Clever tech to crack complex projects

There are dozens of fabulous software packages for project management, but which one is right for you? Charles Orton-Jones offers a guide


One of the truths of the modern age is: “There’s an app for that.” Whether you are ordering a take-away curry or trying to identify a song on the radio, there’s a clever bit of software which will make your life a lot easier.

When it comes to project management you can be sure that, no matter what you are trying to do, there’s a brilliant bit of software to make your life a hundred times easier. But there are so many. What should you be using?

To help you make sense of the market, here are some of the wonderful applications which could be the perfect fit for your project management needs.

The tool of the moment is Basecamp. As a free online tool, Basecamp is wildly popular with small firms – more than 5,000 firms globally are signing up each week. Users log into a dashboard reminiscent of a Facebook feed. Depending on privileges, they can update calendars, view documents, communicate and use task lists. It is so simple to use, the basic induction takes half an hour.

And does it work? Jamie Gee, boss of Jam Public Relations, says: “We use it to manage our clients’ work and our own. It is invaluable and so cheap.” The free model is limited to one project. For $20 a month this rises to ten projects; you pay $150 for unlimited projects.

There are doubters. Dan Kirby, chief executive of IT consultancy Techdept, says: “It divides opinion. Easy-in-easy-out platforms like Basecamp don’t have enough control or the feedback loops we need when testing a website. Or they can’t give us the management data like tracking how time is being spent on jobs.

“We even know of organisations that moved from e-mail conversations to using Basecamp, but then moved back again because with Basecamp no one was actually talking anymore.” Mr Kirby prefers to use AtTask, another web-based project management platform, which aims to improve organisation and collaboration across the enterprise.

BLOCKBUSTER PACKAGES

For complex projects there are some real blockbuster packages out there. Primavera is a blue-chip name, now known as Oracle Primavera following a buyout in 2009. It is used extensively in the oil and gas, telecoms and manufacturing industries. CA Clarity PPM [project portfolio management] and Microsoft Project are well known and well used. Shell is currently implementing 8over8’s ProCon platform for managing risk in large-scale capital intensive projects.

One hugely popular package worth investigating is Jira, made by Australian firm Atlassian. Since its debut in 2002, Jira has become the standard for one tricky area of project management – issue tracking for software development. It comes in both cloud and server flavours, and costs $10 for ten users a month. Clients include Facebook, Nasa and the UK’s fastest-growing accountancy firm Crunch.

You can be sure that, no matter what you are trying to do, there’s a brilliant bit of software to make your life a hundred times easier

Founder of Crunch Darren Fell says: “This tool is perfect for development tasks, especially with teams working in sprints [two-week periods where a pre-decided set of new features are developed]. It allows other members of the team to raise support tickets and assign them to the relevant team, with built-in prioritisation. Having a cloud-based system is a real game-changer as we can see features and bugs being worked on, tested and deployed wherever we are. Our senior developers can check on progress if they’re out and about, without having to pester their team for an update.”

Downsides to Jira? Mr Fell says: “It is a massive task to get set up. It’s not plug-and-play like a lot of cloud software. It requires some time to implement and fit around your processes. Once you invest the time though and get it working well, it’s worth it.”

As a footnote, it is worth noting that Jira is used alongside other packages at Crunch: Zendesk to handle client accounting queries; Smartsheet gives employees an overview of departmental projects; and Slack is used for communication and collaboration. Following considerable experimentation with other products, Mr Fell says this set-up works seriously well.

CLEVER WIDGETS

While scouting for clever widgets, you ought to consider a “thinking tool” such as Mindjet’s MindManager. The layout will be familiar to anyone who has used Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping technique. A sprawl of interlinked ideas is used to throw up connections and themes in a fluid, non-linear way. Before you write it off as crackpot, consider that Con Edison, a major energy firm, uses MindManager to streamline internal processes, claiming savings of 15 per cent of its operations budget in so doing.

Other products worth a name-check are Mediaocean, the planner used by swathes of the advertising industry; Changepoint, which offers a seemingly endless feature set; and Cubic Interactive’s Rapport3, which has been adopted by the construction and architecture trade.

Oh, and those ancient tools we all secretly use aren’t obsolete either. Michael Kanz, operations director at project management consultancy T-exec, says: “The reality is that many IT projects, even quite large ones, are managed through Excel sheets, e-mail, conference calls and SharePoint.”

FTSE 100 firms rely on Skype and Twitter. Even old-fashioned landline calls are used from time to time by some incorrigible diehards.