Microsoft has a long history of providing on-premises and desktop-based project management software. With the advent of Office 365, Microsoft progressively moved more and more of the project capabilities to the cloud with new additions announced regularly, such as the recent announcement of Office 365 Planner. This article covers all of the project management tools and features available in Office 365. 

You’ll notice a significant overlap in capabilities with the various components. As always, choosing the right tools for your organization will have to be based on the tool's capabilities and your business needs.

Excel 2013

According to an InformationWeek Analytics survey, 82 percent of surveyed companies use Microsoft Excel for managing projects. The tabular cell-based data entry of Excel make it a natural for project management. With it, project managers can easily create sophisticated formulas for managing workloads and calculating latency and slack. Microsoft introduced SharePoint integration with Excel several years ago and the Excel integration capabilities in SharePoint Online and Office 365 is getting tighter.  

Project Templates

Several project management templates are available out of the box with Excel 2013. When you create a new Excel document you can choose one of the Project Templates or go to the Microsoft Office site to download one of the templates from the community.

Selecting a project management template is easy:

  • Open Excel 2013
  • Type "Project Management" in the Search for Online Templates search bar
  • Select the template that works for you

Excel Project Templates

Sharing the Project Plan

You have a few options to share your Excel project plan after it's created.

Sharing Excel Project Plan

Invite People

  • Save the Project Plan to OneDrive and invite your team to view the plan, or
  • Use the save option to save the plan to OneDrive. Remember, OneDrive allows you to share the document with your team members or external users
  • This will allow you to update the plan while giving the team a location to see the progress.

Send Project Plan via an attachment in Email

  • This is not the optimal approach as you’re essentially creating multiple copies of the plan, making it difficult to manage over time

Send Abode PDF for Sharing and Commenting via an email attachment

  • Again, this approach may be difficult to manage over time as it will have multiple copies of the plan in circulation

Present Online

  • Create a Skype for Business meeting and share the Project Plan

Send by Instant Message

  • Open a Skype for Business session with a team member and attaches the Project Plan to the conversation

Using Excel 2013 as a Project Management tool is pretty simple and will give you basic task management capabilities. 

Microsoft Project

Microsoft Project 2013 allows project managers to focus on task management with dependencies, milestones, resource scheduling and loading, Gantt charting, and detailed resource reporting. The desktop tool has gone through several iterations over the years. Although Microsoft Project Desktop is not part of the Office 365 Office suite of tools, the 2013 version enhanced the collaboration integration into the platform. You can purchase Project Pro for Office 365, which gives you the Microsoft Project desktop application, but more on that later.

Syncing MS Project with SharePoint Online

MS Project offers similar options for sharing plans with your team as the Excel options described above. It also gives the option to synchronize your plan to a SharePoint online site. With this, you now have access to all of the built-in collaboration capabilities in SharePoint to enhance your project delivery capabilities.

To Sync your project plan, click on the save, save as, or share menu on the back panel.

syncing a project with Sharepoint

Again, you have options when saving a project plan:

  • Sites: Sync your plan with a SharePoint document library or folder. You choose the location where the plan will be saved
  • OneDrive: Save the project plan to a OneDrive location. Remember: your team members will have to have Project on their desktop to open and view the plan
  • Computer: Save the Project Plan to a location on your local pc or a shared drive
  • Sync with SharePoint: Sync your project plan with a new SharePoint site (the site will be created for you) or select an existing SharePoint site

Syncing the plan to a new site

When you select sync with SharePoint, Project will create the new site for you at the address you provide. Remember — you’ll need permissions to create sites in SharePoint to make this work. If you don’t have the rights, have your Admin create the site for you (make sure they give you the correct permissions to the site they create) and then save the plan to the existing site.

Syncing plan to a new site

The image below is the synchronized plan in the new SharePoint Site (I had permissions to create the site):

synchronized plan in the new sharepoint site

You’ll notice that the Project Plan created a Project Site in SharePoint and uploaded all of the tasks from the plan including the phases, tasks and resources.

You can continue to sync your project plan with the SharePoint site which provides your team with just one place to update tasks, manage project deliverables, and collaborate on the project.

Project Sites in SharePoint Online

Project Sites have been around since SharePoint 2010. Project Template combines project-focused SharePoint Web Parts into a cohesive site template that allows team collaboration using SharePoint. Microsoft has evolved the Office 365 Project Site template with a new task view, integration with Microsoft Project, integration with Outlook tasks and calendars, and other project-specific capabilities.

What You Get with Project Site

The SharePoint 2013 Project site gives you a more comprehensive way of tracking a project's progress:

  • Tasks List allows for capturing actions, to-dos and managing deadlines
  • Project Calendar tracks important meetings and events
  • Project Summary on the homepage keeps the team updated on the tasks and timeline
  • Project Documents stores project related documents in a centralized location — these documents are indexed for search
  • Notes provides the team with a OneNote Online experience where you can capture project related documentation and co-edit documents stored in OneNote

Integrating Tasks with Outlook

By syncing your Project task list with Outlook, you can manage all of your tasks in a single environment.

To sync your tasks with Outlook:

  • Click on the Task List on the SharePoint Site
  • Click on the List menu item
    • The list menu will expand on the Ribbon
  • Click on Connect to Outlook

sync your tasks with outlook

Connect to Outlook will cause SharePoint to open Outlook. You’ll get the following message:

connect sharepoint task list to outlook

You can click on Yes or select Advanced for further details how tasks will be synchronized with your Outlook environment.

Project tasks can now be managed from the Outlook Client.

manage project tasks from Outlook Client

Remember that you are syncing your tasks with your Outlook Client (Exchange). While this is a two way sync, you have to initiate it as a user through the SharePoint interface. Project Managers can’t set up the Sync for you.

Microsoft Project Integration

Along with the Outlook integration, SharePoint 2013 allows you to sync your task list to Microsoft Project. This feature updates tasks in the Microsoft Project document you created and saved to SharePoint.

Office 365 Project Online

Project Online: Project Server has been around on-premises for many years. Many IT Pros spent countless nights installing, integrating and configuring the beastly platform (myself included). The Project Portfolio Management suite has time management and budget capabilities built in, giving large organizations a more robust platform for managing a portfolio of projects with budgetary rollup reporting across the enterprise. When Microsoft started moving platforms to the cloud, Project Online was a natural fit.

Project Web App: This member of the Office Web Apps family is basically Microsoft Project served through the browser. It complements the web based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Skype for Business.

Project Pro for Office 365: A subscription-based version of Project Professional 2013, Project Pro is essentially Microsoft Project that you pay for on a per-month/per-year basis (as opposed to one you buy with a perpetual license).

Project Online with Project Pro for Office 365: The name says it all. The package is designed for organizations that need full project management capabilities on the desktop, but also want the anywhere access of the cloud.

Office 365 Planner

Microsoft’s announcement of Office 365 Planner will give project teams a more visual approach to managing tasks and projects. Imagine Delve, SharePoint and Project combined into one tool and you have Planner.

Planner will give teams a completely different way of organizing and managing tasks that uses a “Board” with “Cards” to show who the task is assigned to and the status of the task visually.

Additionally, Planner allows teams to share files, chat about what they're working on, or get updates on the overall progress of the project. Users can easily see which tasks they are responsible for in “My Tasks” and can identify other team members through their pictures. By clicking on a team members image, you can initiate a Skype call or otherwise interact with them. The “Charts” provide an interactive view that shows people’s progress against deadlines. 

Office 365 Planner

Planner integrates with Office 365 Groups, so conversations in Planner will be available in Outlook and Outlook Groups Mobile Apps.

planner integrated with office 365 groups

Office files can be organized in the Planner Site. Attach Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents to a “Card,” then click on the “Card” to edit the document. These documents are available offline because the document is stored in a SharePoint Online Document Library.

What the Future Holds

With Office 365, Microsoft wants to provide users multiple tools and capabilities to choose from. Microsoft will continue to enhance and add project management capabilities across the Office 365 platform going forward. Project management is a perfect use case for collaboration, and with Office 365, organizations small and large can choose the tools and the approach to project management that meets their needs.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Robert Higgins