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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Benefits of Planning Using Microsoft Project

Microsoft Project has been around in one form or another since the early '90s, but its usage amongst professional project managers is still not as widespread as you might think. There are a number of reasons for this, despite the fact that it is considered by many as being the industry standard benchmark for project management software.

One of the main reasons for project managers' apparent reluctance to embrace Microsoft Project is a lack of knowledge in respect of how the software works. It is notoriously difficult to successfully self-teach MS Project, largely because of a lack of understanding in respect of defining and linking project tasks. The problem is that the Task Sheet seems to suggest that one should enter task start and finish dates. This is in fact precisely the wrong thing to do as amongst other issues, it imposes what MS Project refers to as a 'constraint'. The wrong type of constraint reduces flexibility and can prevent MS Project from re-scheduling tasks should there be a change to the plan.

The correct way to define to tasks is in fact to specify only durations and allow Microsoft Project to set start and finish dates through its system of task linkage. Linkages define a dependent relationship between tasks and enable a fluid schedule to be planned. If for instance a task is delayed, the effect on any dependent tasks will be displayed on the Gantt chart giving the project manager forewarning of possible scheduling issues. This is perhaps the least understood aspect of Microsoft Project, especially for the inexperienced user and very difficult to teach one's self.

Another reason for project managers' reticence is a lack of understanding of the true scope of the software's capability. In the right hands, Microsoft Project is an immensely powerful scheduling tool, enabling the project manager to experiment with various 'what if' scenarios. The Gantt chart is the traditional way of representing the project's timeline and have long since been considered a highly useful visual tool. Traditionally Gantt charts would be drawn out by hand and a complex project could take some considerable time to plan in this manner.

One problem with the hand-drawn plan is the issue of re-scheduling should it become necessary. There is where Microsoft Project scores heavily against traditional methods. With a simple click of the mouse, tasks can be re-scheduled and the Gantt chart instantly updated by the software. This can potentially be a big saving in time and leaves the project manager free to do what they do best.

A further reason for some project managers' prejudice is perhaps a bad experience with the software in the past. Project 2010 is a much improved tool compared with earlier versions and most, if not all of the known issues, have been successfully addressed by Microsoft. As an example, the relatively poor financial reporting capability of Microsoft Project was dramatically improved in 2007 with the advent of 'Visual Reports'. These are graphs which are created from data which Project exports to Microsoft Excel. Excel automatically creates a PivotTable based on the data and finally converts it into PivotChart format. All this is done without the user requiring any detailed knowledge of PivotTables and PivotCharts but the result is a very comprehensive and user-friendly reporting package.


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