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Project Management Software Buying Guide

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko
Freelance Editor

Project management software can be a valuable tool for small businesses to keep assignments both on track and on budget.

  • Businesses use project management software to help manage their workflow.
  • Project management software helps tasks stay on track and on budget.
  • These platforms are available with a wide array of features, benefits and pricing structures, so you can choose the right fit for your business and scale up when the time is right.
  • This article is for small business owners who are looking to learn how project management software can help their workflow or shopping for project management software.

Whether you're designing and constructing the interior of a building or creating a website for a client, you need a way to manage the steps or tasks within a project and collaborate with your team. Project management software helps unify that process by consolidating communication tools, file sharing, task and deadline monitoring, and reporting into one software application that you can use across multiple teams and departments.

Regardless of your business's size or industry, your company can probably benefit from project management software. Use the advice below to help guide your decision-making process.

What is project management software?

Project management software is a tool businesses use to keep assignments on track, meet deadlines and remain on budget. These platforms allow company leaders to assign roles, set deadlines and mark major milestones, all in an intuitive interface. With project management software, all team members can access a central portal to obtain information and check the status of assignments.

Project management software works as a real-time workspace that helps keep team members focused on larger goals while effectively managing day-to-day tasks. The best project management software platforms automatically reschedule work when a deadline is missed; some even reschedule work dependent on the completion of the late task.

Key takeaway: Project management software helps business leaders and team members monitor and manage the progress of key assignments.

 

Top project management software features

Although the features and benefits vary among project management software platforms, you can expect to find these tools in most project management software:

  • Dashboard. Each team member's dashboard spells out any assigned tasks, as well as when those projects are due.
  • Scheduling and deadline management. At a glance, a project manager can assess the work assigned to a team member and properly incorporate new tasks into their daily schedule, without overloading them or distracting them from other tasks.
  • Ability to assign roles. You can add a team member to each task so that everyone knows who is responsible for each portion of the project.
  • Collaboration. Project management software has tools to enable collaboration and communication among team members.
  • File uploading. Most platforms include file sharing, so team members can easily share key documents, information and assets.
  • Project templates. Many project management software programs come with templates you can customize to fit your business's needs.

Key takeaway: Most project management software includes a variety of tools to facilitate collaboration, organization and deadline management.

How much does project management software cost?

The price of project management software varies greatly. There are multiple pricing structures and tiers, ranging from free entry-level service to premium options that cost hundreds of dollars per month. You also may need to consider the costs of training staff on the software and expenses associated with transferring platforms. The following factors may influence the price of project management software:

  • Number of users. Some companies charge per person or assign several users per subscription tier.
  • Features. Some software offers more functionality for a lower price.
  • Annual vs. monthly billing. Project management software may offer discounts and incentives for paying for a year of service upfront rather than monthly.

Because so many factors influence the final price of project management software, it's important to know your needs before you obtain price quotes.

Key takeaway: The cost of project management software varies depending on the number of users, included features and billing frequency.

Do I need project management software?

It's important to recognize that project management software is designed for full projects that take time and teamwork to complete; they are likely too comprehensive for routine work. For example, it would be quite helpful to use project management software to set up and configure a computer network, but it would be clunky and confusing to try to use project management software to maintain that computer network.

To determine whether project management software is appropriate for a task, ask yourself the  following questions:

  • Do I have a definitive start date?
  • Do I have a definitive deadline?
  • Do I have a clear understanding of my goals between now and then?

You should also consider who will be working on the project.

"A company needs project management software when they're coordinating between several individuals or business units, both internally or externally, to complete tasks that involve a variety of deliverables or creatives," said Conrad Magalis, marketing manager for Advance Acceptance. "It's a best practice so that all of the information and conversations related to a specific project or task can be documented and delegated to each stakeholder involved." [Read related article: The Pros and Cons of 7 Project Management Styles]

How to determine if you need project management software

Here are some telltale signs your business needs project management software:

  • Projects are delayed due to excessive email correspondence, and work gets buried in team members' inboxes.
  • There is confusion surrounding overly busy and non-user-friendly spreadsheets.
  • Team members miss deadlines, either with individual tasks or complete projects, because of a lack of both accountability and transparency in the process.
  • There is poor communication among team members and managers resulting from a failure to report on the status of the project or individual tasks.
  • There is overlapping or redundant work due to confusion surrounding the specific role of each team member.

Leveraging a project management solution in the right situation can streamline the entire process, thus enabling your team to deliver higher-quality work in a shorter amount of time. The best software allows you to save and track multiple projects simultaneously, making it easy to monitor deadlines and individual team members' progress. Essentially, your workload can be saved on a single platform, where each team member has access to all of the information they require to fulfill their own role.

Key takeaway: While it may not be practical for day-to-day assignments, project management software may be necessary if your organization is struggling to meet deadlines or your team is overwhelmed by the amount of work.

What does project management software look like?

Project management software often starts with a dashboard that serves as a home base and provides access to the software's major features. From the dashboard, users can often create new projects, as well as manage and organize old ones. In many project management solutions, the dashboard is also home to an overview of active and completed projects, which users can access at any time. Dashboards can often be shared across entire teams, giving everyone easy access to relevant projects and tasks.

"Project management software allows users to consolidate work activities onto one central platform, allowing employees to save time by housing all task tools on one interface," John Furneaux, CEO of project management company Hive, told Business News Daily. "The range of software varies from startups – such as Hive – to veteran players like SharePoint. All project management software ranges in their capabilities, and it's important to assess what the business needs are and how processes could be improved."

Projects and tasks can typically be created (or requested, if a supervisor must approve the project before it begins) directly in project management software. Once you create a project, you have access to a variety of tools for organizing and coordinating specific aspects of each project, as well as for ensuring accountability for the timeliness and quality of assigned tasks.

Team members can also schedule and track tasks and project timelines with sophisticated tools, such as Gantt charts. These tools help keep team members on the same page, even if they don't work in the same physical location, and ease the burden of meeting tight deadlines. Team members can see which tasks are assigned to which person, thus making it easier to coordinate aspects of the project. Some software programs also have built-in chat applications that make collaboration instantaneous and direct.

Project management software gives managers full control over the direction of the project. For  example, they can reassign work or shuffle around assigned tasks to delegate tasks more equitably among team members and more effectively manage resources on the fly. With the  detailed overviews and reports available in project management software, managers can more easily stay abreast of new developments. Any complex project has a lot of moving parts, so it's important to keep your decision makers informed, and that's what project management software does for your management team.

Key takeaway: Project management software guides team members through the life of a project, clearly showing responsibilities and deadlines on a user-friendly dashboard.

How do I choose project management software?

While most quality project management applications offer similar features, no two platforms are precisely the same. Here are some of the most important points you should consider when choosing a project management software application:

Size of your organization

A large enterprise has different needs than a small startup. It's important to examine each application and ask the right questions.

"Companies should take the time to demo several options before moving forward as well as factoring in the 'adoption' time for the team and clients to get used to using the application," Magalis said. "If you're working in a highly technical field (such as IT), it may be more common than in other industries to have experience with project management applications."

Scalability

As your project management needs evolve, you need to know that your software can keep up.

Pain points

It can be helpful to identify your project management challenges. For example, maybe you have trouble sharing timely updates with a client or communicating with your team. By understanding your weaknesses, you can find the software that best addresses your needs.

Ease of use

If you don't choose a system that's easy for your team to implement and use, you'll end up magnifying the challenges you already face.

"Successfully implementing an enterprise project management system is difficult. This is a cultural [issue], not a tool issue," said Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials. "Most organizations do not have consistent and standard practices for managing projects and reporting on portfolio performance. Something as seemingly simple as having a standard day for reporting status across the enterprise can send shock waves, as people are used to reporting status on a specific day, usually because of their executive status cadence."

Key takeaway: Evaluate each project management software platform based on how well it  addresses your organization's biggest pain points. Be sure to consider your company's size, as well as the software's scalability and ease of use. 

Stella Morrison contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock
Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko
Business News Daily Staff
Adam Uzialko is a writer and editor at business.com and Business News Daily. He has 7 years of professional experience with a focus on small businesses and startups. He has covered topics including digital marketing, SEO, business communications, and public policy. He has also written about emerging technologies and their intersection with business, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain.