For context, a week ago I had a meeting with a client who’d been in business for 20 years but needed help. As they became more successful, they realised that their IT project management system was outdated and not up to scratch. They needed a system that would cater to all their project needs, including managing meeting notes, costs and task schedules.

The problem was that their existing database was produced in the mid-1990s using Microsoft Access v2.0. So they needed a much more powerful database compatible with Xero, the cloud based application that they use for their accounting and finances.

But where should they start? Here are 12 key considerations that you need to make when deciding on the right project management system:

Who and where?

First you need to ask who is going to use the project management system and how are they going to use it from both a software and hardware perspective? For example, if it’s for a small number of people at a fixed location such as an office, you can locally install the software on your desktops.

However, my client works in construction, which means meetings on site with the site manager, clients and builders. Therefore an on-the-go cloud-based solution may be more suitable. This would allow them to make any changes to the project there and then at the meeting using a 4G or Wi-Fi-enabled tablet without having to type up their notes back at the office.

You also need to decide whether third party contractors will have access to the system. Using locally installed software wouldn’t be practical, but a cloud-based solution would enable your builders to make updates themselves and clients accessing a restricted version could use online reporting to track the project’s progress on a daily basis.

But you would also need to get agreement from everyone to use the system and to create (and disable) logins for all of the different parties using it.

Whatever you decide, it should be easy to add and remove users. Access to and use of the software should only be granted by permission. Above all, bear in mind that almost all software providers – including cloud-based ones – charge a fee depending on the number of users.

Functionality

Next, you need to be clear about what you want your project management system to achieve from the start. As a minimum, any system should enable you to do the following:

  • Estimation and planning
  • Scheduling
  • Task allocation
  • Resource allocation
  • Communication and reporting

but you may also want it to support you with:

  • Cost control and budget management
  • Quality management
  • Documentation

To determine which is the best solution you need to ask yourself three fundamental questions:

What MUST the product do (as standard)?
What CAN the product do (provided you’re happy to pay for extra software or customisation)?
What COULD you do without?

To understand the answers to these questions, you first need to understand your own processes. Produce a work flow map and, if necessary, hire a business coach or analyst to help you.

Integration

Then you need to determine how you are going to integrate the other software applications that you use with the new project management system. My client already used Xero as their accounting package. However, not all applications provide simple integration with Xero.

This meant my client having to decide just how important Xero integration was. They came to the conclusion that it was much more important for the new product to work with Dropbox, the cloud-based file storage system.

It’s also important to consider which applications you might want to use in the future. As such, my client had plans to buy a customer relationship management system and a product that enables documents to be signed online such as DocuSign.

Collaboration

Greater pressures on businesses mean that any project management system has to allow for collaborative working, regardless of whether the teams are together, on-site or in different locations. For example, what if two people working at different locations are using a new system and both amend the same data at the same time?

How will the system manage this? What about when a document is amended? How do you track the changes? Version control is important and for plans and designs it’s essential.

Customisation

Next you need to determine how flexible the project management system is. Can you use it while following your usual work pattern? It must be easy to configure to meet your needs. Remember, the product has to accommodate you, not the other way round.

Scalability

If you see your company growing or changing its offering to clients, consider how that might affect your choice of project management system. If you increase your staff how will this affect how the product works?

Expect that the demand on the software will increase and change as your business develops. Limited features should not stop your business from developing; to solve this, choose a software that can be integrated with additional modules from the same provider?

Reporting

Reporting is a key function of any project management system. A well-structured report can extract data and use it to produce reports about the project’s current status, such as cost and progress to date, for a wide audience, whether they are heavily involved with the work such as the project manager, or intermittently, such as the client.

Most systems come with some standard reports available for immediate use, but can these be customised? If not, can you create new reports yourself? Of course, any reports generated by the system and sent externally should be in a widely used format such as .pdf, .csv or .xls.

Security and data protection

This is especially important when you are using a cloud-based project management system without direct access to your data. In many cases you won’t even know where your data is being stored. Is the provider reputable? Are there simple checks you can carry out on them?

Do you know what security they have in place? I’m not just talking about hacking but the far more likely case of business disruption and interruption. Finally, how is your data backed up?

Ask yourself this key question: if you lost access to your system, how would your business cope?

Find out where the data is going to be stored. If any of your data is classed as personal data under UK legislation or the General Data Protection Regulation and it is stored outside the European Union, you’ll need to demonstrate you have taken the necessary precautions to protect your data, such as having a data protection agreement in place with the provider. In most cases though, they should have a standard agreement in place. Make sure it’s fit for your purpose – not just theirs.

Professional interface

Most providers allow you to try out the software first, typically for 30 days. Make the most of this. What are your impressions on using the software? If you are going to use the application day-in, day-out, it’s best to go for software that is easy to use and works well.

Transitioning to the new system

My clients also needed to think about how were they going to manage the transition from their current project management system – with the old Microsoft Access database – to a new one. Would they migrate the existing data to the new application? If so, how much? Would the new system allow them to upload the old data?

The product could also require several days of training. It might be best to find one that is straightforward to use, especially if you are expecting third parties to use it. Otherwise, can you find a product that has lots of training providers on the market?

Finally, how will the transition take place? Do you expect a ‘big-bang’ where you move from the old system one day to the new system the next? Perhaps you could use both systems simultaneously for a short period to ensure a smooth transition?

Support

Then you need to find out if you will receive any support with using the new project management system? If so, how is it provided? For example, is it provided by the company itself or do you use online chat rooms for more experienced users?

A more long-term question to ask yourself is this: what if, in the future, you choose to move onto another product? How can you get hold of your data? Would they give you a copy in a non-proprietary format?

In the case of my client it was simple. They had their Access database on a machine in their office, so they knew exactly where the data was and even old databases like theirs allow downloads in ‘standard’ formats. In a cloud-based environment however, it’s not clear how much access you have to your data so you should clarify this first.

Price

Ultimately though, it comes down to price. Whatever project management system you choose should represent value for money compared with the others available or even staying with the existing one.

Any vendor worth its salt, should also be happy to give you details of a customer reference site. These can be invaluable and can give an almost unbiased view of the product.

It should be easy to upgrade and add more features for an extra fee. However, what’s rarely discussed is how easy is it to downgrade if you find you no longer need as many features. Is there a price reduction included?

Lastly, does the price cover support? You’d think so, but it’s not always the case with varying levels of support priced separately.

So, while there are a lot of different factors to consider, all are vital when it comes to choosing the right project management system for you (even if you work in a state of the art office and your coffee is the real deal).

Need help with finding or transitioning to a new project management system? Give me a call on 07775 601969 or send me a message.

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