Published here November 2011


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Project management is touted as the modus operandi of the future for those companies seeking a competitive edge in the marketplace. If that is true, then a proper understanding and manner of application needs to be well established and much more widely spread. And valuable though the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge ("PMBOK Guide") is, we are not sure that it meets standards acceptable to the academic community. To do so requires significant effort and where will that come from?

Life cycle of sciences development

Take for example, the development path of a new science or discipline, a path along which project management appears to have progressed so far. The development of a new science may be roughly categorized into the following progressive stages:

Stage 1


collection of anecdotes (empirical)

Stage 2


generating hypothesis, theorizing, based on observations

Stage 3

Thesis testing

seeing if what thesis predicts is true (gives support or contradiction)

Stage 4


generating competing theories

Stage 5

New position

introducing theory that explains all of the foregoing

Stage 6

Mature science

well established discipline

Again, if this categorization is true, it is probably fair to say that our present understanding of project management is wobbling around Stage 3. If so, then it appears that we still have a long way to go, with ample opportunity for focused academic research.

Project management as a discipline is interesting because it consists of a number of integrated functional areas, or sub-disciplines. Some of these functions, or specializations, are comparatively well established such as cost and time management. These have well-established principles of planning, measuring and control, whereas other areas are but young neophytes and are not so responsive to the same approach.

This is especially true of those areas encompassing people relationships, and involving psychological influence such as in communications, contract negotiations, personnel management, including power, authority and responsibility, managing cultural differences, and so on. Project management may be about "getting things done", but it is also about the process or manner of getting things done", if "customer satisfaction" is to be achieved and the project, or more importantly the product, is acclaimed as successful.

In the development of the original PMBOK particularly, we have seen that project management encompasses both "objectives" (scope, quality, time and cost) and "subjectives" (risk, human resources, contract-procurement-commitment and communications). Therefore, project management needs both "product-people" (object-oriented and relatively predictable) as well as "process-people " (subject-oriented and often unpredictable). Unfortunately, conflict typically arises when the product people on the project are trying to get the process finished, while the process types are subconsciously keeping the enjoyment going!

Project management teaching and learning materials must necessarily encompass both worlds. Such materials must at one and the same time be scientific and provable as well as pragmatic and practical. Unfortunately, our traditional academic systems do not respond well to this integrated requirement.

The North American academic system is built around the concept of "reductionism", that is to say, like a work breakdown structure, you can take anything and reduce it down to smaller and smaller pieces. This approach is, for example, very successful in physics. Every other science has attempted to follow this model and, indeed, many have followed it very successfully.

As a result, many of our academic institutions are arranged around this model and are characterized by science specializations. This is also reflected in their institutional journal publications and the content of each closely reflects the degree of maturity of each specialization. For example, the Project Management Institute relies heavily on its published standards to inform the majority of its members of practice expectations. These standards are supported by associated certifications and approved lecturing is encouraged. However, this rigid focus arising from the strategy of analysis fostered by a "scientific" review process may actually hamper intellectual progress.

Project management as an art form

The reason is because the psychological disciplines do not respond well to the classic scientific "reductionism" model. Rather, they respond better to an environmental systems approach, i.e., to an understanding of "relationships" requiring a situational response. So, to take solely the one view or the other of project management is clearly inappropriate. The challenge is for project management to integrate these two opposites and lead disparate team members to act together working as a cohesive group towards a common goal.

In the educational realm, one may surmise that much of the conflicting discussions within PMI, particularly with regard to the PMBOK Guide, may well be because of these opposing points of view.

Perhaps we should be asserting much more vigorously that project management is both an art as well as a science. That managing a project involves both people and things, requiring both rigor and flexibility, and therefore needs leaders (project managers) who can recognize when to apply each to the best advantage of the overall project.

At the center of this dichotomy is the matter of open and effective communication as John Baker explains in his Guest article: Time's Up! What Do You Really Want? To achieve this it will be necessary for up and coming project practitioners to receive practical instruction, and gain sound experience, in both realms, and we shall need educational establishments that clearly and comfortably encompass both.

If we can establish that, perhaps then we shall see more motivated teamwork, more effectively run teams, and more consistently successful projects. Companies achieving more consistently successful projects will surely be more competitive by reducing the cost of wasted effort. Perhaps we might even persuade governments to think the same way.

The issues, then, are how do we achieve a paradigm shift in the thinking of our educational establishments on the one hand, and peoples' attitudes towards project management on the other?

Indeed, as we asked at the beginning, where will that effort come form?

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