The changing face of project management


by Jeannette Cabanis


UNLIKE SOME OTHER professional associations, PMI doesn't keep demographic information on its membership. You can tell what parts of the United States, for example, are home to the most project managers (the Southwest is booming) and what application areas are hot (telecommunications and software have been running neck and neck for the last three years), but personal details like age, gender, ethnicity are simply not part of our recordkeeping.

This may be a relic of the days, still lingering with us, when there simply wasn't enough variation in those details to merit tracking them. Project managers, for many years, have been a pretty homogenous group. As recently as 1995, a readership survey done by Readex for PM Network told us that “The typical PM Network recipient is a 44-year-old male who has been a member of PMI for four years.” Four years? As the membership tops 30,000, with half those members coming on board within the last 30 months, one thing is for sure: the typical reader hasn't been with PMI very long at all. What else might have changed in that description?

Not much, according to a recent job analysis carried out by PMI‘s Certification Committee in order to help identify the skills and knowledge most crucial to PMPs. The survey of PMPs found that, among this subset of PMI members, the picture varied little: “The majority of respondents were male (82 percent) and the primary age range was 35–54. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed were Caucasian…45 percent had a master's degree.”

When you read this description to Todd Brown (PMP? “Oh, yeah, big time, baby!”), coordinator of the proposed Diversity SIG, he hoots with laughter. “Oh, great!” he says. “It's Dilbert!” Yet, when you hang around at the major project management events, such as the annual PMI Seminars & Symposium, the admittedly unscientific impression you get is very un-Dilbertlike. The crowd, far from being the plain vanilla that's indicated in the surveys quoted above, looks young, dynamic, diverse in gender, national origin and ethnicity, new to project management and hungry for information, and representative of a wide variety of industries. So there's a big gap between what's on paper and what you can observe taking place.

What is the profile of the project manager? With change in the profession taking place at a dizzying rate, can we even draw a picture of that person?

Despite the lack of demographic data, by digging around some, one can begin to unearth some interesting facts. For example, though telecommunications and software have each remained about 16 or 17 percent of the Institute's membership for the last two years, even generalizing that the new project manager is a techie involved in these fields could be misleading. When you add up the number of members in the top seven industry affiliation areas it still only comprises about 60 percent of the membership. Of the remaining 40 percent about half are spread over a wide range of industries from health care to forestry to marketing. And another 20 percent of the membership didn't list an industry area on their membership application. Where are all these people working? Could it be that this represents a group of project managers who are active in applications that we haven't thought of yet? Or does it reflect a group that sees themselves as “pure” project managers, possessing a transportable set of skills that rises above industry affiliation? A kind of career warp drive?

A Wild Ride: Change and Growth in a Professional Association

Membership is going through the roof! Over 800 percent growth in SIGs in one year! What a wild ride we're on…um, did anyone remember to unplug the iron? Did we bring a map?

Fortunately, there is a map. The project management profession is not the first to experience this phenomenon. A professional association can grow dramatically—and shrink the same way, if care isn't taken to keep a finger on the pulse of the changing membership. It's easy to imagine growth as a constant upward spiral; yet books like Jumping the Curve (Nicholas Imparato and Oren Harari, Jossey-Bass, 1996) warn us that history repeats itself, in business as in society; The organization that isn't staying on top of fundamental social changes risks falling into a crack that opens beneath it.

Witness the quality movement. Like project management, quality management was once the purview of a small group of technical professionals: the quality-control guys. Then, an amazing thing happened: a wave of realization washed over American business that, by focusing on quality as an organizing principle, processes and products could be made more profitable. Boom! In the mid-‘80s membership in organizations like the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) doubled almost overnight. Staff went from about 75 to over 200 in the same period. The growth curve was nearly identical to what we are witnessing today in PMI. With that growth came a fundamental shift in the demographics of the association.

“Oh, yeah,” jokes John B. McHugh, former director of membership and programs at ASQC, and now a consultant to the publishing industry, “our membership was very much the statistics-oriented technicians in the beginning. Now go to a quality conference and look around. The new quality professional is thinking more about the organizational, behavioral implications of quality improvement.”

As someone who lived through a period of tumultuous change and growth at one of our sister professional associations, McHugh has some words of advice for PMI members and leaders:

img The member is not a captive customer. “You might want to ask members how many of them consider PMI their No. 1 professional affiliation. What else do they belong to? Which membership will they let go of first when times get lean? One angle to keep an eye on is, what's going on occupation-wise in project management?” In quality, for example, the shift from a focus on manufacturing to a focus on service industries like health care caused a dramatic shift in the membership.

img How's the volunteer leadership coping? Do they have a handle on the demographic changes in the profession? Are they becoming overwhelmed? Are they doing things that made sense for volunteers in a small organization but which are better performed by professional staff in a large one? This, says McHugh, is often a sticking point. “The professionalization of the staff,” he says, “is absolutely necessary. But it's hard for the volunteer leadership to give up power. The shift from all-volunteer to staff-driven is a rocky one, but it's an unavoidable byproduct of growth.” This shift also creates some tension in the relationships between volunteers and staff members, he warns. “Technocrats are notoriously poor leaders,” he says. “If you have a membership of primarily technical people for a long time, the leadership tends to have that bent; then, suddenly, you need a professional staff that is very service-oriented. The relationship between a technocrat board and a service-minded professional staff can be intense. They don't always speak the same language.”

img What's the climate among the staff? “Membership service is a direct tie-in to staff morale. During a period of rapid growth,” he says, “there's lots of pressure on the staff—a high, high stress level. As workload goes up, they being to feel no one cares. But staff retention during a period of growth is very important. One thing that helps is a good training plan.”

img “Most of what's accomplished in organizations is social, not technical,” McHugh says. “So resistance to change is always the biggest problem that organizations face in growth periods. Futuristic thinking is an absolute must. The membership, the volunteer leadership and the staff need a coherent vision of where they want to go. The pace of growth makes everything more complicated. Strategic plans very quickly become obsolete when your membership doubles in just a few years.”

How to thrive amidst the chaos? “It's like the warden says to Paul Newman in the movie Cool Hand Luke: You have to get your mind right. A chaotic environment can be healthy. It's a matter of adjusting to it emotionally and using it to stimulate positive change. Organizational culture is hard to change, but demographic changes in the membership will change it. I t's just a question of whether you will ride that change like a wave or drown in it.”

Though there's no way to determine the ethnic mix of the members, you can make a reasonable guess about the representation of women in the ranks. By searching the database for the titles Ms., Miss, and Mrs., you find that PMI‘s membership is at least 21 percent women. (Of course, that leaves out women who call themselves Dr. or who simply didn't X that box on the form.) Janis Sherick doesn't know what percentage of the membership are women but she knows the group is growing, and growing exponentially. Sherick, co-chair of the Women in Project Management SIG, says, “Three years ago there were about 25 members; now we have 796, several of them international members. We don't meet, except at the Symposium, but we are publishing a membership directory and hope to put up a Web site soon.” If women in project management generally are increasing at a comparable rate, the profession is in for some profound cultural changes.

Wendy Myers, PMI Manager of Certification, notes that some demographic data is collected for applications for PMP certification. “It's in a section of the application that is not obligatory,” she says. “They can skip it if they want. But I really feel having such data is useful in helping us to reach out to underserved communities within the profession.” One trend she has noticed: People sitting for the exam have much less experience than candidates used to have. “They are younger; Generation X, if you want to use that terminology. There are more women, more minorities. They come from ‘nontraditonal’ industries like software development.”

Up and Coming. One way to get a feel for the groundswell of demographic change in the profession is to talk to the people who are training tomorrow's project managers. Steve Owens, a professor in the Master's of Project Management program at Western Carolina University, says that over the last few years he has seen the incoming students in the program change dramatically: there are more international students, more women, more people with nontechnical backgrounds. “This just reflects the changing nature of organizations,” he says. “To meet the new global competitive environment requires that organizations be flexible, and a good way to achieve that is through the kind of free-flowing work environments that project management lends itself to.” He attributes the popularity of project management education among “Generation X” to the fact that “project work is unencumbered by rigid job instructions. That appeals to people who are not tied to traditional roles, who can live with ambiguity, even feed off it. I think maybe having a nonmajority, nonmainstream background helps with this. And younger people are not afraid of the virtual team environment.

“Today's project manager is a business-savvy, strong facilitator with a firm understanding of the technology or whatever discipline they're in—maybe it's not technology but pharmacology, or sociology…they are younger, more non-majority, more female, more participative facilitators. They aren't the pocket-protector crowd.”

“In the MPM program in general, we see one-third with tech backgrounds, one-third with business backgrounds, and another third with backgrounds in human resource-related fields: social work, health care, and so on.” But, he notes, half of his numerous French students have nontechnical backgrounds.

Daphne Laroche, for example, hardly fits the project manager stereotype. In the MPM program at Western Carolina University, this 23-year-old woman from the Parisian suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil got a bachelor's degree in business administration, then came to the United States to get her MBA. She heard about project management from her fellow students and is now getting her certificate in project management as well. “I am interested in transportation and distribution management,” she says, “and in that field, the kind of quantitative measurement and scheduling that you learn in the project management program is very useful.”

Is this an unusual career for a woman in France? “Oh, it's an unusual career for anybody,” she laughs. “Nobody has heard about project management. They think it's, you got a project, you got to manage it. You might figure it out after 20 years, but it's not something you study and learn to start out with.”

Another project manager who finds the profile described in the surveys unrealistic is Todd Brown. Brown practically explodes with enthusiasm when you ask him about PMI. “I‘m really excited about the way PMI and certification open a new career path for people who see project management as being about organizational structure rather than as a set of tools for scheduling,” he says. “See, everybody's doing projects in some form or another—and doing it quite badly. Business is beginning to realize that if you put the same types of people in charge of projects, you get the same results. And when you look at the failure rate,” says Brown, who is a business development manager with Dell Computer's Healthcare division, “they just can't afford that anymore. The results of professional project managers just happen to be an order of magnitude better.”

What's more, Brown, who is African-American, sees the PMP as a hammer that smashes the glass ceiling. “Anybody who can acquire this knowledge gets to play, “ he says with passion. “As a PMP, you get the microphone; the CIO asks your opinion.”

How would he paint the portrait of the project manager? “To me, today's project manager is a business-savvy, strong facilitator with a firm understanding of the technology or whatever discipline they're in—maybe it's not technology but pharmacology, or sociology…they are younger, more nonmajority, more female, participative facilitators. They aren't” he says wryly, “the pocket-protector crowd.”

The New Project Manager and PMI. What does the new project manager want from a professional affiliation? Janis Sherick, a project manager in the environmental life sciences at Lockheed Martin-Idaho Technologies, joined PMI because “Professional affiliations are important: I enjoy the contacts, the Symposium and I read PM Network. I never expect to spend much time, but I do want to get things that are useful to me in my career. A very informative Web site can be a good product: brief, concise, technical information that's easy to access.”

Her opinion matches that of PMI‘s Wendy Myers. “For young workers today, the workweek is about 70 hours. And then they have young families. They want products that serve their work-related needs, and they want them in convenient format. Virtual meetings that take place on the lunch hour are much more their style than the traditional kind of meeting.”

Brown echoes Sherick and Myers: “The leadership has to speak to this diverse group; membership has to be more accessible and more fun.” He explains: “Lots of times I get people all excited about PMI and then they go to a local chapter meeting and they get turned off. It's the pocket-protector crowd! You listen to the speaker and eat dinner and go home. That's why people like me are more interested in PMI on the level of national events and initiatives…we're waiting for a paradigm shift within the nerd pack. And it's coming: the pressure is building from the bottom. There are lots of women in the business schools today, lots of Asians and Hispanics in the high-tech field, and there's a generational difference there, too, that is going to alter the profession.”

If this new project manager were designing local events, what would they look like? Brown imagines “knowledge-sharing workgroups” that meet the needs of young project managers, matching people by interests and application area to share stories and mentor each other. This mentoring has to happen at this horizontal level today, he insists, because the world of work has changed so much that the wisdom of the “graybeards”—though it may be only 10 years old—is already out of date. “Knowledge-sharing groups would grow those people, make PMI membership a force for good, for change in their lives. And that's what they need. Doing more work on the Web is important too, because nobody has any time, and information needs to be in a format where it's instantly accessible at the individual's convenience. The dinner meeting format doesn't meet that need,” Brown says.

As a PMI member, that concerns him. “I see people get fired up about PMI when they realize how much project management knowledge and certification can do for them personally,” he says earnestly. “But if the local level doesn't continue to feed that fire, you lose them. If I‘m turned off, I‘m not going to get involved. And getting these new kinds of project management people involved is the key to keeping PMI growing at this fantastic rate. The chapters have got to face the changing dynamic of this new element in the profession.”

What connects the “typical” project manager with Daphne Laroche, Todd Brown, Janis Sherick and thousands of other unique individals who share a profession but not much else? “Project management is the common language that unifies this diverse group,” says Brown. “It's a career path that we can get excited about.”

A QUESTION THAT, perhaps, can't be answered yet is: What impact will the popularity of the project-oriented mindset have on the organizations that these new project managers work for? What will happen when you superimpose on the old organizational paradigms a diverse workforce that thrives on ambiguity and sees all work in terms of time-limited projects? Like the question Who is the new project manager? the data is just beginning to trickle in. Yet, as “Ben Franklin” said in his keynote address at PMI ‘96 in Boston, sometimes “a good question is more valuable than it's answer.” Questions make us look at and think about things we may otherwise take for granted. And in the current social and economic climate, taking things for granted is—well, bad project management. img

Are you the new project manager? Do you combine background and skill sets in an unthought-of way? Are you using project management skills in a unique way or in an unusual organizational context? Do you see yourself reflected in these pages? We want to hear from you! E-mail us at [email protected].


Jeannette Cabanisis news editor and staff writer for PM Network.

PM Network · August 1997



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