Excel is comfortable. It’s our go-to software for scheduling employee time, resources for a project, lists and any other data we think needs “organization.” Chances are you already have a subscription to MS Office, you’re (at least somewhat) familiar with the interface and your customization is virtually endless. You may even have templates from past projects, so starting something new is as simple as hitting “Save As” and deleting old data. Reliable and familiar? Yes. But is it the best solution?
From accounting administrators to IT managers to finance, Excel seems to be a popular choice for scheduling and project management—and it’s already paid for. So why consider a change, especially if it will cost money up front?
There are a couple of major reasons. Let’s take a closer look at each.
The “E” in Excel Is Not for “Efficient”
Excel does a fine job at organizing data in a static, central location. Unfortunately, that’s where the benefits stop. Consider the following:
- How are projects delivered on time?
- How do you know whether more staff or resources are needed for a particular project?
- What administrative and management oversight functions are built in to ensure project schedules remain up to date?
- Are provisions in place to prevent employees from modifying project schedules, unbeknownst to others, and throwing off deliverables?
The answer to these questions when using Excel is either “manually” or “it’s not.” In either case, a more efficient and professional solution is necessary, regardless of whether you oversee a five-person local team or a 5,000-employee worldwide organization.
By implementing cost-effective project-management software, you can optimize your efficiencies by pairing project deliverables with skills management and resource capacity. Imagine being able to see staff availability, skills and rates with just a click, and knowing whether your project is on time and on budget hour by hour. It’s possible with the right software partner and the right mix of tools.
Three words you don’t want to say to your boss. Ever. It seems like a fact of (business) life: projects delivery will be late. But it isn’t necessarily true. With the right tools, project managers can mitigate or eliminate deadline slips. How can they do so? Or better yet, how can you replace tardiness with “Good news! We’re on time and on budget.” Two things:
- First, set up a clear chain of responsibility so every step, every task and every deliverable has a clear owner, timeline and resources dedicated to making it successful.
- Second, the person ultimately responsible must embrace the task and move it forward, reporting progress (or delays) using the appropriate tools and communication vehicles.
Additionally, Excel isn’t much help with critical project-management functions such as the following:
- Forecasting project deliverables: By knowing they will be late before it happens, you can add resources when necessary to get the project back on schedule.
- Managing project changes: Boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Your project plan won’t survive unaltered—project objectives and scope will almost certainly change during project execution, so it’s important to add and subtract resources on the basis of those changes.
- Employee time assignments: Schedule resources in accordance with a complete picture of employees’ schedules (including personal time off, capacity and availability across all projects), because not every employee works eight hours a day throughout the entire project, and not every employee works on just one project.
This is when a more-sophisticated alternative specific to the job is ideal. When looking for a software tool kit, ensure it can perform these vital functions, helping you obtain the ROI you need in order to justify the cost. If you can show that better software tools will help you keep more project deadlines, better match your resources with your opportunities and improve your ability to execute profitable projects, you’ll go a long way in justifying the cost of the tool to your management team. And this process doesn’t take into account customer and employee satisfaction for a project completed on time and on budget.
To get a better picture of why Excel isn’t the best project management tool in the shed, let’s take a look at two real-world examples.
Situation #1: Corporate IT Department
Corporate IT departments have busy and slow periods, especially if they’re starting projects. Whether work is steady or not, the department needs a way to staff appropriately and manage the inconsistencies of workflow peaks and valleys. Tracking numerous assets, tickets, projects and requests, all of which have different time and budget requirements, can be a daunting task. How can an organization, big or small, best manage so many moving pieces, skills and rigid deadlines? Imagine a company’s IT director attempting to track hundreds of deliverables during the year in a monster Excel spreadsheet—the number of places where human error could occur is staggering. Or what would happen if an IT person had an emergency and was out of the office during a critical project? Excel wouldn’t capture that information without a data-entry update, and it would “live” with the owner of the Excel sheet or with HR, not necessarily the person’s direct manager. How often is that sheet updated? Would the individual’s work be forgotten or put on hold, or is it somehow automatically reassigned? What would that process look like and how would it happen? What if a new project request arrived and needed a particular skill set or certification? Would the IT director be able to identify in a timely manner a VMware-certified IT person with 30 hours of availability for the next three weeks using your HR software or Excel?
Situation #2: External Consultants
When consultants implement an enterprise-wide project, many factors—some unknown until the project has begun—require consideration: order delays, internal personnel considerations, availability of tools, access to equipment and software, other projects taking precedence, budget shortfalls, resource availability, personality conflicts, and more. Consulting projects have a bad rap for “always being late.” Are they doomed from the start or is there a better way? We’ve seen plenty of well-intentioned Excel project spreadsheets start with “green” columns and slowly turn “red” as the project moves on. At what point do alarms sound to indicate real problems that need to be addressed? Can Excel notify the project manager about a missing skill? That a previously scheduled crucial resource is suddenly unavailable? Or a manager vital to the project is taking a two-week vacation during a critical period?
A Comprehensive Tool Kit
For both the internal IT department and the consultant, replacing Excel with a cohesive time-, expense- and resource-management software suite is the answer. It isn’t a task to be taken lightly—much rides on a successful deployment. Therefore, you must address several important questions:
- Predictive analytics: The ability to know what will happen given a set of circumstances is crucial. Look for a tool that uses the data available to predict deadlines, budgets and resources to avoid surprises.
- User friendly: Ease of use is vital. If your employees aren’t using it, nothing else matters. A software that’s cumbersome, has a poor user interface, lacks needed features, is difficult to learn or takes a long time to learn will ultimately fail. Intuitive, smart software designs will succeed, and a mobile interface is imperative.
- “Smart” software: If an employee sends a note saying she’s out of the office on a personal emergency, the system should be smart enough to log her PTO, notify her manager, inform her team and reallocate resources. Period. Excel can’t do that.
- Feature rich: Develop a list of must-haves. Look for a solution that offers a comprehensive tool kit including resource scheduling, employee utilization and project-deliverables management.
- Ease of integration: No one software package will do everything for everyone, so finding a package that complements the organization’s installed ERP, accounting and enterprise software (from companies such as Microsoft, CCH Wolters Kluwer, Deltek, SAP and Oracle) will be important. Integrated easy-to-use tools will make some of today’s most complex and costly project- and resource-management tasks easier and more efficient.
- Quick deployment: Your IT team doesn’t want to spend the next six months deploying the latest software. Look for one that can be up and running by Friday, not by next year.
- Sophisticated data capture and search: What fields are you currently capturing for employee skills? Are they searchable? Imagine you could build a team if you had access to information at a granular level, allowing you to search across offices to cherry-pick members.
- Financial perspective: Can your teams quickly and easily determine the financial impact that a project will have, now and in the future? Look for a product that has predictive analytics to help keep projects on budget and on time.
Stuck in the Excel Age
So why are organizations still using Excel? A common excuse is cost: Excel is “free” and software such as Empire Suite will require a new line item. When you manage your project resources and deliverables more effectively, efficiency and productivity increase, saving money. An ROI matrix showing how quickly you recover the nominal software expense surprises most organizations and will impress your CFO. Another reason is the perceived software-implementation complexity versus Excel. What most people don’t realize is that some solutions can be up and running in a few hours. As they’re cloud-based and extremely easy to implement enterprise-wide, since no physical installation is required, deployment time falls drastically. For example, rather than weeks (or months) with locally hosted software, your entire team can be using the new software within the week, particularly if it’s quick to learn and simple to master, making it friendly and welcoming for new users.
All of the challenges outlined above would be mitigated, if not eliminated, using the right project and resource financial-management software. No, we can’t stop the IT manager from taking a vacation during the most important part of the project. But we’d know about it weeks or months ahead of time and not the week before, so we can plan schedules it, notify supervisors and plan replacements. A simple skill search for VMware or Agile would give us a list of all of our organization’s certified employees and their availability over the next few weeks. For accounting, IT consultants, HR, finance, management and virtually every other department in an organization, the tools offered by today’s advanced software can put the power of knowledge into the hands of each and every employee—literally, if they are using mobile apps on the go!
About the Author
William Cornfield, CPA, MBA, is president and founder of WSG Systems. Based in New York City, WSG is a cloud provider whose sole focus is project and resource financial-management software. It helps organizations identify which projects and people are most important and makes it easy for project teams to work collectively on those projects for successful delivery. Project-driven organizations appreciate the ability to visualize the financial impact of their projects, and employees appreciate the ease of implementation and use. WSG’s software tools, including its award-winning Empire Suite, support a wide array of vertical markets including professional service providers in accounting, management and IT consulting. In addition, Empire Suite is used extensively by internal corporate service providers such as IT and HR.