can utilize Google Docs for documentation, scheduling, and basic presentations. 

Pros: With the Cloud based aspect of Google Docs, a project manager can be sitting at a Starbucks in London and working on a spreadsheet in real time with someone back in Arizona. Also, if you’re looking for something that is very easy to use, does basic word processing, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint-type presentations, Google Docs is the way to go. And it's pretty much free.

Cons: Functionality and file sizes are limited. It’s not as full functioning as something like Excel.

Microsoft Project

What it is: Microsoft Project helps project managers stay organized, and gives them great visibility into their projects’ timelines, says Hassan Osman (PMP), Senior Program Manager at Cisco Systems. Microsoft Project assists in listing out the tasks required to complete a project and allows you to assign resources (people or materials) to your tasks. It also keeps track of costs associated with your project – including labor costs and expenses and creates other helpful charts for reporting on status and progress.

How it will help you: Osman says Microsoft Project helps project managers in several ways. First, it allows you list all the tasks or activities that you need to complete to finish a specific project. So you’ll have a central repository where you can see all the steps you need to follow to reach your goals. You can then set start or end dates, as well as durations, for each of your tasks. “The beauty of Microsoft Project is that it factors weekends and holidays into your schedule,” he says. “For example, if you have a task that starts on a Wednesday and requires five business days to complete, MS Project will automatically recognize that Saturday and Sunday are non-working days, and update your schedule to reflect that the task will be complete on the following Tuesday.”

It also allows you to link any tasks together to form relationships. For example, if you have two steps listed in your project plan, and you cannot start step two before step one is complete, then you can link both tasks together through what’s called a predecessor/ successor relationship. This is extremely helpful because if there’s a delay in step one, Microsoft Project will automatically reflect that delay in the start and end dates of step two. This saves you a lot of time in having to recalculate the impact on your deadlines if you had to do all of that manually.

How to use it: Osman leads global teams on highly complex projects at Cisco and says he uses Microsoft Project to consolidate multiple project plans and get visibility into where they stand as a team. “I also use it to communicate tasks out to my team members, and to measure their progress,” he says. “Microsoft Project also helps me identify problems before they affect my deadline.” For example, if there is a potential delay in a set of critical tasks, Osman says he plans ahead to make sure he has the proper resources and teams aligned to reduce the risk of not meeting the final deadline of his project.

Pros: Microsoft Project has a great scheduling engine which lets you see how dates shift when certain dates are not met. So you can simulate what-if scenarios to determine impact. For example, if a team member asks “What will happen if I get this product to you next week instead of tomorrow?” you can easily simulate that in your plan and see how that affects your overall deadlines. There are a variety of templates that you can download from within Microsoft Project. This helps tremendously in saving you time you would otherwise spend on creating schedules from scratch.

Cons: Microsoft Project is not super-easy to learn and use. While it has a very similar look and feel to other MS Office products (such as Excel and Word), you need to spend a bit of time and effort learning how to use its features. Although it’s not terribly complex, you will have a bit of difficulty understanding some of its advanced concepts (such as critical path analysis and burndown charts) if you are not an experienced project manager. Microsoft Project is also considered a little bit pricier compared to other products on the market. Depending on how many people in your team might actually need to use it, the cost can get expensive pretty quickly.

Primavera

What it is: Primavera is project management software that provides all the tools needed to manage projects and programs (i.e., groups of related projects) as well as allowing enterprise-wide portfolio analysis. There are also tools available within the suite for Contract-Management, Risk-Management and a plethora of analysis tools to use for assessing performance at the project, program, and portfolio levels. Robert Ware, Vice President of Instruction at Project Masters, Inc. believes that Primavera is one of the most robust and reliable of the project management software suites.

How it will help you: Ware says Primavera provides users with all the tools they need to develop scope, schedule, and cost models for projects as well as the tools they need to track project progress and report project performance. Primavera is also customizable and allows users to create custom fields when needed for analysis or reporting functions that may not be built-in. The program suite also helps with reporting, analysis, and forecasting.”

How to use it: Ware uses Primavera for all aspects of project, program, and portfolio management. Starting at the project level, he creates a resource-loaded project model. This model captures the products to be produced, the activities that have to be carried out to produce the deliverables, who will do the work, when the work will be done, and the costs associated with doing the work. Because of Primavera’s robustness, Ware says him and his team can conduct extensive scenarios and simulations and use these to determine what the consequences would be on the project, the program, and the enterprise if certain course of action are taken.  Once the project is completed, users can archive the project models – capturing the Actuals associated with deliverables and activities so as to use this information for estimating durations, costs, etc. for work on future similar projects.

Pros: Primavera offers a complete set of tools for project, program, and portfolio management and provides built-in capabilities that are often not provided by similar project management software applications. Ware adds that Primavera’s graphing and reporting tools are often superior to other project management software applications and allows users to create and customize specific types of graphs.

Cons: Primavera’s complexity can be difficult to master and requires a bit of training. To use Primavera—even for simple projects—the user needs to understand how the software works and how Primavera performs the many calculations needed for project management. Primavera also doesn’t always interface well with non-Primavera applications when importing Primavera information into other project management software applications.

(Terah Shelton is a freelance writer based in Alabama. Her work has been
published in Women’s Health, Hallmark, Natural Solutions and more.)

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