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Proceedings of ICE

Civil Engineering 150 May 2002

Pages 8290 Paper 12641


Science, objective knowledge and

the theory of project management
P. W. G. Morris

management; planning and

scheduling; research &

Peter Morris

is professor of construction project

management at UCL, professor of
engineering project managenent of
UMIST and executive director of
INDECO (International
Management Consultants) Ltd

Though there is reasonable agreement on most of the formal

tools used for managing projects, there is still a range of views
on what constitutes the discipline of project management.This
paper examines the knowledge we have of the discipline and, in
particular, how testable and public it is. It suggests that while the
'hard systems' approaches of systems engineering and decision
support have had a seminal impact on the development of
project management, 'soft systems' thinking also has an
important role, particularly at the front end of projects.The
human side of project management is also extremely important.
The paper concludes that while we can certainly identify good
project management practice, there will never be an overall
theory of project management. Indeed, the very notion is
It would be fatuous to contend that the
scientific method has been applied to the
management of projects only relatively
recently. There are countless examples of
engineering and science being applied to
the management of projects right back to
ancient times, and most are very well
known to members of the Institution of
Civil Engineers, not least because so many
of them were major construction projects.
It is a popularly held view that project
management originated in construction. If
we are talking about modern project management, as now generally understood,
this is not strictly true. Virtually all the
practices, concepts and language of project management can be shown to have
had their origins largely in the US aero-

space agencies in the mid-1950s, although

with antecedents pre-World War II. They
were developed primarily on programmes
such as Atlas, Polaris, Minuteman and
Apollo in response to the need to develop
new ballistic missile capability on a highly
urgent basis to counter perceived Soviet
threats. Thereafter they developed by way
of Department of Defense (DoD) initiatives not least those following the arrival
of Robert McNamara as US Secretary of
Defense in 1960.1
Apollo was hugely influential in promoting modern project and programme
management practices (Fig. 1). The
objectives were clearclassic project
onesin President Kennedys words of
25 May 1961

Fig. 1. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin photographed on the moon by Neil Armstrong on 20 July
1969a giant leap for project management (courtesy of NASA)




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To achieve the goal, before this

decade is out, of landing a man on the
moon and returning him safely to
The budget was less well publicised
$20 billion, of which $7 billion was contingency. The resulting effort by the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) and its contractors was a heroic
example of engineering systems management. A strategy of how to get to the
moon, and back, had to be developed (the
initial idea was first to build an orbiting
space station and to depart from there),
engineering of the rockets, landing modules and support infrastructure had to be
developed, and astronaut bio-behaviour in
space understood and designed to; and all
within highly determined schedule and cost
constraints. The programme objectives
were substantively achievedthe cost was
$21 billion.1
The resulting project management
approach was hailed as the new management paradigmthe answer to how to
tackle many of mankinds problems
The first management approach
born of the nuclear age and the electronics age.2
Yet, in reality, the NASA approach was
fundamentally limited, for Apollo had
been a closed systems programme in the
sense that the programme was substantially shielded from external changes, such
as funding cutbacks or environmentalist
The systems approach to the management of projects was one that hailed
directly from the application of modern
scientific methods to management. The
history of the limitations of this application and the efforts we have been making
to adapt and enlarge upon it to deliver
projects more successfully is the theme of
this paper.

Defining project management

An obvious place to start is to understand what we mean by, first, a project,
and, second, management.
There is a surprising diversity of views
on what is a project. Kerzner, one of the
gurus of project management, characterises a project as having

a specific objective to be completed

within certain specifications, with
defined start and end dates, funding
limits (if applicable), and which consume resources (i.e. money, people,
British Standard BS 6079, A Guide to
Project Management, defines a project as
a unique set of coordinated activities, with definite starting and finishing points, undertaken by an
individual or organisation to meet specific objectives within defined schedule, cost and performance
The Gower Handbook of Project
Management states that
a project is a cycle of activities with
the purpose of supplying, within definite start and completion dates, a
unique product, service or set of information to a specified quality and
The US Project Management Institutes
Guide to the Project Management Body of
Knowledge defines a project as
a temporary endeavour undertaken
to create a unique product or service.6
Although one could argue with the definite start and finish idea, the gist is probably clear. A project can be characterised
as a unique endeavourin the sense of a
one-offundertaken to accomplish a
defined objective. Yet, in reality, the most
fundamental characteristic of a project is
something that is a direct result of this
uniqueness and yet which is hardly mentioned in these definitions (pace Gower),
namely the life cycle.

Stage gate
review point


Stage gate
review point


The one single thing which

distinguishes projects from non-projects
is that all projects, no matter how complex or trivial, go through a common lifecycle development sequence. Whole
organisations can be set up to achieve
specific objectives within given time and
cost constraints and that will consume
resources (the Apollo programme office
was not a project). But it is the act of
going from concept through definition,
development, build, and hand-overor,
words to such effect, several different
life-cycle models existthat truly distinguishes projects from non-projects. This
sequence is invariant (Fig. 2).
Management is an activity. It is the
activity of planning, organising, directing
and controlling. It is about communicating, about deciding, and about using
resources. In the words of the leading
management thinker, Peter Drucker
It is a practice not a science. It is
not knowledge but performance.7
If the only thing that really distinguishes
projects from non-projects is the life
cycle, arguably the only things that therefore distinguishes project management
from other forms of management are the
management skills and actions involved in
going successfully through that life cycle.
This surely is the case, though the word
successfully is crucially important here.
There is no point in progressing through
the life cycle if the result is not successful.
But the issue is, how does one define (and
measure) success?
In fact, what precisely comprises the
discipline of project management varies
depending on the nature of the project,
the role of the project manager, and the
stage of the project life-cycle at which the
project manager is operating. Thus, managing say the landscape contract for a

Stage gate
review point


Stage gate
review point

and review


Fig. 2. Projects are distinguished from other activities by having a distinct life cycle
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project management, at anything other than the basic level, might have to deal with
an enormously broad range of issues

power station will involve fewer issues

than being the owners project manager of
the stations overall definition, construction, and commissioning.
Most definitions of project management
would agree that, at a minimum, there is

integration of the work of others

needed to assure project success
application of certain project management practices.

It is the extent of application of these

practices, and the nature of the integration, that leads to differences in definition.
At its most basic, project management
involves some combination of scope management, activity scheduling (time management), and cost and resource
management. This is, in effect, basic project control. Managing people is generally
an important aspect of most management;
adding people management, including
communications, leadership and teamworking, probably gives the basic set of
project management skill requirements.
Before long though, technical and commercial issues will probably be seen to be
affecting the chances of a successful project outcome and these too will need
addressing. Risk, and probably value, will
need managing on a systematic basis too.
In general, the nearer to the definition
stage of the project (the nearer to the
front end) and the higher the organisational level one gets, the broader the
range of issues that one will find oneself
dealing withissues of strategy, finance,
organisation, technology, control, people

Fig. 3. The US Project Management Institutes

Project Management Body of Knowledge is
seen by many as one of the most authoritative
guides to what a project manager should know




and culture, commerce and contracts,

community and environment, process and
timing, and so on.
Such a broad view of the discipline is
actually rather daunting in its implications. For what we are saying is that project management, at anything other than
the basic level, might have to deal with an
enormously broad range of issuesall the
issues that present themselves as one
moves from concept to completion, and
that varies from one context to another.
There can be no doubt that many of the
people who are employed to manage projects do indeed find themselves having to
address just such a broad range of issues.
Critically, of course, they will generally
not see themselves as expert enough, nor
as having sufficient time, to work alone in
all these different areas. Instead they will
act as integrators of the work of functional specialists. Their core competence, as
project managers, will be knowing how to
integrate the work of others, as the project evolves through its life cycle, in order
to meet the projects objectives. This view
of the domainthe disciplineof project
management is certainly more than that

normally put out by most of the basic

textbooks on project management, many
of the business schools, and even the
Project Management Institute itself.
Here the normal view is one which
aligns project management with execution management: the accomplishment of
stated objectives, most classically defined
as accomplishing the project on time, in
budget, to scopehere is the objective,
go do it. Here project management is not
seen as covering project definition, and
typically does not deal with technology,
environmental or even commercial issues.

Bodies of knowledge
The US Project Management Institutes
Project Management Body of Knowledge6
(PMBOK) (Fig. 3)seen by many as
one of the most authoritative guides to
what a project manager should know
identifies nine knowledge areas


Stage gate
review point

Project integration
project plan development
project plan execution
overall change control

Project scope
scope planning
scope definition
scope verification
scope change control

Project time
activity definition
activity sequencing
activity duration estimating
schedule development
schedule control

Project cost
resource management
cost estimating
cost budgeting
cost control

Project quality
quality management
quality assurance
quality control

Project human resource

organisational planning
staff acquisition
team development

Project communications
communications planning
information distribution
performance reporting
administrative closure

Project risk
risk identification
risk quantification
risk response development
risk response control

Project procurement
procurement planning
solicitation planning
source selection
contract administration
contract close-out

Fig. 4. Nine major knowledge areas are identified by the US Project Management Institute
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human resources

These align well with this view of project management as primarily execution
management (Fig. 4). However, deploying
these project management areas alone is
almost certainly no guarantee of ensuring
the accomplishment of the project on
time, in budget, to scope.
For example, research carried out at
Oxford and in the USA in the 1980s
showed that many of the factors that
cause projects not to meet their schedule
or cost targets are not covered by the
PMBOK type model.8 Among this data,
which showed the causes of why projects
fail to meet their baseline targets, are factors such as

client-driven changed specifications or

order quantities
technology problems
poor design management
external price changes
environmentalist and/or community

or political difficulties
geotechnical problems
labour problems.

Few, if any, of these factors are even

addressed today in much of the project
management literature. Much of the
PMBOK material is helpful in managing
projects, but is not sufficient to manage
them successfully (and may not always
even be necessary). This should be no surprise, as focusing on execution alone,
without due consideration to context and
strategy, will invariably lead either to inappropriately selected objectives or inoptimal
strategies for accomplishing them.
History is littered with examples. It was
this insight which led to the enlarged view
of project management and that led to the
term the management of projects as a
broader way of representing the discipline:
managing projects within their business or
social context, managing them to achieve
business success, managingor at least
influencingthe projects environment, or
context, that can so affect outcome success, as well as the intra-project processes

Fig. 5. The UK Association of Project

Management also publishes a body of

and practices of definition and delivery. It

was also this broader view of the domain
of project management that informed the
research at the University of Manchester
Institute of Science (UMIST) and
Technology undertaken in developing the
fourth edition of the UK Association for
Project Managements Project Management
Body of Knowledge in 199899 (Fig. 5).9,10
The Associations view of project management (Fig. 6) is thus considerably broader

1.0 General
1.1 Project management
1.2 Programme management

1.3 Portfolio management

1.4 Project context

2.0 Strategic
2.1 Project success criteria
2.2 Strategy/project
2.3 Value management


Risk management
Quality management
Safety, health and environment

3.0 Control
3.1 Work content and
scope management
3.2 Time scheduling/phasing
3.3 Resource management
3.4 Budgeting and
cost management
3.5 Change control
3.6 Performance management
3.7 Information management

4.0 Technical
4.1 Design, production and
4.2 Requirements management
4.3 Technology management
4.4 Estimating
4.5 Value engineering
4.6 Modelling and testing
4.7 Configuration management

5.0 Commercial
5.1 Business case
5.2 Marketing and sales
5.3 Financial management
5.4 Procurement
5.5 Bidding
5.6 Contract management
5.7 Legal awareness

6.0 Organisational
6.1 Life cycle design
and management
6.1.1 Opportunity
6.1.2 Design and
6.1.3 Production
6.1.4 Hand-over
6.1.5 (Post) Project
evaluation review
6.6 Organisation stucture
6.7 Organisational roles


Design and



marketing bid

Design, modelling
and procurement

Make, build
and test

Test, commission,

7.0 People
7.1 Communication
7.2 Teamwork
7.3 Leadership
7.4 Decision making
7.5 Negotiating and
7.6 Conflict management
7.7 Project management
7.8 Personnel management

Operation and maintenance/
integrated logistics,
Project reviews/learning
from experience

Fig. 6. Summary of the UK Association of Project Managements body of knowledge

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than that of the Project Management

Institute (see Table 1).
Not only is the management of projects view of project management broader, it has an almost revolutionary impact
on the way one thinks about the relationship between performance and the project objectives. It is, in fact, much more
closely aligned with the project sponsors,
or owners, perspective. Here the issue is
not so much simply whether the project
will be accomplished on time, within
budget, and to scope, but whether the
business successthe success in meeting
the projects key performance indicators
(KPIs)justifies the effort, and the risk,
expended in undertaking the project.
Indeed, it could be that the original
baseline targets are no longer relevant
that it is in the sponsors business interests for the project to exceed its baseline
cost, schedule or scope targets. The idea
of improving performance rather than
just achieving the initial baseline targets is
now being captured in new maturity
models of project management.11, 12
Establishing these targets at the front end
and managing the evolution of the project
to achieve optimal business success is
increasingly a theme of contemporary
project management practice.
There is much interest, and work, in
melding traditional project management
knowledge, of defining and delivering a
successful outcome as it evolves through
the project life-cycle, with the knowledge
of the sponsors business objectives and
operating characteristics. Not only does
this new, broader view take project management further into the front end (concept)and, indeed, the back end
(operations and even decommissioning)of the life cycle, with contemporary
moves towards a much more integrated
supply chain (partnering, framework contracts and so on), it brings the whole project organisation into a more sophisticated
view of what successful project accomplishment means.
Exciting though such an opening-up of
project management might be, it adds further urgency to the question of what the
discipline really comprises. Is the discipline now becoming so broad that it is
still really tenable? Can any one person
understand the features of managing projects at such a strategic breadth, in so




Table 1. Comparison between the bodies of knowledge publications of the US Project

Management Institute (PMI PMBOK) and the UK Association of Project Management (APM BOK)
reveal that the latter has a broader view of the subject


1.The project management framework

1. Project management framework
4. Project integration
2. Project management context
10.3. Performance reporting
Included in 4. Project integration management
11. Project risk management
8. Project quality management
5. Project scope management
6. Project time management
9. Project human resource management
7. Project cost management
4. Project integration management
10.3. Performance reporting
Small section in 10.2 Tools and techniques for
information distribution
7.2 Cost estimating
12. Procurement
2. Project management context
9.1. Organisational planning
2. Project management context
9.1. Organisational planning
2. Project management context
9.1. Organisational planning
10. Communications management
9.3 Team development
2.4 General management skills
2.4 General management skillsinfluencing
2.4 General management skillsproblem solving

1. General

many different situations, so that we can

truly expect to discern and articulate
generic best practice for the discipline as
a whole? Should the scholar of the discipline be expected to understand the
whole range of its application? Should the
practitioner be expected to be competent
in all of its aspects?
If the answer is, in practice, almost certainly not entirely, then how far do we
go? If the need to understand how to
manage projects successfully is genuine
and there is ample evidence to suggest
that it iswhat are the elements of the
subject? How is it to be codified and
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10. Project management

11. Programme management
12. Project context
20. Project success criteria
21. Strategy/project management plan
22.Value management
23. Risk management
24. Quality management
25. Health, safety and environment
30.Work content and scope management
31.Time scheduling/phasing
32. Resource management
33. Budgeting and cost management
34. Change management
35. Earned value management
36. Information management
40. Design, implementation and hand-over management
41. Requirements management
42. Estimating
43.Technology management
44.Value engineering
45. Modelling and testing
46. Configuration management
50. Business case
51. Marketing and sales
52. Financial management
53. Procurement
54. Legal awareness
60. Life-cycle design and management
66. Organisation structure
67. Organisation roles
70. Communication
72. Leadership
73. Negotiation
75. Personnel management

learnt? Can we be predictive in the usual

way that knowledge enables us to be?
What is the theory of project management?

Scientific knowledge and project

Engineering applies knowledge of mathematics and the sciences to develop ways
to use economically the materials and
forces of nature for the well being of society. Engineering is more than just developing design concepts: it also entails the
efficient realisation of designs. A professional engineer must understand and apply



management itself is far from being a robust body of scientific knowledge

Fig. 7. Professional engineers need to understand hard sciences, such as mathematics, as well as soft sciences, such as
economics, sociology, and management

the basic laws of mathematics (Fig. 7),

physics, chemistry and other hard sciences, and also the soft sciences such as
economics, sociology and management,
for the planning, designing, management
and operation of engineering works. Some
of these laws, particularly the hard science ones, are very familiar to us. But
what about the softer ones? What indeed
are the laws of management? How objective and scientific is our knowledge of project management?
Comte, the founder of modern sociology, proposed that sciences could be placed
in a natural order in which each science
presupposes the less complex sciences
which precede it, but shows its own irreducible laws. For Comte, this order was

the biological sciences

The problem for the later sciences in

this sequence is that the number of variablesthe complexity of the issue being
treatedincreases dramatically so that it
becomes harder to apply the classical
means of scientific enquiry. These are
those of acquiring publicly testable knowledge of the world through the processes
of reductionism, repeatability, and refutation. We reduce the complexity of the
world into experiments, and these may be
validated in that they are repeatable, and
we build knowledge through refutation of
our theories.
The challenges in applying the scientific

approach to sociology are several. There

are many viewpoints by which the real
world can be reduced to experimental
form. Repeatability is often very difficult
or even impossible. Predictions may be
extremely tenuous, not least because of
the vagaries of human beings and their
propensity to act differently.
If sociology has these difficulties, what
of management? No one claims there to
be a science of management. There is a
branch of management called management science but this is about the application of scientific method to
managementhypothesis building, modelling, measuring and evaluating, with the
aim of improving the model, and hence
the performance of the thing being
modelled. Critical-path scheduling and
work-study are examples of management
science applications that help us on a dayto-day basis in the management of engineering works.
Management can also be aided by science through the applications of

technologycomputers, telecommunications
psychological toolspsychometrics,
team building
organisation theorythe contingency
theory of organisation structure being
correlated with its core tasks and its
environment, for example.

Some of the aids and insights into the

practice of management can indeed be
reduced to a repeatable and refutable
form. But management itself is far from
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istry is, in the sense that there can be

reducible, repeatable and refutable laws
of management. Indeed, we do not necessarily even have agreement on what
would constitute management.
So, the breadth of application of management in general makes any claim to a
general scientific basis particularly difficult. But projects are in many ways quite
specific, structured forms of organisation,
and project management is generally highly goal orientated and deterministic.
Given the much more restricted intellectual scope of projects and project management compared with management in
general, might there not be a greater possibility of a theory, or theories, of project
There are certainly examples of project
management benefiting from scientific
knowledge. Network scheduling is a classic example. We can model a sequence of
activities and predict when the whole set,
the work package, will be complete. We
can even add risk and develop contingencies, using probability theory to estimate
the total contingency that should be put
on the overall network. There are sociological, or at any rate organisational,
insights too. Organisation theorists have
shown, for example, that projects tend to
meet their baseline targets more frequently if organised on a full project rather
than on a matrix or functional basis.13, 14
Significant parts of project management
can therefore be developed along theory
lines with reasonable scientific rigourif
you do this, the result is likely to be better
than if you do not. We can also identify
good/best practice principlesfor example, it is helpful to break the project into
its component work packages when
planning italthough there is little that is
scientific or even theoretical about such
So, to what extent can we develop a
reliable public knowledge of project management and how useful might such
knowledge be? Consider first the history
of the application of the systems approach
to management. We can see clearly how
over the last 30 to 50 years the hard science approach has accommodated the
needs of the soft sciences in dealing both
with the uncertainties that people bring in
predicting outcomes, and in agreeing
objectively what is reality.




The systems approach to

managing projects
Of all the approaches that have consciously sought to bring the rigour of the
scientific method to management, that of
systems thinking has probably been the
widest and arguably the most influential.
Its impact on project management has
been enormous, and illustrates both the
possibilities and the limitations of the scientific method.
A system may be defined as any entity,
conceptual or physical, which consists of
interrelated parts. Systems thinking stems
from several routes. Two particularly
strong ones are those from

the study of complex organisational

entities (systems), as in biology, economics, sociology and organisation
theory where new and important characteristics emerge the higher the level
of analysisso called emergence and
engineering, particularly from work to
do with control and communication

It is understanding the way that systems

behaveparticularly open ones (those
that purposefully interact with their environment as opposed to closed ones,
which do not)that has led to several
revealing insights into the way systems
organise and manage themselves. We can
see the impact of systems thinking on project management both in hard systems
engineering and decision analysis ways
(systems engineering and systems analysis), and in softer areas of organisation
development and organisational learning.
In organisation theory, for example, the
systems approach underlies the work of
the socio-technic school based at the
Tavistock Institute in London, many of
whose ideas can beand have been15,16
imported directly into our thinking of project management.
The hard systems approach is essentially
an engineering one about how to perceive,
design, evaluate and implement a system
to meet a defined need. It is highly congruent with the execution view of project
managementor the closed project
world of the Apollo programme. Its influence on the formulation of modern project
management terms, practices and




approaches has been seminal, as we saw

earlier, not just because of what NASA,
the Air Force and the Navy did with it, but
in that it was then so heavily promoted by
Robert McNamara at the DoD, along with
the management science type decision support tools that McNamara brought with
him from Ford. By the mid-1960s, the
(hard and decision support) systems
approach had given rise to almost the
entire vocabulary of modern project management.
The interesting point however is that, as
we have seen, the execution view of project management is increasingly being
recognised as not being the full view, and
not always even the appropriate view, of
the discipline. At the front end of project
definition, for example, we often have
quite messy, poorly structured situations,
where objectives are not clear, where different constituencies have conflicting aims,
and where the way forward requires vision
and leadership as well as hard analysis and
design. Not only this, but the organisational context within which projects are conceived and delivered is increasingly
decentralised and fluid. While the hard,
engineering driven approach to systems
management previously advocated for project management is still generally appropriate, we need to augment it with a subtler,
more emergent view for these fuzzier
aspects of projects and their management.
Soft systems methodology was developed for such situations. Soft systems
actually grew out of the frustration of trying to model the management of the
Concorde project (Fig. 8) within the shifting political context of de Gaulles
response to Britains application to join
the Common Market.17 Soft systems
methodology builds and trials a number
of potential models of purposeful activity
that appear relevant to making progress
in a given situation. The testing is iterative. In essence, it becomes a learning system.
Senge and his colleagues have built on
these insights but added greatly, not least
by recognising the active role that people
play, particularly in generating visions of
the way forward (the emergent system).18
Senge is concerned with how organisations build effective long-term change.
Organisational learning is the only viable,
self-sustaining means of achieving this, he
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Fig. 8. Soft-systems methodology was first

used for managing the politically sensitive
AngloFrench Concorde project (photo courtesy of Richard Hunt,

believes. Senge uses five disciplines for

conceiving and effecting sustainable

personal mastery
mental models
building shared vision
team-based learning
systems thinking.

Systems thinking is the fifth disciplinethe integrator of the other four

What both Senge and the soft systems
school insist upon is that where the system is not yet well defined, perceptual
tools can be employed to help elicit viable
visions and build consensus. The organisational psychologist, Karl Weick, had
already argued that we tend not to construct reality out of theory but out of
experience: much of organisational realities have a subjective origin.19 Senge goes
further, using Argyris insights to show
how teams, and leaders, can shape and
add to a vision and powerfully create the
means for its realisation:20, 21 a practice
that is increasingly familiar in the way
that behavioural expectations and performance targets are set in alliance and partnering based projects.22
It is not that there is no place for hard
systems and management science type
tools at the front end of projectsfar
from itbut that care needs to be taken
in these early, fuzzier stages in developing
visions and models of the project.
Iteration is probably necessary. There is a
need for inclusivity. The project manager
needs to use these softer tools, but do so
within a hard framework of



managers, like other professionals, learn through practice

decision point milestones

integration with corporate plans
requirements capture
modelling (financial, engineering, supply chain, scheduling, etc.)
value optimisation (value management), and so forth.

This broader view of project management is creating a broader systems

approach to project management. In
doing so, it is making Comtes point that
sociology (and management) can never
generate the same reducible, repeatable,
and refutable public knowledge as the
hard sciences. The role of people in
management puts limits on our ability to
develop predictable outcomes and, to
some extent at least, we see the managerial world, and shape our perception of it,
through mental models.
Project management, like management
itself, is thus not a science, in the full or
proper sense of the word. Our knowledge
will always be, to some extent at least, personal and experiential. The best we can do
is to offer guidance in the form of tools,
aids, heuristics, approaches, insightsand
some scientifically objective theory.
How useful then is our knowledge to
the practice of project management?
What role does knowledge have in the

Knowledge and the theory, and

practice, of project management
Knowledge management is a vogue subject. Spurred significantly by the need to
continuously improve, it is increasingly
being recognised as an important though
often under-managed organisational asset.
Once said, this seems obvious.
But what is knowledge? How does it
differ from information? Work at UMIST
on the use of information technology in
knowledge management in construction
the KLICON project23has shown the
difficulty of pinning down such a ubiquitous and slippery concept.
Information is data interpreted in a
given context; knowledge is the cognitive
ability to generate insight based on information and data. In practice, the distinction between information and knowledge
is a lot less clear than that between both
of these and data. For what is information

to one person may be knowledge to

another; and what was knowledge in one
context may only be information in another. It is a common mistake to assume that
one understands the context when in fact
one does not understand properly, and
thus what was taken to be predictive
knowledge in fact is not.
Knowledge is tacit as well as explicit.
Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge
embedded in individual experience; it
involves intangible factors such as personal belief, perspectives, and values. Explicit
knowledge is readily availableit can be
codified and structured in a way that
makes the knowledge easily transmissible.
Much that is really useful in project
knowledge, however, is in peoples
headsit is tacit. Many argue that its
value diminishes substantially when it is
downloaded and made explicit.
Scientific knowledgepublicly
refutable knowledgeis explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is private knowledge, and private knowledge, by
definition, is not scientifically testable
(for scientific knowledge is public knowledge). Much of what is valuable knowledge about management, and project
management, is thus inherently not scientific, unless and until it becomes explicit
and can be addressed according to scientific practice.
Schon has examined the way that managers, and particularly professionals,
develop knowledge and learn.24 If there is
no authority figure to turn to, then,
according to Schon, professionals work in
continuous cycles of

hypothesis development

Schon calls this reflection in action.

The point is that managers, like other professionals, learn through practice.
The insight is telling. In management,
formal knowledgeauthorityis important but is not the only means of learning.
In practice-orientated jobs or domains, the
majority of people learn most effectively
by doing (particularly when they get into
their twenties and beyond), although from
a base of more formal knowledge. Weicks
point comes in againin organisations
people create their version of reality often
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more out of experience than from theory.19

There are thus limits to how far scientifically objective knowledge can illuminate
our understanding of how to manage.
Most professional, or competencybased, jobs, like management or engineering, in fact recognise that to be
competent one needs a mixture of appropriate formal knowledge, skills, and
behaviours. This is the route that the project management societies have gone
down in establishing project management
certification schemes (analogous to the
engineering institutions qualifications
There are many who will always question the effectiveness of certification programmes in assuring competency,
particularly where, as we have seen, so
much of valuable knowledge is not likely to
be explicit. Indeed, the bodies of knowledge produced by the various associations
are, in reality, no more than frameworks
outlining the knowledge areas that the
associations believe project management
practitioners should be knowledgeable in.
They are guides to other knowledge, be
that knowledge in books or out in the larger world of experience.
Competency is generally defined as the
ability to perform in an effective and consistent manner. As one of the components
of project management competence,
knowledge should be important. But is
there any evidence that having formal
project management knowledge helps
managers to perform effectively? Many
believe so.25 But is there any objective evidence that formal project management
knowledge correlates with the ability to
manage projects better? Hardly any in
fact, although the professional societies
believe that their examinations of experience, where this happens, does test
What many practitioners are now looking for, particularly those charged with
developing project management competencies within companies, is at least some
evidence to show that the application of
formal project management knowledge
and practices produces better project outcomes. The current data on this are only
slight. 8,10,25-28 There are no data yet that
demonstrate a causal relationship between
the application of formal project management and project outcomes.




Is there then a discipline of project
management? What part does knowledge
play in the discipline? Is there a theory?
There is a discipline in the sense that

there is substantial and, in places, significant literature on it

there are defined bodies of knowledge on it (and there are also many
dozens of universities that research
and teach it)
there are many people who believe
that they practice it
there are professional societies who
promote it and who examine and
qualify people in it.

Knowledge, both explicit and tacit, is

central to our understanding of this discipline. We know the characteristics of projects and project management pretty well,
we have some general lessons on what
kinds of actions lead to projects having
successful outcomes, and we know what
tools are helpful in the management of
However, projects vary hugely and so
do peoples roles on them. The overall
scope of the discipline is thus quite
dauntingly large, particularly if trying to
understand how best practice should be
best appliedthat is, best appropriate
So, is there a theory of project management? No, there cannot be a single theory.
Project management, like management
itself, is too broad a subject for there to
be a single theory. Indeed, even the hard
scientific subjects do not have a single
theory. They have theories of particular
thingsthe laws of Newton, Faraday and
Einstein, for examplebut not one overall theory.
Project management, like management
itself, is similarsome areas are susceptible to the methods of scientific enquiry to
generate testable public knowledge,
some are much less so and will always
have a large element of unpredictability.
Not, then, a theory of project managementindeed, the very notion is mistakenbut some theories. And knowledge,
both tacit and explicit, of best appropriate
practice that, if applied, should lead to
improved chances of successful project




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