Technology and Software

Project management in Excel

Do you really need a project management tool, or is Excel enough? Get all the benefits and disadvantages of using Excel as a professional project management system.

15 Oct 2012 | 2 min read
Søren Lund
Do you need input on how you mature and develop your company? As founder of TimeLog, and with more than 20 years of experience within business development, Søren Lund leads the field when it comes to how PSA software can optimise work processes and develop the business for consultancies.

Project management, project scheduling, project planning … The process goes by many names, but it’s all the same thing really: safely and securely seeing a project to port preferably within an agreed scope, deadline and budget, and keeping both customer and financial department happy.

Today, a plethora of tools offer professional project management: PPM, PRINCE2, SCRUM and the waterfall model, to name a few. Whatever you choose, you will always need to manage company workflows and deliveries efficiently. On the other hand, the type of system you choose can make a world of difference. Enter controversial solution: Excel as a project management tool.

10 benefits: Excel for project management

Many companies have always used and therefore prefer Excel. Excel has some clear advantages, especially for minor projects or single events:

  • Comes with Office package. Nearly all companies use Microsoft Office, which includes Excel. Most would argue that this is the most important reason to explain why many companies still use Excel for project management purposes.
  • Adaptable. Excel can be adapted to meet specific company needs and reporting requirements.
  • Local data. All data are located locally, and thus accessible for all employees via e.g. a shared drive.
  • Analyses. Pivot and customise data as needed, and illustrate using a wide variety of matrices and charts.
  • At your fingertips. No need to extract data from external systems; all invoice data are right at your fingertips.
  • Standardised. If all employees share an hourly rate, or for in-house projects, Excel is exceedingly easy to use for generating and illustrating sum totals.
  • Easy copying. Data are easily copied – but this is also one of the greatest flaws where major projects are concerned.
  • Basic knowledge. Most employees have a general understanding of how Excel works, greatly evening out the learning curve.
  • Analysis tools. Excel displays relations that weren’t previously obvious, e.g. using pivot tables and advanced look-up features. For analysis purposes, it’s a strong application.
  • Presentation. Using Excel, reporting is generally hassle-free.

15 disadvantages: why Excel project management isn’t built to last

Excel has a wide array of benefits, notably with regard to analysis and reporting features. Consultancy firms in particular need precise and detailed data, e.g. in connection with varying hourly rates management of fixed prices and time and material. Often, several projects run simultaneously for many different customers.

In these connections, Excel’s shortcomings, particularly in terms of quickly illustrating key figures for generating project- or employee-based invoicing percentages, tend to come to the fore. This is especially true for cases where the same employee has different hourly rates depending on the type of project! As such, Excel is perfect for tasks such as analyses, but falls short when it comes to proper project management. The main reasons are:

  • Flexibility. Changing e.g. hourly rates or project tasks can prove troublesome. Likewise, project tasks repeated across tabs or spreadsheets can be problematic. Who’s responsible? And how do you avoid mistakes?
  • Data security. Building on the former, if formulas are deleted and time registrations forgotten, who’s responsible for data security?
  • Imprecise time registration. Time registration is not entirely accurate if not made as the event takes place. In Excel, time registration will always be entered subject to any bias which normally follows data reconstruction of any kind. This not only affects invoicing percentage, it also affects the precision of the time registration. Ten minutes of imprecise time registration is no big deal on the whole, but if it occurs more than three times, it’s half an hour that can affect invoicing percentage and, ultimately, the end result of the project in question if several employees do the same. Can you afford to lose five hours’ worth of invoicing?
  • Long formulas. If each tab in an Excel spreadsheet holds one project, you can easily end up with huge files containing more than 50 tabs. Sum totals are impressive, mile-long formulas – which all too often create problems as even the smallest mistakes are repeated in the spreadsheet.
  • Non-standardised. No matter how the template is set up, one single standardised template to ensure complete consistency throughout the spreadsheets is utopian. People are not machines, which is why spreadsheets can take highly diverse forms depending on the employee’s experience, skills and problem-solving abilities.
  • Data errors. How are these rectified? Needless to say, companies have to invest time and resources on keeping track of data and time registrations – and whose time and resources? The project manager? The resource coordinator? Management? Furthermore, recreating data is often difficult once when the spreadsheet is closed – until the next employee opens it and discovers a data error.
  • No mobility. Time registration, budget amendments, etc. are not easily portable. How many people on the go open a huge file on their phone and track their time using the tiny columns?
  • Not meant for project management. In short, Excel used to be a fine application for calculations and analyses. Later on, it was expanded with advanced reporting features. However, it will never rival professional tools in their ability to support quick changes to project tasks, hourly rates, complex fixed-price projects and invoicing.
  • Complex. Presupposes extensive knowledge on designing efficient models and templates. Often, this event will be handled by the employee with the most project management or information technology experience. But what happens if this employee leaves the company?
  • Less control, less overview. Let’s be honest: projects are complex in nature. And something entirely different from accounts.
  • The clear view. What has been invoiced, booked or entered into the accounts? How do you get all three things to come together and create an effective exchange of data between spreadsheets? And how do you prevent exorbitant amounts of time being spent on retrieving these data, particularly across several spreadsheets?
  • Standardised reports for your industry. There is no standardised way for Excel to retrieve data across tasks, projects and employees, offering a complete package for time registration, hourly rates, etc. for invoicing.
  • Level of completion. Many professional systems offer a view of open and closed tasks. In Excel, a series of formulas are needed to display task statuses and whether the project is on track. Do you have the resources to maintain these data?
  • Who owns this spreadsheet? Again, if several data versions exist, Excel is ineffective. Which spreadsheet is the right one? And how would you manage several possible versions of the spreadsheet on your shared drive? Who’s responsible for ensuring that only one spreadsheet containing all time registrations exists?
  • Best practice benefits. Using a standardised system, you can customise it to meet your needs and streamline your project management workflows. Often, business systems have developed over many years and are based on target-user best practices. In other words, you build on the experience of others, thereby saving resources.


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“But we usually …”

There are many arguments for sticking with Excel. Then again, there are just as many arguments against sticking with it. At TimeLog, we’ve spoken with many companies who value Excel as a project management tool. Often, these companies decline to make the switch for the following reasons:

  • Tradition. “We’ve always used Excel.”
  • Internal disagreements. “Switching systems will result in too much of an internal power struggle, and we simply don’t have the resources for that at the moment.”
  • No knowledge of the alternatives. Many companies who use Excel or other ”homemade” systems don’t have the resources to research the possibilities and benefits offered by professional systems.
  • “It’s much too expensive.” Granted, compared to Excel, which comes with the Office package, a professional project management system costs money. On the other hand, how much money is spent in-house correcting data and fault-proofing in Excel that might otherwise have been spent on invoicing? Over time, Excel proves to be an administrative burden, which slowly becomes part of the daily grind. But consider how many of these hours might have been spent running your business instead? Also, time registration using Excel is often inadequate and imprecise. For instance, try calculating your monthly invoicing percentage based on a mere extra half hour a week per employee. For 10 employees, that’s five hours or an extra 20 hours a month. Even though Excel is included in the Office package, it can prove a costly solution.
  • No time for implementation. Employees need to work faster and faster. Effective implementation of an external system can prove costly. In the long run, however, it may prove one of the best investments you ever made, as many features are cleared or become far less time-consuming and manageable.
  • No system-responsible employee acting as supporter and super-user. Small companies often have very limited resources. As a result, switching to a new system may seem insurmountable, as the responsibility is usually vested in management or the CEO personally. And we all know the stress and long hours that go with being a small-company leader.

Whether you choose to continue using Excel or opt for a professional project management system such as TimeLog, considering where the majority of your project management resources is placed may well prove time well spent.

The pros and cons? How many half hours can you afford to lose due to imprecise time registration, provided it even meets the invoicing deadline? Imagine being able to analyse data, and consequently your company, using the same tool you use for time registration and project management instead of having to maintain data in Excel with all the uncertainties that go with it?

How many invoiceable hours can you afford to ignore?

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