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Project management software describes a range of solutions that allow individuals and teams to track the progress of complex projects from their conception to their completion and/or launch. Currently, there are hundreds of these programs on the market, ranging from basic free online programs all the way to highly complex products that allow the user to manage every aspect of the project from lead generation all the way to final payment.
In order to help you navigate this complex market, we wrote this buyer’s guide in order to improve your understanding of the functions, features and buying decisions that need to be considered when you assess your options—and there are many. Here’s a brief overview of what we’ll cover:
Project management software is designed to track the development of projects that take weeks, months or years to complete, providing project managers and other team members a single access point for all the relevant information on any given project. The best project management software on the market will include (but is not limited to):
The primary goal is to increase company efficiency by making the entire project cycle visible to all team members. Each team member is given their own login, allowing them to customize their view, report progress on their own projects and monitor the progress of others. Most employees find themselves to be more efficient in this environment, it allows people to identify problems before/as they arise, and it eliminates any question as to the current status of any outstanding tasks. It also provides a single access point for all company-related information, eliminating lost memoranda or documents.
Industries that commonly use project tracking software include construction, large-scale manufacturing (e.g., aerospace), software, high tech, research and consulting/professional services. Help desk, quality control and customer relationship management are additional uses for certain types of project manager software.
|Project planning and tracking||Most systems allow the user to define the scope of the project, establish deadlines and create, monitor and close essential tasks and deliverables. More complex systems include stronger project planning software capabilities, described below.|
|Multi-user interface||Since the purpose is to allow multiple users to track their own and others’ progress, a system will have logins for each user with personalized functionality, different types of permission settings and ways to share and track relevant information between individuals.|
|Scheduling||Most systems include basic calendar functionality to allow users to schedule their projects out. More advanced industry-specific solutions build on this, providing specialized intelligent support based on the known phases associated with a typical project.|
|Document management||Another capability common to almost all solutions, this feature allows users to store documents in a central location, share them with the relevant parties and track changes and manage different versions of the documents.|
|Budgeting, time and expense tracking||For many companies, particularly those tracking large one-off projects (e.g., construction, large manufacturing or professional services), each project must be individually budgeted, with time and/or expenses tracked. These companies will likely want a solution that incorporates this functionality and ties it to the project, so bids, budgets, expenses and revenues can all be directly connected to the project they’re associated with.|
|Billing and invoicing||The next level up from Budgeting and Expense Tracking, many products on the market also include full accounting functionality, allowing the user the simplicity of using a single system for all functions related to the management and accounting of the project.|
|Resource allocation||When physical resources are required, this will include inventory management, but it also includes personnel management—in other words, identifying the physical and human resources that are available and required for a project, allowing the project manager to assign those resources appropriately.|
|Risk management||Some of the more robust solutions provide the capability of identifying potential risks associated with projects or activities and raising flags to alert the relevant team members.|
|Customer management||For companies that consider each sale its own project to be established, tracked and closed, customer management can be a valuable addition to the standard capabilities. This moves into the realm of customer relationship management software, tracking leads and sales cycles and connecting them then to the product deliverables.|
Individuals. Since project management for an individual tends to be a far simpler endeavor, there are a number of low-cost solutions that provide very basic scheduling, task management and file-sharing capabilities.
Small businesses. Companies with more than a couple of employees will want a system that allows for collaboration, but usually don’t want the added expense of advanced budgeting, invoicing, resource allocation or other intelligent features.
Development-oriented companies. This includes any business for which a single project, once complete, results in multiple sales (e.g., software) as distinct from single-project-single-sale businesses (e.g., construction). These companies will want very strong collaborative capabilities—including very robust document sharing, version control and bug reports—possibly with resource allocation as well. These companies typically will not want invoicing, customer management or other advanced features.
Large/specialty buyers. Construction is the number one example of an industry that uses highly specialized project management systems, incorporating budgeting, inventory management and many other features to manage the life cycle of an entire project, from lead generation all the way through to final payment. Similar needs extend to other industries (e.g., custom IT solutions and large scale manufacturing), each of which will have highly specialized solutions specific to that industry.
Cloud-based solutions. With the growth of the Internet, more and more Web-based project management software companies are cropping up offering low-cost solutions based entirely in the cloud. These typically offer subscription-based pricing, rather than forcing companies to purchase, install and maintain their own expensive solutions. This makes it available to businesses that otherwise never could have afforded it, including to self-employed individuals who need something more powerful than the basic tools they started with. For a more in-depth review of cloud-based systems, review our buyer's guide for online project management software.
Mobile applications. Many project managers perform their work in the field, which means that’s where they need access to their software, rather than in the office. As a result, many companies have developed mobile apps to accommodate this growing trend. Make sure to take your mobile needs and the availability of a mobile app into consideration when evaluating different systems.
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