What's the difference between project and programme management software?

What's the difference between project and programme management software?  For those new to this space they might appear to be the same thing.  They both offer the same kind of features: creating projects, assigning responsibilities to people and tracking if things get done or not.  However, when you look more closely the differences are quite significant and can play a big role in success or failure of the software as a tool to help you in your work.

In this post I'll look at the jobs that each type of software was designed to do and provide some suggestions to help decide which is best for your needs.

Project management software

This is a popular and well served area.   Take a look at AsanaClarizon and Basecamp.  These are just a few examples of project management software.  There are many more.  See Wikipedia for an exhaustive list and comparison.

Project management software (in most cases) is designed to be generic enough to help manage any type of project.  Software typically includes features like:  

  • Collaboration tools (ie blogs, wikis and other tools that let people share information and collaborate virtually)
  • Issue tracking (ie the option to log a problem, assign it to someone to resolve and track if and how it was resolved
  • Task scheduling (ie creating and assigning tasks to people on the project team)
  • Resource management and time tracking (ie who on the project team is doing what and how many hours have they spent doing it?)
  • Document management (ie option to upload files and organise them)
  • Workflow (ie option to specify that tasks require review or sign-off before they are closed)
  • User roles (ie option to limit who on the project team can see and do what)

While there are niche examples (like JIRA that focus on software development), most project management software is purposefully kept very generic.  It provides an un-structured space that you can fill up as you choose.

The focus is at the level of the project, the aim is to provide flexibility to project managers

As a project manager you can create tasks from your workplan and assign them to people on the project team.  As people complete their tasks they can typically attach relevant documents, make comments and importantly, track the time they spent doing the task.

What is it good at?

This is a great way to track and manage who is doing what in a project.  This kind of tool is particularly helpful if your project team is in different locations, as it brings all information together into one place.  It also helps avoid email overload, as project information no longer needs to be emailed around.

What is it not good at?

In my view project management software has three areas that make it un-suitable for managing and monitoring larger programmes.

First, it is designed to accomodate generic and adhoc processes.  This gives you an empty shell that you can fill with tasks, content and project members.  It's not designed to help you manage many projects that are each following a standardised set of steps where specific things must happen in a sequence.  While you could in theory create the same set of tasks and content for each project, there is no way to enforce rules about what must happen in what order.

Second, project management software is rarely designed to give you the big picture across many projects.  Since it aims to be flexible, it is also very difficult to define common parameters to track across all your projects.  Want to aggregate timesheets across all projects?  No problem.  Need to see which projects have not submitted monitoring data for Q2?  You'll have to review each project in turn to get the answer.

Third, project management software is not designed to help collect monitoring data.  While some options can create forms to collect data, they are not aimed at collecting data linked to project reporting periods.  Nor are there tools to analyse and aggregate this data.  This means that you also need monitoring and evaluation software.

Programme management software

Programme management software is an emerging area.  It's often also referred to as management information systems.  Until recently this has been the realm of larger programmes that have the budget to commission custom software that is built to their requirements.  Kwantu is changing this now with BetterData, a configurable platform that doesn't need any software developers to customise it.

Programme management software is typically configured for a specific (standardised) process.  It normally includes the following features: 

  • Workflow (tends to be more complex workflow that ensures that programme rules related to data quality and quality of activities are followed)
  • Escalation triggers (that specify circumstances in which a project should be flagged for review)
  • Custom forms (to collect management and monitoring data that is then linked to specific reporting periods)
  • User roles (ie option to limit who on the project team can see and do what)
  • Report building tools (to query data collected using the forms and aggregate it for analysis and learning)

Depending on the needs of the programme, it may also include:

  • Collaboration tools (ie blogs, wikis and other tools that let people share information and collaborate virtually)
  • Issue tracking (ie the option to log a problem, assign it to someone to resolve and track if and how it was resolved
  • Task scheduling (ie creating and assigning tasks to people on the project team)
  • Resource management and time tracking (ie who on the project team is doing what and how many hours have they spent doing it?)
  • Document management (ie option to upload files and organise them)

Programme management software covers the programme, project and activities.  It's designed to give the managers of large programmes the big picture, ensuring that the projects in the programme are being implemented well and on time.

The focus is at the level of the programme, the aim is to standardise activities across the programme

What is it good at?

Programmes face new problems as they begin to scale their activities.  When you're working on five sites you can rely on a strong team that communicates well.  Once your programme is working across twenty or more sites this approach starts to struggle.  By the time you're working across a hundred sites the programme can start to face serious problems.

In my experience this manifests itself in the following ways:

  • Programme managers have limited and poor quality information about the status of activities on each site.  It gets very hard to know what is happening (or not) where
  • Site level teams start doing things in different ways, resulting in more variation in implementation quality of your activities
  • Data quality suffers as it becomes harder to track which teams have or have not submitted data

Programme management software is designed to help address these challenges by introducing standardised workflows.  This ensures that the rules defined in your implementation and monitoring and evaluation plans are followed.  It also ensures that you can put in place one system to tackle both management and monitoring of your programme.

What is it not good at?

Programme management software can help you most when you know which activities you need to implement and how.  This is typically the case with tried and tested approaches that have been evaluated and shown to work.  If you're developing new types of interventions or are working at a smaller scale (say less then ten sites implementing the same type of approach) then you wont get the benefits of programme management software.

Which is best for me?

For me the decision comes down to scale and level of standardisation.  Project management software wins out when you need a flexible and adaptable tool to assign tasks and track their status.  However, if you're working at a larger scale then the ability to define standardised projects with clear rules is a major benefit.

This is most clear in terms of the types of questions you need software to help you answer.

Project management:

  • Has Elias completed the task assigned to him?
  • How much time are the team spending on the project?

Programme management: 

  • How many projects have completed the training step?
  • Has each project collected data on who took part in the training?

If you're interested to learn more about programme management software, you may find the following free guide useful.  It looks at how to standardise and document the processes in your programme.  This is an essential first step before implementing programme management software.  Click on the picture below to download the guide.