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Managing the People Who Manage the Projects

Project management cultures place unusual demands on HR. Here's how to meet them.

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0809cover.jpgFor 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 tu​rning 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.

HR’s Evolving Role

Supporting a project orientation—whether as a company’s primary operating method or part of the organizational mix—raises important challenges for HR leaders. The pace can be exhausting, with constant projects of various durations and deadlines, changing reporting relationships to monitor and advise, and a steady demand to attract, place, train and retain talent.

When Aimee Comer was formerly an HR manager at a busy ski resort, "If you wanted to roll out your newest benefits, you could post the information and call a meeting." That was "a walk in the park" compared to what’s needed in her current job as director of human resources at Robins & Morton, a Birmingham, Ala., general contractor specializing in health care construction.

"In a project environment, you have multiple locations, multiple teams pulling in different directions. You have to become more technologically savvy; you have to rely a lot on your senior managers in the field to keep you informed," she explains.

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 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."

Organizing for PM

Larger project-based organizations, such as SAP, create offices headed by chief project officers to oversee project portfolios. Smaller companies may assign the function to a top executive like the chief operating officer. Often, at a project’s conception, it is assigned to a sponsor, a top-level executive who serves as the go-to person for resources. Typically, large construction and information technology projects may run as long as three years. Others may conclude in weeks or months.

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 occur 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.

Janice Weaver, associate vice president of the Enterprise Program Management Office for Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Ky., heads a project office of seven that supports an organization of 10,000 employees in five large hospitals, 11 immediate-care centers and more than 60 doctors’ offices.

At any one time, Weaver manages 10 to 12 projects that the executive team and board of directors designate—perhaps a major upgrade to the enterprise or payroll system, or construction of a new hospital. "The tricky part of a hospital project isn’t the construction phase but getting it operational," she says. "How do you hire people within a six- to nine-month time frame, get them trained in all the new applications?"

Weaver says it makes business sense for any company that has critical projects under way to have an office that oversees those projects and carefully monitors quality. "We just replaced our infusion pumps, and 4,000 caregivers need to be trained to use the new pumps. What’s the worst that can happen if our projects don’t go right? We could kill somebody! It’s truly a matter of life or death."

Best HR Practices

Project leaders tend to be selected because of expertise in engineering, software, construction, systems or the like. But technical skills only get them so far: "We need to master the HR skills—leadership and management skills, team building, motivation," Ritchie says.

Pennypacker, author of the Center for Business Practices’ 2009 report Resource Management Challenges, says the HR skills needed for project management typically have been neglected. But in organizations where HR departments are full partners, the advantages are clear. He and other experts point to best practices, including the following:

Establishing strategic and operational goals.

The top HR executive should be an active member of the executive team that chooses and prioritizes projects. Otherwise, "an important big-picture focus will be lost, leading to the possibility that the organization will deviate from its overall mission," says Carol Zulauf Sharicz, associate professor of education and human services at Suffolk University in Boston.

At Keane, an IT services firm with 13,000 employees based in Boston, Dean Williams, senior vice president of global human capital, is one of eight members of the leadership group that advises the CEO and sets strategic priorities for projects worldwide.

At the planning stage, HR managers maintain a matrix—whether an elaborate database or a paper grid—indicating what people are available, who is needed and what must be done to complete the project. These people issues need to be weighed when projects are considered, not afterward, says Joseph Turner, principal of Turner Consulting in Wakefield, Mass. "If you have 20 projects going, do you have enough people? Do they need particular programming skills, interpersonal training, special certifications?"

Tracking people and their availability.

"You need to be very good at allocating resources on an ongoing basis," Williams says. Organizations that are not project-oriented "focus on resources when they create or add a position—but in project management, you live and breathe it every day."

You need to measure and monitor gaps between projects and know which workers are "billable" and what to do with them between assignments. "You can afford to let a highly skilled person that you can bill at a high rate sit because you can make up for it with later assignments. A junior person may be less effective to keep," advises Williams. "The metric is not only the amount or percentage of your staff that you’re using, but also breaking it down by levels."

Adds Patterson: "It’s a challenge to keep people moving." It depends "on our ability to collect and mine information. We have systems that tell us who our people are, what their experience is, certifications, licenses and market-segment experience. We pull all the information about them out of our system and package it so we can make the project happen. [And] we need to know when the individuals are available." If five or six have the skills, only one or two may be free.

With projects across the country, Gilbane operates 11 regional offices. HR partners with regional managers to track and reassign employees as projects shift. Most of the juggling occurs within each region to keep people within driving distance of their homes, Patterson says.

At McDonough Bolyard Peck, a 250-employee engineering consulting company in Fairfax, Va., HR managers participate in top-level coordination meetings weekly with employees in regional offices to track talent and prepare availability reports. "We know Joe’s job will end in three months and discuss what we’ll do with him then. Where will he fit in?" says Lynn

DeWolfe, PHR, vice president of corporate services. "Branch managers share project needs with each other and arrange to move people around to shore up projects that need help." The database includes a real-time record of employees’ licenses and certifications and past and current project assignments.

Screening for competency in manager selection.

Certification, at least at the basic Project Management Professional (PMP) level, has become a popular benchmark but does not guarantee performance, says Crawford, co-author of Optimizing Human Capital with a Strategic Project Office (Auerbach Publications, 2006). "You can learn about leadership and how to develop a schedule and plan, but it’s a whole other thing to actually taking charge," he says. "If you don’t like working with people, are not a self-scheduler and need a lot of structure, you probably won’t be a very good project manager. That’s why it’s advisable to do a competency assessment—before you place someone in a PM training and development program—that begins with an examination of personal traits: aptitude, talent, character, intelligence and learning style," he advises.

Crawford says firms such as Caliper Corp. in Princeton, N.J., provide competency profiling for project managers to screen out weaker candidates. Personality testing can be used as well.

SAP conducts behavioral interviews but not personality or psychological testing, Ritchie says. "You don’t know how a person will fare in a project setting unless they either have a prior track record or you can see them in action. Simulations are the best pre-hire tool."

Training and developing project managers and teams.

Talent development is paramount in a project environment.

Patterson says Gilbane’s "employees are our chief selling point. To be competitive, we need to make sure they are the best trained and experienced."

Adds Williams: "You need a training framework that allows project workers—in our case, mostly engineers and other technical professionals—to move at their own pace and position themselves for future assignments." Keane offers most training online with an emphasis on helping people keep current by adding technical certifications.

At Sprint University, an employee can choose options in technical training, management and leadership, and project management. Since April 2008, 2,500 workers have signed on for project management. Some are working toward PMP certification. But don’t overemphasize the technical aspects of project work, advises Todd Holbert, senior program manager for performance support at Sprint, the global telecommunications services provider in Overland Park, Kan. Project managers also need to learn about "teamwork, diversity and a myriad of HR skills. It’s about the culture—doing it right."

HR Has Projects, Too 

Within HR departments, managers are finding themselves called upon regularly to lead or participate in projects involving subjects where they have expertise, such as benefits, database management, training and talent development.

"We used to be a functional organization, but we don’t have that luxury anymore," says Todd Holbert, senior program manager for performance support at Sprint, the global telecommunications services provider in Overland Park, Kan. "We’re going toward making everything a project. It allows us to do more with less. Even as resources have shrunk, we’ve been able to complete more projects and accomplish more. One reason is the rigor with which projects are conducted and controlled." Holbert estimates that he spends at least 60 percent of his time working on nine projects initiated under the umbrella of corporate HR. For some, he’s a project manager; for others, a team member.

At McDonough Bolyard Peck, HR professionals organize twice-monthly lunch-and-learn sessions that are webcast and taped. Some sessions are technical, covering software or cost-estimating techniques. Others cover employment law, mentoring or health.

SAP’s project workers are encouraged to broaden their experience in different environments to help them select from three possible career tracks: project manager; project career, a team member on a succession of projects; and management career. Run by the HR department, SAP’s talent program offers six-month fellowships enabling the top 5 percent to 12 percent of the top-rated managers to occasionally rotate into another job for six months. Every year, 120 project managers become eligible for assignments outside of project management.

Helping workers become multi-skilled and certified is the best way to make sure they will have work down the line, says Ritchie.

"The traditional view is that experience in a position and time acquiring a skills and knowledge base will prepare you for advancement. In project management, longevity takes a back seat to accomplishments," says Steve Ginsburgh, SPHR, senior vice president of human resources and workforce development for Houston-based Universal Weather & Aviation, a provider of corporate aviation services.

Facilitating communication and serving as a sounding board.

When a workforce is dispersed, often serving two masters, communication requires attention. "In many cases, clients don’t allow our employees to access us from their sites. To get through, you’ve got to figure out multiple channels," Williams notes.

Phone calls, e-mails, podcasts, live expert sessions, broadcast sessions and wikis number among the tools Ritchie uses.

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.

At Robins & Morton, Comer serves as a sounding board. "People tell her what’s on their minds," says COO Robin Savage. "When she sees a problem, she’ll come in and say, ‘We need to discuss our options.’ When she says that, we talk and I act."

Supporting reward strategies and outreach activities that 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,’ " Williams says. Generous compensation and benefits, challenging projects, and continuous contact become keys to retention.

"We can’t put our team members alone on a project and then forget about them," says DeWolfe. "We give them extra TLC to help them feel more part of our team. We have quarterly meetings where we bring everyone into the branch office, summer outings and holiday parties."

Until recently, HR employees operated centrally at McDonough Bolyard Peck, reaching out to assist project managers and regional directors as needed in 400 ongoing projects, mostly in the mid-Atlantic region. Now that’s changed. "We were not giving our team members the kind of care that we give to our external clients," DeWolfe says. "As a result, we’ve added HR generalists to some of our regional offices. They travel to the job sites and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you, come to me with problems or issues; how can I help you with professional development?’ "

Robins & Morton’s leaders reach out to staff and their families with barbecues, corporate retreats and other get-togethers, Comer says, noting 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."

Rewarding teams for strong retention records contributes to low attrition at Universal Weather. Twenty percent of annual bonuses—based on team, not individual, performance—is based on retention.

Encouraging project managers and line managers to cooperate.

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. At Sprint, Holbert says line managers and individuals must make sure project managers provide developmental comments.

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.



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