Spreadsheets are the king of project management support tools because they are the most useful tool and the most used one. How do they relate to project management software? What are the benefits of each and when should you switch to project management software? Only you can decide when to switch, but this article will discuss the benefits of each and provide some guidelines.
Depending on which research you rely on, the project management software market is between $ 1.5 billion and $ 3.5 billion. That’s for software specifically designed to support project management. Most organizations that have made significant efforts for effective project management have recognized that it is very difficult to manage a larger number of projects and people or a larger project without the support of technology.
Still, there’s no project management tool more popular or widespread than the spreadsheet, despite the fact that spreadsheets aren’t designed as project support tools. Spreadsheets are used even in organizations with an established project management tool. There are clear reasons for this. A spreadsheet program is on almost every computer in every organization, people are familiar with spreadsheets and how to use them, and people tend to use these ‘office’ types of software tools to solve problems. And I’m there with them. I like to use spreadsheets to keep track of all kinds of data. It’s easy, convenient, and I admit I encourage the ego to show what I can do in a spreadsheet.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the differences between these two different types of tools. For the purposes of this article, I selected six criteria to make the comparison. These were selected from the feedback from customers and prospects and learned what is important for the successful adoption and implementation of project tools within an organization.
Data mining is a big part of project management tools. The whole reason for having a tool is to collect data so that you can look at that data intelligently, ensure your processes are performing as advertised and make good decisions. You need to know which projects and tasks slip through the cracks, so that you can react again. You need to know when you don’t have enough resources to meet demand so you can properly allocate them or manage demand. You need to know what issues are lurking so you can fix them now before you lose the favor of a critical customer. And you need to see how your processes work so you can continuously improve your processes.
In today’s economy, competitive landscape and accountability standards, you need the data. Managers get blinded because they don’t know what’s coming or what’s going on. This is where the right project management software shines and spreadsheets blur. A good project management tool is database oriented and should allow different types of ad hoc reporting across multiple projects. This makes it possible to mine all kinds of data. You simply cannot do this in a spreadsheet at the same level. If you really, really know what you’re doing, it’s possible to link spreadsheets together and generate some integrated data. But that is not the same. You just can’t drill down on the data that appears in your multiple spreadsheets on a whim. And in the current environment, this is critical. Gone are the days when it is not acceptable to not have the correct data.
Benefit: Project management software
Ease of use
There are project management software software that are easy to use. However, spreadsheets clearly have an advantage here. Most people are familiar with the use of spreadsheets; they feel comfortable and even enjoy using them. A big reason is that spreadsheets have no structure. People are not usually “forced” to use them. They are free to use them however they want. This of course has a downside. It is very difficult to standardize a process or have any kind of standard data structure if there is no structure in the tool itself. However, from the point of view of strict ease of use, spreadsheets cannot be right.
You can counter this in project management software by using good, relevant and periodic training, keeping your implementation simple and using help such as templates. But we give this advantage to spreadsheets.
One of the things organizations are doing today to become more competitive and efficient is to give everyone access to the project information they need. Marketing organizations put all information about every customer project online. Engineering organizations follow all schedules and identify problems immediately. Government agencies put all necessary data online for their projects. And so it goes on. The value of immediate access to information is profound. An engineer can view one system and immediately find the specifications he needs. A customer manager can track the status of his customer’s projects and identify problems early. A professional service manager can look up the contract information and job scope of an important project before answering a question.
Productivity means delivering results, accomplishing things or making things happen. This type of centralized access allows those who deliver results on the frontline to know what action to take when.
Project management software, especially online project management software, wins without a doubt. Spreadsheets are not designed for multiple people access from multiple locations. They are designed with one single file / one user scenario in mind.
Benefit: Project management software
Maintenance and administration
Time and time again I talk to organizations that spend an incredible amount of time keeping spreadsheets. So much time is spent on activities that can be attributed to the use of spreadsheets:
- Find the right spreadsheet
- Identify the correct version of the correct spreadsheet
- Locate the email with the correct version of the correct spreadsheet
- Emailing the correct spreadsheet to the people who don’t have it
- Tracking down the people who need the information needed to update the spreadsheet
- Actually update the spreadsheet
- Maintain the formulas and formatting of the spreadsheet
- Update the default format of all spreadsheets to allow “process improvement”
- Create new spreadsheets
And the list goes on. The point is that while every tool takes time to maintain, spreadsheets take an inordinate amount of time because they target one user. Only one person can update them at a time. They also take time because they are file based which means you have to maintain separate files. Unless an organization is really good with a process to manage these files (the exception not the rule), the files are usually stored in a medley of locations with non-standardized file names and even non-standardized layouts. If you take the time to study how much time people take to keep up with these spreadsheets, you will be amazed.
On the other hand, project management software also takes time to maintain. I cannot say otherwise. It takes time to ensure that the data is correct in the system, that processes are tracked correctly, and to easily get information into the system. One downside to this is that many project management software software allows the entry of information by anyone, so that one person doesn’t have to find and enter the information. In this scenario, maintenance is more real maintenance than continuous, non-stop data entry.
There are some ways to minimize the amount of maintenance and time spent on project management software, and these are aimed at the initial installation. Proper setup of the system will shorten maintenance time. Using items such as templates and preset reports really helps to minimize the amount of time spent in the tool.
While both types of tools take time, a well-designed project management software system certainly has the edge over spreadsheets.
Benefit: Project management software
Flexibility in this context refers to the tool’s ability to adapt to your processes. Practically, this refers to things like being able to track any type of data peculiar to your company (i.e. adding fields) or implementing a new project template.
This is a more difficult attribute to measure, especially with the variation in project management software. Many tools are very rigid, meaning what you see is what you get. Some tools have become more flexible and offer a lot of adaptability – such as the ability to adjust screens and data structures. This has become increasingly important.
It’s hard to do a direct comparison because it really depends on the project management software system you are evaluating, but in reality many systems will not be as flexible as a spreadsheet. In a spreadsheet, you can create a new column or row on impulse, or create an entirely new spreadsheet to keep track of new information. This flexibility, of course, has a downside, the difficulty of standardizing a process. However, from a strict view of flexibility, we have to give spreadsheets the nod. But I warn you to test your project management software system for flexibility and make your own comparison.
Source allocation and forecasts
This is similar to data mining, but it is so important that it gets its own billing. Managing which resources are allocated to which projects and tasks is a critical part of project management and one of the major differences between spreadsheets and project management software.
There are three crucial parts to ensuring good resource management. These include:
- A good work breakdown structure (breakdown of tasks in a project)
- A good estimate of the effort (not expensive) to be spent on each task (and thus project)
- A composite view of this information about all projects
Due to the focus of spreadsheets on one file, a good project management software system should definitely win this. A good system provides insights and reports with insight into resource allocation, so you can view issues and make future forecasts. That’s not to say you can’t do this with spreadsheets, but it’s difficult at best and you have to have a very, very good setup.
Benefit: Project management software
Only you can determine the right tool for your organization. Using spreadsheets is definitely better than using nothing at all. They do have value and may be suitable for some organizations. However, good project management software (especially at enterprise level) clearly has the advantage for the following types of organizations:
- Organizations with more than a handful of projects to manage
- Organizations with more than a handful of people working on or managing projects
- Organizations with large or complex projects
Spreadsheets are mainly used for convenience. However, convenience is not a good reason to use a tool that supports your critical processes. Make sure to select and use a tool that contributes to the efficiency and productivity of your people and processes, not the other way around. This will far outweigh the benefits of convenience.
While spreadsheets have a number of inherent advantages, such as ease of use and flexibility, of course, you can use best practices to minimize any disadvantages of project management software. For example, use as many templates as possible, simplify screens as much as possible, document clear processes, focus on those processes instead of functions, provide good training and make good, relevant reports. Combining this with the inherent benefits of project management software can create efficiency, increase productivity and resource utilization, and increase competition.