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From the Egyptian pyramids to the Great Wall of China, the Hoover Dam, and even the iPhone, humanity's complex ventures throughout history have consistently highlighted the importance of structured project management. After all, as civilizations evolved and their projects grew in scope, so did the tools and techniques for organizing vast resources and labor. 

This brief history of project management software explores the various historical milestones of project management tools, tracking their evolution from rudimentary charts to sophisticated digital platforms. Overall, this article will detail how software innovations have mirrored the growing demands and complexities of project planning and execution over the years. 

Early Methods of Project Management (1896-1950s)

Projects—and therefore some form of project management—have always existed. However, our modern conception of project management tools began in the late 1800s, as workers began to use simple charts and diagrams to visualize their plans. As the 19th century ended and the 20th century progressed, these visualizations became increasingly complex and formed the basis for many project management practices used today.  

The Harmonogram (1896)

The first of these project visualization tools was the Harmonogram, also known as the Harmonic Schedule, which was developed by Polish engineer Karol Adamiecki in 1896. This tool was designed to improve workflow efficiency and project visualization in the steel industry. 

A Harmonogram typically displays the interdependencies and sequences of multiple tasks with a floating bar chart. This allows project managers to see when tasks are supposed to happen and how tasks are interlinked across the project’s timeline, offering a dynamic view of the project's progress and dependencies, and facilitating more effective coordination and decision-making.

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Gantt Charts (1910s)

Though it shares many similarities with the Harmonogram, the Gantt chart, developed by Henry Gantt in the early 20th century, is arguably the most famous early project management tool and continues to be widely used today. Introduced between 1910 and 1915, these charts provided a simple, visual overview of a project's schedule and were revolutionary in their ability to display start and finish dates for individual tasks within a project. 

The Gantt chart was originally used to manage shipbuilding during World War I, which demonstrated its ability to streamline complex production processes. Its visual nature also allowed for easy understanding and monitoring of project schedules and dependencies, leading to the Gantt chart’s widespread adoption across various industries.

CPM and PERT (1950s)

After World War II, the United States’ industrial landscape began to grow rapidly. As part of this major economic boom in the 1950s, Morgan R. Walker of the DuPont Corporation and James E. Kelley Jr. of Remington Rand developed the Critical Path Method (CPM). This method identified the longest sequence of dependent tasks necessary to complete a project, known as the critical path, helping to precisely determine the time necessary to finish specific projects. Originally designed to address complex scheduling issues in plant maintenance projects, CPM quickly became an invaluable tool for minimizing downtime and optimizing the sequencing of a wide array of project activities. 

During that same time period, the U.S. Navy Special Projects Office collaborated with Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting services company, to develop the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), which aimed to lower project costs and shorten project schedules. It was specifically created to help manage the large and complex Polaris submarine project, which involved a vast network of contractors and suppliers. 

Like CPM, PERT is used to schedule, organize, and coordinate tasks within a project. However, it places a greater emphasis on the time variability and probabilistic nature of task completion, making it especially useful in projects where time prediction is uncertain. 

Furthermore, the United States Department of Defense also developed the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) as part of the Polaris missile project. This eventually became a fundamental part of project management methodologies and was incorporated into various management standards, including the Project Management Institute's PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge).

These tools represent significant advancements in project planning and execution that now form the basis of modern project management technology. In fact, their integration into modern project management systems continues to shape the strategies that lead to successful project outcomes today.

The Introduction and Impact of Microsoft Project: A Game Changer (1970s-1980s) 

As computing technology advanced, manual methods began transitioning into digital formats. Consequently, the 1970s and 1980s marked the emergence of the first true project management software. The first project management software was arguably Artemis, which was developed by Metier Management Systems in 1977. However, project management software didn’t expand significantly until the 1980s, with the emergence of personal computers and the introduction of Microsoft Project in 1984. 

The introduction of Microsoft Project was one of the most significant milestones in the evolution of project management software. This tool, initially a MS-DOS based application, opened the door to carefully planned project workloads, resources, and management, making it an exceptional advancement for its time. 

Moreover, as one of the first software solutions designed specifically for project management, Microsoft Project brought the power of digital tools to a wider audience, allowing significantly more users to schedule, manage resources, and monitor project progress. Its user-friendly interface and integration with other Microsoft Office applications also made it attractive to users across various industries, transforming how project managers interacted with data and managed complex projects.

The Birth of Online Project Management Software (1990s) 

The rise of the internet in the early 1990s dramatically reshaped project management software. Previously, project management software was predominantly installed locally on individual computers or networks. In the 1990s, however, the rapid advancement of internet technology allowed web-based applications to quickly develop and multiply, marking the birth of online project management software.

These technological advancements transformed how project managers approached project planning, scheduling, collaboration, task tracking, and reporting, breaking geographical and time constraints. Features like WBS also became standard software components, allowing users to organize projects into manageable sections to better control scope, cost, and schedules.

The shift towards web-based project management software in the late 1990s additionally enabled real-time updates and remote accessibility, fundamentally changing project team dynamics and operational efficiencies. For example, companies began to see the benefits of having team members in different locations work on the same projects without the need for physical meetings or constant back-and-forth emailing. 

Tools like Basecamp, which launched in 1999, also introduced functionalities that supported file sharing, communication, and integration with other online services, laying the groundwork for the highly interactive and interconnected project management platforms that are common today. This era set the stage for the cloud-based project management solutions that would dominate the next decade.

The Introduction of Agile and Scrum in Project Management Software (2000s)

Before the cloud revolutionized project management software, however, Agile and Scrum methodologies introduced a whole new dimension to the world of project management software in the early 2000s. Each project management methodology emphasized flexibility, continued improvement, stakeholder involvement, and direct communication. 

In general, these ideas contrasted against traditional approaches, which stressed comprehensive planning and rigid control mechanisms. Consequently, this radical mindset shift required project management software to become more dynamic and adaptable, fostering real-time communication and collaboration.

Boards, sprints, and backlog features became a staple of many tools (and are now typically requirements when looking for project management software), allowing users to manage and track project progress using Agile strategies. Tools like Jira, Asana, and Trello rose to popularity due to their emphasis on transparency, adaptability, and iterative progress that effectively supported agile project management. The adoption of these methodologies in software profoundly impacted how teams functioned, granting a higher degree of control and organization, and improved many project management practices in the digital space.

Cloud-Based Project Management Software: A Modern Phenomenon (2000s-2010s) 

Finally, the birth of cloud-based project management software marked a critical development in the history of project management utilities. Project management software was previously desktop-based for the most part, confining organizations to a limited workspace. Consequently, the introduction of cloud technology completely transformed this space. Offering accessibility from any location and any device with an internet connection, cloud-based software enables teams to collaborate in real time and maintain a singular, unified record of project data.

Additionally, this shift to cloud technology helped streamline operations, enhance transparency and communication, and encourage the adoption of agile project management practices. Despite having only been in existence for about a decade, cloud-based project management software has shown vast potential for growth and innovation, and has significantly reshaped modern project management techniques and the work lives of project managers.

Today's Project Management Software 

Obviously, project management software has evolved significantly over the years. From only one or two tools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there is now a variety of software leading the market today, including tools such as Asana, Trello, Jira, Monday.com, and Microsoft Project. These platforms incorporate many modern technologies and tools, and they are designed to facilitate , planning, and execution. Each tool also offers distinct features catering to the diverse needs of teams and organizations.

For instance, Asana and Trello are known for their ease of use, intuitive interfaces, and visual project tracking features. Jira, on the other hand, is designed primarily for software development projects, providing agile project management tools. Monday.com offers customizable workflows that can match any team’s process, and Microsoft Project stands out with its comprehensive scheduling and time tracking features. 

These software innovations have increasingly improved the efficiency and productivity of modern project management, resulting in some of the best project management software on the market and continuing the evolution of project management software.

The Future of Project Management Software

Based on current trends, it feels pretty safe to say that the future of project management software lies in automation and artificial intelligence (AI). As machine learning algorithms become more sophisticated, we can expect project management tools to incorporate this technology for enhanced predictive analytics, aiding in risk analysis and decision-making processes. This should result in more accurate forecasting and optimized scheduling, and should also liberate project managers from easy, repetitive tasks, giving them time to focus on human-centric tasks such as leadership, managing conflicts, and strategic planning.

Another area of project management software expected to see significant evolution in the coming years is collaboration and remote work functionalities. The global shift towards remote work, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has illustrated the importance of tools that enable seamless virtual collaboration. Future project management software will likely integrate advanced tools for virtual team cooperation and communication, promoting transparency and efficiency regardless of location, and include options for mobile apps to keep you connected when working on-the-go. 

You can also expect to see more use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in project visualization and scenario planning as project management software continues to grow and develop. 

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Erin Froud
By Erin Froud

As a lifelong writer and a productivity enthusiast, Erin has brought her passion for lists and Kanban boards to both BlackBerry as a documentation manager and to Nokia as a technical editor, where she honed her skills for writing educational content about technology. She holds a Arts and Business degree from the University of Waterloo, where she used her skills to manage a number of projects and to organize the Arts and Life section of the university newspaper. She is thrilled to be combining her passion for managing projects with her love for writing, and is excited to further explore the digital project management space.