This month’s Postbag question comes in from Aideen Gibson, a learning designer at Falmouth University.
What is your preferred option for managing projects/tasks which are quite large and have a lot of people involved? Do you use Basecamp, Asana, Trello or any such tools? If so, would you recommend this approach?
To help answer this, we went to two of our ALTNI committee members. Dr Helen Dixon is Digital Transformation Programme Manager at Queen’s University Belfast, and Andy Jaffrey is Head of the Office for Digital Learning at Ulster University.
Andy: This is a really interesting question. Historically I was a huge fan of Basecamp for web development projects and we started using that for larger research projects within the University. It has worked very well particularly for projects without a formal project management structure. I have found that it is the most inclusive tool, with the lowest attrition for the widest group of people. The pricing structure has made the tool less accessible for HE but it would often be my recommended choice when we are asked for advice.
We do enjoy working with and learning from our commercial partners and we are currently participating in a project that uses SmartSheet. The UI, as a project participant, could not be more simple and is excellent for managing tasks. I have increasingly seen our commercial partners move towards products that start with simple to-do lists in a spreadsheet-style layout but provide much richer functionality that can be introduced as users become more comfortable. Our other largest partner is using Excel within Sharepoint and I do not think it is a particularly bad solution as the project manager communicates effectively and has a structured set of weekly meetings.
Our own team uses JIRA for managing tickets and distributing tasks amongst the more technical members of the team. Culturally we have struggled to bring less technical colleagues into projects when using this platform but we could not manage tasks without it as a team. It is an essential part of the workstreams we use when launching new tools and technologies to 33,000 users.
Increasingly I like the idea of integrated tools rather than adding an additional tool to the mix
For wider team project planning and management we have been using MS Teams extensively during the Pandemic, not just for project communication but for task allocation and documentation. Increasingly I like the idea of integrated tools rather than adding an additional tool to the mix.
Like everything we do, the people are the most important part of any project and having a dedicated Project Manager is instrumental. In a current live project the same tools (Smartsheet) are being used by a new person but the communication style is different and arguably less effective. Our internal projects rarely have a dedicated PM and therefore tools like Teams allow us to share that load, collaborate and collaborate in less structured ways. I would be loathed to introduce any different software without dedicated PM resource and embarrassingly we have many empty project shells in a various project management platforms from historical enthusiasm around a particular toolset.
Helen: At Queen’s University we are increasingly using Microsoft Teams to manage our projects. Our documentation is mainly comprised of Word documents, along with Excel spreadsheets for project plans and budgets, which can easily be created and managed within Teams. Other features like Whiteboard, OneNote and Forms can also be added as tabs within the Teams site, along with a range of add-ins such as Trello and Jira.
At Queen’s University we are increasingly using Microsoft Teams to manage our projects.
Some of the benefits I’ve found of using Teams over project management software are:
Keep project documents together – we have a separate Teams site for each major project with Channels being used for workstreams or smaller projects, where appropriate. This allows us to keep all our project documentation together, using folders to create a file structure and making sure the project team can easily access and collaborate on files.
Plan and track tasks – the Planner feature in Office (now known as Tasks by Planner and To Do) can be used as a handy project plan or RAID log to track risks, actions, issues, and decisions. Items are allocated to a project team member who receive notifications and reminders that they have actions. As actions are completed or issues resolved the Planner can be updated and the Chart view used to show a status summary of each bucket.
Make communication easier – projects require a lot of meetings which can easily be scheduled using the Calendar. During calls it is easy to share documents or the Whiteboard tool can be used for brainstorming. The Chat feature is also really popular, reducing the need for emails and allowing people to respond with a ‘thumbs up’ or other emoji.
Teams helps us make project management simpler and more collaborative.
Everyone can access it – as Teams is part of Office 365, all University staff have access to it and are increasingly familiar with it. We can also add external consultants to the Teams site. This helps us make project management simpler and more collaborative. The mobile app also means you can receive notifications, respond to messages and keep up to date with your projects when you’re on the go!
Join the discussion
What is your experience of managing or participating in projects? Do you have any good or bad experiences with project management or productivity software? Join the conversation in the comments below.