The business world is changing fast, and if you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’ve been paying attention.
Digital technologies have arrived in force, but the shift taking place isn’t just about new tech, it’s about new expectations. Customers, be they business-to-business solution purchasers or consumers, have become so comfortable interacting with solution and service providers via digital channels that organizations must adapt to keep up.
Now that people are used to tracking every part of their lives on their phones, they expect that same type of visibility and simplicity from businesses. If a client calls you asking for an estimate on a project, and you can only give them a vague idea of what to expect, they’ll go to a company that can provide better service.
Enter project management software. Modern project management software lets you
- Track projects in real time
- Estimate delivery dates and costs
- Optimize scheduling and resource allocation
- Anticipate project demands
- Customize access settings for optimal collaboration
- Create visibility into tasks
- Report on micro- and macro-level trends
By digitizing how you track and manage projects, you can gain the kind of flexibility and transparency customers demand. What’s more, cloud solutions make it easier than ever to attain this functionality.
The cloud is becoming the default method of launching project management software. Businesses flock to it for its easy accessibility, cost effectiveness, and flexibility. If you subscribe to cloud solutions, and something isn’t working, you can just switch subscriptions. You don’t have to pay a huge upfront cost that makes changing down the line unrealistic.
According to Transparency Market Research, the global market for online project management software will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 9.4 percent from 2018 to 2026, reaching a value of $6.68 billion. The research showed that businesses are moving quickly to adopt cloud-based project management solutions delivered online, because the technology
- Helps convert broad strategies into actionable plans
- Gives project managers real-time dashboards and reports to better understand progress at any time
- Provides detailed visibility into costs so teams can reduce day-to-day expenses
These core benefits are driving businesses to adopt the technology, but what is the best project management software for your business?
We can’t answer that question. Nobody knows your company like you do. But we can help you make your decision. That’s what this guide is all about. We’ll dive into why project management software has become so important to businesses, the key benefits of the technology, the different types of solutions and features available in the sector, and which vendors are leading the industry.
Project management software to be compared in this article
- Jotform Tables
With this information, you’ll be better equipped to start your search for project management software. Identifying the right solution for your business is generally a matter of matching your specific needs and use cases with what different vendors offer.
In following sections, we’ll explore some of the top solutions on the market and offer a rundown of what makes them unique. You can always explore further at each solution’s website, get a demo, or check out extended reviews. We hope you come away with a rough idea of which solutions you’re most interested in so you can do some deeper analysis on your own.
The Basecamp project management software suite is designed to provide businesses with a great entry point into the industry. It provides the essential features most companies need in an accessible, easy-to-manage package. It’s specifically designed for the organization that’s been getting by without PM software for a while and is drowning in a sea of emails, scattered documents, and seemingly constant panic to keep up with everything.
Basecamp is especially notable because of its simple and streamlined interface. You can create to-do lists, message boards, and schedules with ease. You can leverage communication tools, check in with teams, and customize the elements of the interface with a few clicks of a mouse. The software is all about simplicity and accessibility, both in terms of how it’s designed and what it hopes to do for your business.
As its name implies, Teamwork project management software really homes in on the experience of working in a team and getting people on the same page. Where much of the language Basecamp uses to describe itself emphasizes how it impacts your entire business, Teamwork focuses more on the kind of clutter and overhead that disrupts collaborative projects. Its goal is to get all of the details out of the way so employees can spend their time getting stuff done, not managing administrative details.
To deliver on this promise, Teamwork actually offers a full suite of products that can work in conjunction with one another to drive efficiency across your business. Its project management module focuses on eliminating complex barriers in collaboration, giving teams the freedom to work however they want without sacrificing transparency, and making it easier to scale a business without sacrificing performance.
Teamwork also offers customer relationship management, document management, and help desk software solutions.
If Basecamp is all about simplicity and organization, and Teamwork is all about flexibility and communication, then Trello project management software is the solution that’s all about minimalism and fun. The software takes many of the organizational concepts of typical PM software solutions and breaks them down to the bare bones.
Trello uses boards, lists, and cards as its primary organizational tools, letting you organize tasks and projects into those categories for quick visibility into what’s going on. In many ways, the solution is based on the Kanban framework to allow for easy visualization.
This streamlined organization method combines with an intentionally playful interface and visual design to create a more laid back way to organize projects, manage teams, and collaborate. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for customization and powerful reporting. It’s just that Trello focuses on the most straightforward, no-fuss way of getting things organized along the way.
What’s more, there is a Trello-JotForm integration. You can use our Form Builder to embed forms into cards and other organizational elements in Trello so that you can not only track your projects better, but also ramp up how you leverage custom forms in your day-to-day work.
Asana project management software stands out for its focus on ease of use and customization. The solution organizes work primarily around goals, projects, and daily tasks. It features an interface with many drag-and-drop features, letting your teams easily update one another on projects, make changes to schedules, and tweak how everything is organized based on what works for them.
Like Trello and Basecamp, Asana features a fairly minimalist interface that focuses on making the most important information available so users don’t get bogged down trying to keep track of all of the details at once. Instead, the essential information is presented, and users can dig down to get to any other information they need, all within the app.
Asana is another solution that we’ve integrated with. Asana-JotForm integration stands out in particular because it lets users pull information from the forms they created using Jotform and incorporate that data into tasks and reports as needed.
Zoho is a bit different than the other solutions we’ve mentioned. The solution provider got its start in customer relationship management (CRM) technology. In many ways, CRM software does similar things to PM solutions, as it organizes data based on user roles and tasks, provides reporting functionality, and gives team members visibility into the work they need to do. The difference is that CRM solutions are primarily built for sales teams and are meant to serve as data repositories for account-related details.
Zoho project management software builds on this framework in the form of the brand’s Workplace platform, a solution designed to integrate a variety of project-focused tools into one place. Zoho offers more than 40 business applications that drive productivity in some form. They can be mixed and matched so you get the functionality you need.
As a sidenote, Jotform has integration with Zoho CRM, which makes it easier for brands to create stronger user experiences by allowing them to capture key user information in custom forms that align with operational needs for various tasks.
The Jira project management software solution is built specifically for development teams using agile strategies. Jira is based on the foundational idea that software teams operating at their best are not only able to ship production-ready solutions out to users early on in the project lifecycle, but can maintain that pace over time.
With its focus on agile methods, Jira organizes projects starting with a plan phase built around creating user stories, setting up sprints, and distributing tasks. It has dedicated tools for tracking progress and ensuring prioritization, managing the release process, and reporting on performance through data visualization.
In some ways, Jira can seem more complicated than some of the other solutions we’ve discussed. This is especially true at first glance. However, the fact that it’s built specifically for a highly technical audience and for particularly complex, agile projects makes that complexity necessary. It still offers a clean and accessible interface; it just doesn’t go to the same extreme minimalism as some of the other platforms we’ve highlighted.
7. Jotform Tables
Tables-oriented software is the “new kid on the block” for project management. It offers attractive, cross-functional features that can meet a variety of needs. Jotform Tables is unique because it automatically populates a table with the form and survey data your enterprise collects. This transforms your data into an effective project management tool that includes all-in-one workspace capabilities.
With applications across multiple industries and user skill levels, Jotform Tables is a user-friendly solution. Users can track the progress of tasks, collaborate with their team, perform complex calculations, analyze data, and visualize projects with a dedicated Report Builder that keeps everyone on the same page.
With free project management templates, you can organize and manage any type of project in one place and/or customize templates to suit your needs.
Finding the right solution for you
There are a lot of factors you’ll ultimately need to consider before choosing PM software. Price may be a major issue limiting your pool of options. One thing you may have going for you, though, is the fact that many of the solution providers we just discussed offer demos or free trials so you can get a feel for how they work. Sometimes, you don’t really need feature lists or descriptions of brand ideals — you just need to get in the trenches and work with a solution.
Why use project management software
After having a look at some major tools, let’s have a look at the industry norms. If you’re running a business — or in any sort of leadership role — you’ve probably noticed how much the expectations around speed and efficiency have changed in recent years. As millennials have become a bigger force in the workplace, their innate understanding of and comfort with digital technologies has changed expectations for how people work.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re at home and you want to plan a vacation. Chances are, you use your phone and computer to track all of your bookings, communicate with everybody involved with the trip, and finalize your plans. You may have to jump between a few apps to do all of this, but it’s much simpler than it was back in the day of paper-based ticketing and dealing with travel agents.
Why is it that the ease and convenience of planning things digitally doesn’t translate to some businesses? That’s the essential question behind much of the digital innovation happening in the business world.
If you can book a flight on a website that aggregates airfares to get you the best deal and then automatically sends you to a page that recommends hotels in your destination city, why do you have to email multiple people, jump between a bunch of spreadsheets, print out contracts, and track down signatures to get a project started at work?
New digital capabilities create new expectations for convenience, efficiency, responsiveness, and access to data. These demands have often started in the consumer sector where startups are able to disrupt markets by launching new, tech-driven solutions that attract customers by creating immediate value. But the trend is shifting to the enterprise world, and the result is a need to innovate quickly or fall behind.
Project management software is at the center of this innovation. It gives businesses the tools and big-picture management capabilities necessary to oversee complex projects at a high level while empowering everyday users to keep tabs on issues that impact them.
But what exactly is project management software?
It’s a technology platform that formats and organizes data so that the information gets to users when they need it, allowing individuals to stay on top of projects and avoid falling behind because they don’t know what other stakeholders are doing.
This is a big task, and a lot goes into it. With that in mind, let’s explore a couple of typical use cases for the technology to get a better idea of what it actually does.
How project management software works in various settings
In a typical setup, project management software allows managers to
- Establish the specifications of a project
- Assign stakeholders to the specific tasks relevant to their roles
- Track total time and resources devoted to the project
- Document project milestones for easier reporting and updates to customers
PM software also
- Automates notifications so that when one team member finishes a task, the next knows they can get started
- Provides near real-time visibility into the status of the project
Basically, projects are divided into parts. Some software defines those stages, and most allows for a degree of customization, at least in terms of naming. The project manager can assign people to various stages and get a big-picture view of the entire initiative. Individuals working on the project, on the other hand, can usually see everything going on, but only information about the things they need to work on is delivered directly to them.
Besides organizing projects in clear, coherent ways, PM software also allows team members to attach files, collaborate, and otherwise support the project by unifying those capabilities in the software itself, not demanding that users hop between apps to get the job done.
When it comes to how to use project management software, the specifics vary by role. At an organizational level, the specific operational demands of the industry a business works in often dictate the options. With this in mind, here are three use cases to illustrate how the technology works.
1. PM software in construction
Imagine you’re a contractor, and you run a small construction firm with a team of builders. Your primary business is making repairs on existing properties and building single-family homes. Though your projects aren’t huge, they can be complex. You have to quickly estimate costs while maintaining ongoing communication with customers. After all, the days of providing construction estimates in weeks or months are gone.
The problem is that you’re spending so much time digging through paperwork, filing invoices, dealing with supply chain hiccups, and managing your team that you don’t have time to actually get as much work done onsite as you’d like. This is the kind of situation where project management software comes into play.
As the person running the firm, you’re probably doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the office. You might have an all-in-one office worker who serves as receptionist, bookkeeper, scheduler, and vendor relationship manager, but a lot of that work still falls to you unless you’re lucky enough to have a budget that allows for dedicated employees in those roles.
Either way, each project involves a variety of stakeholders, and you don’t have an easy way to get them on the same page, especially those who aren’t in your organization. This is where project management software becomes vital.
With PM software, when you sign a new contract, you can create a new project in the system that details the related specifications and requirements. From there, you can generate purchase orders, work orders, and invoices, attaching all of the relevant documents to the specific parts of the project.
For example, imagine you sign on to do a repair at a home. You need to order lumber from a specialty provider, rent a specific tool for three employees to use over one day of work, then book a five-person team devoted to finishing the project and performing site clean-up. And the customer needs the work completed within two weeks.
After you file the purchase order, the vendor gets back to you with a delivery estimate. The project management software lets you see that delivery date and identify which employees will be available to work on subsequent days. You can then select a day for the main repair and arrange for tool rental.
You create the relevant work orders and send a notification to the employees who will be working at the site to let them know what they’ll be doing that day, where they’ll be doing it, what supplies they need and, if you’ve logged the relevant details, where those items can be found.
The morning of the work, the employees grab the special lumber and the rented tool, go to the site, and do their part of the repair. They log the work order as complete, and the project management software automatically notifies your second team that they can get to work.
You’ve been proactive about scheduling, so you have time blocked out for that team within the PM software, and when the customer calls for an update, you can provide an exact timeline for the work. On the scheduled day, your team gets the job done, and you collect payment.
All of these project components would traditionally be tracked independently, often with paper-based purchase and work orders that either have to be mailed to vendors or picked up at the office. The move toward digital PM software gets everybody the information they need and lets them use their time as efficiently as possible.
2. PM software for business services
Maybe you work in IT services. Maybe you’re a manager at an ad agency or do another form of creative work. Perhaps you’re running a small consulting operation. No matter the specific nature of the work, business services face the same pressure as industries like construction: Customers want clearer timelines, more transparency into project delivery, and strong demonstration of return on investment.
So when your business services firm signs a big contract for a client who has a strict deadline, you need tools that manage the project in a way that allows every stakeholder to get the job done without any delays because your team has to wait around for the right work.
In many ways, the process of using PM software in business services is similar to what would happen in construction:
- Create a project, define specifications, and assign stakeholders to different tasks.
- Attach relevant documents, meeting notes, past project examples, and other information to specific tasks within the project so users have the information they need.
- Automate notifications so that stakeholders know when they can start working on their part of the project.
- Schedule work based on when it can be done, depending on when the right information is collected and various team members get their portions of the project complete.
- Use that more nuanced scheduling tool to provide better visibility to clients.
- Measure performance by analyzing project results relative to schedules and goals going into the initiative.
This last point is one that we didn’t really discuss in our construction example. One of the major advantages of PM software is that the more nuanced organization and documentation of projects makes it easier to report on the results of the project later. For example, at the end of a contract, you can fairly easily look back and answer key questions, such as
- Did you deliver assets that were on target with project specifications?
- Were you able to stay on schedule throughout the project, or did you have to scramble to hit external deadlines?
- What roadblocks limited your team’s ability to stay on track throughout the project?
Even these three simple questions can provide major insight into your day-to-day operations and help you better understand client relationships. If you address these sorts of questions after each project, you can identify, for example, if
- You have clients who are consistently unable to keep up with what you need them to do to complete projects
- Members of your team are either over-scheduled or under-trained to work at the pace you’re setting
- Departments have friction in working with one another, either because of different goals or such varied work styles that they tend to hold each other back
These are just a few examples of how PM software can serve as a post-project diagnostic tool to help you understand your workflows better and make operational changes that drive superior results.
3. PM software in development/programming
You may have picked up a theme in our discussion so far. It doesn’t really matter what industry you work in — if you have complex projects involving multiple stakeholders, PM software gives you the visibility and oversight you need to get more value from your business.
In our construction use case, we focused on PM software as a transformative tool for day-to-day operations. In our business services example, we emphasized post-project diagnostic capabilities that enable managers to improve operations. As we discuss the technology’s use in development and programming, we’re going to zero in on the idea of using PM software for big-picture business reporting.
PM software provides the same operational benefits for development teams as it does for the other organization types we mentioned. And in this setting, as in others, having clear documentation about how projects function can be invaluable for business leaders.
Imagine you’re an executive or business owner trying to identify the best way to establish operational standards and adjust workflows that impact the entire organization. You can’t make any kind of big decision without real data about how people work and what roadblocks prevent you from achieving your goals as a company. You could take action based on observations, but if you talk to a few managers and workers from different departments, they will all likely report different things.
PM software typically includes reporting tools that allow you to quickly generate common reports, such as specific performance metrics over a certain period of time, or to create custom reports based on something you want to understand better. With these reports, you can gain a stronger understanding of what is actually happening in your business and identify productivity gaps, resource limitations, challenges onboarding clients, and other issues. The data can complement the observational evidence you get from your teams to help you make smarter decisions.
For example, what if your development teams constantly seem overworked? They often miss deadlines, many team members work significant overtime to get through projects, and solutions often end up not meeting all the specifications a client needs. You end up facing some fairly negative customer experiences, but there isn’t an easy solution. If you hire more developers, costs rise, and you don’t see better results.
When you have PM software in place, you can dive into macro-level data about why projects fail. Maybe you really don’t have enough team members and need to raise prices to cover the cost of more employees. Maybe your testing processes are holding everything back, and you need to invest in your QA department. Perhaps your managers aren’t following best practices consistently when scheduling projects, and timelines are getting out of hand.
Any of these issues can cause operational problems for your dev team. PM software gives you data and reports that let you identify the root cause of an issue, not just its symptoms.
These three use cases bring us back to the core question of why a business would use project management software:
- To create a standardized method for setting up projects and creating expectations across teams
- To improve scheduling and communication by keeping stakeholders connected in everyday work
- To provide easier analysis of why specific projects fail so managers and teams can adjust
- To offer big-picture data analysis so leaders can make better decisions that impact the direction of the business
Ultimately, PM software can alleviate a lot of pain points, but these four issues provide the broad umbrella to keep in mind as you consider the best solution for your organization’s specific needs.
Benefits of project management software
Many of the reasons for using PM software point to its benefits. That said, there are four key benefits that we mentioned in the last section but didn’t specifically unpack in detail.
1. Task management
In some ways, you can think of PM technology as project task management software. Any project is made up of a collection of tasks that users need to complete. A customer manufacturing project, for example, may be made up of such tasks as
- Creating a sales quote
- Signing a production contract with a client
- Analyzing available materials compared to what needs to be ordered
- Determining which vendors are best positioned to provide the assets you need when you need them
- Filing purchase orders to obtain materials for the project
- Receiving the order and storing goods in the warehouse
- Scheduling production based on availability of equipment and workers
- Picking items from the warehouse in time to start production
- Inspecting materials for defects prior to assembly
- Running various work orders to create component parts and combine them
- Inspecting the final asset prior to closing out production
- Preparing the item for shipment and moving it to the warehouse
- Scheduling pickup with your shipping service
- Delivering the item to the client
- Collecting payment
This isn’t even an exhaustive list of the tasks that go into a manufactured good. The kinds of task lists that project and team managers deal with on a day-to-day basis can be staggering.
Whether you’re in manufacturing, government, business services, nonprofit work, or any other sector, keeping track of every task in front of you can be overwhelming without tools that give you immediate visibility into operations.
You don’t want to be the manager who spends all day tracking down workers to find out what’s holding up a project. You want to open your app and be able to see the problem right away so you can take action on that task and move on to another project. Task management tools let you do this by allowing you to define the tasks associated with each project, identify task ownership, establish benchmarks for reporting and performance within those tasks, and easily identify when something is wrong.
Let’s go back to our manufacturing illustration. A project could stall for any reason. Maybe a supplier is unable to complete a production order, and you need to seek alternatives. Maybe a machine has broken down, stalling production. Maybe the warehouse has lost track of some inventory. You can’t afford to waste time trying to track down the problem manually. When your task management tool tells you exactly what has been done and precisely who is waiting on a key task, you know where you need to go to solve a problem.
Remember the days when getting ahold of a colleague was just a matter of walking over to their desk? Those days are disappearing for a variety of reasons. We won’t spend too much time going into those issues, but it’s important to understand that business communication standards have changed. People now work from a variety of locations, from different devices, and with more flexible schedules than they have in the past.
On top of all this, many companies depend more heavily on freelancers and contractors to support their operations. All things considered, trying to keep tabs on everybody through email, phone calls, and visits to their workstations just isn’t realistic. And because so many workers depend on digital tools to organize their days, they don’t really want to use yet another application for communication.
All of this makes project management communication software critical. The good news is that the technology is keeping up with demand.
Project management communication can be handled in a variety of ways, depending on the specific capabilities of the software. Here are a few options:
- Automating alerts sent through the app and email so users know when a project needs their attention
- Providing direct email communication or built-in chat, either through text or voice conferencing, so workers can immediately get in touch with one another while looking at something in the app
- Allowing for real-time collaboration on assets within the app so individuals can see the work their teammates are doing and respond without having to go into a separate platform
- Offering storage for static assets, such as handbooks, contracts, call notes, or similar details, that various stakeholders may need to get the project done
In practice, PM software can serve as a communication hub surrounding operations, making it easier for managers and team members to get on the same page and stay there as they go through their days.
3. Project tracking
This is another issue we’ve touched on, but it justifies more detail in its own right. By breaking projects down into specific tasks and the stakeholders responsible for those tasks, PM software makes it much easier to track operations and understand what’s going on at any given time. And this isn’t just about being able to look at your screen and see that two tasks are finished, which five need to be finished, and if a team member is on schedule for their part of the project.
Don’t get us wrong — that kind of project management tracking functionality is valuable. It’s a key part of how tracking can lead to productivity, but it isn’t limited to specific day-to-day check-ins. The real-time tracking and visibility into projects plays out in a variety of useful ways, giving team members vital insights into projects and client relationships. Some of the benefits include
- Tracking how well teams stay on schedule across multiple projects to identify potential operational issues
- Identifying clients who consistently request project changes part-way through so you can create more flexible schedules
- Understanding project trends so you can prioritize departmental budgeting and staffing
- Determining how much different parts of the project cost — particularly in terms of time — so you can maximize profitability
The advantage of project tracking extends well beyond following progress on a day-to-day basis. Tracking is one of the most far-reaching features associated with PM software. The ability to easily view and document projects creates the background information needed to perform deeper analysis into your operations at any given time.
Project management scheduling software takes what is often a nightmarish process and makes it much more straightforward and predictable. We aren’t going to tell you that scheduling suddenly becomes flawless with PM software; it’s always a challenge. But the technology increases your visibility into available workers, puts scheduling information in one place so you don’t have to worry about getting information from multiple people, and filters out unavailable employees so you can assign people to projects more effectively.
Some of the specifics of scheduling can vary from solution to solution. For example, some software may allow you to set worker roles with specific detail, including creating categories for competencies that your employees have. If your projects include the competencies needed for workers on a specific project, you can easily find out which of your employees has the skills to do that work.
For example, you can create a list of skills your maintenance team needs and identify which workers have those capabilities. When you get a maintenance request to check on a projector in a conference room, you can sort out which of your workers understands the projector system and check on that employee’s availability.
In particularly robust systems, you can often look at a calendar and automatically separate employees who are already scheduled for a task or are out of the office on a specific day or at a specific time from those who are available. You can then match skills and location among available workers and more easily choose the right person to assign.
This day-to-day scheduling functionality isn’t where the benefits of PM software end. You can also define how many hours of work different contracts will require from various teams and use the technology to determine whether you have the resources available to take on a new contract. If you lack available work hours to complete a contract within a deadline, you can choose the best path forward, such as bringing in contractors, shuffling low-priority work around, or otherwise tweaking the schedule.
In practice, the scheduling capabilities available in today’s PM software systems can transform everything from big-picture hiring practices to approving vacation time and choosing how to train employees. (If you consistently can’t find enough workers to schedule for certain tasks, you may need training.) The results can be sweeping, making it easier for managers to get more value from their teams and keeping your production workers happier and more engaged because their schedules are better aligned to their work preferences and skill sets.
The primary benefits of PM software can play out in a variety of ways depending on the specific type of solution you purchase. For example, one vendor may build a platform specifically aimed at addressing scheduling pain points for creative teams while another emphasizes task management for developers.
But most project management software is more general and can be applied to a wide range of work settings while still offering the benefits mentioned above. However, there are a few distinct types of project management software that do vary dramatically from one another.
Types of project management software
If you look hard enough, you can find project management software designed for just about any purpose. The industry has become a very competitive market where many solution providers offer a fairly standard feature set and then add capabilities designed for a specific audience. But while you’ll likely have a variety of nuanced choices, you’re most likely to run into one of four major types of project management software.
1. Desktop project management software
The term “desktop project management software” refers to a solution that installs on a local computer and runs through that machine or installs on an on-premises server and is accessed through the desktop. Data may be transferred to servers to allow for integration across users.
This is a more traditional way of delivering PM software, but it has largely fallen out of favor due to
- High upfront costs to purchase the software and install new hardware to support it
- Significant demand for customization; the software is typically developed as a final product with the expectation that businesses will bring in developers and consultants to fine-tune the solution to their specific needs
- So much complexity and difficulty getting it configured that, once it’s up and running, businesses are pretty much locked into using it for years
This method for delivering PM software can be valuable for businesses that have a lot of internal IT expertise and resources to spend. Desktop PM software allows for a high level of control and keeps all data in house instead of sending information to third-party providers. However, those benefits tend to be outpaced by the capabilities of modern cloud-based solutions, which are much more accessible and flexible.
2. Cloud and web-based project management software
Cloud project management software delivers its functionality through the web. Users simply visit a website or app, log into their accounts, and get to work. All of the data and application capabilities are housed in third-party data centers managed and maintained by the PM software provider or a specialist vendor that the PM solution provider partners with.
This arrangement forces you to entrust your data to a third-party vendor. You can run into some performance challenges if you don’t have a good internet connection (though some solutions offer the ability to work offline as well). Cloud and web-based solutions have become the primary way of delivering PM software in the industry, and with good reason. By using the cloud, organizations get the following:
- Access to the software wherever there’s an internet connection (and sometimes where there’s not). Your employees can get the job done at home, in the field, or, if there’s an emergency, when they’re on vacation, all without sacrificing functionality or having to jump through hoops, asking colleagues to perform tasks for them.
- Low initial costs for deploying the technology, as you don’t have to buy software licenses or invest in data center hardware to support the system. Instead, you pay a subscription fee based on the number of resources you need, and usually an initial contract fee. The upfront costs are much lower than with desktop-based options, so businesses that couldn’t afford PM software in the past now can.
- Greater flexibility to adjust over time, both in terms of adding functionality and switching vendors. Most cloud and web-based project management software providers give clients development roadmaps that show how they plan to improve the technology and add new features over time. In many cases, vendors will take client feedback into account or allow customers to create their own custom features to add to the cloud solution. What’s more, because you don’t have the high upfront costs or hardware commitment, you can more easily switch vendors if the need arises.
Cloud computing offers major functional advantages for businesses getting started with PM software, and the competition among vendors fuels innovation.
3. Agile project management software
This area isn’t related to the delivery format of the technology. With agile project management software, you may be able to use traditional desktop-based solutions or cloud options. Instead of standing out because of how the technology is hosted, agile PM software is unique because it is specifically designed for organizations that use agile development methodologies within their IT operations.
Whether you’re a software company or a business that regularly develops your own solutions for internal use, agile has become a mainstream part of dev operations. Many organizations have so much agile experience that they’re using refined methods that build on core agile principles and enhance how dev teams work.
Regardless of where you are on your agile journey, PM software specifically built for the workflows that come with agile can make it much easier to establish best practices and enforce them across your projects.
In practice, you can often configure PM software to do what you need it to do, but that sometimes becomes complex and difficult to manage if the solution doesn’t align well with how you function. Software that is a natural fit with how you’re trying to work simplifies this process and can allow for a more natural transition to innovative work methods, like agile.
4. Open-source project management software
Typically a company develops software in order to sell it to customers. The company owns the code that makes the software function and holds the rights to that intellectual property. As such, if you want to add or change anything, you need permission to do so in your contract. If you want something customized, you often have to depend on the vendor to do it.
Open-source software works on the opposite model. A developer, or team of developers, builds an open-source system, but instead of selling the code, they make it publicly available so that anyone can use it. Sometimes you have to pay for the initial right to use the software, but open-source solutions are often free by default, with any upfront costs coming if you choose to buy a purpose-built system based on the open-source code.
Before you get too excited about free open-source project management software, take a step back. Most open-source software is intentionally designed to be customized, added to, and configured for use. You don’t simply install it and let it run; you have to do a lot of work to set it up properly.
On one hand, this flexibility makes open source-project management software extremely exciting for businesses that really want something tailored to their specific needs. They can freely change the configuration at any time.
On the other hand, if you don’t have programmers, IT system experts, and leadership teams capable of running a large-scale custom PM software project, you aren’t going to get much out of an open-source solution.
It’s important to think about your specific business, particularly your budget, capabilities, and goals, before going down the path to open-source PM software.
What’s my best option?
These four methods represent the most prominent delivery models or formats for project management software.
As the industry has evolved, many solutions have started to focus on the cloud and agile segments, but you’ll still find options elsewhere, particularly if you want open-source software. The key to choosing the right option is to be honest with yourself about your needs. It may be tempting to get a fully custom system or have full control of your data at all times, but you’ll be making real sacrifices to get those advantages.
Meanwhile, the flexibility and scalability of the cloud are great, but the long-term costs can add up as you pay subscription fees every month. Take some time to analyze what’s realistic with your budget and go from there.
The cloud has become the de facto option, but knowing where you stand and why can help you determine the best delivery model within the cloud and help you choose a vendor if you do go that route.
Exploring your needs more deeply in terms of the delivery of PM software can also help you gain insight into the features you need from the technology. The industry is filled with highly nuanced, specialized solutions, but a few key feature types have emerged as standard things you should look for. We’ll talk about those next.
Features of project management software
We won’t get into the nitty gritty details of what various project management software provides. Because so many solutions out there have specific capabilities and deep feature sets that differ only slightly from one another, it isn’t really helpful to go through them all.
If you’re looking to understand project management software features so you can choose a solution that’s right for your business, then you’re better off understanding the major standard features that most solutions offer so you can focus on determining what else various platforms offer.
With this in mind, here’s a look at five of the most common, critical features of any project management software.
1. Mobile connectivity
If you’re embracing digital technologies in the hopes of empowering your employees to work smarter, better, and faster, you’re going to run into a huge roadblock if your employees can’t access what they need on their mobile devices.
Imagine you get a call from one of your largest, most valuable clients demanding an immediate project update and request for a schedule change. You need the project manager responsible for that client to get into the app right away so that they can tell the client where things stand and how much can be changed. The problem is, the manager isn’t in the office and is unable to get to a computer.
Without mobile project management access, you’re unable to help a demanding but valuable customer. This may be an extreme example, but work habits are changing. People want to get tasks done when it’s convenient for them, such as taking care of tedious clerical work during a commute on public transit so they can focus on more valuable tasks in the office. Flexibility is critical.
There is one big thing to look out for though: Not all mobile solutions are created equal. Many vendors provide mobile options that are the same as or comparable to their web-based apps, but every once in a while, you may run into a solution that doesn’t offer full functionality via mobile. Be on the lookout for this problem so you don’t get caught off guard down the line.
2. Document management
Document management software is a foundational component of project management solutions. Think about your business for a moment. How many files have your employees created over the years? Between contracts, forms, invoices, HR resources, internal reports, and client-facing content, it’s a list that could go on and on. How do you attach these documents and records to the relevant clients and workflows?
If members of your creative team want to reference a client’s branding guidelines, do they have to dig through a bunch of spreadsheets or dedicated file-storage apps to find the information they need?
With project management software, you can create a central repository in the app for every client. There, you can attach documents and files to specific projects to provide relevant information to users at the right time, in the right place.
Whether you’re a business services firm trying to attach a client brief to a specific task or a manufacturer who wants to ensure equipment handbooks are digitally connected to work orders involving specific machines, project management software gives you the document management capabilities you need.
3. Team collaboration
This is a feature we touched on earlier in this guide, so we won’t go into as much detail here. But it’s still worth mentioning that places where team members can share data, get in touch with one another, and provide status updates, all within a single app, represent one of the most important features of PM software.
Collaborative project management software solutions can focus on these types of communication tools, offering particularly robust options, such as integration with mainstream enterprise collaboration systems. However, the vast majority of project management software systems will provide some form of collaboration tools to empower your teams.
4. Security tools
Project management security may not seem like a big deal at first glance. It’s a system that’s used to organize your processes, not store your data, right?
Actually, it isn’t quite that straightforward. Since your project management suite is meant to help you organize every facet of a project — from the moment a contract is signed through final billing — the software might handle extremely sensitive data and keep that information on file for future customer interactions.
Plus, you have to consider whether you work in an industry where corporate/industrial espionage is an issue. What if an employee accesses information from parts of your project management software that they shouldn’t be authorized to see? You could suffer a major breach.
The good news is that today’s project management solutions increasingly feature tools and inherent capabilities designed to help you secure data. Some of the most prominent options include the following:
- Role management systems let you group users based on what they do at the company. You can make certain types of information inaccessible to those in roles that don’t need it. For example, your CEO may be able to see everything, while your production team members may not be able to see any form of billing information and your accounting team can’t access sensitive project and subject matter details that are irrelevant to invoicing clients and collecting payment.
- Cloud architectures ensure that all information is secured in third-party data centers so you don’t have to worry about backend data protection.
- Encryption capabilities ensure information is unreadable if it gets lost or stolen while it moves between the cloud provider and end users.
- Robust and customizable user identification capabilities like single sign-on and two-factor authentication enable you to define what users need to do to log onto the service and enforce compliance across the business.
This isn’t a full list of the types of security features PM software can offer. After all, you may run into solution providers with almost military-grade security capabilities because of the industries they target. However, these core features highlight the baseline level of protection you should expect from just about any PM software provider.
5. Reporting capabilities
Remember all of those data analytics tools we talked about earlier in this guide? This is where those come into play. At the very least, project management software should offer basic reporting, with templates for common reports that most businesses will need and the ability to customize elements of those reports, such as with date parameters and specific divisions of your business.
These are the basic capabilities of project management reporting tools. Most solutions will offer more custom reporting options. Whether it’s defining your own metrics or taking any data point that the software contains and putting it into a report, the potential for powerful data gathering is significant.
Beyond simply creating reports, you should also look for solutions that turn the raw data into visualizations and even display key performance indicators on users’ dashboards so you can make information as actionable as possible for your employees.
Project management software has a lot to offer. But that variety can also make it intimidating. Sometimes, the promises may seem too big and the need to get so many stakeholders engaged in using a technology so daunting that you just don’t want to deal with it.
We get it. Adopting new digital technologies is a huge hurdle for many businesses. But it’s also something we’ve come to recognize as a necessity.
Think about forms. On the surface, they’re a simple thing. In the past, you would create a list of the information you wanted in a word processor, print it out, and deliver the form to clients either in person or through the mail. But today almost everyone is used to grabbing their phones or using their tablets and/or computers to get things done: they’re likely to think you’re behind the times if you hand them a paper form. This will make them less likely to engage with you, which means it’s going to be more difficult for you to get the information you need.
Have you ever wanted to run a large-scale survey and realized that tracking responses would be too difficult? That’s where custom online forms simplify things for you. Have you ever hoped to get every client a certain form at a standard point in your sales funnel but struggled to maintain compliance with your team? A custom form emailed to prospects solves that problem.
Digital technologies take everyday business issues that seem insurmountable, or like too much work to deal with, and make them accessible. That’s what project management software promises for businesses today.
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