Project Management: the Networked Solution

This week’s readings were all about Project Management: organizing high performance teams and managing interactive workflows. In a weird sort of departure from the norm, I’d like to return to a consideration from a previous week’s reading. I’ve worked as an interactive project manager before, and I’m pretty up to speed on the mindset that a PMP (Project Management Professional — go ahead and pronounce it “Pimp”, I do) needs to break up complex tasks into trackable and manageable chunks. I’ve never used Microsoft Project, but I have done Gantt charts by hand and created a manual job tracking system using InDesign and Illustrator along with daily To Do checklists for myself. But all of that can be read in any PM book or website. It’s not really open to too much in the way of interesting discussion, because really, Project Management appeals to accountants who decided to take a risk and play with tasks on spreadsheets instead of numbers.

Instead, I’d like to return to a discussion of Ronfeldt, D. and Arquilla, J. (2001). Networks, netwars, and the fight for the future. FirstMonday, 6(10), and Beniger, J. (1986). Control Revolution, Introduction (pp. 1-27). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. No, I’m not going to bring up terrorism when talking about PMPs. But I do want to point to something which I find interesting.

Project-based Business vs. Operations-based

When we look at Project Management’s history of growing influence and acceptance within the business community, we’re really looking at an extension of Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s Network model of behavior creeping into the domain of what was at one time firmly in Beniger’s Hierarchy model of behavior. As the hierarchical system of early 20th century corporate life adapts to a project-based workflow, what we are seeing is not the clash between two titanic models of operation, but rather a means by which the hierarchy has successfully adapted network strategies to formerly hierarchical internal processes. The shift is primarily a change in perspective, looking at Projects (by definition producing a ‘one time’ result) instead of seeing Departments which need to be staffed up to handle ongoing operational-procedures.

Let me put it a better way. Project Management Professionals are the hubs around which networks of personal and professional capital can be spent. With a PMP on the job, you have effectively fragmented and empowered a task-based piece of executive machinery off from the hierarchy of the whole. Whether the team is assembled by the PMP or the PMP is assigned to a pre-existing team, everyone involved knows that while the PMP generally has no direct organizational supervisory power over the team members they are coordinating, they have the ad hoc supervisory power that comes from being ‘the one person’ who is responsible for making the project happen on time, on budget, and at expectations.

Not A Manager of Humans, A Manager of Results

The PM is the decision-making hub around which different resources the Company controls are given structure and form. It’s a temporary solution… just because you’re on the Project Team which generates one website, for example, doesn’t mean you’re always on the same team doing the same thing. This might be the only website that your own professional experience is necessary on. You might be the only human resource which is available at the time that the Project Team was formed. By breaking apart the ongoing tasks of the business into a project basis, it means that Mix and Match becomes the general rule, not the exception. Some teams might be standing teams, but even so there are different requirements for each task, so you might not be working with the same folks day in and day out.

This is the network strength. Given one hierarchy of competencies and direct reports/supervisory and tiered relationships, you isolate one individual and entrust them with an overall goal. Then you assemble the team by allocating those hierarchical resources in a pattern which is decidedly not hierarchical. Usually there’s only one of every professional competency in each team. If the PMP determines that there’s need for additional resources or human capital, then the network changes and grows, or shrinks, as it needs to. At the end of the project, the PMP is evaluated on whether or not they produced the desired results, and how successfully they met all of their goals and expectations. The PMP is not responsible for ensuring the ‘good behavior’ of everyone on their team, except to the extent that good behavior is necessary for the team to work in the first place. A PMP is a manager of results, not human resources, except where managing the human elements of the team is necessary to obtain the desired results.

The Hybrid Case

In ICM501 we discussed briefly the idea that there might be a “sweet spot” where the hierarchical model and the network model could create a harmonious meeting point, capturing the best elements of each and trying to work around the negatives. In Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s ‘netwar’ considerations, they’ve taken the extreme viewpoint of harmful use of networking. If you back off a bit, you can see how the project-based business model actually combines Hierarchy and Network in an internal model. The great thing about Project Management is that it’s a bit like corporate XML – separating the content from the execution. A good PM can be a good PM no matter what the subject matter or area of expertise. They are, frankly, utilizing their organizational skills to lead to a desired result. Provided the team has suitably experienced members on the subject matter, the PM should be able to employ tactics of communication to compensate for their lack of expertise. A decent PM doesn’t set themselves up as the expert, they set the experts up to perform to the best that can be done.

Granted, this hybridization tends to stay closer to the Hierarchy model, but the network structure is employed to good success. How this appeals to the future, however, requires a few more tweaks and some revisions to the existing model of corporate deployment of strategic resources.

Production, Execution, and Strategy

JobDutyGraph

Take a look at the graph above. I don’t know the original source for this, but the concept was introduced to me by my former supervisor at TracyLocke, Sam Moore. It basically shows an idealized view of how the job duties for any career path should change slowly from Production based, to Executive based, to finally Strategic based duties. The idea being very traditional, that first you do, then you help others do, then you figure out what everyone should be doing. Over time, the career duties should reflect that.

This graph is important to keep in mind, because it helps us to think ahead to a potential future business model. Essentially, instead of creating a hierarchy which includes the Production aspect, I believe that some industries will eventually cross over to a business model where the Production staff is not present in the corporate hierarchy. Instead, I can foresee a day where the full time jobs and thus, the ‘staff’ of any company, will port over to include only the Executive and the Strategic duties, and will rely upon outside sourcing to actually see to the Production.

 How Project Management Empowers This Model

The key to making a workforce model like this actually operate will require a stronger core competency along the Project Management skillset. Essentially, if you are going to locate, contract, and manage a mobile workforce with no sense of company loyalty and, importantly, no overhead for things like health insurance and permanent office resources (computers, desks, chairs, etc.) to house the workforce, then you will need to have a well-developed team of Project Management Professionals who will keep everything going.

Under this model of business, the Project Managers will provide the hub and may actually be involved with selection of talent and vendors. Using due dilligence and past performance benchmarks, PMPs will be able to add value to their own company by becoming more directly involved with team selection and oversight. Since the professionals employed on the teams are no longer a full time staff, the bad elements select themselves out of the working model. We see this happening nowadays with freelance talent for Creative and Promotional Marketing agencies.

Utilizing the connectivity and communication model of the Internet, a company can completely reduce their production workforce to zero and still continue to perform adequately, or in many instances outperform expectations. By leveraging the Wikinomics model of collaborative work environments, yet by introducing business controls limiting access to the pool of collaborators, companies can harness the global aspects of the new economy without sacrificing the control over their own assets. With newer technologies like web-based Data Asset Management and Marketing Resource Management, it’s already possible for companies with the right technological infrastructure to begin assembling a global workforce who has access to assets in a controlled manner, and whose daily progress is tracked in a web-based manner. Add in  the web teleconferencing solutions and you can create virtual meetings for any in-person communications that are necessary.

The Upside

While this looks like still further erosion of the role of the professional within the new economy, there is an upside. When Project Managers assemble teams, the payment structure changes in emphasis to the results. Enterprising and efficient professionals who have established good networking skills will be in high demand, and might be able to actually increase their income by taking on projects for a contracted fee, and then dispatching the project requirements with efficiency, freeing up further time resources. Speaking as a freelancer who has been booked for week-long engagements with companies, only to finish the project in the first day and therefore work himself out of money, this is a highly preferrable model.

It also opens the door to more Project Management roles. Since the coordinators of the projects are the ‘full time, health benefits-enabled professionals’, there is a higher reward incentive for organization, communication, and efficiency skillsets than in the traditional model of a 20th century corporate hierarchy.  This repurposing is entirely dependent upon the skills of the Project Managers, who as we’ve seen are spending less time learning how to do any sort of production job, and more time learning how to execute any given project.

Of course, more social infrastructure is needed (like universal healthcare, for example), and the new model creates an even greater dichotomy between the Technology Haves and Have-Nots. It’s not a perfect solution, and any attempt to switch over completely to the new model is bound to turn up serious limitations. However, instead of extreme solutions, perhaps the growing dependency on Project Management skillsets as the interfaces between hierarchies and networks will eventually come to some sweet spot, middle of the road solution.

We certainly seem to already be heading there.

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One response to “Project Management: the Networked Solution

  1. I’m not going to lie, when I first read that you were referencing Ronfeldt and Arquilla, I was sure something would follow about every cubicle harboring cyber terrorists. I’m slightly dissapointed that your post wasn’t about that…

    You discuss the idea of a potential future where production staff is hired on in an ad hoc capacity. Wouldn’t it be easier to keep the bulk of a company in one place and have PMs migratory? You stated that an effective PM is effective across disciplines, so why can’t they move around? I would think that a successful PM could jump from project to project between companies on the basis of past successes.

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