A holistic perspective on project management education

by Steven M. Price and René-Marc Mangin

A MANAGEMENT REVOLUTION is under way and, for project management practitioners and educators, that presents both an opportunity and a challenge. As the business world gains appreciation for project management methodology's efficacy in managing key business initiatives, the role of project management, and consequently of project management education, will increasingly be scrutinized to determine if project management really adds value.

Three dominant trends in this management revolution are focusing critical attention on project management education. First, project management is emerging as the predominant strategy and methodology for managing multidisciplinary teams in today's volatile and dynamic business environment. This is largely due to the flexible, responsive, and adaptive nature of project management as a process tool.

Projects have become a means of satisfying the demands of a dynamic, time-critical, and voracious marketplace by focusing multidisciplinary resources to satisfy key business initiatives. As temporary endeavors that create unique products or services, projects position businesses to exploit transient opportunities with optimal leverage.

Secondly, technology and, more important, information is now accessible to a larger contingent of the work force. The ability to transform information into knowledge that can be used to gain competitive advantage has spawned what Peter Drucker calls the “Knowledge Society.” In the Knowledge Society, knowledge becomes the key currency of economic exchange.

Drucker argues that the educated person in the Knowledge Society will need the ability to “understand the various knowledges.” This reinforces the argument that not only knowledge of process and specialty expertise will be our future currency of exchange, but also knowledge of multiple disciplines that support, influence, control and interact with process.


Finally, new business realities of competition, service quality, responsiveness, and cost containment have stimulated a broad range of initiatives to improve performance or enhance value and have been precipitated by accelerated change, complex marketplace dynamics, and a new era of systems thinking. As business adapts to meet new realities, project management and project management education must be positioned to exploit opportunities and address new challenges. One tool we can use to achieve that position is systems thinking, which offers a holistic perspective that helps us to integrate education and practice, learning and the realities of the business world.

The Holistic Perspective

Our world is a dynamic flux of linear and nonlinear interactions—a world of complexity and relationships. Adopting a holistic perspective is imperative for visualizing the larger whole and understanding the component parts. An exploration of holistic issues reveals a landscape of subtle connections and uncovers the drivers for integrating our knowledge and experience rather than partitioning and isolating their value.

Soft systems thinking has emerged to deal with “wild” or “unbounded” problems—problems marked by uncertainty, ambiguity and competing goals. Soft systems thinking precedes engineering (“hard systems thinking”) in most problem solving by defining the problem situation and identifying a clear goal before problem solving is attempted.

Real-World Problems are Multidisciplinary. Real-world problems do not fit neatly into a single discipline. They possess complex characteristics and are driven by a multitude of interdisciplinary perspectives and experience levels. As Russell Ackoff observes, “managers are not confronted with separate problems but with situations that consist of complex systems of strongly interacting problems.”

The New Organization. Functional, divisional, and matrix organizations have not effectively addressed changes in business realities. Their inflexibility and command and control mentality has led to a new management revolution searching for process improvement and connectivity.

Conversely, process organizations have demonstrated improved efficiency and faster time-to-market because they do not operate according to the command-and-control paradigm of preceding organizational designs. Process-driven organizations are more capable of adapting to “discontinuous change” than were their predecessors.

The new organization is a flat, disaggregated structure, composed of complex webs of relationships, purpose-driven, team-based, and information technology-dependent. It is the “networked” organization.

Managers in such organizations exist to facilitate the group orientation toward a common purpose and to provide support relationships (whether temporary or fixed) and not processes, which are central to organizational effectiveness. The boss-subordinate relationship is no longer dominant. It is supplanted by relationships based on the mutual exchange of products, services, and information to ensure attainment of organizational goals and objectives.

Managing Teams in a Networked Environment. Networked organizations are “Information Age” organizations designed to adapt quickly, effectively and efficiently to rapid and discontinuous change. They are characterized by teams forming and disbanding at relatively rapid rates of speed; coalescing around opportunities and key issues or problems, and disbanding when issues are resolved.

Information workers are particularly well-suited to networked environments because they are self-managed and have direct access to information required for their work. Information technology is critical because these organizations depend on their members’ ability to interpret information and make decisions without exhaustive analysis.

Project Environments are Complex. The project environment is a set of conditions existing within a larger organizational context. These conditions are rarely perceived and interpreted the same way by members of the organization.

Project planning must reflect an understanding of the project environment and demonstrate a degree of sensitivity and finesse to ensure that goals and objectives are met within a larger organizational context.

It is often not the plan itself that limits its utility, but how the plan fits into the planning environment. Hence, a focus on the planning environment is critical to successfully developing, implementing and changing plans.

Collaborative Problem Solving. Collaborative problem solving is about addressing problems and managing relationships. Collaborative power comes from networked members’ ability to focus attention quickly and effectively to define and analyze problems by tapping the resources and knowledge of the entire network. Effective teams share information, negotiate with a focus on the goal, and work to invent options for mutual gain.

Multidisciplinary problems are a collaborative exercise that forces people with different perspectives to work together. Information exchange is critical to success but is often complicated by differences in professional paradigms, interests and values.

Systems Thinking Transcends Mechanistic Limitations. In a linear world, the whole is the sum of its parts. By analyzing the component parts and connecting them together, the whole is understood. Simple machines may be understood in this mechanistic way, but most complex systems cannot. The real world is not linear and the parts do not add up to the whole. The economy, the human body, and the natural world are examples of complex systems that defy comprehension through mechanistic thinking.

Mechanistic thinking also assumes a simple, often singular goal. Human activity systems rarely pursue a single goal because competing goals and subgoals are often present. These goals must be collaboratively prioritized or balanced through some form of systematic and systemic problem solving.

Complex systems require strategies that accommodate their nonlinearity. A new form of systems thinking, sometimes called “soft systems thinking,” has emerged to deal with “wild” or “unbounded” problems—problems marked by uncertainty, ambiguity and competing goals. Soft systems thinking precedes engineering, i.e., “hard systems thinking,” in most problem solving by defining the problem situation and identifying a clear goal before problem solving is attempted.

The primary task in soft systems thinking is to characterize the system (planning environment) and bound the problem (project). The planning environment and the goals of its relevant components must be understood before the plan is developed and articulated.

This is often not the case in mechanistic thinking processes because they are focused on answering the presumed problem in terms of structures, systems and strategies. Holistic systems thinking systematically integrates these considerations with sociocultural, human resource and political concerns to define the problem situation and bound the project.

Changing Worldviews to Address Future Challenges. The mechanistic world view is reductionistic and linear, while real-world problems are nonlinear and composed of interconnected lesser problems in flux. Developing and implementing viable plans and managing projects requires a holistic systems view of context. Few relationships in complex systems are linear or manifest direct cause-and-effect relationships, thus an appreciation of the systemic nature of interrelationships and processes is required.

Sound strategic choices depend on our ability to see patterns, not pieces. Planning and managing projects in networked environments is facilitated by our ability to recognize and manage patterns of relationships as they relate to changing internal and external conditions.

Science historian James Burke states that “specialism and reductionism was fine up to yesterday, but it will not do for the future. The reductionistic view focuses on a small area that matters, without questioning its larger relevance.”

The Current Educational Paradigm

The education debate among project management academics and practitioners continues to seek a balance between fundamentals and application. There may be no clear resolution to the controversy of how best to educate project managers, but a review of the current education systems reveals that achieving a holistic perspective may be problematic.

A History of Partitioning Knowledge. Partitioning education is the norm at the collegiate level. A review of education statistics reveals that there are 30 prominent fields of study, each with multiple subspecialties. Only one of the 30 fields is labeled multidisciplinary.

The statistics for multidisciplinary education are remarkable. Between 1992 and 1994, approximately 2 percent of the 2.3 million bachelor's degrees awarded were multidisciplinary. At the master's and doctoral level, the percentages decrease to 0.66 percent and 0.50 percent, respectively. During this same period, only 758 degrees in systems science were awarded at all levels.

Multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary education has not garnered enough support to become a viable movement. Between 1980 and 1994, approximately 0.50 percent of all master's and doctoral degrees awarded were multidisciplinary. Our current educational systems are violating a fundamental precept of design: “form follows function.” Business is no longer about assembling simple machines, it is now about synthesizing information and innovation. Teaching methods and curricula that improve a student's ability to integrate information and transfer knowledge from one field to another are clearly becoming the prerequisites for success in the future.


Further Reading

Ackoff, Russell L. 1994 (Summer–Fall). Systems Thinking and Thinking Systems. Systems Dynamics Review, 10, 2–3: 175–188.

Ackoff, Russell L. 1981. Creating the Corporate Future. New York: John Wiley and Sons. Burke, James. 1993 (March). Lecture presented in Portland, Oregon. Checkland, Peter B. 1981. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Drucker, Peter F. 1993. Post-Capitalist Society. New York: Harper Business.

Koskso, Bart. 1993. Fuzzy Thinking. New York: Hyperion.

MetaSkill Consulting Group. 1994. Managing in a Network Organization.

PMI Standards Committee. 1996. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Upper Darby, Pa.: PMI.

The Digest of Education Statistics. 1996. Tables 208, 209, and 244.

The Project Management Body of Knowledge. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge is only an outline of key topic areas relevant to managing projects; as stated in the preface to the 1996 edition, “clearly, one document will never contain the entire project management body of knowledge.”

The Project Management Institute has made notable gains in presenting a uniform body of information relative to project planning, management, and control. The PMBOK Guide outlines nine subject areas relevant to project management, three of which are particularly useful in developing the foundation of systems thinking—integration management, communications management, and human resources management. Although the topic content for any one of the sections is, at best, an outline, the movement toward attempting to understand the whole and its parts is promising.

Training, Seminars, Symposia. An abundance of organizations, both private and professional, offer subject matter expertise in various formats. Each offering has merit for the target audience, yet few organizations have developed an integrative approach built upon the use of multidisciplinary methodology. In essence, the “education circuit” continues to partition knowledge, thereby propagating the same methodology and thinking found in college settings.

Addressing the Future

Since the future of project management is inextricably linked with the future of business, project management education must develop sound fundamentals and integrate other disciplines into the body of knowledge, thereby providing a holistic platform to address the new business realities. Three tenets are suggested to build the foundation and create an infrastructure for continued improvement.

Embrace the PMBOK Guide Infrastructure. Understanding the basics of project infrastructure is paramount. Without the foundation and its basic tenets, project management is reactionary and ineffective. The PMBOK Guide is the best model for project infrastructure—complete, logical, and based upon the subject matter expertise. Embracing the PMBOK Guide ensures infrastructure competence.

Address the New Business Realities. The new business realities are becoming well-entrenched and pervasive across the organizational landscape. Their importance to networked organizations that must leverage technology, improve process efficiency and efficacy, and exploit knowledge assets cannot be underestimated. The ability to plan and manage in complex, dynamic, and turbulent environments must be mastered. The survival and growth imperative for business is also true for project management education.

Develop Curricula With a Systems Perspective. Systems science is an integrative approach to today's complex problems. It combines analysis (to understand the component parts) and synthesis (to understand the larger, contextual whole). Systems thinking provides the necessary holistic perspective to elevate both technical topic areas and the PMBOK Guide to a new level of integration. Developing curricula that incorporates holistic thinking into the fundamentals will provide the thread through multiple disciplines, thereby allowing their relevance, applicability, and strengths to enhance the arsenal and toolkit available to practicing project managers and for generations to come. img

Steven M. Price is a project management consultant with Automatic Data Processing, a Fortune 500 computer services organization. He holds an MBA and B.S. degrees in chemistry and industrial engineering.

Rene-Marc Mangin, Ph.D., is a systems scientist and management consultant with the Bonneville Power Administration. He holds B.S. degrees in cell biology and environmental science, an M.S. in environmental toxicology, and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in systems science, cultural anthropology, and public administration.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • September 1997



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