What is project management?

Project management is about developing and implementing a product, service, event or facility within a predetermined time frame, budget and quality parameters. The Project Manager usually leads a team of functional disciplines and specialists, whether internal or external of the organisation, towards a common goal.

Originating in the civil engineering and building industries, the discipline of project management has evolved into a formal career path and sought after skill in the workplace. Since the establishment of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in Europe and the Project Management Institute (PMI) in the USA in the 1960’s, the value of project management practices were introduced to, and accepted by almost all non-engineering industries.

In order to customise and internalise the practice of project management in organisations various project management methodologies had been developed. These methodologies range from general, high level stage-gate approaches to industry and company specific project systems. Most of the methodologies used are quite rigid in their processes, supporting a notion of compliance and reference for project auditing. However, in recent years a more agile approach to project management emerged, especially for complex and technology related projects. In September 2012, ISO 21500 – Guidance on Project Management was launched, indicating that project management is a well-recognised and maturing management discipline.

The advantage of adopting a project management approach towards achieving organisational goals is becoming more evident. The terms ‘management by projects’ and ‘project-based management’ are often used to emphasise a specific approach towards management. In a recent study sponsored by the PMI it was found that there is a positive correlation between project success and the level of project management maturity in organisations.

Judging by the growing number of people enrolling in project management training at various training institutions, the awareness of the value of project management as a skill are well recognised by corporate and public institutions. However, even though much is spent on project management training the question remains whether the organisations with strong functional departments make the necessary internal organisational adjustments to allow the new acquired project management skills to be further developed, supported and practiced across the various departments. Often learners will be make the remark “I wish my boss could attend the project training course”.

Despite the development of project management as a discipline and organisational function, it remains a scarce skill. The reasons are:
Project management is a very stressful job. The Project Manager is always under time and cost pressure which often leads ‘burn-out’.

In strong functional and especially public sector organisations with specific directorates, the Project Manager has a lot of accountability but very limited, and even no authority. The Project Manager has to work with project teams with members representing various functions and if they do not get top management support they sometimes do get disillusioned.
Overrunning project budgets and schedules are often the result of poor initial estimations and not necessarily poor management by the implementing project manager. This result in the Project Manager being blamed for the poor cost and time performance of a project that he/she inherited.

Good project managers often move very quickly into senior and top management position. The technical and managerial skills required for good project managers are also those associated with top management and therefor the career path of project managers often ends at the top level of organisations.

Despite the above it remains one of the most satisfying occupations in the world. With project management you create something that others can benefit from. At the end of a successful project you can look back and see the difference it makes in peoples’ lifes – a ‘statue’ that you show to others and tell them ‘I was part of that’.

Despite the development of project management tools, techniques and skills over the past 50 years, the failure rate of projects are still too high. Even though the performance and quality of parameters of projects have improved too many projects still exceed their approved budgets and schedules.

Responding to these challenges the following aspects of project management are receiving much attention in the research and practice: The management of projects at a more strategic level. Concepts such as project portfolio and programme management are very popular with organisations realising that project must be aligned with corporate strategic objectives.

The definition, context and role of project governance – especially in large capital and public projects where the opportunities of misconduct are ample.
The moving away from too rigid systems to a hybrid form of agile and stage-gate management of the project life-cycle.
The professionalization of the project management.

Dr Giel Bekker, Snr Lecturer in Project Management, Graduate School of Technology Management, University of Pretoria