Project Management Institute

You do what for a living?

-BY MARK INGEBRETSEN-

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OUR SOCIETY MAKES HEROES of project managers. Think of Craig Venter, the scientist and entrepreneur who leapfrogged a well-funded government program by devising a better, cheaper, faster way of sequencing the human genome. And anyone who now eats dinner in peace, uninterrupted by telemarketers, should be thankful for the crash effort by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to create the nationwide Do Not Call Registry.

But if project managers and their work can earn praise and gratitude, why hasn't the field of project management received the recognition it deserves? And what can project managers do to heighten the visibility of their profession?

As it turns out, project managers in North America, Europe and Australia hold widely different views on what project managers must do to boost their image, from increasing the number of doctoral programs in project management to selling organizations on the idea of a project-centric culture. Whether organizations know it or not, their very survival depends on the success of their projects. Which means, of course, “project managers have to perform and projects have to perform,” says Gerry Dodd, owner of GerryDoddAssociates, Chichester, West Sussex, England, and a director for the PMI U.K. Chapter.

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Project managers have to perform and projects have to perform.

—GERRY DODD, owner of GerryDoddAssociates, Chichester, West Sussex, England

That fact alone would seem to guarantee hero status to project managers in all organizations. But unfortunately, that's not the case. And according to some project managers, the problem may begin with how project managers themselves perceive their profession.

HARD TO DEFINE

“Project management has such broad application that everyone perceives it in different ways, according to Mark Ives, a project management consultant and director of Meta Project Management, Melbourne, Australia, who heads up the PMI Melbourne, Australia, Chapter. “It could be my son writing a paper on the Second World War, or someone else could be building a skyscraper,” he says. “People believe project management is confined to their own specialty.”

That perception problem inevitably extends from individuals to the organizations where project managers work. People don't “perceive project management as a discipline,” says Renaud de Camprieu, who directs the Master's program in project management at the University of Québec, but rather “an application of management.”

The perception problem increases when organizations hire project managers. “The field is so broad that people don't know what they should be interviewing for,” says Michelle O'Donovan, a project management consultant in New Dundee, Ontario, Canada. Too little knowledge can be dangerous. Management looks for the technical skills. “People may seek project managers who know how to put together a Gantt chart or timeline as opposed to someone who can really rally a team,” she says.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Mr. de Camprieu believes that project management lacks the support structure within higher education that other business disciplines enjoy. As an example, he points to his own background, which includes 15 years of project management experience. Even so, his Ph.D. is in marketing.

“If project management is to mature, we need to have much more research than now,” he says. And that means more doctoral students trained to carry out that research.

Yet, as it stands, very few project management professors possess a Ph.D. in project management, Mr. de Camprieu says, which stems from the fact that few schools teach it at the doctoral level and as an independent business discipline in its own right. At the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, for instance, the doctoral program in project management is organized jointly by the engineering and business schools.

With so few Ph.D.s in project management available, schools developing programs may be forced to hire faculty “based on experience,” rather than academic credentials, Mr. de Camprieu says, adding that a mature profession needs both practitioners and researchers.

Students themselves may compel schools to add or enhance project management programs. Mr. de Camprieu has noticed that an increasing number of students applying for his program do not have project management experience, though they realize they need it. Moreover, in the past, students had engineering and construction backgrounds. Now, “people are coming from all walks of life,” he says.

This new interest has been met with explosive growth in Master's-level project management programs, says Jim Joiner, who directs the Project Management Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He says that six to seven years ago there were 15 to 20 schools, compared to more than 100 now.

INTO THE ORGANIZATION

While research in the project management field may be scarce in comparison to other disciplines, much of it centers on techniques for selling organizations on the value of project management, Mr. de Camprieu says.

A groundswell of support seemingly exists within organizations for getting worldwide organizations to embrace, value and utilize project management and attribute their success to it. Ninety-five percent of business leaders and project management professionals would like to see a shift in the way project managers contribute to the business, according to research presented at the Business Performance & Project Management London exhibition in March.

The pharmaceuticals industry has embraced project management groupthink, according to Mr. Dodd. “The pharmaceutical industry has adopted the culture,” he says. Drug companies have to bring a product to market. There are huge costs involved, not to mention labyrinthine legal and regulatory hurdles and make-or-break marketing programs, he says. Indeed, Wall Street analysts evaluate drug companies in terms of their pipeline—the drug-development projects they have in the works.

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But there are organizations in areas other than IT, technology and engineering that “get it.” The Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, for example, goes so far as to define its criteria for successful project management on the recruitment pages of the company's Web site, saying “No matter the scope, our project managers have a large impact on our success. Our successful project managers manage to a budget, keep processes moving, communicate progress, weigh costs and benefits, measure results and deliver on time.”

That appreciation is vital to the success of projects within an organization, not to mention the job security of the project managers that work there. “It's critical that you have people who understand the true benefit of the skills found within the profession sitting in the executive strategy meetings and helping executives prioritize and scope strategic objectives,” Ms. O'Donovan says.

But all too often, project managers find they're the only champions of their discipline in organizations that don't fully grasp their field. That's where the selling process comes in. And the message might be that organizations already utilize project management without knowing it. As Mr. Ives says, “Lots of jobs could be relabeled project management jobs.”

CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE

In the past, project managers trying to sell their organizations on the value of their discipline often have gotten a big boost from the macro business environment.

In the early 1980s, for example, the total quality leadership movement made project management popular “because a lot of the sought-after improvements were project-driven,” Mr. Joiner says. Later in the decade, corporations underwent massive reorganizations, eliminating entire layers of management in the process. “People left, but much of the work didn't,” he says. As a result, project managers were called upon to pull things together.

At the same time, technology came to project managers' aid. “One of the big things that has helped project management has been distributed software, which allowed project managers to broaden their outlook,” Mr. Joiner says. “That is, while the software managed number-crunching and other rote tasks, project managers were able to focus on areas such as leadership.

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Once you outsource, you basically set up a project that has to be run.

—JIM JOINER, Project Management Program, University of Texas at Dallas

Today, several trends are making organizations rely on project management even more. Product life cycles have shortened, Mr. Dodd says, while change has become rampant everywhere. The entire business environment can shift while projects are underway, making it critical to have project leaders who understand how to guide projects through the stormy periods.

The outsourcing trend may wind up as the most empowering for project managers, in particular the international outsourcing of IT and other technical jobs, Mr. Joiner says. “Once you outsource, you basically set up a project that has to be run.”

When diverse groups are involved in a project, project managers must shift their emphasis from processes to people, Mr. Dodd says. “If you're managing people in different countries, you can't just give them a standard process, because that process might not work in Germany while it would work in Japan,” he says.

ROUTE TO THE TOP

Project managers that do reach executive standing do so “as a result of some other skill,” Mr. de Camprieu says. And that's because “running a project is different from running a business.” Another problem, he says, is that “not too many people are good at project management. And when companies have someone who is good, they want to keep them as project managers.”

Others disagree. Mr. Joiner describes a clear upward path for project managers. Using his hierarchy, successful project management would lead to the next step, which is program management and finally to enterprise management.

Likewise, Ms. O'Donovan has high hopes for project managers' future career prospects. “Every organization has to align and empower those who can pull things together.” She sees project management becoming the “main paradigm by which business gets done in the organization,” what Mr. Ives alternately calls “the emerging default management approach.”

Of course there will be those project managers who thrive on the excitement of moving from one high-profile project to another. “We'll always have the group that want to go build a bridge across the Nile or a big office building,” Mr. Joiner says.

And no doubt our society will continue to see them as heroes. img

Mark Ingebretsen is a daily columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online.

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{35 YEARS} PROJECT MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE

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.

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