Practice versus Theory
Professor J. Rodney Turner, Department of Business and Organization, Erasmus
University Rotterdam, has observed that "Project Management is becoming
established as a profession, and an essential part of that is [that] practitioners
should have a theoretical knowledge of the subject from which they can make predictions
about which approaches will lead to better outcomes." And that set us thinking.
What is the origin of project management and where is its theoretical foundation?
If the essential ingredients of project management are planning, organization
and control, then such activities can be found in the great works of the past.
Indeed, even as far back as the building of the great pyramid by universal genius
(and project manager) Imhotep for his master (and sponsor) King Zoser. In fact
much of our understanding of the ‘discipline’ of project management comes to
us from the experience gained through the execution of large civil works. If
these sources represent the genesis of project management, then as a candidate
for becoming a learned profession it is instructive to discover that engineering
itself only became such a profession in the middle of the 19th century.
One of our greatest engineers, William Rankine (1820-1872), a Scottish engineer
probably best known for the Fahrenheit temperature scale and his work on soil
mechanics both of which are still in use today, was a prolific writer of text
books. In 1855, his inaugural address as regius professor of civil engineering
and mechanics at the University of Glasgow was titled "The harmony between theory
and practice in engineering" an address that he wrote in one week — and in Latin.
In it he distinguished between theoretical science, concerned with what we are
to think, and practical science concerned with what are we to do — often in situations
where scientific theory and existing data is insufficient.
Thus, Rankine saw the need for a series of text books, of which he produced
many volumes translated into many languages, on engineering subjects which were
based on scientific principles rather than on contemporary practice. In this
way, Rankine provided a more substantive basis for a systematic university engineering
education. In Rankine’s day, engineering was attached to the faculty of arts
but did not qualify for graduation in that field.
Now, if we switch to project management, we find an abundance of books extolling
the virtue of current practices, often as "best practices" but, nonetheless,
essentially based on rules of thumb. Of fundamental theoretical treatise in project
management there are virtually none! Is the discipline (we can hardly call it
a profession) based on shifting sands? Probably. If we are to have a discipline,
let alone a profession, It is time that our present-day professors came up with
some solid underlying theories.
A place for them to start might well be my paper "First
Principles of Project Management".