5 awesome project management tools for small and medium accounting firms
Do you ever pause to wonder whether you are managing accounting projects in an optimal way?
Heavyweight accounting firms often need to use robust, organization-wide enterprise resource planning (ERP) project management software that can be cost-prohibitive but ultimately gets the job done for these large, global organizations.
For small and medium-sized accounting firms that don’t need or can’t afford such sweeping software, things are different. Unless you have very small, occasional accounting projects or engagements, chances are your small or medium accounting firm has some formalized project management approach supported by technology. That can range anywhere from a patchwork of ubiquitous software (think Microsoft Office) to affordable dedicated project management tools, of which there are many.
These kinds of tools accommodate project management in accounting to varying degrees. For example, one might require the user to manually create timelines and define critical paths while others help automate these essential components of effective project management.
Practice Management vs. Project Management
At this point it is important to clarify that in this post we are discussing project management software, not practice management software. Practice management software, which CaseWare offers, is for professional accountants who need to communicate with clients, manage workflows, and automate manual processes. The kinds of project management tools covered here are more advanced task management tools that can be used in almost any industry, including accounting. We will be covering practice management software for accounting in a forthcoming post.
If you’re not using project management software in your practice or want to move to a new solution, here are five of the best basic tools on the market -- and some of them are free to use for a limited number of users. But before we get to those five dedicated project management tools, let’s first acknowledge what we all probably know: in a pinch, you can always start with the reliable productivity tools you are already familiar with.
Productivity Software and Communications Tools
How do we manage accounting projects when we have an informal or undefined approach? In most cases we use a combination of productivity suites like Microsoft Office or G Suite, email clients like Outlook and Gmail, and chat apps like Slack to cover all the fundamentals of our accounting projects.
It’s an inelegant approach. It can cover the project management basics of stakeholder management, scoping, scheduling, and planning, but in a very manual way, falling short of the many alternatives available.
For example, take basic task management, an essential part of project management. Let’s say I am trying to scope out an accounting project and define its timeline. I need Bill to acquire key project documents from a client to achieve a project milestone.
In this scenario, we don’t have visibility of Bill’s accounting project workload so we can’t easily determine his availability. When we do manage to communicate with him and manually figure it out, we can better define project scope. But wait. Whether we’ve scoped the project in Excel or Powerpoint (as many still do), we have to manually adjust many moving parts to shift the project to a realistic timeline.
This scenario probably sounds familiar to many of us, but it’s alarming we still do it when there is an array of free and affordable options that do most of this time-consuming manual work for you. With streamlined project management software, the scenario above looks very different. When we need to define Bill’s capacity, we view his schedule and incorporate that availability into our automatically updated project plan, all within a scheduling tool.
To that end, there are a multitude of options out there, but we’ve selected five project management tools for small and medium accounting firms. They’re listed alphabetically to indicate no order of preference. To be honest, these five tools all do the job adequately. It is more a matter of user and team preference, so we encourage you to experiment with all of the free versions before deciding on which path you commit to.
Asana is the ideal tool for accountants and project managers who crave control and configurability. Compared to other solutions, Asana really hands the user the keys and provides supporting project management architecture that can be easily adapted to suit a team’s established workflows and patterns.
Asana shines when it comes to communication and, critically, general project management. Asana teams can virtually eliminate email by using the tool’s seamless in-app communication architecture to discuss project status and details within individual projects and tasks.
Asana’s projects default to a task list-based format, but can be viewable as calendars or boards. Dependencies and milestones can be easily defined, making scoping and scheduling a breeze -- once your team has fully configured the system, it should be mentioned.
The tool has even been criticized for offering too much functionality, which can overwhelm basic users. But for the organized, enterprising project manager, this supposed weakness is its biggest advantage. It’s supported by an elegant UI, incidental functionality (it can be used for meeting agendas and party planning), and fun and charming extras (yes, rainbow unicorns might fly across the screen when key projects are completed.)
Where Asana excels at task management, workflows, and team communication, Basecamp’s strength is in keeping all project timelines, documents, and other materials in one place. Asana relies on integrations with third-party tools (e.g., Slack, Docs, Jira, Google Calendar, etc.) while Basecamp strives to be a one-stop-shop for managing projects as well as supporting materials.
For example, Basecamp provides a tool for editing, revising, and commenting on a document within the tool itself. Other project management tools would rely on external tools for managing most of the documents, files, and communications surrounding a project or engagement. In Basecamp, users working together on a project can search for, share, and collaborate on all of the stuff related to the project within the tool.
This is where choice is determined by team preference: do you want a highly centralized project management application where all accounting project requirements and communications live in the same space, or do you want a decentralized tool that streamlines task management, workflows, and communications, but relies on integrations with third parties to manage all of the components of a project.
Basecamp has been a great success for many companies, but since it attempts to centralize all project elements under one roof, it’s important to determine if this is right for your team or not. Basecamp may have a document editor within the tool, but many users find themselves relying on a patchwork of other software (the usual suspects of Slack, Office, G Drive, etc.) to work on the meat of projects.
Monday is the project management tool for accountants who are visual thinkers and love a simple, seamless user experience. It’s decluttered, low-training, simple user interface is something new years can quickly gain command of and, over time, master.
In terms of its task management capabilities, the tool is evocative of Asana but some exploring will reveal its true strength lies in its visualization capabilities. Data from all of its “boards” can be visualized in many different ways within the application and used to view the progress of tasks. The operative term here is “different ways”. You’ll find more reporting depth in Asana, but you’ll find more creative ways to display it in Monday.
Monday is very focused on columns, which are the building blocks of any project or task. In terms of integrations, Monday is more or less on par with Asana, and both continue to offer new and improved integration options. Monday features excellent map integrations, but these can be much more relevant to some industries (like real estate) than others (like accounting), where locations aren’t as pertinent to project progress.
It’s important to know that Monday and Asana are very similar. It might be a little more intuitive to, say, enter a task in Asana. Tasks in Monday will be very well-described since many fields have to be filled out before a task can be created, whereas in Asana tasks can have fewer details, but are effortless to create. With these two tools, it comes down to a very fine level of detail, so it is worth exploring free trials and demos of both products closely.
Trello’s wheelhouse is its tried-and-true, card-based approach to project management. It uses “lists” (not to be confused with Asana’s lists) which are essentially columns (not to be confused with Monday’s columns) that define a card’s place within a project timeline. It uses a visual approach that those familiar with the agile development methodology will be familiar with.
In the context of accounting, Trello users would move cards between lists along a board in the same way post-it notes would be used to illustrate the progress of a project on a whiteboard. For example, you might have a column on the far left titled “Engagements” or “Backlog” with cards that can be moved to other lists like “Under Review” and “Completed”. It’s a simple and intuitive interface that fresh users can dive into. However, that’s where the effortless familiarity stops. Those new to Trello will have to learn new terminology that isn’t exactly universal: you’ll quickly learn that filter cards, power-ups, and stickers are very important, so you and your team will have to navigate a project ecosystem that isn’t natural to everyone.
Trello offers a lot of potential to firms looking for a simple approach, but anyone seeking more completeness and configurability will soon find themselves a little limited by Trello’s extents, especially in the context of accounting. That’s not to say it can’t work for your small or medium accounting practice, but it underlines the importance of a detailed needs assessment before you adopt a solution. If you think you will need depth in the long term, consider a more robust solution (many of which offer card-like views as well anyway). However, if you are simply trying to keep projects on schedule, this could be a great tool for you.
You might already be familiar with Zoho from their products in, well, just about every line of business. That’s an exaggeration, but as a company, Zoho’s scope is sweeping: it’s a CRM, inventory management, recruiting, social media, bookkeeping, and beyond, all in one. The company has gradually expanded its massive product library since 2005 and its ambitions today are lofty: Zoho One is marketed as nothing less than an operating system within which all of its products can work together within one centralized platform.
At over 50 million global users, Zoho has definitely managed to get a lot of small and medium business on board with its many applications, but what about Zoho Projects, its project management app?
Zoho Projects’ ‘Portal’ stores all information related to an accounting project. As with other tools covered here, milestones can be easily applied to help determine project progress. Milestones have tasks and subtasks, not unlike Asana, and users can gain a quick at-a-glance assessment of project status.
Zoho Projects edges out its competitors in some regards: it has gamification elements to help motivate users to complete projects; it features a spreadsheet view to present accounting projects and project components in relatable ways; and its reporting and analytics capabilities may just be the strongest out there when it comes to this tier of project management tools.
When evaluating Zoho Projects as a possible accounting project management tool, it is important to first consider the expansiveness of Zoho itself. The company’s product offering is impressively wide, but is it commensurately deep? In trying to be the one-stop-shop, everything-to-everyone business, where is it making sacrifices in product quality and comprehensiveness? On the other hand, Zoho’s pervasiveness could be a blessing for accounting firms that already use some of its products: for example, a firm that already uses Zoho’s bookkeeping, accounting, and billing tools might be very wise to use Zoho’s project management solution given it will already be familiar to many users easily integrated into existing processes.
These basic project management tools are indispensable to accounting firms around the world and help accountants get a handle on all the moving parts of a project, saving time and maximizing efficiency in the process.
The tools mentioned here are only five entries in a crowded space and many more are worthy of consideration, all of which are varying degrees of great. CaseWare itself even offers practice management tools that accounting firms can use in tandem with or independently of the project management tools here.
The bottom line is that you must find the tool that works best for your team and can easily map to existing processes or standardize poorly defined processes. The huge plus here is that most of these options provide free trials or have free basic versions for a limited amount of users. There’s no harm in trying a few to see what sticks.