Project Management & Planning Articles

5 Insightful Tools for Big Data Project Management

by Rachel Burger
Published on 15 November 2017

Want to take a simple project and make it super complicated?

Throw a bunch of data at it.

And I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill data found in mom and pop store accounting books or hidden in teachers' grade books. I mean census-level data, about millions of people. I'm talking about data that's way too big for spreadsheets, or even human comprehension.

And like any other tool in project management, big data, when used incorrectly, is damaging to any project if for no other reason than it adds a level of complexity. It's only when big data is used well that it's helpful.

What does research say about big data and project management?

One of the biggest questions about big data and project management is "how can big data be helpful?" Consider some of these research questions that have been aimed at answering that question:

  • What do lingual patterns on a team reveal about project cohesion and comprehension?
  • When is the best time to deliver good news? Bad? And how does timing effect project outcomes, if at all?
  • Where does QA fail to identify patterned mistakes? What microscopic errors are costing the company macroscopic dollars and cents?

In order to answer those questions, project managers have to turn to digital tools (largely business intelligence software) to help them assess their data-it's impossible to do manually. But is it worth the investment? Why should project managers care?

Consider PMPs Walter Ginevri and Marco Guerini's research for the Project Management Institute. They started off with a weird statistic about project management in the early millennium: while project failure technically stayed about the same between 2000 and 2010 (at about 24 percent), it dipped all the way down to 15 percent in 2004, creating a "U" shape over the course of the decade.

Caption: Project failure from 2000 to 2010

Why?

When Ginevri and Guerini investigated, they found that the perpetrator was simply digital complexity. They write, "We believe that the reason for this inversion of trend lies in the increase of uncertainty and complexity of the operation contexts that project, program, and portfolio managers must deal with."

As more firms invested in digital technology, ignorance about how to deal with all the emerging new tools ended up costing the international economy trillions of dollars.

Ginevri and Guerini argue that if ignorance is the cause of so much project failure, the answer is understanding. Their thesis argues that all the "stuff" project managers deem "extra" in a project, from chat logs to meeting minutes, contains essential information that can inform final outcomes. That means messing with big data and tools dedicated to revealing insights from those data sets.

Unfortunately, most project management software doesn't cover big data-those tools are typically concerned with tasks, dependencies, communication, and getting things done. They're not designed to interpret huge swaths of data. But there are tools that can interpret big data sets, and can provide actionable insights for project managers.

Enter business intelligence software for project managers.

Big data project management

If you're a project manager looking to get into big data-or are already a big data project manager-there are a few things that you should look for in your tool selection process.

The goal is to find tools-largely business intelligence tools-that can interpret big data sets for project managers. When researching, I reached out to a number of both project managers and business intelligence software vendors to determine what was most important to selecting the best big data interpretation tool for your business. Beyond cost, those features include:

  • Analytics: If you're not interested in the power of what business intelligence can tell you about your structured and/or unstructured data, you're probably reading the wrong article. You can learn more about traditional project management software here.
  • Data visualization: What good is data if you can't understand it? I've sifted through these options and required that they offer data visualization to its users.
  • Project dashboards: While some of the software on this list is technically for business intelligence while others were made with PMs in mind, let's make sure these tools can provide insight to project status.
  • Task management: While some big data tools offer task management, many don't. If you want to have an all-in-one integrated system, you'll want your team to be able to use your tool to keep track of their work so you can keep track of them.
  • User friendliness: Picking the right software is hard, but the change management involved in adopting that software is often harder. I've prioritized systems that require little to no coding knowledge, and have drag-and-drop user interfaces and sleek aesthetics.
  • Good reviews: No one wants to get excited about a cool new product only to discover it's a pricey kludge. All of these systems have at least a four-star rating and twenty reviews on GetApp's software marketplace.

Check out the five tools I've picked out below (arranged alphabetically). I used the same heuristics that I've laid out above, so that you can either use my top five selections for big data tools for project managers or do some research on your own.

Big data tools for project managers

1. Cyfe

Cyfe is a business intelligence system that can be customized into a complete project management tool. Project managers can implement dashboards optimized with project pipelines, project goals, tasks, and reports. That's not where Cyfe's real power comes in, though. Its value comes from its integrations.

Caption: Cyfe BI project management dashboard

Cyfe integrates with data from Salesforce, Basecamp, QuickBooks, and about fifty more common apps. Want to do a deep dive report into sales, tasks, and invoices? Done-that's no problem for Cyfe. The system can also report on major IT analytics, such as server loads and end-user engagement, using data from tools such as Moz and AWS.

Price: Free; upgrades start at $14 per month when paid annually

Mobile: Website is mobile optimized

2. Klipfolio

If you're looking to mish-mash your existing data sets to find new insights, Klipfolio may be your best bet. You can import data from common project management apps such as Asana, Basecamp, Jira, Freshdesk, Google Sheets, Podio, Toggl, and Trello into Klipfolio's proprietary data architecture, which allows you to create previously unavailable crosstabs, such as average revenue per "card" in a Kanban system or workplace engagement versus tasks completed.

Caption: Klipfolio BI PM dashboard

One of Klipfolio's standout features is that it allows users to share their information with third parties. If you need someone like a general manager or a client to look at your data, you can securely send the interactive information on the dashboard itself-no more lengthy PDFs that decision makers only read half of. And don't worry: your data is secure. Klipfolio offers ID and password encryption, HTTPs access privileges, hierarchy management, and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer).

Price: Starts at $17 a month when paid annually

Mobile: iOS | Android

3. Phocas

For the nontechnical among you who are looking for a big data tool for project managers, take a close look at Phocas. It's kind of like a wiki for all your business data-a wiki where you can get as granular as you like with your information, both graphically and numerically-to the point where it's Friday at 6 p.m. and you're not sure where the day went.

Caption: Phocas big data project management dashboard

Like the rest of the business intelligence software listed in this piece, Phocas is great for most industries. That said, they've taken a special interest in manufacturing, distribution, and retail (including automotive, building, HVAC, food and beverage, and so on). The tool is particularly good for product and inventory management, so if you're a small business owner or project manager who has a multidimensional job in one of those industries, Phocas is ideal. Plus, Phocas is robust enough to use as a project management tool of its own, complete with tool sets for budgeting, resource management, and project progress.

Price: Contact for more information

Mobile: Website is mobile optimized

4. Sisense

Oftentimes the toughest part of a project manager's job is dealing with task dependencies-especially if those dependencies are either unclear or based on estimates instead of real data. Sisense aims to solve that problem with easy-to-use dashboards and detective-like features that pull the guesswork out of a PM's job.

Caption: Sisense: Big data software for project managers

If you're looking for a BI tool to completely replace your project management software, you may do well with Sisense. In addition to interpreting your projects' complex data sets, project managers can also rely on Sisense for its Gantt and burndown charts. While not ideal for doling out tasks (and certainly not meant to be used as a primary communication tool), Sisense can take care of the analytics side of project management better than most other products on the market.

Price: Contact for more information

Mobile: iOS | Android

5. Tableau

When demarcating Tableau as a "Leader" among business intelligence tools, Gartner analysts write that it's an "intuitive visual-based exploration experience for business users to easily access, prepare and analyze their data without the need for coding," (Gartner research available to clients).

In other words, this "experience" of a business intelligence big data tool is phenomenal for project managers who want actionable data insights presented in a simple data visualization dashboard.

Caption: Tableau: Big data tool for project managers

Whether you're pulling data from SharePoint, Hadoop, QuickBooks, or any of the other hundreds of integrations Tableau offers, you can customize your dashboard to reflect project progress and success. The nicest thing about Tableau is that the system is almost entirely what-you-see-is-what-you-get and drag-and-drop, so there isn't a whole lot of onboarding required to pick up this robust application-which is great for both project managers and your teams.

Price: Starts at $500 per user per year (about $42 a month) for the Software as a Service version

Mobile: iOS | Android

How do you use big data for project management?

There are lots of other applications that can be used for big data for project management-including tools such as ElegantJ BI and Adaptive Insights-and way more ways to use your big data than what's listed here.

I'm curious: how do you use big data in your project management career? What tools do you use? What are the benefits of business intelligence for your company?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below!


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