As you know, not all project management software programs are made the same. The better ones will focus your attention on the important things - project plans, milestones, tasks and dependencies. The poorer quality ones are hard to use, may be full of bugs and have poor user support.
If you're out looking for the best project management software programs, you're in luck!
I've trawled the Internet for the best programs and have shortlisted a few for you below.
But before we begin looking at them, let's understand what we, as project managers, usually want in a project management software program.
Of course, some may argue that Microsoft Project and the likes of web-based tools like Basecamp and Redmine are in different leagues altogether (more on this later). While that's true, I still find Microsoft Project a bit 'heavy' for the novice project manager.
I also find the ability for a software program to support collaboration extremely important. Support for collaboration comes in 3 areas.
There are two aspects to document management. Documents like text files, Word documents, PDF files, deliverables, etc. must be easily attached into the project management software.
I'll give you an example. Let's say I have a software bug where a particular screen does not display a customer's address properly. In software testing circles, it is common to report this as a defect and attach a screenshot. Attachment of that screenshot helps to clarify and explain what went wrong. If the project management software can allow this, that would be perfect.Project Planning Support
As a PM, I work with project plans. A LOT. So a project management software should allow me to draw up a project plan quickly, insert tasks, durations, milestones and dependencies. I want to have the project dates tied to one task move automatically when another dependent task moves.
Case Study: In core banking projects which I've been on, the project plans we work on can run into twenty A4 pages or longer! The multitude of tasks that need to be performed by all resources are perplexing and without a PM software to manage it, it gets out of hand. For example, just for the requirements and analysis phase, I once had 100 tasks to be handled by 5 resources over a 2 month period.
The other thing a good project management software must do is to track projects properly.
What do I mean? Well, assumed you've baselined your project plan as starting on a date, all tasks and durations laid out nicely, with an end date that is on time and on budget. This is called a 'baseline'.
Some PM software programs will capture this baseline and 'lock it in'. From there you can enter the progress of each task and track it against that baseline. If you've slated a task to end on 22 Jun 2013, how far are you into the task? 20%? 70%? And if you deliver the task after 22 Jun 2013, the program knows how to highlight it as overdue.
Ok, now that we understand what I like n a good PM software, let's look at my pick of the top 3.
Microsoft Project is THE industry standard project management software out in the market. Like it or not, there is no better tool out there that allows you to plan and track a project (from simple to complex) as well as Microsoft Project does.
A screenshot of Microsoft Project
Tip: Microsoft Project is GREAT for project planning and tracking. It can allow you to craft a plan with tasks, durations, dates and present it in beautiful Gantt charts and resource views, etc. BUT it does lack in other project management software capabilities like ease of use, online collaboration, etc.
Let's assess our dear Microsoft Project against the 5 criteria we listed out earlier.
Microsoft Project can do much better in this area. Given it's wealth of features, it can be overwhelming for a newbies to start using the program to create a simple project plan. I think Microsoft can insulate beginners from the complexity by having either a lighter version of the program e.g. "Microsoft Project Express".
There is no collaboration support in Microsoft Project. There are advanced Microsoft software, e.g. Sharepoint that do allow collaboration but they are more for version control of project plans. If you want online forums and the ability to comment on project issues, you gotta look elsewhere.
Again, Microsoft Project was not built for this. It is more of a project plan tool and doesn't allow you to attach documents to the plan.
Microsoft Project does an excellent job here. You can insert phases, milestones, tasks, durations, etc. and create fantastic looking project plans, viewable by Gantt views, resources views, and so forth.
One of the newer entrants into the project management software arena, Basecamp has just literally exploded in terms of usage.
What is Basecamp? It's one of those "Web 2.0" things which exploded on the scene a couple of years ago and it has a nice, clean, sexy web-based interface.
A screenshot of Basecamp
One of the first things that strikes you is how easy it is to use the software. I simply go online, log in and then I can create a project, users and have them online and assign them tasks in a matter of minutes.
The basic version is free, and you have to pay a monthly subscriptin for more advanced features.
Case Study: Basecamp is a web-based tool. That means that all your project issues, etc. are stored on the Basecamp servers. This may be an issue for some companies
For example, one of my clients was a bank in Malaysia and I recommended that we track our project issues using Basecamp. It was a no-no because the bank's policy was not to allow confidential project or client data to reside outside of the bank's premises.
So the project data had to be stored "on-premise". Basecamp not a good solution if your client needs the data stored their servers. Good thing to remember.
Let's look at Basecamp against the five evaluaton criteria I have.
Basecamp is just FABULOUS in this aspect. The user controls, the ability to just add a project, change its properties, assign tasks, etc. are all done with rich, clean web controls. I love it.
Again, top marks for Basecamp. You can set up a little forum going for any topical area in your project and have your resources commenting on the issue immediately.
Tip: This capability is very useful for project issues which impact many resource teams. I had a project issue where a drop-down list in the software were not clear.
My Lead Business Analyst raised an issue in Basecamp. The vendor's software consultant (who had access to the Basecamp project) saw the issue and immediately recommended the list of values. The BA took it to the user, confirmed it and bam, verified the issue as closed. Basecamp is very good for things like that.
You can attach documents in to Basecamp easily. If an issue has a need for screenshots, Basecamp allows you to upload the screenshots very quickly. If you have deliverables to tag to a topical area in your project, the software allows that as well.
Ok, this is where Basecamp falls short. The support for creating a full-fledged project plan with milestones, tasks and dependencies is not really there in Basecamp.
Again, if you want to track your project's tasks and how they are progressing against a baseline, it's easily done using Basecamp.
Ok, goodie. The third software program I'll highlight is Redmine. This is a good project management software program that is also FREE.
A screenshot of Redmine
The version of Redmine I installed for this review article had a clean, solid interface which allows you to navigate between various menus.
The program itself resembles Basecamp in a way, minus the super sexy front-end. You can also track issues, attach documents and build up a project knowledge base via the in-built Wiki.
Let's look at Redmine against the five evaluation criteria I have.
Though not as powerful or intuitive as Basecamp, Redmine allows you to track and have your users set up to be able to comment on project issues. Nice, simple functionality without a lot of fuss.
There is a simple document attachment interface which allows any file to be stored in Redmine. Very similar to Basecamp.
You don't get create rich, complex project plans in Redmine, as it was never built for that purpose. If you need to build complex project plans, then the likes of Microsoft Project will be better suited to the task.
For baselining and then tracking your project tasks accoridng to plan, you need something more than Redmine. You can't specify a version of your project plan as a locked into a baseline, then measure deviations from it.
To end off, I wanted to go back to a comment I made at the start of this article.
Microsoft Project is in a different PM software league as compared to Basecamp and Redmine. Microsoft Project is built for project plan development and tracking, and to easily insert milestones, tasks, dependencies and so forth. Basecamp and Redmine are more tuned to project ISSUE tracking and online collaboration.
And the difference between Basecamp and Redmine being that Basecamp is commercial software and hosted on Basecamp's servers. Redmine is a open source project management software and is typically hosted on-premise within a company's servers.
So, on the whole, perhaps the best project management software is a hybrid combination of the three I've mentioned above:
Use Microsoft Project to BUILD your project PLAN, insert tasks, durations and milestones, as well as baselining and tracking the PLAN.
Use Basecamp or Redmine to TRACK your project ISSUES and resolve them using online collaboration. You can also use them to store any supporting documents or knowledge bases which will help in project execution.
And use Redmine instead of Basecamp if you want a totally free software that can be used on-premise.
That's it! I hope the above has helped you understand what my pick of the 3 best project management software programs are.
As you get more familiar with Microsoft Project, Basecamp and Redmine, you'll also begin to realize that each has its strengths in specific scenarios, and you're better off using a combination of the three.
Thanks and until next time, have a good time managing your projects!
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