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Isn’t Project just like Excel, or like any other Office product?

By: Collin Quiring

This seems to be a question, or more often, a phrase stated as a true comment, quite a bit lately.  I just saw a post by somebody that is trying to get a job and he said to the recruiter that he understood how Project worked (he thinks this because he uses Outlook, Word, Excel and some other Microsoft applications).  He was posting a “quick, tell me in 5 minutes what I need to know” question.  He didn’t think that Project could be that much different than other Microsoft software and felt that a few minutes of internet sound bites would teach him everything he needed to know.

I think that this line of thinking comes from a number of origins.  Part of it is that Microsoft used to market Project as if it were a part of Office that “any user can just use”.  Another large part is the many users just use Project to hold a list of tasks and they never use the majority of the features and functions available to Project.  (And, I am just talking about Project Standard or Project Professional and NOT referring to the even more powerful Project Server empowered tools.)  And, many organizations just purchase technological tools and don’t train their users.  So, you end up with users who find Project as a tool available to them and they use it based on their needs.  I think I have said it before, but it bears repeating, that I think one of the reasons that so many users are frustrated with Project and think that it doesn’t work right is because of the complexity of the tool and their lack of training or knowledge about it.  When people think that Project is just like Excel or some other tool they know and they try to use Project they usually get pretty annoyed fairly quickly.  There are many background processes and calculations that drastically affect the way the tool works.  (Some of those background settings and default options are wrong for the way businesses use the tool, and that frustrates users more – but that is a separate post.)

So, let me answer the question for you – Project is NOT like Excel.  It is not like any other Microsoft application.  Yes, Project has some familiar Microsoft interface features.  Yes, it has some functionality like Excel but that doesn’t make it Excel.  It has so many options, variables and levels of capability that are designed for scheduling that it is unique.  Excel is a spreadsheet program designed to calculate numbers (at its basic level).  You wouldn’t write a letter in Excel, you would use Word.  Why?  Because they are different tools for different purposes!  The same holds for Project and Excel – they are different tools with different purposes.  And yes, I know that there are people who successfully use Excel to track lists of tasks for projects – but that doesn’t make it a scheduling tool.  (Tanya posted a short note about this about almost two years ago as well in her post – )

The point of this short post is that just because you know one, or two, or twenty, Microsoft applications or tools you can’t claim that you know Project.  And, no, they aren’t all the same – they are designed for different purposes and different needs.  Project is one of those tools that requires time to learn and to learn the levels of complexity that is has available.  Just as it takes time to become a Power User in Excel rather than just a “regular” user.  And, the more you learn, the more valuable that knowledge is to you and to others.  I have talked in other posts about certification but as a strong believer in certifications I always hope that if somebody is claiming to be an expert in a tool they should be able to prove it with more than just saying that since they know one Microsoft tool, they know them all.


2 Responses to “ Isn’t Project just like Excel, or like any other Office product? ”

  1. saffordblack says:

    I’ve found that most people managing projects in Excel are either unfamiliar with Project (due to IT departments not buying it) or are frustrated with Project’s behind-the-scenes calculations that can often create unexpected results in even the most simple project schedule.

    Here at Chronicle Graphics, we find a lot of people who use Excel as a substitute for Microsoft Project. In fact, there are so many people out there managing projects in Excel, that we released an Excel edition of our OnePager timeline/Gantt chart software specifically for these users a few years ago. Prior to that, OnePager had only created Gantt charts from Microsoft Project.

    Excel can be useful for keeping track of rough project schedules, but we do find that once cost, resourcing, and other PMBOK elements come into play, Project definitely begins to serve its purpose, and PMs start to make the switch.

    My question is how many people are using Project as it’s intended versus only scratching the surface of its features, and therefore not seeing significant differences from Excel.

  2. admin says:

    HI saffordblack,
    I think that the majority of Project users are only scratching the surface. In my experience it appears that most organizations only are concerned about certain data sets and so the people using Project only learn enough to get the data that they need to report on.

    While that might be good for that purpose, I think that it also means that people don’t tend to dive deeper into all the abilities of Project. I also think that, in the case of Excel, people get comfortable over time because they understand how it works so they just keep using it for “everything” – whether for scheduling, data reporting (instead of Access or SQL or something) or for any of a myriad of uses that Excel isn’t originally intended to do.


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