Task management apps: Collaborative project tracking tools for the digital workplace

Task management apps: Collaborative project tracking tools for the digital workplace

For one-off and repeat projects alike, collaborative task management software can help teams plan, coordinate and monitor work progress effectively.

Keeping projects on track is something many organizations struggle with. A Project Management Institute study last year showed that on average, organizations waste 9.9% of every dollar due to “poor project performance,” while 43% of projects are not completed within budget and nearly half (48%) are not completed on time.

The goal of task management apps is to boost productivity through greater visibility into work from both an individual and team perspective. Analysts at Gartner predict that by 2022, 70% of organizations using collaborative work management systems will report that their teams are “significantly better performing.”

It means freeing up employees to focus on what is important. “These tools allow users to build workflow processes that work for them so that they can spend more time getting work done than talking about work that has to get done,” said Margo Visitacion, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

What are task management tools?

Task management software, also referred to as collaborative work management and work coordination platforms, has a variety of uses. These range from personal task lists to ad-hoc projects with small teams and on up to large and complex projects involving numerous stakeholders, such as the launch of a new product that touches numerous business departments.

“In small- or medium-sized companies, especially, these solutions allow companies to structure their processes that change quite often, perhaps daily,” said Larry Cannell, research director at Gartner.

Compared to sophisticated project portfolio management (PPM) tools, task management apps have a gentler learning curve and tend to be more accessible for all types of employees, not just trained project managers. 

At the same time, collaborative task management apps offer more functionality than basic to-do list apps. “These solutions are often considered lightweight project management tools, but this shortchanges their opportunities to be robust application foundations,” said Cannell.

Common features of work management tools include:

  • A visual interface, featuring Kanban-style boards, Gantt charts and more
  • Task scheduling and assignment
  • A calendar
  • Notifications and alerts
  • User comments and @mentions
  • Workflow automation
  • Analytics and reporting
  • File sharing and attachments
  • Web, desktop and mobile apps

There is typically a strong focus on team collaboration in order to coordinate projects. As well as social capabilities within the apps themselves, integrations with third-party tools such as email or chat-based collaboration apps in the mold of Slack and Microsoft Teams are commonplace.

“Collaboration capabilities enable team members and external contributors to weigh in on activities to provide additional context to work that is being done,” said Visitacion.

A growing market

There are a range of vendors operating in this space. A recent Forrester report on collaborative work management tools for the enterprise, authored by Visitacion, positioned Wrike, Asana and Smartsheet as the leaders in the market. Trello, acquired by Atlassian for $425 million in 2017, is another popular tool with 35 million user registrations and one million teams.

Microsoft has also thrown its hat in the ring, launching Planner to plug a gap in its Office 365 portfolio. Others in the market include Airtable, and Workfront, while PPM vendor Planview added collaborative task management capabilities following the acquisition of Projectplace in 2014.

Demand for such tools is on the rise. According to a recent report from MarketsandMarkets, global spending on task management apps is set to rise from $2.27 billion in 2018 to $4.33 billion by 2023.

Interest is high among enterprise marketing teams that require a flexible tool to manage multiple projects and share content, the MarketsandMarkets report says, and various vendors — Wrike and Asana, for example — have created product solutions tailored to this specific job role. But one of the strengths of task management apps is flexibility. This means such apps are suited to a range of job roles, from engineering and IT to HR and sales, and can be easily adapted to more niche roles (such as music producers). People use some of these apps to manage their personal lives too: Think holiday or wedding planning, for example.

Viral adoption

Like Slack, Dropbox and other cloud tools that have become popular in the enterprise in recent years, task management apps typically enter the workplace on a team-by-team basis and spread from there.

“The primary way for most CWM [collaborative work management] tools to get into a company is through trial downloads that roll into team-based usage,” said Visitacion. “As teams discover value, usage then expands virally throughout the organization.”

In some cases (Trello and Asana, for instance), task management apps are available under “freemium” payment models, enticing users with limited free versions and offering more features with paid plans. This approach has made the tools popular among small businesses and startups, as well as within small pockets of larger companies.

Task management software vendors are also focused on building out features that appeal to IT teams at large enterprise organizations. This means adding security and administration tools required by IT, as well as compliance with certain data protection regulations.

While small-team adoption still “far outpaces” enterprise deals, said Visitacion, larger-scale deployments are becoming more frequent as companies look for new ways to boost productivity.

As with many collaborative technologies, the main barrier to wider deployment of task management apps is simple awareness of what the tools can do, said Cannell. “Many people don’t understand how their current work habits and the way they organize teamwork inhibit productivity,” he said. “For example, they are happy having someone organize tasks and work items in an Excel spreadsheet and cannot envision any other approach.” 

Once users experience the software firsthand, however, they recognize their value. “There are an enormous number of opportunities for these solutions,” Cannell said.

5 task management apps to check out

Here are five of the most popular task management options available today. Click on their names to find detailed information about the tools, including how they work, what features they offer, what they cost, and where their companies are headed.

Asana: Created in 2008 by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and software engineer Justin Rosenstein, Asana aims to make tracking work activities simple, reducing the need for email and unnecessary meetings, or as Asana calls it, all that “work about work.”

Microsoft Planner: Microsoft’s take on task management has one big advantage over rivals: It’s included in the Office 365 suite, giving it easy entry to the enterprise. The visually oriented Planner app sits between Microsoft’s more in-depth Project application and its To-Do list app in terms of complexity and capabilities.

Smartsheet: Smartsheet is an intuitive and customizable work management tool designed to be used by a broad range of employees. It's built on an enhanced spreadsheet interface that incorporates collaboration, document sharing, and visualization features as well as integration with other productivity tools.

Trello: Owned by project management and development software vendor Atlassian, Trello is perhaps the most well-known task management app. It is one of the most accessible, too, with a straightforward interface and Kanban-style boards to visualize workflows.

Wrike: This tool is designed to be an adaptable coordination and management platform for a range of digital work. CEO Andrew Filev says Wrike is aimed at all types of knowledge workers, from entry level to the C-Suite, and supports both complex tasks and comparatively lighter uses.

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