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Project Management Software
Charting the Lifetime of Your Project

by Elizabeth R. Larson


Project management used to be the exclusive domain of project managers, those responsible for tracking costs and resources throughout a project's lifetime. The construction, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing industries in particular were among the first to adopt project management techniques to track their processes.

Now, however, other industries are turning to project management to justify their budgets. "As people look more to just-in-time processes and just-in-time inventory, they're trying to optimize their quality and manufacturing processes to get the best results," says Sean Barbera of Kidasa Software in Austin, Texas.

Enter project management software. A long list of companies offers software specifically designed for project management functions. Packages range from the lower-end versions, designed for those new to the process, to higher-end systems intended for experienced project managers.

What to look for

Seek a package that is easy to use, that can communicate project information to people and perform what-if analysis, advises Nancy Allen, product manager of SureTrak, a project management software package from Pennsylvania-based Primavera Systems. "Project management is more than just planning; it's also looking at what's happening day to day and seeing what impact a delay will have," she explains. "Project managers must ask, 'What will happen if I assign a few more people to this task? Will that accelerate it? How much more will it cost to speed up everything?' "

The most important question is, What do we want to do with it? observes Barbera. "There are really three or four different categories of complexity, depending on what users want to accomplish," he notes. "Some people want to show a process flow, as opposed to a project plan. And then there are those who live and breathe project management."

Consider the following questions before making a purchase:

  Will the entire company use the software or just a few project management  experts?

  Will the software be used for internal communication within the company or for external communication with clients? Certain software packages present information in more readily understandable formats.

  Does the company manage large, multiscale projects involving hundreds or thousands of people? Or does it simply want to control in-house projects?

  How will this software fit with other software already in place?

  Consider the desired output: hard copy, overheads, banners, Internet or intranet communication. Who will view this output?

  How much money is the company willing (or able) to pay for a software package?

  Will the company support a long learning curve, or does it want the software up and functional from day one?

Software capabilities

Lower-end software packages can schedule tasks in Gantt or PERT formats, update schedules over time with a minimum amount of work, output quality schedules for overheads and client communication, and easily import and export information to other software packages and HTML. Users normally can install lower-end packages on their own and learn to use the software without outside instruction. These products on average cost less than $200. Examples include Milestones, Etc. by KIDASA Software Inc., Visio Standard by Visio Corp. and FastTrack Schedule by AEC Software.

Midrange packages offer the ability to schedule tasks and manage resources within a project; view projects in different layouts (i.e, Gantt, PERT or calendar); import and export to other software packages, including standard databases; work within ASCII format, spreadsheet and HTML; and output hard copy in report format, much like a spreadsheet, with limited graphic capability. Users often can install these packages on their own, although some training is recommended. These systems fall in the $400 to $700 price range. Examples include Microsoft Project by Microsoft Corp., SureTrak by Primavera Systems, TurboProject by IMSI and Project Scheduler by Scitor Corp.

On the high end, expect packages that include resource assignment and leveling, people scheduling and time sheets, financial data interface, engineering drawings organization or management, and materials delivery systems. They also usually include import and export capability to other software packages in standard database or ASCII formats, and hard-copy output in report format. Such packages fall in the thousands of dollars per seat range, and the software requires longer installation time, ramp-up and training. Examples of these packages include Welcom Software Technology's trio of Open Plan software, Primavera Project Planner by Primavera Systems and SuperProject by Computer Associates International.

New trends

Allen cites several important factors that promise to change project management software and its functions. Primary among them is the Internet's influence, which affects the way people communicate and gather information. Moreover, project management is increasingly regarded as a core competency throughout an organization, she adds. Among other benefits, it provides a competitive advantage to reduce costs, improve quality and customer satisfaction, and reduce time to market.

"We're also noticing that people want to integrate project information with other information systems," reports Allen. This requires linking project management software not only to accounting systems for actual cost analysis but also to human resources departments to estimate available work force at any given time.

A shift away from "task-centric" projects, where the task is the most important thing, to "resource-centric" projects, where companies work to complete the task with the resources they have available, represents another trend, reveals Allen.

With the right package, a company can use project management software to improve how it manages its budget, material and human resources, and time. Especially valuable is the what-if analysis tool, offered in certain packages, which shows how  process changes will affect a project.

Quality Digest has compiled the following listing of project management software companies and their products. This guide does not endorse any specific company or product, neither does it represent all the companies producing project management software. The companies listed responded to Quality Digest's request for information about their products.


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