Author: Dr John Lannon, Centre for Project Management, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick All over the world hundreds of thousands of people have had their knowledge of recognised good practices and methodological approaches to project management certified by professional bodies such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Association for Project Management (APM). The goal is to enable them to effectively undertake activities like assigning work, tracking progress, managing risks and co-ordinating with people outside the project, in order to deliver on time and within budget. Over the years project management has developed and spread from fields of application like construction, engineering, defence and aeronautics to practically every sector of human endeavour. Its promotion as a professional discipline is undoubtedly due in part to the value and success of the project management approach. It is also linked to the ever-increasing profile given to it by professional bodies like the PMI, APM and the International Project Management Association (IPMA).

Legitimisation of project management by academic institutions

Add to that the legitimisation of project management by the academic institutions, and the number of project management consultancies that have sprung up in recent years. Information technology has also played a part, with the development of project management software and of centres of expertise and knowledge, even of project management knowledge in the form of project management offices (PMOs), becoming increasingly prevalent in organisations. And finally the demand for project management is linked to strategic imperatives. In the non-profit sector, for example, donors tend to give money for projects that will achieve defined outcomes and impact, rather than ongoing core activities. But can we say that project management has evolved into a professional discipline? Or is it the case, as Peter Morris said back in 1994[i], that project management is the same as any other kind of management, except that one moves through a predetermined lifecycle? There are a variety of sociological perspectives on the professions that can help us answer these questions[ii]. One of the earliest ones is the trait approach, which concentrates on the compiling of an exhaustive list of the features that constitute the core elements of a profession. Then there is the functionalist approach which suggests that what distinguishes professions from other occupations is the importance of the expertise or knowledge they possess for the functioning of society as a whole. There is also the interactionalist perspective of professionalism that sees it as not only professional knowledge and expertise but also the enactment of what might be called ‘professional spirit’.

Social theorist Michel Foucault

Here conduct is seen as important in the ongoing construction of a profession. Like the trappings that go with being a barrister these reflect a professional identity. Drawing on the work of social theorists like Michel Foucault in relation to power, knowledge and discipline, we can view professions as producing certain forms of knowledge to enable a particular ordering of the world to the exclusion of other ways to make sense of it. This leads to professional bodies of knowledge – rules, processes, practices, terminology and so on that embody the truth or reality of something like project management. These norms of knowledge and practice can act as a form of discipline. In other words, instead of discipline coming from direct forms of control, which they can in regulated environments, it comes from socialisation and the development of self-discipline. In the case of project management the self-discipline comes through interaction with other project managers in an organisation, or through engagement with a professional body. The latter may include training and opportunities to interact and engage with others in the profession. The two main aspects of the professionalisation of project management have been the promotion of accredited training programmes and the development of the body of knowledge of project management by the professional associations. These associations have mushroomed in membership – the PMI has gone from less than 9,000 members in 1992 to more than 400,000 in 2013[iii].

No unified model anytime soon

Of course their project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®)[iv] is different to the APM’s body of knowledge[v]. Granted they both set out a broadly similar model that requires knowledge of techniques like scheduling, budgeting and so on, as well as management skills like leadership and co-ordination, but we’re not likely to have a unified model anytime soon. In fact the opposite is the case; we are increasingly seeing new methodologies and variants being developed to meet the particular needs of the many diverse contexts and settings in which projects are being undertaken. Positivist thinking draws us towards a unified set of objective rules and processes that allow us to embrace measures of success. But given that there is such diversity in today’s project landscape the lack of one unified standard for project management isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed Hodgson argued that while the various incarnations of project management - in construction, software development, social services, etc - share elements of the functionalist or objectivist rationale that underpins the field as a whole they shouldn’t be understood as deviations from an ideal model of project management, because really there isn’t an ideal model of project management. The view that project management consists of knowledge and expertise that exists independently of context assumes that project management is a technocratic objective function without an agenda of its own, that it is independent of political values and is removed from ethical concerns. This isn’t the case, as illustrated by case studies presented at a conference on 'Delivering Social Good: Managing Projects in the Non-profit Sector' in Limerick in October 2014[vi].

Agreed common framework of delivery

One of these outlined how the success checklist for a project in the public health sector in Ireland was linked to the political agenda, the policy driving the project and the expectations of the policy body commissioning it, how the project met strategic objectives and whether or not there was an agreed common framework of delivery[vii]. Understanding these was not only essential for project completion and sign-off, it also had an impact on the reputation of the implementing organisation and its executive, the credibility and ability of the government to deliver, and the quality of the programme and how it is received in the field. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of the project manager! Another example looked at the experiences of an international development assistance NGO on a cross-sectoral project in Zambia that involved working on several issues with the same target group in the same area[viii]. Numerous barriers to developing the necessary cross-sector approaches were identified, including policy differences, lack of mechanisms for cross-sectoral and cross-institutional communication and collaboration, capacity gaps and inflexible funding streams. Despite this, the results from the project indicated that integrated projects can succeed. The factors that underpin that success were seen as including strategic leadership, contextual awareness, flexible funding, knowledge management, capacity building and clarity of purpose. Many of these are programme rather that project level challenges but they nonetheless demonstrate the diversity as well as the complexity of today’s project management environment.

Managerial control and the imposition of professional discipline

Despite this, project management is still often seen as being about managerial control and the imposition of professional discipline. The discipline comes from the body of knowledge while the professionalism is also linked to the increased levels of control that come with specialised terminology and standard techniques. The ability to understand and use the terminology and the techniques is a result of the professional training of the project manager. But this can sometimes present a problem. As a professional project manager one uses terminology and techniques that control how one engages and interacts with team members and stakeholders. Sometimes this works well, particularly when everybody is operating within the same cultural or organisational frame of reference. But sometimes it can become a barrier to effective collaboration. Take an international development project whose stakeholders are community organisations operating in a different social reality and through different organising structures to those the project manager is familiar with. Here there can be a temptation to assume that a top-down, instrumental approach as recommended by the professional associations’ bodies of knowledge will result in the most effective project delivery. This is not always the case, however; there are likely to be other equally valid approaches that one shouldn’t lose sight of. Throughout the project lifecycle project managers can embrace standards and bureaucracy and the type of accountability that project sponsors and donors have come to expect. Or they can resist them and take a more collaborative approach, recognise people as human subjects who have knowledge, experience and motivations of their own to contribute.

Avoid marginalising those outside professional discipline

In reality they need both. Good project management relies on the discursive resources of project management being utilised in order to get the job done. A project manager has to use certain tools to report progress, costings and so on. But (s)he also needs to avoid marginalising those outside the professional discipline, and to avoid situations where self-discipline as a project management professional imposes limits. One recent trend in the evolution of project management that may help to address some of these challenges is agile project management. This is about feedback and change, it recognises complexity, and with it the traditional goal of optimisation and control is making way for learning and innovation. However the balance between control and autonomy, with delegated decision making and empowered teams, can be challenging for traditional project managers. Agile promotes individuals and interactions over tools and processes but it also changes the power relations within teams. For a professional discipline this devolution of control can be unsettling. Nonetheless, as Shenhar and Dvir (2007)[ix] pointed out, the classical drivers of project management are no longer sufficient in the current business environment. The traditional model fits only a small group of today’s projects since most modern projects are uncertain, complex and changing, and are strongly affected by the dynamics of the environment, technology, or markets. Ultimately the real value in project management as a professional discipline is not just in the knowledge and conduct. It is also in the ability to react appropriately to these changing dynamics. This article is based on a talk given to an event organised by Engineers Ireland’s Project Management Society in association with the Young Engineers Society on May 19, 2015


[i] Morris, PWG (1994), The Management of Projects, Thomas Telford, London [ii] See Hodgson, D. (2002). Disciplining the Professional: The Case of Project Management. Journal of Management Studies, 39(6), 803-821. [iii] See PMI’s 2013 Annual Report, available at [iv] A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) -Fifth Edition - provides project managers with the fundamental practices needed to achieve organizational results and excellence in the practice of project management. See [v] The APM Body of Knowledge (Sixth Edition) defines the breadth of the project, programme and portfolio management profession. See [vi] See [vii] Glynn, C. (2014) ‘Overcoming Barriers to Effective Project Management: Experiences from the Public Health Sector’. Paper presented at Delivering Social Good: Managing Projects in the Non-Profit Sector, University of Limerick, 20/21 October 2014. [viii] Pain, C. and Matturi, K. (2014) ‘Managing integrated projects – Experiences from Concern Worldwide’. Paper presented at Delivering Social Good: Managing Projects in the Non-Profit Sector, University of Limerick, 20/21 October 2014. [ix] Shenhar, A. J., & Dvir, D. (2007). Reinventing project management: the diamond approach to successful growth and innovation. Harvard Business Review Press.