Benefits and pitfalls of software for project management

Like just about every other topic imaginable today, project management has been both complicated and simplified by the influence of microprocessor technology.

By Jeanine Katzel April 1, 1999

Like just about every other topic imaginable today, project management has been both complicated and simplified by the influence of microprocessor technology.

Thanks to such features as improved ease of use, integration capabilities across the enterprise, web-enabled functions, what-if modeling, and much more, software packages now provide plant engineers with excellent assistance for their project management assignments. However, the capabilities of today’s software packages can give users a false sense of security.

These tools are just that: tools. They are not project managers. They can be useless, even detrimental, to a project if not applied by people skilled both in project management and in using the software.

Origins of the software

Modern project management software packages are primarily tools for planning and scheduling tasks, projects, and resources. PC-based systems today facilitate communication by being fast, feature-rich, and as reliable as the data entered. They have come far over the years. Like so many of the byproducts of the microprocessor revolution, computer-based project management had once been solely the domain of the mainframe. And although mainframe systems were powerful, flexible, and highly customizable, they limited applications to very large undertakings. Small-scale project management was typically done manually or not at all.

With the advent of the PC, software developers sought to replicate the qualities of mainframe software on the PC. Early programs written in dBase were MS-DOS based and not particularly easy to use. However, it soon became apparent that PCs could, indeed, perform serious processing and achieve a significant amount of mainframe functionality at a fraction of the price.

Second-generation products arrived with the introduction of Windows, which changed the way software was both written and used. Programs became significantly easier to navigate and more feature abundant as developers were able to devote more time to product design instead of project management functionality.

As a result, project management programs today are available to meet an entire range of needs, from the simple planning and scheduling of a single project to high-end systems that handle multiproject, multisite, enterprise-wide integrated project management.

Applying the tools

Essentially, project management has evolved from being single-project to multiproject in nature, and from being task oriented to resource oriented. Serious project management software users are faced with managing simultaneously occurring multiple projects that must be completed by limited workforces. No longer do plants have the luxury of forming single dedicated teams for each project. Resources often must be shared across multiple projects. Users typically need to select software that can balance multiple projects using multiple resources.

Capabilities of many project management software packages reflect the changes that have occurred in the project management market. In most cases, a computer-based approach essentially accelerates the decision-making process and reduces the errors inherent in hand calculations. But it also allows many more complicated functions to be performed.

Modeling, for example, among the key features of high-end systems, helps users determine what happens if an activity is delayed, a resource is changed, or other modification is made. Task-splitting functions let users interrupt tasks or interchange resources without affecting the end result of the project. (For more information on the attributes to consider when selecting project management software, see the accompanying section “The many dimensions of project management.”)

Project management across the enterprise

Features aside, project management software packages today have probably been most significantly impacted by two developments: enterprise-wide integration and internet functionality.

Enterprise-wide project management addresses the problem of managing multiple projects in a global business environment. Inherently multiuser, enterprise-wide systems allow many to access the same data at the same time.

Such systems are also able to interact and integrate with other types of software, and feature the open architecture required to handle multiple projects and resources across multiple sites. Tools include useful options for decentralizing project communication and consolidating disparate projects into a common database. Packages typically employ client/server technology.

True enterprise project management systems approach the management of multiple projects differently from the way they approach individual projects. They improve how projects are prioritized and selected in the first place to achieve the highest returns. In other words, today’s plant engineer must not only work correctly on projects, he must also be working on the correct projects. To this end, such software systems give businesses an enterprise-wide perspective on project prioritization and performance as well as improve project execution and predictability, and respond quickly to changes both in the plant and in the marketplace.

Project management across the web

Other prominent features center on harnessing the power and flexibility of the internet — and the future is likely to bring more in the way of web-based project management tools. Web-enabled resources let employees assigned to a project determine what work they’ve been given quickly and easily through their web browsers.

Workers have access to the data they need and only the data they need. Security is maintained and workers are not overwhelmed with having to learn and use complex program commands. Activities can be monitored and reported easily and information is updated, recorded, and consolidated for easy access by those who need to know. Employees use a familiar tool (web-browser) and few modifications need to be made to the PC.

Making the right choice

Project management programs will not initiate, accomplish, or complete a project. They are only tools designed to help the user and to save time. The people who manage projects must still be more knowledgeable than the software they use. To make project management effective, a manager needs to have processes, procedures, and commitment. He must first understand the concepts of project management. He must take the time to define the requirements, and then select a software tool that matches that job.

Selecting a software package requires close examination of the skill sets a project team needs to be successful. Packages are available to meet most every need, from the simple planning and scheduling of a single project to the complex modeling of multimillion-dollar, multiresource, multisite, multiproject endeavors. Our software guide at the end of this article summarizes and illustrates a variety of programs.

Today’s business environment is competitive, globally oriented, and profit driven. Software for project management is not a magic wand or a replacement for knowledge and experience. Although software provides an array of outstanding tools to facilitate the process, decisions must still be made on the basis of the overall project environment, not merely on what is seen on the computer screen. — Jeanine Katzel, Senior Editor, 630-320-7142,

Plant Engineering magazine acknowledges with appreciation the special contributions made to this article by the following companies: Ballantine & Co., Inc., Carlisle, MA; MicroPlanning Intl., Denver, CO; Pathfinder, Inc., Cherry Hill, NJ; Primavera Systems, Inc., Bala Cynwyd, PA; and Welcom, Houston, TX.

Artwork used on the cover was provided by Primavera Systems, Inc.

Key concepts

Computer-based project management can save the user time and promote effective leadership by providing tools to simplify a variety of complex tasks.

Project management software offers many features, but it is not a panacea, nor will it turn an inexperienced or poor project manager into a good one.

Software should be selected by specifying the problem, evaluating programs with features that solve the problem, then finding the hardware on which to run the program — not the reverse.

Five basic elements of a project

Plant engineers selecting or using software tools for project management should first understand the project management process itself. Whether a project is managed on paper or a computer screen, certain elements are common. Projects of all types and sizes are typically classed into at least five primary phases.

1. Recognize an opportunity. The potential to build or create something that will help the company grow is identified.

2. Examine the alternatives. What are the possibilities? What options are available? Which one is best and how can it best be accomplished?

3. Perform front-end engineering. What is the basic design? In this stage, the parameters are framed and project scope defined in enough detail so that an accurate design can be prepared. Plans for carrying out the design are also formulated here.

4. Execute the plans. The engineering, procurement, and construction has been mapped out. The plan is followed and work completed.

5. Operate and assess. The loop is closed as the project goes into operation and the project team assesses the results to determine if the goals were achieved.

Information for this section was provided by Pathfinder, Inc., project management consultants. Its web site is located at

More info

Innumerable resources on both project management skills and software tools are available, from books to training programs to web sites. A few are listed below as a starting point.

Successful Project Management, Third Edition, by Milton D. Rosenau, Jr. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 605 Third Ave., New York, NY 10158-0012; 212-850-6000.

The Project Management Institute at strives to advance the state of the art in project and program management.

A listing of books, articles, and training materials is among the features of the Project Management Control Tower at

Also see the “computers and software” channel on PE Online ( for more articles related to this topic.