“I need help!” A human resources manager for a large west-coast health maintenance organization (HMO) was inundated with requests from employees wanting their job codes changed to that of project manager. “Everyone is responsible for projects,” she explained, “but that doesn’t mean everyone is a project manager. Just what is a project manager and why does everyone suddenly want to be one?”
Everyone indeed. Since 1990, the Project Management Institute, the professional association for project managers, has seen its membership rise from 7,700 to over 36,000 in 1998. During the launch of Project 98, Microsoft claimed it had over 2 million users of its project management software. Fledgling university programs in project management are sprouting up everywhere and have waiting lists.
Before we can answer why, we must first define what, as in what is a project? Projects are all the work we do one time. Whether it’s designing an aircraft, building a bakery display case, or creating a business logo, every project produces an outcome and every project has a beginning and an end. Fundamental to understanding the importance of projects is realizing that each one produces something unique. So designing and tooling up to build a new sports car is a project (actually a lot of projects), but manufacturing thousands of them is not. Manufacturing and other repetitive processes are defined as ongoing operations.
Given this description, it seems that almost everyone works on projects. But is everyone a project manager? Traditionally, anyone responsible for delivery of a project is a project manager. But should graphic artists who
do nothing but projects change their title to project manager? To answer questions like these we need to look further at the growing interest in project management.
Project Manager: An Emerging Career Track
Project management isn’t new. The pyramids and aqueducts of antiquity certainly required the coordination and planning skills of a project manager. While supervising the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Michelangelo experienced all the torments of a modern-day project manager: incomplete specifications, insufficient labor, unsure funding, and a powerful customer.
But only in the twentieth century did the title and the discipline emerge. Much of “modern” project management was defined in the 1950s, on the major cold war defense programs. Indeed, project management has only recently escaped its traditional boundaries of large construction and aerospace projects; presently, it is making waves in
every industry, from health care to manufacturing, software to natural resources.
This trend has not gone unnoticed
Tom Peters, in his 1992 book, Liberation Management, sings the praises of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and other professional service firms, promoting them as models of the “projectized” organization. Companies like these are literally a collection of projects and Peters believes that this makes them agile and client-focused? Before and after Liberation Management, Peters has constantly written about the need for companies and individuals to improve their project management skills.
Fortune magazine calls project manager the number one career choice in the post re-engineering world.
There are many theories on why projects are becoming the new way the world works. Technology is certainly a factor. During this last decade, automation and computerization have brought fundamental changes to the workplace as they eliminate more and more repetitive work. This has freed people to focus on what can’t be automated—on the creation of new products and services. And whenever new products are created, there is a need for projects.
The new employment paradigm of the 1990s is also a factor. Re-engineering efforts have either flattened organizations or revamped them entirely—and in the wake, many companies have realized that a substantial part of their work is project-oriented. At the same time, the economically driven downsizing of the early 1990s created a massive temporary labor force. This group of experienced and able people was a perfect match for the temporary staffing needs of the new projectized organization.
Many management experts view these changes as inevitable.
For example: Oren Hararai, professor of management at the University of San Francisco and the author of two books on the changing business environment, sees the project-oriented employment trend growing. “The future of business is fluid networks of unaffiliated organizations, multiple careers simultaneously, work revolving around projects, as fluid as the external environment.
Routine work can be automated or outsourced—the real value of an organization will be based on how quickly people can come together and focus on problems and solutions and then disband.”
Tom Stewart, writing in Fortune magazine, says companies “have redrawn their boundaries, making them both tight (as they focus on core competencies) and porous (as they outsource non-core work). ”
Pen Stout, who specializes in introducing the classic discipline of project management to bio pharmaceutical firms, sees a symbiotic relationship between the independent worker and the major corporations. “There will be strong ‘big big’ companies, strong ‘small small’ companies, not much in the middle. Project management works because it’s a way for the bigs to use the strengths of the smalls. ”
So why does everyone want to become a project manager? Because that’s where the action is. In a world of uncertain employment, where the only constant is change, project management skills transcend corporate and industry boundaries to create exciting, high-paying, self-directed careers. Talented people are attracted to change and innovation and, as we will see in the next section, change means projects.