UK PM: Challenges and Celebrations

As hundreds of project managers and allied professionals descend on London for the PMI EMEA Global Conference, I’ve been thinking about project management in the UK. I’ve worked as project manager here and in France, and I’ve seen the discipline of project management develop over the last 15 years for the better.

The 2012 Olympics were a big turning point for the perception of PM in the UK. Prior to that many of the project stories in the mainstream press focused on failure, especially in the public sector. You had to look at the industry press for examples and case studies about what was working.

The Olympics showed a wide audience that UK PM could deliver successfully and tell good stories about what we were doing (I wrote about the success of the Olympic Park project at the time). It took the lid off private sector projects and it does now feel as if we are getting more positive coverage of projects across the country – although of course failures are still challenged in the media, as you would expect.

The learning legacy of the Olympics is also to be celebrated – hopefully that raised the profile of the importance of continuous innovation and the sharing of professional lessons learned. You can read more about the learning legacy here: APM did a good job of disseminating lessons learned from the construction program directly after the event.

All this shows that British project management is progressing in maturing and competence.

The challenge of fragmented representation

The main challenge that feels specific to the UK today is that we have fragmented professional representation with a number of recognised certificates, credentials and standards in use across the country.

There’s no conflict in terms of delivery – a project is a project. While we might not use exactly the same terminology British project managers still get the job done regardless of who they pay subscription fees to.

It does, however, make it difficult for people to move between jobs. You may not have the ‘right’ qualification for your prospective employer and if you want to move industries or into or out of the public sector you may be expected to study for and pass another credential.

It also means that the project management profession in the UK doesn’t speak with one voice. That makes it hard to see how we’re going to lobby Parliament (if we ever wanted to) or gain national recognition.

I don’t see how that is going to get better in the short term. I do think there is a move towards collaboration between professional bodies for the good of members and the national ‘voice’ but it’s slow. From what I’ve seen, the PM leadership is willing and that’s a great step in the right direction.

You could, of course, argue that variety and options is a good thing. It certainly makes the UK different from many other countries where one suite of credentials is the norm, and we like to be different!

The challenge of C-suite recognition

I think like many countries we struggle to get C-suite recognition for the work we do as project managers. It doesn’t feel as if we’ve got critical mass of senior executives understanding the project environment or the link between strategy and strategy execution through projects.

That’s partly our failing for not being able to communicate in the language of the business leaders – too much of what we do is hidden behind jargon and methodology. Using project management terminology to a non-PM audience doesn’t make project managers look clever, it makes other people feel alienated.

Evolving communication in the UK

More UK firms are using collaboration tools and social media – while I can’t evidence that right now it certainly feels as if British businesses are catching up in all industries and recognising the need for asynchronous work tools. More organisations want to get out of email and into project workspaces, taking advantage of flexible cloud technologies.

Collaboration tools and online communication present a particular challenge for a multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce. When you take out the body language it actually increases the need to communicate clearly. You have to be precise, and follow up more carefully than perhaps you would have had to do in a face-to-face conversation.

That can feel alien to team members who have been around a while, especially as the English language is also evolving to adopt the stylistic quirks of the younger generations.

The English language has evolved since the Celts in 500BC left their mark on the language, for example in the form of some of our city names like London, which has Celtic roots. We didn’t really get standardised written language until Caxton introduced the printing press in 1476, and every century (and every year at the moment) has added new words. There’s no reason to assume business language will remain static, and collaboration tools, with their focus on written language, help introduce new grammar and new vocab to the workplace whereas that change might have happened more slowly in the past.

I certainly see more emojis in emails than I used to!

Whatever words you use (and whether or not you agree with whether they are suitable for business communication) there is the risk that people assume online communication is one and done: you send the message and ‘communication’ has happened.

Communication is a two way thing and you do need to make sure that your message has been heard (or read) and understood – collaboration tools make that need more acute, not less.

That’s my take on the state of project management in the UK today. If you want to dig into some of the ideas here, I would recommend the great timeline of the development of the English language on the British Library website.