Project and program management: core skills for knowledge workers ?

Are, Project and Program Management skills, core skills for knowledge workers and their managers in the knowledge organization?

The Background

A couple of months ago, while Mounir and I were presenting a SUKAD Program Management course, we showed a slide of a front cover of Business Week magazine, featuring a photograph of Peter F. Drucker, the late great management guru. The picture was in support of the feature article, about why his ideas still matter in today’s organisations, and the cover bore the title “The man who invented management”.

Who Invented Management?

business weekThis slide is part of the introduction to the Program Management course and is meant to spark discussion about the challenges of managing today’s large enterprises. However, this time one of the participants fiercely disagreed. “What about the fathers of management”, he objected, “Henri Fayol and Frederick Taylor? They are the real inventors of management!”

In a way he was right, and we duly admitted that the cover in question may have been overlooking the early history of modern management.

Management vs. Management of Knowledge Workers

However, reflecting back on this a while later, I reasoned that if a magazine as reputable as Business Week felt comfortable publishing this cover, perhaps we were missing something. And it dawned on me that we may be dealing with a very different kind of management altogether.

Drucker himself explains this conundrum, or at least partly. He coined the term “knowledge worker” and wrote in 1989: “Our management problems and challenges are with people who do knowledge work”. He also stated later in his life that we have not yet discovered how to manage the knowledge worker.

Although the work of Fayol comprises some management principles that are just as relevant today as they were a 100 years ago, such as promoting team spirit and encouraging worker initiative, both his and Taylor’s work were founded on the principle of division of labour to enhance effectiveness. In other words, letting people do small tasks repetitively (mostly in an automated environment), so they get really good at it, and leaving it up to management to plan, organise, lead and control the work.

As we now know, with the power of hindsight, this principle worked for some time (e.g. Henry Ford’s T-model production line), especially in the manufacturing industry, but then started meeting with resistance as work became more and more monotonous, skill-reducing and de-motivating for the worker. Motivational theories emerged as a result, and Abraham Maslow published “A theory of human motivation” as early as 1943, coinciding more or less with the timeframe when Drucker’s work started gaining momentum.

At present, the majority of workers have moved away from labour-based jobs. In round numbers, in the US today about 70% of workers are employed by the service (tertiary) sector, and of the remaining 30% who are employed by the primary (agriculture and raw material extraction) and secondary (conversion of primary materials) sectors, about half are office workers. That makes that roughly 85% of the total workforce can be classified as knowledge workers.

Knowledge Organizations

True knowledge organisations also have far less layers and are team based (Tom Peters’ example of CNN comes to mind). Central command-and-control management, the origins of which Drucker traces back to the army, the first modern style “organisation”, simply no longer works in such an environment. Drucker writes that “Because its work is based on knowledge, the knowledge organisation is altogether not one of superiors and subordinates.”

The tasks of the knowledge worker are not planned, organised, led and controlled from above. Managers are too busy justifying their own existence by taking on specialist roles themselves. (This by the way is in my opinion the best evidence that we do not yet understand what managing a knowledge worker means).

Knowledge work is far less repetitive and more dynamic in nature than divided labour, it is forever changing and continuously under scrutiny in the organisation. Not productivity but innovation and re-invention are today’s success factors. Company size is no longer proportionate to market share, and traditional management techniques no longer hold sway.

As an example: I recently picked up one of the several books that have been published by now about the late Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc. When the company was in crisis and the accountants came with cost saving proposals, Steve said: “We cannot cost-save ourselves out of this situation. We need to innovate our way out of it.”

Project Management for Knowledge Workers?

Program Management for Their Managers?

The knowledge worker continuously defines his/her own work as well as the parameters for doing it (e.g. time, cost, resourcing), based on the organisation’s strategy. The role of management is to confirm strategic fit and grant occasional approvals at pre-defined checkpoints. In other words, knowledge workers need to manage the majority of their work as projects!

Whatever the role, the main task of the knowledge worker is managing projects. Perhaps not capital projects as in the narrow sense of the word, but workplace projects like innovation, optimisation or reorganisation. They cannot be managed by traditional plan, organise, lead and control.

So what does this mean?

  • Firstly, that any knowledge worker without good project management skills will soon be a tradesman without his toolbox, ending up without base for advancement or even without occupation.
  • Secondly, that senior managers need to learn to direct knowledge workers while they are managing their projects. That means prioritising, periodically re-evaluating strategy, optimizing resources and ensuring that the intended benefits are realized. I suggest that today’s companies that still want to be around tomorrow embrace program management as a core competence for senior management.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Drucker’s ideas most certainly still matter in today’s organisations. He foresaw the need for a completely different role of management, a role we do not yet master today. The title “The man who invented management”, as the article itself explains, was posthumously bestowed upon him by Tom Peters, another great management guru.

Interestingly, Drucker foretold a period of great and unsettling change between 1990 and 2015.

 

SUKAD is offering a Program & Strategic Initiatives Management course this August in Lebanon. Join us!