Alternatives to Basecamp for Project Management

Basecamp is arguably the most well-known and well-used of online project and team management web apps, but with attention and use comes criticism and complaint. Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare finds it’s not keeping up with her team’s needs. Emily Chang, founder of eHub, recently expressed her frustration with the lack of Basecamp-Highrise integration. And Douglas Karr canceled his Basecamp account today (though more because he disagreed with the 37Signals’ blog than because of his issues with the software).

Basecamp provides to do lists, messages, milestones, collaborative documents, chat, time tracking, and a shared file repository — so it seems to offer nearly everything a smallish team needs for project management and knowledge capture. It’s simple to use, but sometimes too inflexible. For example, I use Writeboards (collaborative wiki-type documents) to manage Web Worker Daily’s weekly conference call agendas but cannot reorder them or sort them by date. They are always ordered alphabetically, leaving the current agenda often buried amongst other Writeboards.

Rashmi suggests that Basecamp demonstrates little “findability.” You have to go to a separate page to search and then it doesn’t even search everything (to dos, for instance, aren’t included). Basecamp doesn’t support tagging or sub-categories or search within categories.

Rashmi wonders what might serve as a better alternative. Here are a few ideas.

Online project management apps. That is, direct competitors to Basecamp. Offerings include Goplan from Webreakstuff, newly launched Lighthouse, activeCollab available as a download that you host yourself or hosted at collab.ws, and Atlassian’s Jira. The main benefit of using a dedicated project management system, besides the dashboards and notifications that keep your project on track, is the structured data and process it provides. You don’t have to define how to dos, tickets, and milestones work; it’s already defined for you. But this can be their greatest drawback as well, because these applications may force you to work in ways that don’t suit you, your project, or your team.

Wikis. You can choose from hosted services like PBWiki, Wetpaint, and Wikispaces or host your own with free downloadable wiki software such as MediaWiki or Socialtext Open. Wikis are great for capturing and archiving team knowledge. However, they’re not designed with specific support for task management, issue tracking, or scheduling — so if you need extensive structured support in that arena, you might want to consider another option, or use wikis in tandem with some more structured project management application.

Online office suite. Take GMail, GCal, plus Google Docs & Spreadsheets and you could manage a project reasonably well. On the pro side, you could keep the information pretty well structured using the calendar and spreadsheets. You could capture knowledge in online documents. It wouldn’t force you into any particular project management processes, but wouldn’t give you the benefits of those either. If you wanted dashboard or notification-type features, you’d probably have to custom-build them yourself, though, and that’s a serious undertaking.

Concoct your own. Stowe Boyd has described how he’d like to use Stikkit’s semi-structured information capture with Zoho document editing capabilities and Box.net file storage and file access control to create an interpersonal organizer. This may be the way of the future: taking discrete tools and combining them (or using integration the toolmakers build) to put together a system that suits your needs and your team’s needs better than anything anyone else designed with their own needs in mind. Again, you’re not going to get a detailed dashboard or complex workflow with notifications if you go this route, at least not without some fancy programming of your own. But you might come up with something that fluidly and frictionlessly encourages project success.

What’s best for your team and your projects? Of course it depends on what kind of work you’re doing, with whom you’re working, how many people are on the team, and numerous other variables. While you’re deciding, check out these tips for getting your virtual team started on the path to productivity.

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