A long time ago as I was just beginning my career, I took a project management course at IBM. They were very adamant in explaining that project management was not a Gantt chart or a PERT chart. While the name of the project management software application being used within IBM at the time escapes me, the course instructors’ message has not. They stressed repeatedly that we should not let the software application manage our projects for us. There were too many examples of projects gone awry despite thorough use of the project management software.

It is amazing that 30 years later we are still challenged by this same dilemma. Despite many efforts by PMI and other worthy institutions, technical capabilities can carry too high a priority when evaluating software. Good project management software should support the project management process rather than control it. Managing is a job for people, and managing projects is no different.

When I ask the question “What is the number one project management software in the world?”, all of the project management software applications possible are mentioned. Sometimes I get an answer that is close: Microsoft Excel. Indeed, Excel is certainly used more often than other project management software to plan, track, record, and present status of a project. That’s not the correct answer however.

Email is the most used project management software in the world. This is because project management is mostly about communication. Far more oral communication, conducted via phone calls and meetings, than electronic communication occurs in the management of a project. But just behind oral communication is electronic communication, especially for geographically distributed workers, and the electronic communication conducted via email dwarfs the usage of project management applications. Want to know the status of a project and the project manager is not sitting nearby? Email is often the preferred route. Want to give a directive to the project team you are managing? Send an email.

The makers of project management software are aware of this and the support for collaboration and status reporting is becoming stronger within project management applications. When evaluating software to support an organization in its project management activity, collaboration should rank very high on the list. While there are many options for drawing Gantt charts, collecting time sheets, defining resources and such, software that enables broad communication and collaboration around project activity should carry the highest importance.

Going back to the emphasis of IBM, putting too high a reliance on the software tool to drive the execution of the project is risky business. The nature of project work is that it is full of the unexpected, and dealing with the unexpected is a people problem. Make sure that you consider that project management software is there to support people, not replace them. When you install project management software into your organization, put it secondary to the people. Develop the skills of your people, develop processes that enable collaboration, and create mentors and coaches. Only then find the software that helps those people do things better.

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