Article: Project Manager: The Best New Career For Operation Managers?

13 August 2018 | Chris Niccolls Feed
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I recently read an article by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, “Re-Humanising Work and Organizations Through Projects“. Antonio raises an interesting point. Typical positions in operation have changed. Automation and management systems have taken over.  Operations managers once had great latitude and followed their instincts, but now their primary job is to simply conform to metrics, metrics that are often defined somewhere else. Is Antonio right? Can project work truly provide an alternative and a new and more fulfilling career for operations managers? Let’s recap where we are and how we got here, and then we can dive in and see where we’re headed!

It’s hard to disagree with the premise that automation, management software, and new PMO and efficiency departments have changed the way that operations managers work. Managers used to have a wider range of duties, combining what is today both day to day management and the management of special projects. Projects have now been siloed, and are generally managed through different groups.

While modern corporations have always compartmentalized functions, operation managers were supposed to focus on their strength, which was knowing how their operation worked. At first IT departments arrived. As work was converted to IT functions, the scope of business managers began to shrink. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They, towards the end of the 20th century, corporate reliance on consultants and outsourced services increased. This regular infusion of outside expertise and resources both standardized project management practices and increased the number of projects in corporations.

Project management transformed from personal knowledge and art into a professional practice. And the number of practitioners rose. Naturally, that led to the development of Project Management departments or offices (PMO’s). Back in operations, managers learned about management reports from outsourcers. The reports that service providers prepared for operations managers eventually became the template for corporate operations reports.

Managers moved back and forth between competitors, as did service providers. Eventually, this created industry-wide standardization. Operations departments in most corporations tracked the same metrics, using the same tools, even producing remarkably similar management reports. With all of these similarities internal (and later third-party) developers created management software to automate these processes.

Which brings us up to today. Now project managers are a common corporate position and operations software is everywhere. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), by 2027 employers will need 87.7 million project managers globally. Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is quite right. There is a huge potential market for project managers. However, the PMI may have missed a few details that will significantly change the future of project management. Consider the following…

Why do we have PMs? Well, obviously to manage projects. But what are these projects and why are there so many of them? Many, if not most, exist to improve efficiency. They have to. Now that project management is a professional practice, projects on a whim or because a manager likes the idea are sorted out in the early stages. There are always more potential projects than resources, so the most valuable ones… the ones that return the greatest measurable benefits, get approved first. Even installing a mandatory software upgrade (to keep a support agreement active), will probably deliver new features to improve productivity.

Think about the drivers of corporate change in the last decade… outsourcing, automation, software, robots, artificial intelligence, change management… all of these types of projects are supposed to deliver greater efficiency or pay for themselves by reducing headcount. Yet, these are the types of projects that either reduce the scope of responsibilities for operational managers or directly replace them. Project management may be the next logical position for operational managers, but only because project management has cannibalized operational roles.

Are PM’s here to stay? Project management is a fairly new discipline. However, it has been around for a few decades. Long before PMs were in corporate offices they were specialists in IT. Earlier still, PMs got started in construction, engineering, and architecture. Building a modern skyscraper (or designing a jumbo jet, or launching a new cruise ship) requires management of a massive number of parts, people, and events. Because of this, Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software has become as common in these professions as Excel is in banking. CAD, predominantly Autodesk’s Audocad, has moved beyond churning out blueprints and now specifies the parts you need, develops a budget, and produces a schedule. Clients today expect a 3D walkthrough on their project before they turn over the first shovel of dirt for a billion dollar project. Big projects are thoroughly integrated with computers.

Robots are taking over in construction, laying bricks, pumping concrete, and building whole houses with 3D printers. Blueprints and schedules are now digital and can be fed directly into construction robots. Site management robots (basically, onsite PMs) will be released this year. Artificial Intelligence is now being used to identify areas of corporate  improvement. This used to be the domain of PMOs and project managers. Identifying important projects and performing the processes needed to develop and deliver these projects… probably the highest functions of project management… but are all in the process of being automated.

The writing is on the wall. Or maybe the digital whiteboard. Many operational managers have already been replaced by technology. For many critical operations, machine intelligence is outperforming humans. Project Management has managed projects that increase productivity in operations, but project management itself is now about to be replaced by automation and Artificial Intelligence.

What will come after Project Management? How will the millions of project managers and operational managers evolve, what exactly will they do? Keep reading this blog, and we’ll cover this soon, in an upcoming article!

What do you think? Let us know if you think that the future for project management is bright, or it is about to be eclipsed!