One of the key findings from the AXELOS PPM Benchmarking Report 2019 is that throughout the world project and program management professionals see much more value in becoming generalists than specialists.
This is even more pronounced in Australia which ranks even higher than the average when it comes to this topic. But why are we seeing this trend? And what potential impact will it have for both the project management profession and project management in general?
Let’s start at the beginning and explore why this change is occurring. Over the past few decades there has been a trend across most industries to move from the more specialist roles to the generalist. This is not to say that specialists in whatever field do not exist, they simply are not as prevalent anymore.
One way to describe this is through the development of T-shaped skills; this combines a deep knowledge of a particular subject area (the vertical line in the “T”), with the broadening of skills and knowledge into new related areas (the horizontal line in the “T”).
But why is this happening?
Perhaps the biggest driver of this shift has been the rise of technology. The common use of computers and smart devices coupled with the internet, AI and automation have all contributed to removing the needs for roles which had been fulfilled by humans.
It wasn’t that long ago that being a typist was a profession, along with a whole host of other similar related roles. Yet it doesn’t stop there, even roles which would once have thought to be future proofed such as mechanics have and will continue to be significantly impacted by technology with the move towards self-driving and electric cars.
Compounding this shift is the increasing pace of change meaning that it is becoming much more common for people to not only change roles, but also to change career. Many currently feel that being too specialist in any one area is potentially seen as a risky move for career longevity as it may limit opportunities further on.
This is not different for project managers who not only are more likely to identify as generalists but also see future value in investing their efforts in identifying as one too.
This is perhaps not surprising given project management methods such as PRINCE2 take a generalist approach as the method can be applied to any project environment and is itself described as “generic”. Couple this with the fact many come into the profession from another career it follows that project managers are more likely to feel comfortable with a generalist tag.
However, this position is potentially a dangerous one for the project management profession. The AXELOS Benchmarking Report also found that projects run by project managers who identified themselves as specialists, were more successful. In more successful PPM functions one third were specialists compared to only 15% in less successful PPM functions.
If we take the aforementioned example of PRINCE2; the method itself has been specifically designed to be tailored (it is a core principle of the method and was heavily reinforced and expanded in the 2017 update). Tailoring is not simple and takes good knowledge of the method as well as practice and experience of tailoring to a particular project context. Specialist project managers will be much better equipped to do this in the project context in which they are working within.
Specialists will also have much more experience in predicting, avoiding and responding to any challenges that their projects may face as they have worked in that industry, with those products and those stakeholders. It may sound a lot like common sense but goes against the trend of project managers seeing value in identifying as generalists.
Ultimately it likely comes down to the operational necessities that these organisations, and their project managers, operate within. The Benchmarking Report indeed found that project managers are experiencing:
- Higher expectations than ever before
- Being asked to manage and work on an increasing number of projects at any one time
- A lack of or limited resources which leads to them being allocated wherever they are needed.
Organisations are under such pressure to deliver more for less that they potentially perceive that they cannot afford specialist project managers and instead preferring project managers who can be utilized for any situation.
If we think back to the beginning of this article and the reference to T-shaped skills development, there is much to be gained from really understanding this approach. The balance between the deep knowledge and experience and the broadening of skills will be crucial for project managers to prosper in the future. Organizational demands will require them to have that broader range of skills and expertise, but it must not come at the expense of specialist knowledge and experience.
This article has offered a snapshot of one of the key findings in the report. If you would be interested in reading the full Benchmarking Report, including the executive summary on the Australian region, you can do so here.