The arduous task of scheduling is the responsibility of the project manager. Scheduling involves estimating how long each project activity will take and utilizing those estimates to determine how much time the project will take. If a time requirement is written into the project requirements, the project manager will learn from the schedule how much slack time is available. If there is none, some tasks may need to be accelerated in order to meet the project’s timetable. For simple projects, scheduling can be done by hand using the Activity-in-the-Box or Activity-on-the-Arrow formats. More complicated projects will require the use of scheduling software to assist the project manager in assembling a schedule that is realistic and reasonable (Gido & Clements, 2009).
Spreadsheet applications, such as Microsoft Excel, give project managers the opportunity to automate some of the scheduling process. The tabular presentation of spreadsheet applications allows project managers to create columns for the major task scheduling information such as estimated duration, earliest start and finish dates, and latest start and finish dates. Additionally, the use of formulas reduces the amount of data entry that’s necessary as start and finish dates can be derived based on the output of other cells. Although Microsoft Excel does not include the ability to create Gantt charts to visualize project schedules, Jon Peltier (2008) and other programmers have developed methods for creating Gantt charts using Excel’s built in charting abilities. Generating these charts is probably outside the skill set of most project managers, but it is interesting as a proof of concept.
Applications like Microsoft Project are devoted strictly to the tasks related to managing projects. These applications feature highly developed tools that go beyond the abilities of spreadsheet applications in terms of project scheduling and schedule automation. Microsoft Project, for example, requires the project manager to enter each task manually and assign a task dependency and estimated duration. The dependency lets Microsoft Project know that the task being entered must follow one or more previous tasks. With this list of tasks and their associated dependencies and durations, Microsoft Project can automatically generate an optimized schedule (Microsoft, 2009). This schedule automation feature allows Microsoft Project to schedule highly complex projects that would overwhelm a project manager using Microsoft Excel.
Although Microsoft Excel is routinely outclassed by Microsoft Project, there are two circumstances where it outshines the competition. In relatively simple projects where all tasks are done parallel or in sequence, Microsoft Excel has the ability to ease data entry. If all tasks will happen at the same time, the start date is the same of all of them, and only the task description and duration need to be entered. If the tasks occur in sequence, the start data of the first task must be set, and then all following start dates can be automated using formulas that calculate dates based on the start date and duration of the previous task. When setting up a new project in Microsoft Project, the project manager must specify whether the project schedule will be derived based on a start date or finish date (Microsoft, 2009). Using additional columns in Microsoft Excel, the project manager can derive two distinct schedules based on start and finish date and utilizing the same task descriptions and durations.
There is one final tip for project managers using Microsoft Excel. Schedules can be derived using days elapsed since the project started or specific dates if the project start date is known. It is important to remember that adding days to dates will not, by default, take weekends into account. Therefore, the project schedule is likely to quickly fall behind unless the project team works seven days a week. Thankfully, Microsoft Excel provides the =WORKDAY() function to overcome this. This function will add days to dates and skip weekends. Additionally, it can skip holidays if provided with a list.
Gido, J., & Clements, J. P. (2009). Successful project management (4th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western.
Microsoft Corporation. (2009). Understanding scheduling in Microsoft Project 2002. Retrieved March 16, 2009.
Peltier, J. (2008). Advanced Gantt Charts in Microsoft Excel. Retrieved March 16, 2009.