Managing projects has grown increasingly complex over the past decade. Because of this complexity, large projects – particularly information technology undertakings -- often finish past their due dates, over-budget, and with a lower than predicted return on investment.
Business professionals often rely on project management software to help them oversee multiple endeavors. Similarly, companies today can more easily mitigate risk by identifying failing aspects of a project using time tracking software that forecasts completion dates for each phase of the project.
In this guide, we’ll provide a comprehensive project management software comparison based on common features, and discuss how it can help your business gain a competitive edge. For a more detailed analysis of the best project management software solutions, download our Buyer's Guide.
The term 'project management software' applies to a range of platforms, each with a slightly different mix of functionality. It’s crucial that the software you select makes your projects easier to manage, and doesn’t add unneeded complexity. The transition should be as smooth as possible. Let’s examine the three major pillars of project management, and the commonly available tools on the market.
Planning a project first involves finding the team members with the necessary skills, and estimating how much resources a project will need. Additionally, it’s of great benefit to both managers and their businesses if they can use historical data from past projects to forecast a completion date, estimate return on investment, and calculate the necessary resources.
Scheduling completion dates for all of the moving parts in a major project helps managers construct a more accurate timeline. Most of this software includes automatic alerts when due dates are approaching, or when a task is not completed on schedule. More robust interfaces include automatic reports that detail how close a project is to completion, based on the number of sub-tasks and goals that have been accomplished.
Timeline visualization is becoming an increasingly popular feature in less technical industries, with the Kanban approach being a prominent example. Kanban project tracking software is derived from a Japanese supply chain methodology called 'lean production.' Kanban lets you visualize tasks or projects via cards on a straight line or vertical funnel, which represents the production line. This lets users see their work, and move their tasks around, as if they were on a bulletin board or whiteboard. The screenshot below is an example of a Kanban interface, from PM software LeanKit.
Forecasting usually involves extrapolating based off data from previous projects, and can be essential in calculating the ROI of a project before it major resources have been invested. Forecasting takes into account the time spent on each task as well as the resources required to complete each task relative to the organization’s budget constraints and revenue goals. These types of tools can also help you predict potential risks and limitations.
Similar to forecasting, resource allocation tools help project managers visualize where their business is investing time, energy, and materials. Being able to quickly view the resources dedicated to a project and change them on the fly is an invaluable tool for both planning projects and pivoting during the lifetime of the project. Although it can be time-consuming to enter and set-up a detailed inventory of company (and human) resources, it allows for project managers to anticipate bottlenecks and proactively allocate resources.
Even the best laid plans will be disrupted over the lifecycle of the project. The best project management software provides the proper amount of granularity and monitoring to keep projects efficient and on track.
As the name implies, time tracking software tracks the amount of time each project contributor spends on their assigned tasks. Besides simply measuring productivity, time tracking software also builds an archive of valuable data that can help businesses forecast completion dates for similar tasks or projects in the future. Time tracking is especially helpful when managing a team of remote or part-time employees. The image below shows the time tracking interface of Wrike.
Task management refers to the assignment of different responsibilities to various members of the project team. Being able to quickly determine who’s contributed to what part of the project lets managers better identify bottlenecks and stay on top of the project’s progress.
While the concept of task management is simple, the software can actually be fairly robust. In the case of large, complex projects that span different departments, tasks are very often interconnected or dependent. Certain software platforms geared towards these types of undertakings will feature the ability to assign dependencies to tasks, which helps managers determine where a breakdown in productivity is occurring and assign the necessary resources to fix the problem. Task dependencies are often represented through gantt charts, such as the one below:
Other common features of task management include notes and tags. Adding notes to a task helps keep track of specific changes to the project or provide references for the strategy associated with each task. Adding tags to tasks makes them easier to filter and find through the PM software’s native search functionality.
Permission settings allow a PM to decide who can view, edit, or change tasks or sections of the software. A key part of managing a project effectively lies in vetting the access of each user on the platform. Judiciously metering out permissions also helps project managers avoid having to track down the sources of unauthorized changes to tasks or entire phases of the project.
Budgeting and Expense Tracking
Although software that budgets for projects, and businesses in general, comes in standalone versions, certain project management platforms include budgeting functions as well as expense tracking. While budgeting software is somewhat self-explanatory, expense and project tracking software can provide PMs with the added benefit of knowing how team members accrue expenses throughout the lifespan of the project. Similar to time tracking, expense tracking provides valuable data that can be used to forecast future project costs.
Analysis and Reports
Analysis and reporting functions let project managers view data in a form other than gantt charts. A robust analysis tool can present metrics around productivity in a visual fashion that makes the information easier to digest. This type of data can be critical to making mid-project pivots. If a particular task needs additional resources or a specific department is moving slower than others, in-depth analysis features will help PMs rectify or leverage the situation.
Once projects are underway, keeping the moving parts connected can be the biggest challenge. Collaboration tools help connect different departments, and make it easier to include distributed teams. Extensive collaboration features are more common among cloud-based software than on-premise solutions.
Typically, email is the most popular way to share documents between teams. Unfortunately, this often results in redundant communication as multiple messages are sent about the same issue. The basic structure of email also makes it difficult to find documents.
Software that lets team members share documents can improve productivity and increase efficiency. Many software platforms allow users to upload documents to specific projects or tasks, making it easy to locate resources.
The depth of such functionality varies from the simplicity of a system such as Google Drive, to full-fledged wikis that house all of a project’s relevant materials. Some systems rely on message boards that team members can use to discuss ongoing issues or communicate updates.
Comprehensive sharing solutions often feature audit trails that record the history of each task and project. Audit trails let project managers view task progress and investigate challenges that team members may be experiencing.
Native messaging and meeting functions strengthen communications between team members. These features come in stand-alone versions, but can also be found in comprehensive or all-in-one project management platforms.
1. Desktop versus Cloud
Businesses today need to choose between PM software that’s installed on a specific company computers (on premise), versus software that’s hosted online by the vendors (cloud). There are unique advantages and disadvantages for both approaches. Desktop software generally transfers large files faster and represents a single, fixed-cost license. Cloud-based solutions allow companies to connect teams with remote workers and different schedules. Cloud products also allow mobile employees to access the project management platform regardless of their location.
2. Best of Breed versus All-In-One
Project requirements often vary as a project expands and matures. Industries such as software development and architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) require highly specific functionality to fit their unique workflows. Buyers from these fields must be especially selective when choosing a vendor. It’s always best to select software that intuitively lines up with the needs of your organization, and industry.
Use free demonstrations (most PM companies offer one) for a project management software comparison, and consider how each of the product’s features will translate to your particular projects. Simply because a platform offers a suite of features doesn’t mean it’s the best project management software for your business. After all, sometimes less is more. For a comparison of two of the most popular project management systems, see our post: Wrike vs Asana.
3. Usability and Integration
When comparing project management software, don’t just consider the particular features of each solution. Examine the overall usability of the platform, too. Even products with lots of useful features can cause confusion if their interface is difficult to use, or can’t be easily understood. You’ll be interacting with this program every day - make sure it won’t be a source of frustration.
Further, it’s important to consider the integration capacity of each solution. Your legacy systems already hold all of your most important documents, so selecting a product that integrates with your email client will avoid a complicated migration down the road.