Managing projects isn't just for project managers anymore; project management skills are a must-have for all sorts of business people, from entrepreneurs to corporate CEOs. But coordinating a project can get complicated, especially for those who don't specialize in it. If the personnel, components, records, milestones and deliverables don't come together at the right times, deadlines are missed and money is lost.
With all the planning, calculations, scheduling and tracking that goes into successfully seeing a project through to completion, more people are turning to project management software for some automated help.
What Is Project Management Software?
The term project management software covers a wide range of software types that can include several different combinations of functions. Most programs include Gantt charts (bar charts that illustrate a project schedule), graphs, time sheets, task assignment and milestones. Some PM software can also track expenses, regulate resources, monitor budgets and calculate costs.
This software can either be installed directly on machines, or can run online as a cloud-based program. Most of the cloud versions – and some installed programs – include collaboration tools.
The history of project management software is practically ancient compared to today's technologies. In fact, its origins date back to 1957, when John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., the designers of the Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer (fondly known as ENIAC – yes, that ENIAC), were asked to develop a project for the Critical Path Method (CPM). (To learn more about the ENIAC and its history, see The Women of ENIAC: Programming Pioneers.)
The CPM application Mauchly and Eckert created was not only the first example of project management software, but also the first ever commercial software program that ran on a computer with stored memory. As project management became more complicated over the years, more advanced software was developed to keep pace with the tasks involved.
How Does It Work?
Simply put, PM software keeps project details and resources organized in one place. The main benefits are time savings (especially with advanced software that can calculate and project numbers), and the ability to quickly share updates and new information through collaborative tools.
Although this software can come with a variety of different features, there are two main types: installed and hosted. Installed versions of PM software run directly from your PC or laptop, and store the program and all files on your hard drive. With hosted or cloud-based software, the program is run through a web browser, and files are stored on remote servers owned and maintained by the software vendor.
While large corporations with their own servers and IT staff often choose installed PM software for its stability and brand strength, many entrepreneurs, small businesses and mid-sized businesses are opting for hosted software. There are several benefits to cloud project management software, including the ability to access the program from any device with an internet connection, and the lower upfront costs. Because there's no installation, hosted software is purchased on a monthly subscription basis. (To learn more, check out A Beginner's Guide to the Cloud: What It Means for Small Business.)
How It Applies in the Tech World
One of the best things about project management software is that you don't have to be a project manager to find uses for these programs. In many cases, the software is used by entrepreneurs and small businesses that don't have the budget or resources to hire a dedicated project manager. Larger companies often use the software to coordinate in-house teams with outsourced project managers. Some PM professionals use a form of this software to supplement their efforts and bring more manageability and automation to a project.
Project management software helps ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page, aware of all milestones, and completing the right tasks at the right pace to complete the project on time and within budget.
While PM software is definitely useful, it has its drawbacks. One of the main problems users encounter is a lack of customization. Most software is general purpose, and is therefore designed to work across many industries and project types. For some industry-specific projects like software development, a general project management program isn't much more helpful than using Excel spreadsheets to keep track of details.
Project management software can also create an uneven focus for the project lifecycle. For example, defaulting to a Gantt chart view can cause the project team to skip or delay important early groundwork like objectives and logical event processes. When mistakes or omissions happen early in a project, the ripple effect can force the team back to the beginning, which can mean lost time and money, as well as a failure to meet milestones or deadlines.
The Future of Project Management Software
PM software can help to streamline and simplify projects. With the growth in entrepreneurs and small businesses – and a general economic atmosphere that encourages cost-cutting wherever possible – this software seems primed for more widespread use.
In the future, we're likely to see project management software that addresses the problems of non-specificity and skewed focus, making this type of software more accessible and useful for many businesses.
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