Keeping up: aligning project management to real business

At the APM conference last month I spoke about the challenges facing project managers working in a 21st Century business environment.

I first got interested in this as a topic when I started working in healthcare about 18 months ago. The speed of advancements in healthcare technology is incredible, and every week there’s something new in Hospital IT Europe or one of the other magazines about the latest diagnostic tool or ‘connected’ hospital. The pace of change in the healthcare arena made me realise how slow the pace of change is in project management – I’m still using the tools and techniques I learned when I did my first training courses and nothing much has changed since then.

However, the world has changed around us. Project managers may still be using tools that are decades old but nobody else has been standing still. The economic and business environment we operate in now is vastly different from ten, or even five, years ago.

As I see it, there are three main challenges facing business people today:

Economic priorities
The credit crunch won’t have passed you by. We are already seeing companies shifting their capital spend to refocus on the priority projects. There have been redundancies across the city, as companies look to minimise their opex spending as well. What does this mean for project managers? It will get harder for us to manage virtual teams. Anyone who has a day job as well as project responsibilities will be under pressure to deliver their operational targets and will commit to less time on your project. We are going to have to find ways of doing more with fewer people and keeping a tight reign on capital spending.

Shifting business models
The economic crisis will also have a knock-on implication for the way in which businesses are run. If it is not part of your core business, it’ll be outsourced because an outsourcing company can do it cheaper. If it is part of your core business but it’s a repetitive task, it will be off-shored, because again, offshoring means doing it cheaper.

Research from Forrester published in Computer Weekly says that 43% of CIO’s are looking at increasing their outsourcing as a result of the economic downturn and a similar number would move more work offshore.

The impact for project managers is that we will be doing different types of projects: setting up outsourcing or off-shoring arrangements. And we’ll be working on projects with a different mix of people. There are additional complexities that come with putting third parties in the mix, plus the complications of managing an international team if some of your key people are based offshore.

New technologies
When I first started out as a project manager I lived and breathed version control and document sign off. I would print out the final copy of the document and walk it around the building until all the key stakeholders had signed. Then I would issue version 1.0 and file away my precious original in my project folder.

Now I hot desk and have limited storage space. Not that it matters:  no one keeps folders of paper anyway and if I asked my key stakeholders to sign a project initiation document they would look at me strangely. Technology means that we manage approvals via email and have electronic documents. This is now the accepted ways of working, even in industries like financial services which typically take a while to catch up.

We also work with the ‘Google generation’. You are probably one of them. If you want information, you can go to Google, type your question and get a relevant response in a fraction of a second. Google has changed the way our stakeholders expect to get information. Back when I became a project manager I would produce a monthly steering group report and that would be adequate. It would be seen as the latest project status and only an emergency would see anyone ask for anything more up to date. Now stakeholders have different expectations about project information, because they can get other information at the click of button. They expect real-time, up to date status reports. Or at least, for you to give them information whenever they ask for it, by return of email. We have to manage those expectations and always be on top of project status in case anyone asks.

Those are three challenges I thought of that are a result of evolving business practices, although I’m sure they are not the only things you face daily. Next week I’ll be writing about how project managers, and project management as a discipline are responding to these challenges.