Now it's even easier to work with charts and data in Microsoft Office Excel 2007. Commands and features are no longer buried in complex menus; toolbars are easier to find on task-oriented tabs; and many dialog boxes have been replaced with drop-down galleries that display the available options. So, when you need to format or analyse data, Excel has the tools that are most useful to successfully complete that task.

One of the most frequently used, but often misunderstood tools for planning and managing complex projects is a Gantt Chart. Using a Gantt Chart can help you to monitor whether a project is on schedule and what tasks remain outstanding. Likewise, if the project is off track, it will help you to pinpoint the remedial action necessary to get it back on schedule. However, the advantages of using a Gantt Chart are often overshadowed by the fact that many of us are unsure whether this type of chart is relevant to a project.

The Gantt chart was invented in the early 1900s by Henry L Gantt who was an American engineer and social scientist. A Gantt chart specifies that the horizontal axis is (linear) time; each task is given its own horizontal band where the calendar duration of the task is indicated by a box, line or other object with a variable horizontal dimension. Tasks are often grouped into categories, and each category can be treated as a summary task whose duration spans all the tasks within that category. Tasks are generally listed from top to bottom in the order they will occur; if there are groups of tasks, the tasks are chronological within a group, and the groups ordered by starting date.

There are many advantages to using a Gantt chart to illustrate your data: time is explicit (and linear); tasks can be visible in relationship to others; it's easy to convey time by highlighting deadlines; and project status at intermediate times can also be shown. Progress can be demonstrated by completing task boxes.

One of the principle concepts in project management is that of sequential and parallel activities. This means that some activities are dependent on other activities being completed first. For example, you would not be able to determine the price for a new product until you had identified all the costs associated with it.

When activities have to be completed in a certain sequence with each stage having to be completed before the next activity can get underway, this is often referred to as a dependent activity, and is known as sequential or linear. Other activities might not be dependent on completion of any other tasks. These may be done at any time before or after a particular stage is reached. These are non dependent or parallel tasks.

And this is where a Gantt Chart is most useful. A Gantt Chart can help you work out which tasks need to be carried out first; determine when any particular tasks must be completed; identify the resources needed to complete the project; identify when resources are needed; work out the quickest possible time in which a project can be completed; and help you identify the critical path for a project (this is the sequence of tasks that must be completed on time if you are to complete the project by a particular date).

Thankfully using Office Excel 2007 to create Gantt-like charts is straightforward. Updated features means that the program supports up to 1 million rows and 16 thousand columns per worksheet. Specifically, the Office Excel 2007 grid is 1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns, which provides you with 1,500 percent more rows and 6,300 percent more columns than previously available in Microsoft Office Excel 2003.

You will also experience faster calculations in large, formula-intensive worksheets because Office Excel 2007 supports multiple processors and multithreaded chipsets.

In Office Excel 2007, you can use new charting tools to easily create professional-looking charts that communicate information effectively. You can apply a theme to your workbook and a new, up-to-date look for charts includes special effects, such as 3-D, transparency and soft shadows.

The new user interface makes it easy to explore the available chart types so that you can create the right chart to present your data. Numerous predefined chart styles and layouts are provided so that you can quickly apply a good-looking format and include the details that you want in your chart.

Besides the quick layouts and quick formats, you can now use the new user interface to change every element of the chart to best present your data. In a few clicks, you can add or remove titles, legends, data labels, trend lines and other chart elements.

Charts in Office Excel 2007 are drawn with OfficeArt, so most amendments you make to an OfficeArt shape can also be done to a chart and its elements. For example, you can add a soft shadow or bevel effect to make an element stand out; or use transparency to make elements visible that are partially obscured in a chart layout. You can also use arrange of professional 3-D effects.

Other updated features include a host of predefined theme colours. For more flexibility you can also add your own colours by choosing from 16 million colours in the Colours dialog. And chart templates allow you to save your favourite charts as a chart template. For a real professional finish, lines in charts now look less jagged, and ClearType fonts are used for text to improve readability.

So, next time you are worried about creating a diagram such as a Gantt type-chart, just remember how easy it is to use the new chart features in Excel 2007. For professional instruction on creating charts in Excel, it's a good idea to find out about a training course so that you can really sort the linear from the sequential.