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Simple project management software options for when Excel isn't enough

A low-cost, simple project management software solution is often the next step for organizations that have outgrown Excel. Learn more about a few of the available options.

For many midmarket companies, finding simple project management software can be a challenge due to price and complexity. While they want to manage projects, they don't want to invest in overall portfolio management software or ERP-like financial planning tools.

Instead, Microsoft Excel, the spreadsheet entrenched in offices and firms worldwide, tends to come out on top for project management in small and medium-sized businesses. Why? I see three main reasons:

Licensing costs. Far and away, most users have Office, or at the very least some type of spreadsheet software, such as the free, open source OpenOffice Calc. In today's economic environment, making do with what firms already have is a tried-and-true operating mantra.

User familiarity. Not only are users familiar with the look and feel of Excel, but momentum is also a hard train to derail. If existing projects are being managed largely in Excel, user resistance and lack of available training dollars can significantly affect whether a full-scale project and portfolio management (PPM) software rollout will even be considered in a midmarket firm.

Lack of suitable alternatives. The midmarket seems to be ruled by the latest and loudest --solutions are needed by next week, not by sometime in quarter four of this year, after thousands of consultant hours. While enterprise project management stacks like Microsoft's Project Server and CA Inc.'s Clarity can be very effective at managing projects globally, with many dependencies and fixed dates, they aren't simple project management software choices. They are expensive, time consuming to deploy and often have overhead requirements beyond what a midmarket firm can justify.

In my own small business, I do manage project schedules in Excel. For my needs, it is certainly the most accessible and easy to understand of the products I have outlined here. But I don't have a large staff or projects with a lot of dependencies, and generally I'm working on no more than 20 projects at a time. What I do find lacking is dashboard-type functionality where I can easily monitor next actions, due dates and overall progress on a timeline, but I certainly cannot justify the cost of implementing a larger solution just for that.

However, in the midsized business for which I do a good deal of consulting, SharePoint is being rolled out with an eye to using Excel Services 2010 and Project Server 2010 components to build, maintain and regularly revise schedules for individual projects -- all on a time frame of within the next 12-18 months.

On top of that, the company will be adding Excel Web App -- a browser-based, lightweight spreadsheet collaboration tool. The hope is that with the enhanced version of an already familiar tool, schedule creation will be more accurate, easily updated and simply integrated into rollup reports and other metrics.

But sometimes Excel isn't enough. Organizations looking for core types of deliverable management, team coordination and date synchronization functions will often need to take a step toward a more project management-specific tool. Here are a few PPM tools suitable for the midmarket:

Microsoft Project

In my experience, most firms find Microsoft Project to be the next logical step after Excel. Until recently, MS Project has been designed primarily with project management professionals as the central users. But because in many cases it's actually the knowledge workers managing the projects, there have been some user disconnects.

Interestingly, the 2010 release of Microsoft Project, part of the Office 2010 suite slated to debut in general availability by June, is designed to appeal more broadly to the entire Office user market and not just project managers.

If you check out the free beta edition, you'll see Project 2010 looks a lot like Excel -- one indication that many organizations are still using Excel for their project management needs but are feeling constrained and looking for more specialized software that is both accessible and simple.

Non-MS PPM software alternatives

There are a number of cloud-based solutions for midmarket firms not opposed to stepping out of the desktop software mind-set. Several PPM vendors are offering less expensive, simple project management software and tools targeted directly at the midmarket.

Up until recently, MS Project has been designed primarily with project management professionals as the central user.

Daptiv Inc. and Innotas offer on-demand PPM tools from $65 to $100 per user, per month and have almost instantaneous deployment and a level of sophistication and reporting flexibility that Excel can't match at this time.

For software development firms, the Scrum methodology invites frequent code reviews and flexibility on an almost daily basis with project requirements and communication. Many smaller firms are successfully using this type of agile development method, along with agile scorecards and Scrum Master dashboards, to reduce the need for expensive project management software.

For development shops in need of a more sophisticated solution, Microsoft's Team Foundation Server 2010 is generally considered the premiere team development solution on the market. While it integrates many different project management features, it is quite pricey.

Excel will probably continue to play a role in the project management realm for many organizations, but changing needs and available technologies continue to make room in the market for a number of other tools.

Jonathan Hassell is president of The Sun Valley Group Inc. He's an author, consultant and speaker in Charlotte, N.C. Hassell's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual. Contact him at [email protected].

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