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According to Microsoft’s own website, 20 million people use Project. It is also estimated that around 150 million people use Excel, although this figure can’t be validated. It is safe to assume that Excel must have a significantly higher usage base than Project but is there a conflict between the two? How do the users of these products overlap?

The versatility of Excel is one of the supreme selling points, and its adoption by all areas of business and leisure is one of the most successful results of this versatility. Excel is used by sports clubs to record player statistics. It is used by individuals to keep tabs on their expenditure or to create budgets, even to create diet-plans and calorie counters. And it is used by big business to record mass data as well as to calculate the success of investments and savings.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a multitude of uses for arguably Microsoft’s most important product.

This should undoubtedly be considered a success, but it also has its drawbacks for Microsoft’s other products.

Versatility:

Excel is often utilized as a project management and scheduling tool as well. Templates are widely available on the net for people who wish to make use of their Excel investment for project planning purposes. Some of these template developers have also created Gantt’s – check out Vertex42’s acclaimed Excel template.

Furthermore, stacked bar graphs can be customised to a Gantt-like chart within the existing Excel framework itself. But this is an impromptu solution to scheduling, and arguably doesn’t allow for more complicated issues such as change requests, resource allocation or budget monitoring and adjustment.

Drawbacks:

There are other drawbacks to using Excel for project scheduling too;

Views may seem trivial when there is so much hard data to focus on, but in fact they’re imperative. The easier something is to understand, the less time people waste trying to work it out. Microsoft Project and other project management software – outlined later in this article – offer the more visual Gantt charts and dependency timelines alongside the task list containing the more detailed information, making it easier to follow the development and timing of a project.

Excel has never been specifically designed for intuitive project management, so many of its features require manual maintenance. Features of project planning such as milestones, dependencies and delay ‘ripple effects’ are harder to pick out in Excel than they are on Project, and the whole experience is generally more cumbersome and less dynamic. It can prove to be an inefficient oversight to endure Excel as a scheduling tool.

Project Management Tools:

So if the benefits of a project management designed program are so clear, why is there such a widespread resistance against utilizing one? Should all employees direct their managers towards Microsoft Project as soon as possible?

Due to the nature of our business we have a vested interest in propagating this, but would strongly argue that specialised scheduling software is invaluable to project teams and professional managers.

But sticking to Microsoft is not necessarily the only option. A significant financial commitment is required for companies to install Project onto a business server for multiple users. Understandably this must be a central reason for the resistance and the satisfaction with a less intuitive Excel planning framework.

Many of the cheaper scheduling and project management tools are available on the Cloud as a web-based solution. Read our article about the benefits and drawbacks of cloud computing for business. This provides ease of access and collaboration across your business, and avoids having to manage and host all the data yourself.

BasecampBasecamp is a highly popular web based sign-up. Its simple minimal design is stylish and easy to navigate, with communication and collaboration encouraged across all of Basecamp’s features. The ‘Progress’ tab brings up a timeline where you can analyse the progression of your project and together with the calendar provides effective scheduling for meetings and milestones. Basecamp is ideal for the smaller, less monetarily focused projects and this ethos means the makers 37Signals don’t provide a Gantt chart. Although one of the most popular Cloud-based platforms out there, it seems that Basecamp is more ideally suited to qualitative use rather than the hard numbers and sums which form the background of many enterprise projects.

Zoho is another web-based tool, but perhaps more suited to professional business than Basecamp is. As with many project management tools, you can import Microsoft Project files, but Zoho also integrates with Google apps – such as Documents and Calendar. They also offer Gantt charts to improve your overview of the project progress.

But if you prefer locally stored data, there are still plenty of options available;

GanttProject is available for universal free download online, but its features are fairly limited. It is great for more casual individual use, but if you are looking to address a project scheduling issue across a large business or enterprise, it is not ideal. There is no integrated reporting enabled on this software, and the costing features are also in need of improvement.

AEC Software’s FastTrack Schedule is locally based software available on Mac or Windows. Reviews of this project management software are generally beaming, and the latest Mac version won 2012’s Top Ten Reviews Gold Award. In truth, the Mac market seems to be AEC’s ‘niche’ in this field after they recently released a custom interface for Apple users in FastTrack Schedule 10. After many years of maintaining the same look on both platforms, it seems that the designers have realised what users want and it has emerged as a clear forerunner in the Mac project management field.

Summaries:

The benefits of using specifically designed project management software are clear. Excel can be an adequate stop-gap if you are an emerging company with limited resources but as soon as you start to handle large complicated projects, it can prove to be a drawback.

The visual experience that characterises many project management tools prove to be so beneficial when a complex project relies on multiple dependencies, or when there are two or more projects running at the same time. The spreadsheet interface of Excel can make for confusing reading for managers and users, so Gantt charts can be a very helpful addition to the task list.

Microsoft Project is the world’s leading project management and scheduling tool for good reason – it has been developed through many refining editions to create a product that can be adapted for personal, small business or enterprise use. The reliability and reputation of Microsoft and indeed Microsoft Project means that their products come at a premium price, especially when subscribing multiple users.

Other, cheaper, software is available, created by smaller companies with highly skilled developers. But it is likely that somebody yourself or your business engages with will work on Project, so it is imperative that your software integrates with it seamlessly if any collaboration is needed.

We’ve also developed our own scheduling tool called Chronos which was initially developed as bespoke software for Macmillan Education publishers – a challenging but rewarding project.

Chronos is supported both on Windows and Mac OS and has a generic interface output which is easily customisable to integrate with any existing CRM systems. U.I. is smooth, including helpful Gantt charts with handy click & drag enabled so you can move tasks around.

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