It’s 2017 – Why is Microsoft Project Still So Popular?

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Microsoft Project is known for being a powerful (and sometimes cumbersome) tool that remains a staple of enterprise-level project management. So, why is this legacy project management software also used by 67 percent of small businesses?

The project management discipline has rapidly expanded beyond IT in recent years. This once-niche practice has expanded into businesses of all sizes across diverse industries. LinkedIn currently lists hundreds of open roles for Digital Project Managers in the U.S. alone; a separate search for U.S.-based “Healthcare Project Manager” jobs yields nearly 4,000 results.

GetApp published new research on the project management software industry last month. Based on previous research in this sphere, we guessed that a market gap exists between the software features that users need and what’s currently available on the market. As this report’s researcher, I expected respondents to cite a wide range of industry-specific project management software tools that they use – and was very wrong.

Sure, there was a smattering of popular PM tools; for example, 9 percent of respondents use Basecamp, while an additional 6 percent use Asana and 5 percent more use Trello.

But none of them compared to Microsoft Project – two of three respondents use it for project management, despite the fact that three quarters of respondents work in small businesses.

Project management in a global enterprise looks very different than it does in a small business. Had most respondents worked in enterprises, reliance on MS Project might not be so surprising. But the fact that it remains the project management software of choice for so many small businesses? That begs a series of additional questions.

The Client’s Always Right (?)

Data is no substitute for human insights. So, I asked two project managers who work in small and midsize businesses (SMBs) why they’re still using Microsoft Project. Despite the fact that I interviewed them separately – and they don’t know each other – there were several similarities between their answers. Both project managers:

  • Use Microsoft Project to manage projects in the healthcare industry;
  • Have shopped for alternatives to Microsoft Project;
  • Are “very likely” to switch project management software in 2017;

Which still leaves the question: Why use Microsoft Project at all?

“As the company grew, the size of our projects grew as well,” explains Sarah Meerschaert, PMP – Project Manager at CenTrak.  “What could once be managed in Excel and Trello is now far too complex. Additionally, there’s a sense of seriousness to Project. Our clients feel their project is in good hands when they see a Gantt chart.”

Cerila Gailliard, PMP, CSM – a project management consultant and former Project Manager at Xerox – also uses Microsoft Project. Like Meerschaert, her main reason relates to client expectations.

“Clients are purchasing and managing their projects through Microsoft Project,” Gailliard told me. “In order to be collaborative, we use the same software as our clients.”

In short, both project managers use Microsoft Project relative to what their clients want. This answer makes sense, especially since both PMs have used the tool for years. Yet both PMs also shared that they’ve researched alternatives to Microsoft Project and are “very likely” to switch software in 2017. Don’t they worry about their clients’ reactions?

“Yes, I would expect my clients to use it,” Gailliard answered when asked if she will expect her clients to use her new software of choice (SmartSheet). “Of course, I would have to explain the benefits of using this project management software compared to what they are using. It will also expose them to other project management software out on the market. I see it as a plus.”

Meerschaert was less specific about which software her project team will switch to. But, like Gailliard, she emphasized perceived benefits of switching.

“We’d love to find a more user-friendly solution for our project manager’s sanity,” she said. “We’re also always on the lookout that for something that makes it easier for project team members to view the schedule without either (a) having a MS Project licenses, or (b) having to PDF the schedule.

“In the R&D tech world, we’re always on the lookout for the newest and best tools. Every bit of increased productivity reduces time to market.”

The Year Ahead

GetApp’s research on the project management software industry yielded some additional insights:

  • Task management (12 percent) and collaboration management (11 percent) are the most common project management software features that users believe are currently missing.
  • Two thirds of project managers (66 percent) are open to switching project management software within the next year.

To recap, project managers who work in SMBs still rely heavily on Microsoft Project – even though data shows that there are stronger alternatives for small businesses. This is, at least in part, due to Microsoft Project’s longevity as a tool and its perceived legacy among project clients.

That said, these project managers are also open to switching software in 2017 – regardless of what their clients might think. That leaves the final question: which sort of software are they most likely to choose?

An analysis by Capterra leaves us several clues. For our purposes, their most relevant prediction is that nontraditional project management tools will gain market share. Instead of the industry-specific project management software that I expected to find, we will see a rise in cloud-based collaboration apps – like Slack and Jive – being used for project management.

If GetApp’s project management research reinforced one thing, it’s the fact that familiarity wins. Whether we’re discussing clients who “get” Microsoft Project or small teams for whom Slack is second nature, people use what they’re comfortable with. No software tool will meet every user’s needs, nor should we expect this. The challenge is when project teams are so nervous about investing in new software that they stick with the familiar – even when it’s a poor fit for their needs.

We’ll be sure to track the rise (or not) of collaboration apps for project management. Slack’s initial goal was to get users out of email. Is 2017 the year it will get users out of Project?

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo covers trends in the project management, finance, and accounting software industries for GetApp, a Gartner Digital Markets company. She focuses her research on strategies and tools to help small and midsize businesses create unique value.

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