The Changing Face of Project Management

The Changing Face of Project Management

Greg Cannon writes for – a Ms.Money partner.

In today’s Internet economy, where time is further compressed with each technological innovation, project management may, at times, seem outdated.

With its emphasis on planning and methodical scheduling and its assumptions about resources and personnel, project management might seem like a quaint remnant of an outdated business model in an environment where doing often takes precedence over planning.

As someone who tries to instill a project management culture in young companies, Betsy Guthrie sees first-hand the kind of challenge that today’s frantic business pace presents to sound project management.

“You’re…on Internet time,” says Guthrie, resource manager in the San Francisco office of PMSI.Project Mentors, a training and consulting firm, “so you tell people you’ve got to plan and they say, ‘Yeah, right, when do I have time to plan.'”

But while some of project management’s processes may be getting shaken up, the practice as a whole remains vital to doing business intelligently, experts say. The fundamentals of project management remain those critical to the survival of any business: applying the proper mix of personnel, money and other resources to deliver the project on time.

So what has changed?

Not so long ago, project management was a fairly predictable endeavor where the typical, one-to-two-year project plan would look pretty much the same on the day the project wrapped as it did when it launched.

“The whole thing was fairly static,” says Danek Bienkowski, co-founder and executive vice president of New York-based ABT Corporation, a provider of enterprise project management solutions to the IT industry. But the ever-faster march of technology changes all that, says Bienkowski, who is also co-chairman of the Project Management Institute’s IS specific project group.

“What’s true in January isn’t necessarily true in March,” he says. “It’s a much more fluid structure to the project.”

But the science of project management is keeping pace. Far from being made obsolete, the importance of project management is growing as more and more companies use Internet-related technologies to pry open once-closed project loops, drawing in project team members from across traditional boundaries.

The opportunities for contract workers and the companies that use their services wisely are significant.

“If you feel like you’ve been put into a box, it’s kind of a way to redefine yourself…you have a better hold of the tiller,” says Mark Walsh, a San Francisco-based print project manager who began marketing himself on a per project basis about a year and a half ago.

But while he see its advantages, Walsh also cautions that putting project management under the whip of Internet-time can have drawbacks.

“It really puts unrealistic expectations in some people’s minds about what can be done,” he says.

Nonetheless, it’s becoming more and more likely that it will be people like Walsh, someone who has worked for a string of international media and technology companies, who will be part of virtual project teams in which project managers use Internet communications to conquer time and space, drawing together individuals based on ability rather than geography.

Guthrie sees this happening first at IT companies, which she says have a more sophisticated project management culture.

“Virtual teams are the way to work, for freelancers and for the people who hire them,” says Jessica Lipnack, co-CEO of NetAge, a Waltham, Massachusetts company that helps organizations like Apple and AT&T create these teams.

In “Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time, and Organizations With Technology” (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), Lipnack and co-author Jeffrey Stamps, argue that technology will obliterate traditional boundaries: virtual project teams will draw together, on-line, members from different companies and strategic partners as well as contract professionals, all of whom will work on everything from long-term projects to short-term problems.

Contract workers can capitalize on this shift, but “learning the skills of being a good virtual team member are critical,” Lipnack says. Among them: clearly identifying with and committing to a project regardless of how long or short your time on it will be; and clear and constant communication with all team members.

Of course, companies too will have to adapt to better take advantage of the new way of doing project management. In the past, a project team’s members were relatively predictable, ABT Corp.’s Bienkowski says.

“Once they joined, they tended to stay.”

Now, however, projects are drawing not only on the talents of in-house workers, but on those of strategic partners and contract workers as well. “The (traditional) idea of a project team almost disappears,” Bienkowski says. “If you really take this down to it’s logical conclusion, you ask, ‘Who should be doing this?'”

Often, the answer will be, someone outside the company.

The implications for companies, project managers, and team members, whatever their affiliation, are huge. And the benefits won’t come without some rough patches.

“In most cases, it’s almost impossible to do it in house,” Bienkowski says of the shift to fluid project teams. “You need that shock therapy from outside,” he says. “There’s inevitable turmoil.”

But it’s not just individual companies that will have to cope.

“It’s a massive culture change,” Bienkowski says. “So far, we’ve only scratched the surface.”