It can be very easy to fall into the trap of believing that process is everything in project management. But the role of project manager is – and hopefully always will be – fulfilled by humans.
Steve McGuckin, global property managing director for consultancy Turner & Townsend, says today’s project manager is a different proposition to those of previous years. For one, a project manager now knows how to handle big data. “They are consultants and they earn their keep by giving expert advice and studying trends,” he says. “A lot of our project managers’ USP [unique selling proposition] comes from their ability to read and use data.”
The biggest change Mr McGuckin has seen in recent years is that “project managers used to be subject-matter experts who became generalists – now people learn the more generic skills first”, he says.
Gill Hancock, interim director, professional standards and knowledge, at the Association for Project Management, agrees: “Project management has increasingly become a career of first choice and this is highlighted by the introduction of the higher apprenticeship in project management being launched in 2012, which provides a route into the profession from a younger age. This differs from recent history, where people would train in a specific discipline first, such as construction or engineering, and enter project management much later in their careers.”
The Arras People Project Management Benchmark Report 2014 found that MBAs are increasing remuneration for project managers, while a Master’s degree in project management has questionable benefit. The report suggests that the rise in modern apprenticeships in project portfolio management (PPM) might muddy the landscape further. It also highlights the ageing of the PPM community as a result of the lack of new entry-level opportunities during the recession.
Naturally, with the advent of remote working and digital project management tools, the way project managers work has changed. Ian May, programme director at Reading-based digital agency Creative Jar, says: “The project manager of 2014 needs to be an even better communicator than before because there are now so many ways of communicating that picking the right one for the circumstances and using it effectively is a skill in its own right.”
Paul Naybour, director of Parallel Project Training, believes that the project manager of 2014 spends more time with stakeholders and less time planning. “There is a growing recognition that the people leadership skills of project managers are the most important,” he says.
So how do we find this special new breed of project manager? Researchers for the Arras report spoke to recruiters of PPM practitioners and found that, while recruitment agencies came out on top, the use of networks, both personal and LinkedIn, is still growing, especially as organisations are reducing their spending on recruitment. The report cites the phenomenon of “missing talent”, that there is a misalignment in the recruitment process within many organisations which impacts their ability to identify and secure the services of the best practitioners.
Being an effective project manager isn’t really about fame and glory
“Recruiting for project managers has always been challenging so for us it’s a case of always being on the lookout. It can be a little too easy to rely on the likes of LinkedIn and forget that other forms of proactive recruitment exist,” says Mr May.
“But in the world of digital project management, at least, there’s now quite a significant online community which increasingly spills over into offline meet-ups. These have evolved from events which previously tended to focus on designers and developers. It’s about finding the right balance between online activity and good old-fashioned networking, but still it’s great to be able to get advice from your network about how a new recruit might fit into your organisation.”
Recruitment of seniors is difficult whether the market is strong or weak, says Mr McGuckin. “The number of people out there with in-depth capabilities reduces so, if you can promote from within that really helps. And the most important skill is judgment. Sadly, you can’t do a Masters in judgment.”
The gender balance is also changing, albeit slightly, with the latest Arras report showing a small increase in female practitioners moving towards a 70:30 ratio compared with 75:25 in 2008.
So how do we keep the good ones? Retention is always a tricky one, says Mr May. “Keeping staff enthusiastic as one project ends and another begins isn’t always easy, but we do try and ensure that we recognise the value built up in client relationships in previous projects when planning resourcing for future work,” he says.
Mr May believes that the fast-paced nature of a digitally focused business means no two projects are too similar and so this helps keep people engaged. But businesses could look harder at the closure phase of a project. “That’s the best opportunity to move into a new phase of work, especially if the project has exceeded expectations. Companies could also do more to recognise the value of project management as a function. There’s sometimes a perception that it’s not a glamorous role – although being an effective project manager isn’t really about fame and glory – and that can be limiting,” he says.
Mr Naybour believes the answer lies solely in retention strategies. “Most project managers live for success. They thrive on seeing projects delivered and appreciated by the customers, users and the public. They get disillusioned when they are not supported or given the resources, or suffer from frequent changes or lack of strategy,” he says.
“It’s crucial to establish simple, but effective, governance structures, and provide the resources and tools to get the job done.”