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If you've ever juggled tasks, deadlines, and team coordination using just an Excel spreadsheet, you know how challenging it can be. Enter project management software. PM tools can make things easier by helping you streamline your workflows and boost collaboration. In this article, we put project management software vs. Excel in a 12-round match to show why specialized software reigns supreme for managing your projects efficiently.

Project Management Software vs Excel: The Ultimate Showdown

To give you a full picture of the differences between dedicated project management software and your everyday Excel spreadsheet, I examined them across various phases and actions of project management to determine which emerges as the ultimate winner.

Let’s assume the project you need to manage is fairly complex to ensure the comparison between the two feels fair.

Round 1: Project Planning

project management software vs excel round 1 graphics

During the project planning process, you as the project manager will be consistently adding tasks, reassigning them, and changing the due date. You may also need to refer back to the project charter, statement of work, and other key documents to build out the project plan.

In Microsoft Excel, this is a more manual process, so it’s harder to execute. You’ll need to add rows and copy and paste a lot as you move around tasks and deadlines. You’ll also have to go into your email or a separate folder on your computer to reference documents.

On the other hand, project management software allows you to drag and drop different tasks and change the date with a single click. Some tools, like Asana, allow you to store key documents in a project overview tab.

This tab may also include the project team, creative briefs, key milestones, and other important documents, making it a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to understand what the project is and who will be working on it.

Round 2: Tracking Progress

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While it is possible to track project progress in either Excel or project management software, there is a huge difference in how this is accomplished.

In Excel, you have a few options. You can add a status cell for each task, showing which are completed, in progress, or not yet due. The due date cell will tell you if a task is overdue, but you'll need to manually check to see if a task is incomplete or past its due date. To see the project timeline, you can create and share a Gantt chart to help visualize the project phases, specific tasks, and overall timing.

In project management software, there are almost endless ways to visualize project progress. You can use a list, Kanban board, timeline, or even a dashboard to understand overall project progress and see if tasks are past due. Additionally, the advanced reporting tools and analytics in PM software can offer deeper insights into project performance, helping project managers make informed decisions and adjust plans proactively. With these capabilities, project management software outshines Excel in tracking and managing projects efficiently.

project management software vs excel kanban board screenshot
Here’s what your Kanban board might look like in Jira.
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Round 3: Project Scheduling

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When it comes to project scheduling, Excel’s capabilities are pretty limited. You can use the tool to create a schedule by adding a column for start/end date or using status to determine if a task is in progress, not started yet, blocked, or paused. But keeping it up to date manually can be a cumbersome and manual process.

This is where project management software shines. It can automatically update the project schedule as tasks are marked complete, send alerts or notifications about tasks that are upcoming or behind schedule, and show dependencies in an easy-to-understand way.

Round 4: Managing Resources

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While you can technically use Excel for resource management, it can get cumbersome quickly if you have a bigger team. To manage resources in Excel, you must build your whole project plan with a task on each line. You then need to add a column for the date each task will take place and assign each task to a team member with an estimated duration. You can use a formula to add up the time every team member is booked each day or week. You will have an understanding of their capacity, which can help you see how each team member or project resource is being utilized and whether or not they can take on additional work.

While this may not sound too bad, if you’re working for an agency or in an organization that runs a lot of projects simultaneously, it can take loads of time. You'll need to get your project plans set up and create formulas that run across projects to show capacity and give you the data you need to manage resources effectively.

So, while Excel can help you do this, a project management tool will help you do it better and faster. Some tools can even use past project data to help you predict how long things will take and what resources you will need. 

With AI, this capability has gotten even better. Tools like Workamajig and Workfront can even help you provide comprehensive project information (including billing) across your projects.

So, for efficiency's sake, I will give this round to project management software.

Round 5: Usability

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Spoiler alert: Let’s call this round a tie. On one hand, project management software can come with a bit of a learning curve, but a lot of popular tools like Asana and are designed to be pretty intuitive. If all a project team member needs to do is some simple task management to update their progress, they can learn to do this in mere minutes.

But, by the time most of us enter the working world, we have some practical experience with Microsoft Excel or its distant cousin, Google Sheets. So we can figure out—with a little internet help—how to leverage its functionality to manage our task lists and overall projects.

Round 6: Time Tracking

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You can use Excel for time tracking, but it will be quite manual. You will need a line for each employee or contractor to add their time for each task assignment and which project they worked on, as well as a way to add up all time worked by each person for each time period.

So, if you want to streamline your time tracking, the better choice is a project management tool with advanced features that allow for team members to track time by starting a timer when they begin a specific task. This allows time tracking to happen automatically, eliminating the need for additional data entry.

project management software vs excel asana screenshot
Asana, along with most other popular project management tools, includes built-in time tracking.

Round 7: Reporting 

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Can you create project status reports with fancy graphs and charts in Excel? Yes. Is there an easier way to create project status reports that can be updated with real-time data and your notes at the end of each week? Absolutely, there is. 

Project management software has status updates and reporting built directly into its user experience, so anyone can create and send a status update without needing to become an expert in Excel charts and formulas.

project management software vs excel asana status update screenshot
Here’s how status updates look in Asana.

Round 8: Team Collaboration

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This “round” can be summed up in two words—version control. While Google Sheets may do this slightly better than Excel, getting out of a spreadsheet and into proper project management software will increase your team collaboration by a hundredfold.

Not only will you be able to have multiple users updating the software at the same time, but you’ll also be able to see how project and resource timelines overlap, giving you a bird’s eye visualization of your entire project portfolio.

Round 9: Communication

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Since project management software often falls under the broader category of collaboration tools, it is no surprise that it can help with team and stakeholder communication. 

Many project management software programs have functionality that allows users to add task descriptions and comments and even handle approvals directly in the same space where users track tasks. This allows project management software to become a one-stop shop for team members to find the information they’re looking for to get their work done.

So, you might be wondering if you can communicate through Excel. The answer is yes, but it’s certainly not going to be as elegant as it is in a project management software tool designed for this purpose. In order to communicate through Excel, you’ll need to add columns for comments. You can also include links to documents, but it’s going to be much harder to follow than comments and links in a real project management tool.

project management software vs excel asana project communication screenshot
An example of some project communications taking place in Asana.

Round 10: Automation

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When it comes to automation, Excel is limited. Per their documentation, “To automate a repetitive task, you can record a macro with the Macro Recorder in Microsoft Excel. Imagine you have dates in random formats, and you want to apply a single format to all of them. A macro can do that for you. You can record a macro applying the format you want and then replay the macro whenever needed.”

Another important thing to know is that macros only run on the cells within range, making it more challenging to use them across multiple projects or sheets.

This is where the project management software really has Excel pinned to the mat. You can automate workflows and other project management tasks that you do repeatedly. Asana and many other tools offer workflow builders to help work move automatically through the project management process, as well as add tasks and subtasks when a milestone is reached.

Round 11: Integrations

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This is another round that goes to project management software. While you can integrate Excel with some other software tools, you have many more options when using project management software.

One note on this topic: Many PM tools integrate with Excel, making it easy to upgrade from the spreadsheet life. You can simply take your Excel sheet and format it so that it can be uploaded directly into your new PM tool. In order to do this, check the documentation of the software you’re upgrading to.

Round 12: Customization

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Let’s call this round a tie! Both project management software and Excel can be customized based on your needs.

You can create custom fields to help you analyze your data in the most popular project management tools or add columns in Excel that function in a similar way.

project management software vs excel asana custom field options screenshot
Here are some of the custom field options in Asana.

Is Project Management Software Or Excel Better?

The short answer: even when it comes to lower-complexity projects, project management software is the better choice. And when you move into more complex projects, more time-consuming data analysis, and advanced project management techniques, you’re definitely going to be better served by a PM tool.

These tools have been designed to support the project life cycle, store deliverables and project documents, display the roadmap, manage task dependencies, and track resource allocation.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your project management software, don’t panic. A ton of training is available to help you get up to speed. You can even find tutorials and short videos for most project management tools on YouTube.

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Marissa Taffer
By Marissa Taffer

Marissa Taffer, PMP, A-CSM is the founder and president of M. Taffer Consulting. In her consulting practice, she helps organizations with project management processes and tools. She also serves as a fractional project manager supporting digital agencies, marketing departments, and other consultancies.