Project Management Institute

The project management profession

knowledge or faith?


by J. Rodney Turner

IN THE PAST YEAR, PM Network has run several articles on the professionalization of project management. I believe it's time to ask ourselves: Is project management a profession? And if so, What role do we expect our professional associations to fulfill?

Definitions. I have seen two definitions of profession. On first sight, they appear to be radically different; however, on closer inspection, they are just different sides of the same coin. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's American Dictionary offer these two main definitions: “a vocation requiring higher learning” and “an avowal (of faith).” The dictionaries give the words in order of first usage, which means the older usage comes first. However, since both definitions derive from a Latin word meaning to declare publicly, so they would appear to be equally valid. Perhaps it is only in modern usage that we have begun to draw a distinction between knowledge and faith!

Can we prove that project management works? Or do we simply believe that it does?

Is project management based on knowledge or belief (faith)? That is, do we manage our projects in a certain way because we know, based on sound science, that doing so will lead to a better outcome; or is it because we believe, or have faith, that our approach is best? Does the answer to this question make a difference to the support we expect from our professional associations?

A Vocation Requiring Higher Learning. I think “a vocation” is what most of us around the globe mean when we ask ourselves if project management is a profession. In order for project management to be a profession it must be based on higher learning and knowledge, and to become a professional an individual must acquire that knowledge and be able to use it. Thus, the support we would expect from our professional associations would be to:

1. Define the knowledge upon which the profession is based

2. Contribute to the further development of that knowledge

Rodney Turner is director of the European Centre for Project Excellence. He is also professor of project management at Erasmus University Rotterdam; president of the International Project Management Association; immediate past chair of the UK‘s Association for Project Management; and a PMI member.

3. Define the minimum knowledge and competence in its use required to be a member of the profession

4. Aid the continuing professional development of members of the profession

5. Welcome potential new entrants to the profession, and aid their development in the profession

6. Assess individuals to determine whether they have achieved the required minimum levels of knowledge and competence to be professionals

7. Certify individuals so that the public at large can be assured of their competence to practice as professionals.

Professional associations around the world do these things to a greater or lesser extent. In June 1999,33 members of the Global Forum and the global working parties met in Norfolk,Va., under the sponsorship of NASA, to begin the process of developing a globally agreed-upon body of knowledge. People sometimes question whether project management can be a global profession. My own view is that although there may be essential differences reflecting local law, regulation or culture, there is a substantial proportion of the body of knowledge that applies globally. Indeed, why limit ourselves to the innermost sphere? Surely we can achieve a universal profession, which applies just as well on the moon, or Mars, or Alpha Centauri, or the Starship Enterprise—I‘m not being flippant, but making the point that we need to think to the future.

An Avowal of Faith. Though you may find this definition extraordinary, it is an interesting philosophical question as to whether management in general and project management in particular can be defined by knowledge. Although sterling efforts have been made globally to define the project management body of knowledge, there are some blocks to realizing that goal. For example, project management lacks a strong theoretical base. Yes, there is an extensive body of knowledge, including many familiar tools and techniques. However, the project management body of knowledge is not based on a series of premises, from which a strong, consistent theory is derived; it is based more on empirical evidence.

Myths have thus developed about what is good project management practice. One in particular is the so-called “triple constraint” of time, cost and quality. Peter Morris, past chairman of the UK‘s Association for Project Management and a PMI member, has pointed out that the focus on these three is becoming positively dangerous. A growing body of evidence indicates that the single most important contributor to project success is agreement on the success criteria with the stakeholders at the start of the project—and things other than time, cost and quality may be important to the stakeholders. Yet, this myth prevails.

If belief that one approach to managing a project will be better than another is still to a large extent based on faith rather than on firm science, then perhaps the project management profession at the moment remains an avowal of that faith. If so, then the professional associations are the “churches” to which the believers belong, and through which they try to spread the faith to others. The church continues to have the duty of providing people development in the faith, covering points 1 to 6 above. However, it is not possible to define defendable standards against which to judge individual performance, because they are not predicated on a sound theoretical base. It is also more difficult to obtain global agreement. Just as people find they wish to express their religious beliefs in different—but all perfectly valid—ways, so too people may wish to express their managerial beliefs in equally diverse ways.

I THINK MOST OF US ascribe to the first definition when we call project management a profession. Still we must realize that, to become a mature profession, it is necessary to develop the theoretical basis of the subject. This means not just continuing to add to the extensive lists of tools and techniques used by practicing project managers, but also developing a set of premises about the purpose of project management, the criteria and factors for judging and achieving success on projects, and hence what constitutes good project management practice.

Then we can truly have knowledge about what will and won't work in the successful delivery of projects, and not just rely on blind faith based on what has worked in the past. images

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PM Network October 1999



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