The Needle in the Haystack: Tips for Choosing the Right Project Management Tool

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Businessman in a cornfield standing next to a haystack

With a myriad of options to choose from, it's no wonder choosing a project management tool has become such a daunting task. Learn how to find the right solution for your business here!

As you well know, there are a myriad of software products on the market today. The applications, themselves, range from freeware to multi-faceted programs with service contracts that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Further, the software is made by familiar name brands, such as Microsoft Project to software that is created by more obscure startup companies.

All of these choices can, not surprisingly, make IT executives apprehensive about choosing the right software programs for their businesses.

If I were trying to buy some software I would not even know where to start, since there are so many choices, says Dave Farthing, a Chartered Engineer, British Computer Society Member and professor who lectures on project management, among other disciplines, at the University of Glamorgan in the UK

To alleviate some of the confusion, Farthing compiled a list of more than four dozen automated products on his university-hosted website. (Not available as of 20th January 2014).

To offer further explanation, each of the items on the website comes with a short description of its capabilities and a link to the maker's website. However, despite this helpful list, Farthing believes that companies should always properly assess their goals and existing infrastructure, before implementing a new program.

IT Executives Should Examine Company Culture

Farthing also believes that the prevailing zeitgeist within an organisation is key to determining what kind of project management tools the company should use.

Some organisations, because of traditions and so on, need to have, or they are accustomed to having very tight control and very strict procedures, he said. Sometimes that is an external constraint.

He identifies the public sector as having, in general, a greater need for accountability than private companies. Consequently, software that provides detailed tracking of changes and effective cost summarising is of particular use to those groups.

The public/private sector split is but one nuance in a wide array of determining factors. Farthing further notes several key functions of automated software project management tools, each with a varying degree of relevance based on the type of organisation that would be using these tools. These key functions are as follows:

  • Software that can help managers plan a project by estimating the cost, time, and other factors.
  • Tools that deal with document management and work group collaboration, especially helpful for large organisations with far-flung departments.
  • Software that can help with the issue of tracking and calculating costs, especially helpful for international businesses that deal with customs and tariffs.
  • Configuration management tools and devices that help to keep track of conversions.
  • Change control and defect tracking software.

Of course, IT leaders should identify the key processes within individual companies and narrow the market to include only those products that service these key processes.

Taking this step can cut costs as well, since this method can eliminate the buying of redundant or useless tools.

Varying Claims about Automated Products Cause Confusion

While narrowing a company's market focus is helpful, it can still be difficult to identify just what a specific product is capable of doing for a company.

After all, the marketing copy on product websites often raises more questions than answers. Here are some marketing pitch examples from various companies:

  • OroLogic boasts that its OroTimesheet 5 is the best timesheet software on the market! Further, the website claims that this software is incontestably the best solution to track your projects simply, efficiently and intelligently.
  • Method 123, in advertising its Project Management Templates, reports that its software is incredibly detailed, ;easy to read and use for projects and suitable for all project types and sizes.
  • InterPlan Systems touts its eTaskMaker as fast and easy to learn.
  • Project Perfect declares on its website that its product creates really useful Project Management Software. Further, the company says that its Project Administrator tool is invaluable for issue tracking.
  • TrackStudio begins its online pitch with the statement that TrackStudio is different. TrackStudio is better.

All of these claims may be 100 percent true, 100 percent false, or a combination of both accurate and inaccurate claims. In any case, IT managers will find it difficult to verify these points unless they can actually use these products, or talk to someone who has actually used these applications.

At this point then, it makes complete sense for IT managers to seek out independent research that reviews software applications.

Farthing recommends that companies look at various industry magazines and journals. Ultimately, companies should try to find objective information. However, finding objective information is challenging due to corporate public relations on one side, and unsubstantiated claims posted to online forums on the other side.

You need to be careful about taking too much heed of one person's scare-mongering, Farthing added.

Yet any good source is just a single voice among many potential voices. In other words then, varied and detailed the research yields better results.

If many people are having a bad experience with a particular type of software, then you are getting a clearer picture, Farthing said.

Software Project Management Tools Require a Vigilant Eye

As IT executives survey the experiences of other product users, they must keep as vigilant an eye on what goes on internally.

Automated tools are not, as the term may imply, devices that one can just "set and forget." IT companies must evaluate their cost-effectiveness, just like they scrutinise every other facet of the operation.

Companies that deal in software may have the built in advantage of inherent product knowledge and a healthy level of skepticism, Farthing believes.

Software engineers know that things can go wrong, and anybody who has been in the industry long enough realises that a very simple misunderstanding or simple error can make a huge difference, he said.

Still, the nature of these devices, especially the more wide-reaching and expensive ones, can implant a great degree of reluctance to change course in a company.

That said, the purchase price and licensing costs are not the only expenses involved with the use of an automated management tool. There is often costly training that must take place. Further, costly manpower must spend a great deal of time on tasks like data input and testing during the product implementation stage.

Additionally, if a company has been using a particular product for a long duration, there is the question of what to do with all of the archived data.

If all of your records are in an old system that you cannot use anymore, then you are left without that useful information, Farthing said.

Unless there is a truly compelling reason for change, IT companies are often best advised to continue their use of the automated software project management system they currently have, simply because of the high price a change of software would cost a company.

It does really become quite expensive in the end, Farthing added.

However, the industry could perhaps benefit from the greater standardisation of data storage that could provide the flexibility necessary for companies to readily switch to the most effective systems.

If your data was stored in a standard way, it would be relatively easy to move it from one package to another, Farthing said. Also you could use tools on that data to query new bits of information that perhaps you were not able to access before.

Clear Vision Required From Management When Selecting and Evaluating Tools

Given the cost of automated software project management tool implementation, there is an emphasis on getting the software choice right the first time around.

IT executives must understand the following about their company's software project management platform:

  • Which software project management platform areas could be aided by automation.
  • Which products are likely to work and which products are not likely to work.
  • How these products perform once they are a part of the project process.

To conclude, while there is a need for informed leadership during the selection process, this requirement does not disappear once software automation is implemented.

After all, as Farthing said: software needs to support management, but not drive the project.

ExecutiveBrief, the technology management resource for business leaders, offers proven tips, techniques, and action plans that companies can use to better manage people, processes and tools - the keys to improving their business performance. To learn more, please visit: SoftServe Blog

Recommended read: 5 Free Tools for More Effective Project Management by Duncan Haughey


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