The scholarship of integration
by Timothy Ricordati
AS PROJECT MANAGEMENT COMES OF AGE, becoming not only an accepted business practice but a critical cornerstone of many companies’ competitive strategies, the issue of how to best educate project managers receives increased attention. At the heart of this discussion is the fact that project management education, which requires students to gain cross-functional expertise and master the ability to expertly integrate them to achieve an ultimate goal, challenges the status quo of an educational system designed around specialization and division of labor.
It may be that project management, with its emphasis on flexibility and fluid response to changing circumstances, may pose a new paradigm for education. This new paradigm, ironically, recalls preindustrial economy and the archetype of the artisan.
The Apprenticeship Paradigm. In the modern mind, the relationship between education and professional careers is so closely tied, we find it difficult to realize that not very long ago, historically speaking, this was not the case.
Most universities in the first half of the 19th century focused on education in the “classics”—languages, religion and philosophy. The mission of these institutions was the cultivation of the individual or preparation for religious vocations, not to prepare professionals to fill the ranks of business organizations. Similarly, the primary and secondary grades taught manners and morals in addition to basic literacy and math skills.
In preindustrial society, workers received preparation for trades outside the schoolroom. Artisans were one of the most important classes of workers. They compensated for the simplicity of their tools by the application of considerable skill, often creating products of great artistry and complexity. The apprenticeship process was the fundamental approach to training new members of a craft. After extensive periods as apprentices, many went on to become journeymen who worked alongside the owner/master craftsman of a shop. These journeymen, in turn, aspired to become masters in their own right. The philosophy of the apprenticeship system was that command of a particular craft or vocation came only over time—and that time needed to be devoted to learning about every aspect, even the most mundane, associated with the trade.
By dramatically altering the way products were manufactured in this country, the industrial revolution simultaneously launched a change in the way society prepared people for work—although it would take almost 70 years to achieve our current system. In early industrialized society, most factories simply looked like large-scale replicas of shops because their founders had no other business models to draw upon. The expectation was that efficiencies could be gained by bringing skilled labor together as a group around the sources of power, materials and equipment. The success of these factories and management still relied heavily on the insights, experience and innovation of workers. Over time, however, new technologies and new processes changed the equation.
“Scientific” Management at Work—and at School. Management's desire to gain control of the pace and caliber of work gave rise to the widespread adoption of “scientific management” techniques and principles. These principles, which promised machinelike precision of workers, coupled with the elevated significance of technological developments, suggested the new business utopia for management—the totally automated workplace.
Automation of manufacturing really took off after convergence of two more innovations: standardization of products for mass markets and division of labor. Subdividing the construction of products into component tasks allowed manufacturers to produce goods more cheaply and, consequently, obtain more market share. The efficiencies achievable by combining all three were epitomized by the success of the assembly line. The result was a push toward constant reorganization and increasing automation even though these new methods were often more expensive and less efficient than the worker-dominated process. Because it fostered the illusion of total control, free of operator error, this concept became one of the driving principles of business for the next century. Over time, new inventions replaced dependence on traditional approaches, power equipment supplanted skills and artistry, and mass production, with its emphasis on uniformity, displaced quality or choice.
The division of labor did not stop on the factory floor. As companies grew in proportion to the profits they reaped, the administration of their operations became increasingly difficult for the narrowly educated (or noneducated) entrepreneurs who started them. As a result, the concept of specialization crept into the supervisory ranks of the factories. Just as efficiencies were gained by subdividing factory work, so did it make sense that the functional areas of the company could be divided and handled by specialists assigned to them.
Our educational system and the bodies of knowledge that drive it are still extremely specialized and integration of disciplines within the traditional academic environment is very difficult. Even such areas as finance and engineering, which share core competencies and reliance on modeling and projections, are considered distinct bodies of knowledge and are very inward-looking. In fact, even the PMBOK Guide, based on traditional academic approaches, is stovepiped.
Early on, engineering emerged as one of the most important professions in industrialization. By the 1950s, when production began to exceed demand, the engineers, foremen and supervisors who ran the factories were joined by marketers who specialized in identifying and persuading new markets of consumers to use the rapidly proliferating products. Later, with the coming of conglomerates, big mergers and tender offers, lawyers and financial specialists staked out domains in corporate management. Each functional area became increasingly stovepiped and hierarchical— information traveled up and down, but crossed over only at the ranks of top management.
The educational process in the United States was heavily influenced by these developments. The industrial revolution created an unprecedented demand not only for basic literacy and math skills for factory workers, but also for specialized forms of knowledge for engineers, accountants, architects and other functional areas. As a result, education expanded tremendously to serve all economic tiers in society, and educational institutions increasingly took on the role of training people for employment.
During the early part of this century, elementary and secondary schools even took on an assembly-line process, with each grade and teacher taking on certain teaching tasks, processing all students through the same information, then passing them on to the next grade for further processing. Colleges tapped a similar approach but with a major difference. Many teachers, specialists in their disciplines, contributed to students’ learning during each phase. However, like the management in companies, instructors interacted mainly within their departments, not across professional areas.
Throughout the 20th century, professionalization—the process by which university-derived knowledge is defined and regulated by the professional associations and the state—increasingly became the norm in this country. And as innovation expanded the total amount of knowledge altogether, learning was segmented into narrower and narrower bands of specialization. For example, in 1914 there were roughly 4,000 graduates of engineering programs. By 1993, there were roughly 108,000 graduates of bachelor's and master's degree level engineering and engineering-related disciplines that encompassed roughly 28 specializations, as classified by the National Center for Education Statistics. In the same year, there were almost 432,000 graduates of business management, administration, marketing, computer and communications programs—which among them include up to 43 concentrations.
The division of labor had metamorphasized into the division of knowledge. But in the 1970s, the U.S. economy began to undergo a tremendous shift that would cause business and industry to rethink such intense specialization.
Technological advances were transforming the economy. The cost per ton of international transportation dropped, gradually representing only a small portion of the expense of shipping products from one nation to the other. Advanced telecommunications made it possible—even easy—for corporations to control operations on the other side of the globe. International financial networks could transfer capital across national boundaries in seconds. Synthetics began replacing natural raw materials. U.S. dominance, based on abundant raw materials and superior infrastructures, was being threatened by a truly integrated world economy. Any company, located anywhere, could now purchase raw materials at the best price, convert them into products where labor was cheapest, and ship them to where the best price could be had.
Consumers were upping the ante as well. Increasingly dissatisfied with the one-size-fits-all mass marketing approach, consumers began demanding higher quality and more customization to their specific needs. Companies began capturing and organizing vast quantities of customer-specific information to develop strategies to reach consumers first with the right design and price—thus compressing time-to-market and dramatically shortening product lifecycles. In a heated competitive environment, corporate success was more and more determined by the capacity to generate new knowledge and the ability of the work force to apply that knowledge swiftly and skillfully in the production process.
In the wake of these trends, project management emerged as a powerful tool. Teambased decision-making offers companies a critical advantage by allowing quicker communication and integration of information and knowledge across functional areas to shorten the product development or production cycle or to improve quality. This teambased approach hearkens back to the artisan-based production model in that one entity needs to hold all the requisite knowledge to make informed decisions for quick response to uncertain or unfavorable circumstances. The strength and success of the team depends greatly on how holistically they perform—how much like a single unit. To do this, they must share the same values and language and have access to the same tools. It makes sense, then, that the education of the project team should in some ways depart from the precedent developed over the 20th century.
Back to the Future. At the heart of the issue is the fact that our educational system and the bodies of knowledge that drive it are still extremely specialized. The integration of disciplines within the traditional academic environment is very difficult. Even such areas as finance and engineering, which share core competencies and reliance on modeling and projections, are considered distinct bodies of knowledge and are very inward-looking. In fact, even the PMBOK Guide, based on traditional academic approaches, is stovepiped. The recent addition of Integration as a PMBOK Guide knowledge area has been helpful, but the primary focus of the Guide and of the PMP examination continues to be on specific subject areas, such as Risk, Cost, and so on. Moreover, project management still relies heavily on testing of knowledge areas rather than on gauging the ability of managers to apply project management expertise.
But because it represents one of the truly integrated professions, the project management discipline offers us a rare opportunity to transcend and perhaps improve the educational status quo. Consider the fact that the project manager must integrate such divergent areas as human resources management, with its intensive behavioral focus, with engineering, with its equally intensive rationalist focus. How then can one construct an integrated approach to the study and mastery of these disparate knowledge areas to properly equip the project manager?
The spectrum of initiatives runs the gamut from those that can be implemented in the traditional academic setting to more radical ideas that move beyond our current educational structures.
In a traditional educational context, we can implement:
Cross-disciplinary courses. As a first step in this process, academic administrators must strongly resist the tendency toward specialized courses and demand a rethinking of the pedagogical approach to curricula design. Designers need to break out of academic stovepipes and focus on creating truly cross-disciplinary courses that incorporate integration among many disciplines. To do this, they need to be cross-trained in adjacent disciplines and rotated through assignments so that they do not become too entrenched or loyal to a specific functional area. Consultation on course development should happen in cross-functional team or group environments. And curricula designers should incorporate systems to obtain regular and specific feedback on how well students are able to apply knowledge gained.
Application-based focus. Both curricula designers and faculty need to have a strong practitioner focus. Instructors who work as project managers in business and industry will be much more apt to teach and emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of project management, even in traditional stovepiped courses.
Partnerships. Through partnerships with employers of project managers, educational institutions can re-create some of the master/apprentice relationships that are essential to the teaching of an integrated discipline. This approach can instill the real-world experience, critical thinking and judgment skills requisite in the project manager who is constantly forced to make trade-offs among cost, time and performance criteria.
In addition to these, other more radical proposals have also been advanced. It may be that we will need to move strongly away from traditional lecture-based teaching approaches to team-based learning of groups of students guided and mentored by faculty. The ultimate expression of this model may be a “just in time” educational method that changes the role of the instructor from the “sage on the stage” to that of the “guide on the side.” In this scenario, the instructor progressively facilitates a single group of students through simulation-based case studies of increasing complexity. This kind of model also opens up the possibility of demand-driven education, in which students are presented with either real or simulated projects in which they first need to determine what knowledge or skills they need to accomplish tasks, and only subsequently receive such instruction from faculty. Small-scale experiments of this kind have already been attempted. Should they prove successful, the challenge will be to operationalize them as a large-scale educational innovation.
The question of when in the student's educational path should integrated study of project management occur is also an interesting one. Traditionally, project management has been taught at the graduate level, with the most successful mix being when practitioner faculty teach to mid-career adults. However, many experts advocate that project management should be introduced to the students as a discipline at a much earlier age, with cooperative learning introduced as an educational method. Some undergraduate schools are now teaching project management, but what about at secondary or even primary education levels? If, as it appears, project management represents a post-industrial profession and perhaps even a new paradigm, then there may be a strong case for incorporating such change earlier into the educational process, similar to the developments that occurred during the industrial revolution.
THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that a larger proportion of the jobs in the post-industrial economy will involve integrated, cross-disciplinary efforts. The ability of individuals to adapt to this environment will be critical not only to their personal success, but also to the proficiency with which organizations manage their operations in a global economy. And, underlying the success of all will be those educational institutions that prove adept at addressing the changing needs of the project management profession.
Timothy Ricordati, Ph.D, dean of Keller Graduate School of Management headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., received his doctorate in education with an emphasis in adult education and curriculum development from Nova Southeastern University and a master's in education and a bachelor's in business from Northern Illinois University.
PM Network • September 1997