There is no doubt that Microsoft Project software is the most popular project management software tool in use globally, and enjoys the largest market share.
The latest version of Microsoft Project is 2010, which was released in May of the same year, however, most corporations in Zimbabwe are still using the MS Project 2007 version.
In this article we explore the salient capabilities of this software tool in project management.
Microsoft Project is a specialised database that stores and presents thousands of pieces of data related to your project. Examples of such data include tasks, durations, links, resource names, calendars, assignments, costs, deadlines and milestones.
These pieces of information interrelate and affect each other in a multitude of ways. Underlying this project database is the scheduling engine, which crunches the raw project data you enter and presents the calculated results to you.
Examples of such calculated results include the start and finish dates of a task, the resource availability, the critical path, the finish date of the entire project, and the total cost for a resource or for the entire project.
You can then manipulate and display this calculated data in various views to analyse the planning and progress of your project. This information helps you make decisions vital to the project's success.
For those project managers that have managed their projects without the assistance of software tools, know how frustrating it can be to determine the critical path; perform resource-levelling, etc.
If a project has a few tasks, the project manager may not find it frustrating, however, on large projects where tasks are in excess of ten thousand, MS Project comes in handy.
In the planning stage, MS Project helps you develop a project schedule. You add the tasks and people to an MS Project file, link the tasks together in sequence, assign workers and other resources to those tasks, and bang! - You have a schedule.
MS Project calculates when tasks start and finish, how much they cost and how many hours each person works each day.
MS Project helps you develop better project plans, because you can revise the schedule quickly to try other strategies until the plan really works.
Views and reports help you spot problems, for example too many tasks assigned to the same overworked person.
Once a project is underway, you can add actual hours and costs to the MS Project file. With actual values, you can use MS Project to track progress to see how dates, cost, and work compare to the project plan.
If problems arise, like tasks running late or over budget, you can use MS Project views and reports to look for solutions, once again quickly making changes until you get the project back on track.
It must be noted that, plenty of project management work goes on outside of MS Project.
Tasks like identifying project objectives, negotiating with vendors, or building stakeholder buy-in are pure people skill (although MS Project's reports can certainly help you communicate with these parties).
Projects produce a lot of documents besides the project schedule.
For example, a project plan may include financial analysis spreadsheets, requirements and specifications documents, change requests databases, and diagrams to show how the change management process works.
In addition, thousands of email messages, memos and other correspondence could change hands before a project finishes.
Communication, change management, and risk management are essential to successful project management, but they do not occur directly in MS Project. For example, you may have a risk management plan that identifies the risks your project faces, and what you plan to do if they occur.
You may also develop a spreadsheet to track those risks and your response if they become reality.
In MS Project, you may link the risk tracking spreadsheet or risk response document to the corresponding tasks.
Getting started with MS Project
The first step in mastering MS Project is to become familiar with project management concepts, followed by training in MS Project where the project manager is exposed to the MS Project Help facilities, online tutorials, major screen elements, views, and filters.
Additionally, I find the MS Project guide toolbar most useful in taking the project manager through step by step instructions for completing various steps in building an MS Project file.
The MS Project guide toolbar takes the project manager from the Tasks, Resources, Tracking and Report areas, prompting the user for information at each stage.
Choosing the Right MS
There are two editions of the software and choosing between MS Project Standard and MS Project Professional is easy.
Both editions of MS Project have the same capabilities if you manage projects independently, and do not to work closely with other project managers, and teams. MS Project Standard is all you need for a one-person show, even if you manage several projects at the same time. You can communicate with your team via email and share documents on a network drive.
However, if you manage project teams with hundreds of resources, share a pool of resources with other project managers, or manage your project as one of many in your organisation's project portfolio, then you will need MS Project Professional along with Project Server and Project Web Access.
The difference between MS Project Standard and MS Project Professional is that you can turn on the enterprise features in Project Professional and connect it to Project Server and Project Web Access to collaborate, communicate, and share across hundreds of projects and people.
Words of caution on using MS
Project and other software
Many people misuse project management software because they do not understand the concepts behind creating a network diagram, determining the critical path, or setting a schedule baseline.
They might also rely too heavily on sample files or templates in developing their own project schedules.
Understanding the underlying concepts that is, being able to do it manually first, is critical to successful use of project management software, as is understanding the specific needs of your project.
Many top project managers have made blatant errors using various versions of MS Project and similar tools. For example, a top manager on a large information technology project did not know about setting a baseline in MS Project.
He spent almost one day every week copying and pasting information from MS Project to MS Excel and using complicated formulas to figure out what activities were behind schedule.
He had never received any training on MS Project and did not know about many of its capabilities. To use any software effectively, users must have adequate training in the software and an understanding of its underlying concepts.