Moving Beyond MS Project: Smartsheet Brings Project Plans to the Cloud

By: Misha Milshtein

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As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been looking for a suitable PMO solution for our organization. But even before I began my evaluation frenzy, a wonderful, hidden jewel came to my attention. Before long, I was almost (but not completely) in love with Smartsheet.

Before I justify my positive reaction to this software package, let me explain what I was looking for: Quite simply, we are an organization that works and lives by rigid timelines, and we’re predictably dominated by Microsoft Project. Managing more than 50 projects at any given time, consisting of different deliverables, waves, or phases, is not a small task for any organization, especially when it comes to information sharing and maintenance. The constant need to update volatile timelines and share information with our clients and the internal team, while keeping up with demands and meeting every deadline, makes a huge impact on day-to-day operations. The ability to have important timeline information at your fingertips is a necessity.

At the same time, MS Project plans are not easily shared, especially in the absence of the heavy and overpriced MS Project Server, which is not something that makes business or economic sense for our organization. So, a proper cloud-based solution is in order; preferably one that is not limited to the hosting of project plans, can also carry other types of functional load, and be integrated with other service and productivity tools. With this in mind, Smartsheet certainly looks like a formidable alternative. Moreover, for Google Apps users, it comes in a helpful flavor of Smartsheet for Google Apps. This is important because, right off the bat, this tool is integrated with GMail, Calendar, Contacts, universal navigation, and — most importantly — single sign-on, eliminating the need to keep up with login information for different tools.

These are all conveniences, but here is what Smartsheet really brings to the table that got me excited:
  • All project plans are online.
  • Project plans created by a given user, or shared with a given user, are accessible from a single, tabbed interface.
  • Project plans are searchable.
  • Project plans can be interlinked, allowing dates from one plan to drive the dates of others.
  • Summary project plans can be generated (that is, I can combine all my project summaries in a single project plan).
  • Project reports can be generated on multiple projects (for example, Show me all payment milestones that are due in the next two weeks).
  • Automatic notifications can be sent when dates are modified.
  • Due dates can trigger alerts.
  • Support for Google docs and offline docs attachments.
Out of this wonderful list of benefits, I would like to specifically concentrate on the first one: all project plans are online. Many tools allow you to do this, but the reason Smartsheet stood out for me is because of the well-executed implementation of the MS Project schema. This means that 1) the learning curve for those used to MS Project interface should be minimal, and 2) it performs well.

The ability to interlink the timelines, search project plans, and generate many different types of reports on the fly is priceless. For example, in my experiments I imported several project plans that belong to the same overall program (curriculum), and a few others that belong to the same client. I then created a single summary sheet, referencing the key rows from all project plans, creating a high-level view of all that I needed to keep my eye on. Basically, this is no different than inter-referencing cells of a MS Excel® spreadsheet, which leads me to another interesting point: Smartsheet is really a combination of Project and a spreadsheet, allowing not only date-tracking and manipulations, but also a limited use of formulas for calculations.

Speaking of referencing… Naturally, this means that when you update your project plan, you automatically update all sheets that are referencing the source. With Smartsheet, the source spreadsheet can easily be opened from any referencing cell, which provides true ease of navigation, and the ability to quickly open and dig into different timelines from a single summary sheet.

The reports are great, too, though they do take a while to run. That’s understandable; this is an online search on multiple documents. On the plus side, a user can have an unlimited number of reports and a fair degree of flexibility in data-flow design.

All this and many other features are available for a very reasonable SaaS-based price model (at the time of this writing, $49.95/mo. for the first 3 users, $9.95/mo. for each additional user), making this software package a good candidate for consideration if your project plan needs match the description. So why did we decide to pass on Smartsheet after such a great review?

Well, for a few reasons, but perhaps the most important is that this tool comes with a major gap for us: it does not solve our resourcing needs, and that became a deal breaker. First, Smartsheet allows only one resource per task, thus severely limiting the ability to accurately assign resources to project cycles. Second, there is no solution for resource workload charts, meaning that yet another tool would be required for us to accurately forecast the resource needs.

In sum, this package is not a complete PMO solution, and should not be perceived as such, but it may do wonders for a small- or medium-sized team looking to solve a specific problem by centralizing and inter-referencing project plans, and move away from a client-based MS Project paradigm. It integrates with Google Apps, and has a 5-star rating on the Google Apps Marketplace (349 reviewers as of October 2013). And, most importantly, Smartsheet is well-designed, and offers good online performance.

4 responses to Moving Beyond MS Project: Smartsheet Brings Project Plans to the Cloud

  1. Hi Mischa – Since you last reviewed Smartsheet, we’ve added Resource Management. I think it sounds like it’d be a great fit for you / Sweetrush as you manage team allocations. Send me a note and I’ll send you details! Would love your thoughts on it.
    Best to you,
    Jodi
    jodi.sorensen@smartsheet.com

  2. Misha,

    I had the same as you – allocating resources, and being able to quickly see where a resource was under or overbooked. Odd how my peeps do not like it when I book them for 60+ hour work weeks!! LOL. Anyway, I recently started using Team Gantt, which allows me to see cumulatively the hours I have allocated to my resources, across all projects. It also allows me to assign more than one resource to a task, and to tailor the proportion of that task per resource (e.g. for a 12 hour task w/2 resources I may allocate 8 hours to resource A spread across 2 days and 4 hours to resource B on one day). Also, it integrates nicely with Basecamp, and I am exploring ways to set up templates so I can take best advantage of the integration.

    Anne Cornwell

    • Anne, thank you for your comment.

      We went with Celoxis, which also has quite a detailed resourcing approach, in addition to other nice features. Our team is growing rapidly and the issue of accurate resource allocation is as pressing as ever, so this integration comes very timely.

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