It might sound counterintuitive at first, but universities work in the same way as companies do. They aren’t anymore the medieval scholar guilds they used to be. But morphed into fully fledged corporations with top-down management, a dedicated HR and marketing department, and even offices and program extensions abroad.
As a result, they engage in regular business activities like recruiting top-talented staff, developing partnerships, and pitching their offer in creative ways to attract the brightest students.
This doesn’t make them immune to risks though. On the contrary, they face an ever-changing regulatory system, funding cuts, and competition from other international university programs. Briefly, a complex and dynamic environment that demands focus on the university’s mission without being distracted by ongoing affairs.
So how do you navigate such complexity? The answer is: through technology.
Image by Thomas Leuthard
Why is project management software so important?
Most universities streamline their processes through an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. This is a set of integrated applications that tackle different parts of an organization. They’re great when it comes to automating back-office tasks, managing a limited amount of resources, and supervising the overall finances.
The problem with them is that often they’re too complex, not user-friendly at all, and require extensive training. Using a suite of different applications might confuse users, placing a burden on them from the start. As a result, communication becomes inconsistent and things get out of control quite fast, rendering ERPs impractical. Not to mention their price tag and the fact that you need a dedicated team of specialists to set them up and handle the ongoing maintenance. How does this spell out? Overheads, overheads everywhere.
The tide is changing though in the favor of Project Management platforms. That’s because they’re much more flexible and cater directly to the end users – administrative staff, professors, and students alike – not only to the management board.
Students can collaborate and share lecture notes with other colleagues even when they’re not in the same classroom. Professors have the possibility to schedule their lesson plans in advance. Meanwhile, the marketing department is able to communicate with other departments in a clear manner and get a better grip of their work in terms of deadlines and resources available – all from the same place.
Fortunately, this is possible at a fraction of how much an ERP would cost, sometimes even for free. The best part is that their learning curve is quite low since the majority of them have intuitive user interfaces and dedicated onboarding specialists. These can help you throughout the implementation phase and later on as well.
Criteria for choosing a project management platform
Let’s have a look at the 4 key factors to consider when choosing a project management platform:
The tool’s main characteristics should be top of your mind when it comes to decision making. Talk with the head of each department, professors, and to student union members to map out their needs. Do this while keeping in mind your management requirements. Then, try to meet them halfway. Even tilt the balance in their favor since they’re the ones that keep the university running.
Hint: You’re aiming for an easy to use solution that’s packed with advanced features.
The platform in itself should be able to deal with large-scale projects that span across 1 year+ timelines and include the following main features:
1. Task management – Since projects are like big puzzles composed of smaller pieces, it’s vital to coordinate each and every task to complete the project on time and on budget. You should be able to:
- Create task lists that include activities with a description to define the conditions under which they need to be completed
- Assign tasks to the appropriate team members, professors, and students
- Set task time budgets, deadlines, and due date alerts
- Add files at a task level to keep all the work in a context
- Get email notifications when somebody completes a task or changes its status
2. Planning – Creating tasks and assigning them to the corresponding users is not enough. Projects require planning so you can oversee their progress and make the necessary adjustments on the go. The Gantt Chart is the best tool in this case as they can allow you to:
- See the duration of each task against the project timeline
- Set dependencies between tasks, showing which ones you need to complete before others can start
- Check the percentage of hours worked from the total allocated task or project budget
- Determine the critical path, i.e. the shortest possible time to complete a project
3. Resource scheduling – Indeed, planning offers you a breakdown of all the project items and their duration, as well as how they relate to each other. But you still don’t get a breakdown on the number of hours spent by a person for a given activity. For this, you might want to resort to a resource scheduler that enables you to:
- Book schedules in advance and specify how many hours someone should work for a particular task, on any given day
- Get a bird’s eye view of your colleagues’ schedules so you can avoid unnecessary communication about who’s available for work or not
- See who’s overbooked or underbooked and change their schedule accordingly
- Add days off (for summer breaks and other non-working holidays)
4. Collaboration – Complex projects tend to deal with a high volume of paperwork that needs to be available for the whole team. A project management platform can act as a storage hub for administrative staff members and students to access and retrieve important project or coursework documents. Ideally, it should allow comments or other forms of real-time communication. You can do this either at a task level, to keep all the information in context, or at a project level, if you wish to start a new discussion. This dramatically reduces email threads and unnecessary back-and-forth meddlings.
5. Time tracking – Not for students, but for the administrative staff of each department. It’s best to use a platform that allows you to track your time against a budget and set time budget alerts, eliminating guesstimates. It might be pesky at times, but your colleagues will notice that it can help them stay on track with their work.
Other features of interest are proofing and approval or file versioning. Beware though: although useful in certain cases, these only add an extra layer of complexity to the app.
It might not be such an issue since project management platforms cost less than ERP systems, but bear in mind that they have different pricing models. Some might charge a flat or recurring fee for a pre-set number of users. Others go for a seat based model with access to different feature tiers.
Your goal is to search for transparency around the pricing model to see if there are any limitations when it comes to the number of users, features, or others. Most of them offer discounts for universities, so be sure to check their Terms & Conditions page too. Also, consider your internal costs and think about how much money you’ll save in terms of hours worked and productivity.
Ease of use
Nothing is ever just black and white, so we’re going to refrain from talking about user interface design principles. Instead, think about your staff and their habits. How computer literate are they? What does their daily workflow look like? Is it fast-paced or do they just need a simple spreadsheet-like breakdown of what’s on their plate for the day? This will help you choose a platform that brings clarity to every workplace and classroom, one that is consistent and intuitive at the same time.
Word-of-mouth advice should be your first way to go. Find out what people from other universities and educational institutions have to say about the tool. Ask them about the size of their departments, how much time it took them to transition to the new software, and whether or not it adds value to their work. If you can’t find anyone, then refer to user reviews from independent platforms like Capterra or G2 Crowd. Pay special attention to people with similar workflows and organizational charts to your university.
Now that we’ve defined the criteria, let’s look at the benefits of using a project management platform. We broke them down into the groups of users such a solution is most likely to be impact: the marketing department, professors, and students.
Marketing department benefits
Every top university has a resourceful marketing department that aims to attract attention from their audiences through their publishing strategies. If you think about the nature of their activities, they tend to resemble an agency as they:
- write content to promote their programs,
- develop email campaigns to reach different audiences,
- print ads, posters, and brochures for events,
- engage with their followers in person or online through social media.
And they’d better be masters at these, given the ever-rising tuition fees and competition from other universities.
A project management platform can help the marketing department gain more control over their work. By having a detailed list of tasks with a description on how to complete them, their assigned users, and an allocated time budget and a deadline, the team knows right from the start what to do to get the job done. Requirements are straightforward. This means they can focus more on deliverables and their timeline.
Another benefit is increased visibility. The resource scheduler allows users to have a quick peek at their individual schedules, offering a tunnel-like view into the tasks they should work on daily. This adds an extra element of mindfulness to the whole experience. It also removes unproductive status meetings with the head of the department or other colleagues. Marketing specialists, web designers, and copywriters alike can come at the office, see what’s on their plate, then start to work.
If they need to communicate with each other on specific topics, they can either comment on a task level to keep the activity-related details in context or start a new discussion in a separate thread. Even in the built-in chat, if there is one.
Do they need a specific document? Let them grab it from the platform’s common project files area and drop it on their desktops. No need to email someone or create a new task to request it. Collaboration happens in real-time, which reduces the workload significantly. Who knows, maybe you won’t even need that marketing coordinator anymore.
Tracking your time though yields the most benefits in terms of productivity. Keeping a detailed record of all time entries helps you – as the head of the marketing department – define more accurate estimates for the upcoming projects. This translates into a stress-free working environment where expectations are clearly set among all parties. Clients and other departments know when a project should be done. At the same time, the marketing staff will gain perspective on how efficiently they’re spending their time on certain activities.
A simple task list used by a university’s marketing department
Professors have tedious schedules. They often have to switch between buildings to teach different lectures, collaborate with colleagues from other departments on joint projects, or correct exams and papers. All while conducting their own research. Work-life balance gets rocky, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
By using a project management platform, professors can once again achieve peace of mind. They can schedule courses for each individual subject in advance, even for the whole semester, and maintain timetables in one place. No more missed meetings or lectures. The system reminds them whenever an important milestone is approaching.
When it comes to collaborating with students, they can add resources, notes, and papers to create the course curricula, then share it with their classes. The progress of each student against specific assignments can be monitored individually, while questions can be answered on the spot when they’re most needed. In parallel, professors can also start separate brainstorm sessions or discussions around specific homework. The result? More enjoyable courses and lectures that facilitate the overall learning process.
The same principle applies when working with colleagues from other departments. As a professor, you can say goodbye to messages you sent to the wrong recipients in the past. Assign the corresponding colleague to your projects and lectures, then continue with your work knowing that your information was shared with the right people.
A Kanban board used by a professor to assign tasks to his students
Students attend a high number of lectures to meet the required credits quota. This means they need to take notes and pile-up on resources they can lose. A project management platform can act as a virtual manager that organizes this mess. They can access all the important files from one single place, without having to call their friends or message them about borrowing their notes.
If you’re a student, you can also collaborate with the whole classroom, even when you’re not physically there, comment on your colleague’s work, or upload files to let them know about the progress of your assignments. The majority of platforms are cloud-based. This gives you remote access to it as long as you connect them to the Internet.
The best part is that you can take your work with you, provided that the platform supports mobile devices. This is ideal in case you need to check course details before a class or have some spare time while commuting to work on your chores.
Files shared by students through a project management app
Of course, there are also deans, researchers, and fundraisers who are part of the academic life. This creates more touch points among the members of a university that need to be efficiently managed to breed excellence and form a well-oiled working system.
If you’re part of an educational institution, try out project management platforms to see how you can improve the daily lives of your students, professors, and academic departments. After all, they’re the advocates of your university and ultimately of your brand.
Bonus: Check out our latest article to find a list of the best universities that offer project management courses.
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