Finding the gaps in project management

Ted Brooks
March 16, 2011

In less than two decades project management has developed from a body of knowledge to aspiring to become a profession. But where is it now? Where is it going? How will it get there? How has project management emerged in organisations and been affected by their evolution?

Projects carried out in organisations—such as organisational changes that may involve changing work practices or systems, developing a new system of work process or a technology refresh, or a merger or business acquisition—seem to suffer from a dearth of project management processes available to carry out these projects compared with those found in the manufacturing or construction industries.

There is a gap in the availability of tools that assist organisations with IT projects and provide a consistent framework; this is made more difficult because these areas do not necessarily carry out projects as their sole business, as the construction and manufacturing industries do, to deliver their products.

Can lessons learnt from the construction industry be used in IT and organisational projects? The project management industry needs to become involved in a journey of continual development and improvement of tools and processes for projects generally. This journey must start with the theory, as the answers do not currently exist. Here is a brief examination of where we are right now in terms of the gap between the theory and practice of IT and organisational projects, and a starting point to ask ‘where to from here?’

Identifying the gap

If you visit a construction site and ask who is the project manager, the site manager and site OH&S officer, and where is the project office, you will be informed who they are and directed to them. Enquire as to how you can come on site and you will be informed you need to do a site induction and the general process required for this.

Now walk into any organisation and ask them what is the largest most critical project they are currently running (and we have all been involved in them or even managed them) and ask similar questions and compare the answers. With such a simple exercise I believe we see a vast difference in organisation and process for these two types of projects.

While the construction industry will demonstrate clear guidelines and processes, the IT and organisational areas will provide a vast array of differing processes and methodologies and few, if any, guidelines and regulations, or sophisticated software tools. Additionally, there is a lack of any standard approach or methodology.

The analogy with construction projects and projects in organisations and IT projects extends to highlight the lack of standard processes, guidelines, rules or tools in the latter. In construction projects, there is a known quantity in terms of the length of time required to build a building, therefore some reasonable estimates can be made during the first stage of construction—feasibility—including site selection and assessment and net present value lifecycle calculation. Would everyone be able to agree on what is the first stage of a project carried out in an organisation or IT area? This will differ according to the organisation, and even business division, as to methods used.

While construction projects must have a plan before they can commence, projects in organisations and IT areas often commence with an expectation set by senior management or executive management at the outset, and is based on no plan or estimation of work to be performed or cost or any other scientific or actual data. It is often a wishlist without any relation to measurement of time against task by resource or requirement examination or estimation, even at the highest level, and is politically driven due to the fast pace of change in organisations today and the need to respond rapidly.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Australia was instrumental in the development of the National Competency Standards for Project Management (NCSPM), which are now the standards for project manager accreditation and certification. It was considered that project management would become a profession with all of the attributes of a profession with its own body of knowledge, rules and regulations and guidelines, and a code of ethics. Where are these things today?

The success or failure of a project in organisations or an IT area seems wholly dependent on the capabilities of the project manager and the people involved, and not on any process that can be repeated to provide any assurance of successful delivery if followed correctly. Project managers in these areas are being asked to do more with less support and resources, but without guidelines or standardised processes.

The ‘professional’ (certified) project manager is kept current by gaining points to demonstrate their competency by attending conferences and seminars etc to gauge their continuing professional development, and must rely on their application of PMBoK and knowledge of the tools and processes they are familiar with and bring to the project to ensure delivery.

Without highlighting any particular project failures, some government projects in Australia provide examples of underestimating project duration and costs and making assumptions. Some Australian states are haemorrhaging billions of dollars in wasted project money due to incompetence in project estimation, poor and, in some cases, suspect procurement decisions and lack of project management systems. It must also be stated that some government areas in Australia and instrumentalities are excellent examples of project management competence, but there exists a very large gap in this area.

Author avatar
Ted Brooks
Ted Brooks, BA (Soc) Post Grad PM, is a project management consultant with 20 years experience working on projects in organisations involving systems and workplace changes and IT projects and building infrastructure projects.
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