Detailed Review of Microsoft Project Online and Pro

Samurai captures dragon in the clouds

Microsoft’s Project Plan 3 is an integrated solution combining Project Online (cloud) and Project Professional (desktop app). It has one foot in the clouds for collaboration and one foot firmly on the mountaintop of a professional scheduling desktop app. It is a powerful combination for roping in those difficult projects.

Microsoft Project Plan 3 is reviewed against 200+ project management software requirements on a downloadable spreadsheet. Project is scored overall and for each of the ten project management processes. This post provides a summary of the key strengths and weaknesses for each of the processes.

Download Microsoft Project Scoring Spreadsheet

Click here to add the Microsoft Project Excel spreadsheet to your basket and continue reading. Visit the basket page to complete the download.

Microsoft Project Summary Findings

Microsoft Project is the default project management tool for professional project managers. The exceptions are:

  • Large and complex construction projects, such as, construction of a nuclear power plant. Then the default is Primavera.
  • Professional services firm’s projects. In most cases, these firms should consider a comprehensive PSA tool, such as, Kantata, Certinia or Microsoft Dynamics 365 Project Operations.

Note the key condition: this is a tool for professional project managers. It is not intuitive and is not a quickly implemented cloud-based tool like Asana, Wrike or Smartsheets. It will require a Microsoft administrator to set it up and maintain it. Therefore, you should consider other tools if:

  • You are just looking for a simple task list tool and don’t need powerful scheduling functionality.
  • You don’t have professional project managers who know Project Professional. Or you don’t want to have to train your staff on Project Professional.
  • You are not currently a Microsoft customer. The solution is designed to integrate with other Microsoft tools, such as, SharePoint and Teams. Therefore, it won’t make much sense if you are using other office or collaboration tools.

Microsoft has several project management offerings. This is a review of the integrated Project Online and Project Professional solutions sold as Microsoft Project Plan 3. Plan 3 includes three solutions: Project for the Web, Online and Professional. I did not include Project for the Web in this review because it is an independent tool that does not integrate with Online or Professional, so I will review it in a separate post. The other offerings which I hope to review in the future are:

  • Microsoft Planner Plan 1 – A simple task list tool. Basically, Project Online without Project Professional.
  • Microsoft Project Plan 5 – Plan 3 with added functionality:
    • Advanced resource management
    • Submission and management of project ideas
  • Dynamics 365 Project Operations – Similar to a professional services automation (PSA) tool that integrates project management with sales, marketing and finance functions.
  • On-Premise Project Solutions (non-cloud)
    • Project Standard 2021 – Basically a lite version of Project Professional without resource management or the ability to synch with other tools for collaboration.
    • Project Professional 2021 – Basically, the same desktop scheduler provided in Project Plan 3 but with a perpetual license rather than a subscription.
    • Project Server – Basically, Plan 5 but without timesheet functionality.

I’ve split the scoring into three results. The ‘combined’ score evaluates an integration solution of Project Online and Project Professional. The scores for Project Online and Project Professional provide guidance on the functionality available if you only implement one of the solutions.

CombinedProject OnlineProject Professional
Total Score49%33%37%
Communications Management5%5%5%
Cost Management41%20%34%
Integration Management36%30%27%
Procurement Management13%0%13%
Quality Management17%0%17%
Resource Management60%60%17%
Risk Management100%100%0%
Schedule Management73%41%69%
Scope Management25%25%25%
Stakeholder Management8%8%8%

Microsoft Project Plan 3 Pricing

Plan 3 is $30/month. You will need a license for each project manager creating project schedules and every resource manager responsible for assigning people to projects. This license also includes Power Automate for building workflows and SharePoint for creating project sites.

In order to collaborate on projects you will also need the following licenses:

  • To view projects and to view/edit tasks users will need either a Microsoft 365 ($6 – $22/user/month depending upon the plan) or Microsoft Project Plan 1 license ($10/user/month).
  • The reporting is limited in Plan 3 so you probably will need Power BI license for users that will create reports ($10 – $20/user/month depending upon the plan).

So a company with one project manager (also report writer), one Salesforce administrator and 20 project resources would have an annual spend of about $3,000. Microsoft Project Pricing.

Scoring Methodology

I installed the free trial of Plan 3 and then created some sample projects in Project Professional which were synched with Project Online. I spent hours trying to synch the Project Online project to a SharePoint project site but was unable to ever make this work. I tested most of the functionality listed on the evaluation spreadsheet myself, but also reviewed Microsoft demos and support documentation.

I structured the analysis around the Project Management Institute’s (PMI)© project management process. This is outlined in the PM Book of Knowledge (PMBOK)©. First, I listed the project management processes and then the activities within each process. Finally, I developed a list of requirements related to each of the activities. The list of requirements is based upon my thirty years of project management experience and experience evaluating project management tools for clients. When I come across novel functionality in the software I’m evaluating I add it to the requirements list. Of course, I’m sure I missed some requirements and welcome any suggestions.

I gave all processes and requirements equal weights, but you can adjust the scoring weights in the spreadsheet to suit your needs. Each requirement was rated as either:

  • Yes – As Is – Meaning, the requirement is met with out-of-the-box functionality. This rating is awarded four points.
  • Yes – With Configuration – Meaning the requirement can be met with minimal configuration or no-code updates. Since, Salesforce is highly configurable I used this rating for simple things like changing picklist values, adding a field to an existing data object, creating a report, etc. This rating is awarded two points.
  • No – Not Available or Requires Customization – Meaning the requirement cannot be met without significant investment of time or money. I assigned this rating if custom coding would be required, or a new custom data object, or a new custom flow. This rating is awarded zero points.

Finally, the scoring spreadsheet totaled the ratings by process to show how the apps compare by process. Therefore, you can assess the apps based on which processes are the most important to you.

Here is the spreadsheet used to score the app:

Download Microsoft Project Scoring Spreadsheet

Click here to download the Microsoft Project spreadsheet for $19.99.

Communications Management

Microsoft Project is primarily a scheduling and resource management tool. Like most project management tools it doesn’t have any functionality targeting change management or communication.

Cost Management

Project has good functionality for budgeting costs and tracking actuals. However, it lacks invoicing functionality a professional services firm would require. For invoicing functionality, research Dynamics 365 Project Operations.

Strength: Report Budget Manually or as Rollup

You can set a manual budget value early in the project when plans are not finalized. You can then later rollup the costs from the individual tasks when the project is fully planned.

Strength: Overtime Rates

Project is one of the rare tools that supports overtime rates for resources.

Weakness: No Invoicing Functionality

While you can define a resource’s price and cost per hour and then total the planned and actual cost, you cannot actually create and track invoices. You’ll have to feed the project data to another invoicing system.

Weakness: No Project-Specific Rate Cards

Rate cards created for a resource are enterprise wide. You can create five different rate cards for a resource, however you can’t create rate cards specific to an individual project.

Integration Management

I’m very underwhelmed with Project’s reporting and dashboards. I believe the intent is to build the reports and dashboards in Power BI, but that is a separate license.

It does have very good project issue and risk management functionality. However, be aware that all of this functionality is contained on SharePoint so you need to synch Project Online to a SharePoint project site.

Strength: Issues and Risks

You can log issue and risk details. You can also assign tasks to the issues or risks. However, all of this functionality resides in the SharePoint project site as add-on apps. The SharePoint project site is synched to Project Online.

Weakness: Reporting and Dashboards

While the reporting in Project Professional for the project manager’s use is excellent, the collaborative reporting you would need in a PMO or for management is lacking. You’ll need to build these capabilities in Power BI and post the reports or links on the SharePoint project site which is synched to Project Online.

Procurement Management

No functionality to speak of other than planning and tracking material/labor costs in Project Professional.

Quality Management

No testing functionality.

Resource Management

Project Online allows the creation of enterprise resources that are shared across projects. The resources are scheduled within Project Professional. The enterprise resource utilization and demand can be tracked across all the projects.

Strength: Submit Resource Requests

Project managers can submit resource needs to a resource manager to fill.

Weakness: Resource Planning by Skill

Project lacks good functionality to plan resource needs by skill. You will have to configure project to support skill planning, and then it won’t be as good as some of the dedicated PSA tools.

Weakness: Resource Allocation Timeline

The basic functionality is available to view a resource’s allocation and availability on a timeline. However, the functionality is lacking when compared to the dedicated PSA tools.

Risk Management

All the risk management functionality you should require. Be aware that all of this functionality resides in a SharePoint addon app, on the SharePoint project site that is synch to the Project Online project.

Schedule Management

All the great project scheduling functionality resides in Project Professional. You can build schedules in Project Online but the functionality is limited and the user interface is clumsy.

Project Professional has all the scheduling functionality anyone should ever need.

Strength: Full Dependency and Constraints

Project Professional supports all dependency types (finish/start, finish/finish, etc.) and constraints (Must Start On, Must Finish On, etc.). Very few of the cloud-based scheduling and PSA tools support all dependency types. Even fewer support all the constraint types.

Strength: Effort-Based Scheduling and Load Leveling

Almost none of the cloud-based and PSA tools support effort-based scheduling. This means the end date is determined by the amount of work required and the number of resources assigned. For example, if you have 40 hours of work and assign one person, it will take 5 days. If you assign two people it will take 2.5 days.

Load leveling is an automated scheduling tool where you tell Project to schedule all the tasks so resources are not over allocated. For example, if you have a fixed duration task with 40 hours of work and have a single resource assigned who is also assigned another 40 hour task at the same time, you’ll have an over allocation of 40 hours. When you run the load leveling, Project will move the task end dates out a week so the resource has 80 hours to complete 80 hours of work.

Strength: Reschedule Based on Actual Finish Date

Few of the cloud-based tools support rescheduling dependent tasks based on the actual finish date. Most tools only have one finish date (no planned and actual), and may also assume the finish date is the day the task is marked complete.

Project tracks both the planned and actual date and then will re-schedule the dependent tasks based upon the actual finish date.

Weakness: No Tasks Checklists

Project does not support creating a checklist for an individual task, like some of the other tools. This can be helpful in providing guidance to the users and competing the overall project plan simpler.

Weakness: Coordination with External Team Members

Project does not have the ability to assign a task to an external resource and allow the external resource to update the task without a Microsoft license.

Scope Management

No scope management functionality worth mentioning.

Stakeholder Management

No stakeholder management functionality worth mentioning.

In Conclusion

Microsoft Project Plan 3 should be on your shortlist of possible project management tools if:

  • You have professional project managers that need full scheduling functionality.
  • You are already a Microsoft customer.

You should skip Microsoft Project if:

  • You only need a simply task management tool.
  • You are scheduling very large construction projects.
  • You are a professional services firm that needs advanced resource management and invoicing capabilities.



Additional References

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