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.


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.

Top Plant
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America.
Product of the Year
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
System Integrator of the Year
Each year, a panel of Control Engineering and Plant Engineering editors and industry expert judges select the System Integrator of the Year Award winners in three categories.
June 2018
2018 Lubrication Guide, Motor and maintenance management, Control system migration
May 2018
Electrical standards, robots and Lean manufacturing, and how an aluminum packaging plant is helping community growth.
April 2018
2017 Product of the Year winners, retrofitting a press, IMTS and Hannover Messe preview, natural refrigerants, testing steam traps
June 2018
Machine learning, produced water benefits, programming cavity pumps
April 2018
ROVs, rigs, and the real time; wellsite valve manifolds; AI on a chip; analytics use for pipelines
February 2018
Focus on power systems, process safety, electrical and power systems, edge computing in the oil & gas industry
Spring 2018
Burners for heat-treating furnaces, CHP, dryers, gas humidification, and more
April 2018
Implementing a DCS, stepper motors, intelligent motion control, remote monitoring of irrigation systems
February 2018
Setting internal automation standards

Annual Salary Survey

After two years of economic concerns, manufacturing leaders once again have homed in on the single biggest issue facing their operations:

It's the workers—or more specifically, the lack of workers.

The 2017 Plant Engineering Salary Survey looks at not just what plant managers make, but what they think. As they look across their plants today, plant managers say they don’t have the operational depth to take on the new technologies and new challenges of global manufacturing.

Read more: 2017 Salary Survey

The Maintenance and Reliability Coach's blog
Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
One Voice for Manufacturing
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Maintenance and Reliability Professionals Blog
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Machine Safety
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
Research Analyst Blog
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Marshall on Maintenance
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
Lachance on CMMS
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
Electrical Safety Update
This digital report explains how plant engineers need to take greater care when it comes to electrical safety incidents on the plant floor.
Maintenance & Safety
The maintenance journey has been a long, slow trek for most manufacturers and has gone from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance.
IIoT: Machines, Equipment, & Asset Management
Articles in this digital report highlight technologies that enable Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT-related products and strategies.
Randy Steele
Maintenance Manager; California Oils Corp.
Matthew J. Woo, PE, RCDD, LEED AP BD+C
Associate, Electrical Engineering; Wood Harbinger
Randy Oliver
Control Systems Engineer; Robert Bosch Corp.
Data Centers: Impacts of Climate and Cooling Technology
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
Safety First: Arc Flash 101
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
Critical Power: Hospital Electrical Systems
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
click me