Project Managers on the Rise

By Robert J. Grossman Sep 28, 2009
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For decades, managers in industries such as advertising, aerospace engineering, construction, consulting and information technology have used sophisticated project management techniques to staff and operate projects that come and go.

Now, with the economy sputtering, more employers are turning to project management (PM) as a flexible, efficient way to remain competitive. Telecommunications and health care companies are among those buying in. As a result, more workers are on the move—plucked from talent pools as projects arise or borrowed from line jobs to spend time on teams.

“The adoption and use of PM techniques have grown enormously over the past few years,” says Jim Pennypacker, director of the Center for Business Practices in Glen Mills, Pa. “When middles of organizations disappeared, the work that used to be done by those people now is accomplished through projects.”

Membership in the Project Management Institute (PMI) in Newtown Square, Pa., the leading membership organization for the project management profession, has soared from 10,000 members in 1994 to 305,000 this past April.

The project management culture is all about getting work done and moving on. That’s good in the short term, but the temporary nature and need to move quickly may encourage shortcuts that have long-term costs. “There’s a Special Forces attitude,” says David Overbye, a former project manager in the utilities industry and now dean of academic outreach for DeVry University in Addison, Ill. “Project leaders see themselves getting things done despite the operational processes. Because of their short-term perspective, [they] may think more about team dynamics and performance than performance appraisals; they may be less concerned about long-term career planning, legal issues and career development.”

Action-oriented, technically based project managers are wary of anyone or anything that may slow them down. As a result, they tend to keep HR managers at arm’s length, says Julie Ogilvie, vice president of corporate marketing for SkillSoft, a provider of e-learning and educational products in Nashua, N.H. “The driver for adopting project management is not necessarily to make workers happier or more satisfied. It’s about getting more done, more cost-effectively.”

A Special Breed

“People who gravitate to projects enjoy the challenge of accomplishing something, working with a group of people, then moving on to something new,” says Michelle Patterson, HR operations manager for Gilbane Construction in Providence, R.I.

But uncertainty about the future is not for everyone. “Some people love it, and others are scared to death,” says J. Kent Crawford, founder and chief executive officer of PM Solutions in Glen Mills, Pa., and a former president of the PMI.

Analytical, detail-oriented and results-focused, team members display dedication to their projects. “They put in whatever it takes to do the job, and they don’t feel bad about it,” Patterson says. “They’re self-driven. There’s no complaining when they have to work a 60-hour week. When we survey them, they say they have a good work/life balance, yet they work a lot.”

Adds Paul Ritchie, head of global projects operations for SAP, a global computer software company in Wakefield, R.I.: “It’s a special temperament. You need to want to run to the fire.” Ritchie leads an 11-person global team and shares dotted-line oversight of 1,300 program and project managers worldwide.

“The most successful project managers enjoy collaboration, welcome conflicts and different opinions, and recognize that it’s only with the differences that the best solutions emerge,” says Kathy Kroop, SPHR, an HR project manager who serves as president of the PMI’s Human Resources Special Interest Group. “They are comfortable around all levels of people and aren’t afraid to be yelled at if something goes wrong.”

Staying Connected

Project managers and project management officers (PMOs) turn to HR professionals in a consulting role. “HR offers us guidance on how to implement what we want to do, how to structure our organization to make sure people have opportunities outside their career paths, how to set the path and training curriculum, and how to create job profiles that will yield the kinds of candidates we need,” Ritchie says.

Rewards strategies and outreach activities help foster loyalty and morale. “Employees that are on client sites for extended periods sometimes become more connected to the client than to us. We call it ‘going native,’ ” says Dean Williams, senior vice president of global human capital at Keane, an IT services firm with 13,000 employees based in Boston. Generous compensation and benefits, challenging projects, and continuous contact become keys to retention.

Leaders at Robins & Morton, a Birmingham, Ala., general contractor specializing in health care construction, reach out to staff and their families with barbecues, corporate retreats and other get-togethers. Aimee Comer, HR director, notes that it helps to be upfront about the downsides of project work, including the amount of travel. “We don’t try to hide the negatives. We say it’s hard on your family, and we try to lessen the burden.”

With personnel often moving around and changing leaders, reporting relationships and assignments, multiple line and project managers may compete for their services and may be responsible for their development and retention.

Project team assignments may be negotiated between line managers, project managers and often project sponsors. Since individuals may be on more than one team, generating formal performance reviews from all managers may be impractical.

Sometimes, project workers may move into other functions. “We’ve had a number of our program management colleagues poached into sales or other areas. Strategically, it’s terrific for a PMO because you’ve got friends in key places throughout the organization. You have to adjust your recruiting to accommodate the turnover,” says Ritchie.

While the frequent comings and goings of assignments and workers makes for challenging human resources, ultimately these effective practices for project workers serve employees, their organizations and their customers.

The author is a contributing editor of HR Magazine, a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

EXTRA HELP

Project Management Defined

A project is a limited endeavor to create a product or service. It has a set beginning and ends when the work is completed. In contrast, processes or operations are permanent or semi-permanent functional work that occurs repetitively to produce the same products or services.

In practice, the management of projects requires distinct technical skills, separate management and workers who thrive in a one-time setting with tight deadlines, close accountability and a guaranteed ending without knowing what will follow. The primary challenges of project management are to achieve all project goals and objectives within the allotted time and budget.

Project management techniques are embodied in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), which contains widely used standards and guidelines that are the basis for levels of certification. To earn the most common certification, the Project Management Professional, the candidate must demonstrate knowledge in nine subject categories, including HR.

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