Excel is a ‘must have’ tool for every project manager. Most, if not all, organisations have it installed on the desktop as part of the MS Office suite. So everyone has a form of project management system at their fingertips.
There are a few tools discussed in this series of blog posts that can perform the whole gamut of tasks required of a basic project management system. SharePoint, OneNote (especially when paired with Outlook), and Evernote to a point, can all do it, and so can Excel, but again to a point. But Excel is so familiar at least in its basic use to so many that it often ends up as the tool of choice. I’ve included it in my 5 top apps for project management not because of this, but despite it. It’s not the best tool for lots of the things it gets used for, but it is the go to tool for financial analysis, charting and dashboards.
So what does it get used for?
I decided to use one of my other top five apps to show this:
Should you use Excel for a task?
I see many project RAID logs set up in Excel, often on quite complicated templates. Even in organisations with full blown Enterprise Project Management (EPM) systems such as Clarity, Planview, Primavera and Project Server, project managers prefer to revert to Excel and accept the overhead of maintaining two sets of records because of familiarity. I think this is extremely wasteful and is often down to lack of training and enforcement of the disciplines required for effective use of an EPM system.
My personal preference if an EPM system is not being used properly is to use SharePoint. It has all the capabilities of an Excel system but adds the control that SharePoint can bring alog with an ease of consolidating appropriate RAID levels across a portfolio.
I would always start out with a mindmap anyway rather than Excel. The plan can then be exported to Excel or MS Project later. For small or high level plans Excel is fine. But if you start to over complicate things you are much better off with a dedicated planning tool.
Because it is easy to combine cells to create text boxes and put boxes round them, Excel is often used to create status report templates. And they can look great. But when you try to use them sooner or later you’ll hit limitations. Text formatting, restricted number of characters in a field, changing row heights distortion other fields – it can all become a bit of a nightmare. That’s why I’d recommend steering clear of Excel for this task
Finance and resource management
These are ideal areas for Excel. And with it’s charting and dashboarding capabilities, there is no better tool.
I have seen plenty of “project management solutions” built in Excel. They often start out quite small in terms of functionality but they can evolve into huge monsters that become either impossible or very expensive to maintain, especially if the original developer has moved on. I prefer to stick to the purpose built tools. Even a tailored solution built in SharePoint is better as it’s development is much more structured and easy for others to maintain.
So Excel has its place, as master of the numbers, but should be used with caution elsewhere as there are better, more flexible, solutions available.