Web 2.0 for Project Management: Basecamp

With over 5 million subscribers world-wide, Basecamp rivals MS Project for most-used project management software. Yet these two tools offer very different capabilities. MS Project has a well-established place in the Project Manager’s tool kit as an aid to managing schedules and budgets. Basecamp focuses on team collaboration. This post takes a closer look at some of the features that have made Basecamp so popular.

Basecamp from 37Signals is part of a suite of software-as-a-service tools for team communication. Aimed primarily at small and mid-sized organizations, this Chicago-based provider sets out to provide “frustration-free web-based apps for collaboration, sharing information, and making decisions.” The other tools in the suite include Highrise for contact management, Campfire for instant messaging and Backpack as an intranet portal.

Open up Basecamp and you will find a site that is inviting, uncluttered, intuitive, and all about communication. To find out how easy it is to use I tried out the free plan (1 project, unlimited users, 2 Writeboards, 10 MB File Storage). The 60-second sign-up took exactly that, and almost immediately I was able to start building a project plan.

The home page presents a dashboard view that gives an at-a-glance summary what’s going on in the projects in your site. Throughout the rest of the site Basecamp focuses on simple, basic ways of doing things. Navigation is very clean with big, easy-to-read tabs at the top of the screen to switch between different types of project information. For example, the “To-Dos” tab shows outstanding To-Do items assigned to me. Click on the “Calendar” tab and the default view shows items that are due within the next 6 weeks.

As a long-time MS Project users, I was curious about how Basecamp handles schedules. What I found  is best described as management by milestones. A milestone can, of course, be anything the team decides it should be. By extension, project activities are the things people do in order to get to a milestone. Rolled out over an entire project, the Gantt chart view from MS Project presents itself in Basecamp as a series of To-Do lists punctuated by milestones.

Basecamp milestone list.

Creating a milestone in Basecamp is easy, and the dialogue enforces the idea that it’s something to be achieved by a particular date and that someone needs to own. Once a milestone has been added to a project, adding activities to the schedule is simply a matter of creating a To-Do list that attaches to the milestone. Each To-do item is them given a due date and assigned to a team member.

Basecamp create milestone

Wiki pages have become a popular way for project teams to collaborate on a document, especially when they don’t have a lot of opportunity for face-to-face meetings. Basecamp offers the “Writeboard”, which is a page equipped with simple text editor where team members can work together on a shared document.

Overall, Basecamp does a good job of providing a simple, lightweight way to enhance many aspects of project communication with a minimum of training and set-up overhead. To some eyes, the emphasis on simple ways of doing things may go a bit too far. Things that someone looking for an “enterprise” solution would probably see as limitations include:

  • Text editor in the write board lacks most of the rich text editing features that we tend to take for granted.

  • Ability to store and organize documents includes the ability to sort them by name and other attributes but only one category tag can be applied to each document. What happens in projects that generates a lot of documents?

  • Time-tracking functionality is very easy to use. But the problem with time-tracking in general is that it’s easy to ignore. Would people actually use it consistently enough to obtain reliable cost data?

  • Cannot make a Gantt chart representation of a project schedule. Projects with complex dependencies could be difficult to set up and control.

  • Data export from the site is in a single XML file. It’s easy to produce but plan on a lot of effort in deciphering the file if you want to do anything with the data.

Cost for subscribing to Basecamp depends on how many projects are in your portfolio. At $49 per month the “Plus” plan gives the capability to create 35 projects and provides 15 GB of file space for an unlimited number of users.

If I had to sum up Basecamp in one phrase it would be “Project Management Light”, and that’s not a bad thing at all. These days a lot of projects get done by small teams of multi-talented people with limited time and little appetite to apply a lot of formal project management process to their work. Teams like that often work on short planning horizons with little need for a robust scheduling tool. Basecamp can help that kind of team work together, communicate effectively and share project management responsibility. Judging from the feedback on Basecamp’s “Customer Wall” they have found a lot of people who agree that Basecamp can deliver a lot of value.

Overall Rating
(out of 4 )
Team Collaboration
Transactional
Project Communication
Getting Started  
Customize Look and Feel
Ongoing Cost
Features
Can’t Do It
Custom (Major)
Custom
(Minor)
No Problem
Announcements X
Shared Calendar X
Shared Task List X
Team Discussion X
Assign Project Tasks X
Email Notification X
Syndication X
Progress Reporting X
Track Issues X
Track Risks X
Time Entry X
Track Earned Value X
Multi Projects in 1 site X
Roll-up multi projects X
MS Project Interface X
Word, Excel Interface X

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