Why Excel & Google Docs aren’t Project Management Tool

You manage projects at a small business.  Budgets are tight.   Teams are overstretched.    Even though you know you need project management tool, nobody feels online project management software is necessary.

You get push-back that Microsoft Excel is good enough and no project planning tool is needed.

Using excel is easy, you have used it for a long time. You are very familiar with it, in fact you love using it! It is a great tool as a spreadsheet but not for managing projects.

Based on our experience with lightweight tools, it is a big mistake to re-purpose a spreadsheet and rename it project management tool.

The reason that Excel is used is because with enough work, it is possible to create a decent visualization of a project plan.

Unfortunately, visualization of a project plan is only a fraction of the functionality that project management software provides.  Our advice:  even accidental project managers should avoid Excel.

Excel is not a Project Management Tool

Let’s start by reviewing some of the common problems that you will likely encounter when using Microsoft Excel (or Google Docs) as a Project Management Tool.

There is no way to scale a project with Excel. Even for small projects where Excel can be used, its limitations are reached relatively quickly.

Why?  Because effective project management software grows with the team, but that is not the case with Excel.   It is possible to re-create the appearances of a Gantt Chart but there is no simple way to systematically add users to a project.

Excel is not a communication tool.  Teams need to communicate which is why any decent online project management tool contains collaboration functionality.   Here are some features that simply cannot be provided by Microsoft Excel:

Updating team members when a milestone has been reached or there is a change in the project plan b.  Using instant chat within the software application to collaborate with team members on a real-time basis.

Excel does not provide multi-user access. Most online project management software packages can be accessed by any user with the appropriate permissions.   Excel is a single file that can only be worked on by one person at any given time.

Changes made to an excel spreadsheet need to be saved locally and then shared.   When more than one person needs to use an Excel-based project plan, it can create confusion and version control issue.

Of-course, there are knowledge management tools such as SharePoint that can be used to control program access, but this requires a second level of investment.

 Excel does not record project changes. Perhaps the biggest drawback of Excel is it is difficult to record changes made to the project plan.

Let’s say there are five people on the team with access to the spreadsheet and one makes significant changes that are not sanctioned by the team lead.

Once the document is saved, the previous versions are no longer available.   It is possible to keep saving the document using different names, but this is not a productive workaround.

Integration with document collaboration.  Every project has documents and during project’s life cycle many documents are created. The project data and knowledge resides in these documents.  

When working on a project, one needs to access the project-related documentation easily and in a timely manner.   The workarounds in Excel for document collaboration relies on embedding links to documents in a cell adjacent to task in a spreadsheet task.

This is an ineffective workaround because the link does not automatically change when the file name changes.   Microsoft has other solutions for document collaboration such as SharePoint.

However, this is a separate technology requiring its own software licenses, servers etc.

These are just a few examples of some of the basics features missing in Excel or similar applications.

More advanced features such as dependencies, resource loading and transparent workflows were not covered since Excel can’t properly address those features. Lack of those features should be considered when considering Excel for managing projects.

David Robins

David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.

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