Project management's perilous future

The future of the project management discipline hinges on the successful adoption of the philosophy of project portfolio management (PPM), a leading project management consultant has cautioned.

The future of the project management discipline hinges on the successful adoption of the philosophy of project portfolio management (PPM), a leading project management consultant has cautioned.

Claiming that "'title inflation" had seen many project managers overestimating their ability to drive real change in the organisation, Diane Dromgold, managing director of consultancy RNC Global, warns that PPM -- which takes a holistic view of projects and balances company resources according to business priorities - is "our last hurrah. If we get this wrong, project management is over."

That may seem a harsh sentence for a discipline that is arguably critical for the success of IT, but Dromgold's argument is that growing appreciation of project management could see many of the standalone project manager's tasks becoming part of everyday business operations. That, in turn, would dilute the value provided by specialised project managers, who have been struggling for years to clearly define and accredit the skillsets expected of industry participants.

"More and more people are reengineering themselves as project managers, but there is a question of formal acceptance of what that entails," Dromgold explains. "Executive conversations these days are based around the idea that we need a project manager because we need something done. I don't think we have the conversation right."

The changing role of the project manager was a recurring theme at this week's myPrimavera06 conference in Canberra, where representatives of more than a dozen government agencies and project management industry figures met to take stock of the industry's progress.

Governance imperatives have driven many executives to formalise their IT project management skills, taking a more holistic and effective view of their technology investments. In the process, says Gartner research director Steve Bittinger, project management skills are gradually permeating other levels of the business.

"Project managers have focused on tangible budgets and worried about scope creep," Bittinger explains. "People in project portfolio management are focused on thriving on change. The person with project management probably isn't going to be the person who transforms the organisation, but there is an imperative to get real smart people at the bowels of the organisation. You have to plan for that at the top level."

Such planning includes a concerted effort on the part of executives to become more intimately involved with project management. This kind of change has already been driven into many government organisations: for example, Isi Unikowski, a senior advisor within the Cabinet Implementation Unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, demonstrated a PPM system that uses stoplight indicators and regular 'gateway' reviews to track the performance of nearly 150 major government projects throughout their lifecycles.

"The Prime Minister has told us he values the discipline this monitoring brings to the monitoring of government decisions," Unikowski told conference attendees. "This regular review is an opportunity for us to hone in, from time to time, on particular issues that come into the PM's attention. The purpose is to ensure that barriers to delivery are being monitored and dealt with continuously."

peter shears

Adoption of PPM philosophy can escalate project management to the top of executives' minds and affect the way the entire business is run. As this happens, the specialised role of the project manager will necessarily have to evolve, agrees Peter Shears, managing director of the Australian Institute of Project Management.

"Project management is creeping up to higher levels within the organisation," he says. "Even the CEO is a project manager who is running the whole company. [The role] will change, to either become part of the organisation or something completely different."

For Dromgold, the writing is already on the wall: project managers must justify their value and do it now, or an increasingly broad project management competency in other parts of the organisation will put them out of business.

"We have to make ourselves useful," she says. "We can't just sit in offices saying [project management investments] will show benefits in three to five years. Project management will be around, but the whole idea will change."

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