Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin

Project Management in the Digital Age

In my work as a project manager I haven’t met anyone recently (read: last 5 years) who thinks that project management hasn’t been shaken up by the internet. Lots of jobs have suffered from – or benefited from, depending on your point of view – digital disruption. Gartner’s Nexus of Forces has become the way we do business today. Businesses from the single entrepreneur to the multinational have had to adapt to take advantage of social, mobile, cloud and data.
Or at least, the good ones have.

Project management was a bit slow to change, but now we’re seeing more movement towards the adoption of online project management tools and collaboration software to improve the ways teams work together. My research, carried out earlier this year, shows that 94% of project managers use collaboration tools for their work. When I first did a similar study in 2010 I found that 70% of people using social and online tools in a project environment did so for document sharing. Today that’s down to only 27%, reflecting a much wider use for collaboration tools at work. The 2015 survey showed that project teams are doing everything online from assigning work to storing lessons learned.

Being ‘digital’ means more than just signing up for cloud-based services and hoping for the best. Successful project teams in the digital age need to skill up for a complete shift, setting those collaboration tools in a wider context of how the business works.

Enter the Digital PMO

The concept of the Project Management Office, or PMO, has been around for a long time. This function manages the practicalities of getting projects done from holding all the corporate templates to organising training for project teams. The PMO can be staffed by someone who does the job part-time or an entire team – it really depends on the size of your business, but small companies benefit just as much from having the PMO role.

Traditionally, the PMO has been the guardian of standards and methodologies. Increasingly, they are also becoming the guardian of digital assets such as project management software and they handle the management of those, creating user accounts and so on, and they were probably involved in selecting the product in the first place.

However, the shift to a digital way of managing projects goes further than having the right tech. It’s also about how you use the data those apps create.

Equipped for speed

What if you could provide information about your projects to anyone at any time on any device? What if you could use the data your project teams collect to analyze which projects were profitable? What if your management team had the information they need to make decisions available to them in real-time? How much faster and efficient would your projects be?

Managing projects in a fully digital environment gives you all of that. You can tap into the big data accumulated from your projects to provide better management information. Digital tools also give you the opportunity to streamline workflows and give up end-of-month reporting – the more you can do in real time, the easier it is for everyone.

Equipped for flexibility

Project teams are more flexible and mobile now than they’ve ever been. And at the same time, many people are off the road less and relying on web conferencing to get the job done and take part in events. The latest figures on remote working from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com show that employees doing regular stints working at home (outside of people who are self-employed) grew by 6.5% last year, the largest year-on-year rise since before the U.S. recession.

To give you an example of what that means for professionals, this year’s Canadian legal conference was offered to delegates as an in-person event and a web conference, giving legal professionals the chance to take part in professional development without leaving home.

Project leaders need to equip their teams with the tools they need to manage whether they are working from the kitchen table, the airport or a client site halfway around the world.

Equally, businesses of all sizes need to be able to quickly reprioritize work around a new opportunity. We’ve had this at work recently: a new project came into the team as a top priority. I had to review the task assignments, inform the relevant staff of what was required and get back to the stakeholders to let them know that the new project had now started. I’m sure we are not unusual in having to pivot to deal with urgent changes in business priorities. While the project that crossed my desk wasn’t to do with security, I imagine many executives have been initiating projects to plug holes following the TalkTalk breach recently.

When situations like this arise, it’s no longer practical to wait until the weekly team leaders’ meeting to juggle resources. We have to make decisions within the hour about who is taking on the new work and who is picking up the slack (and, by extension, what is going to stop for a while until we’ve got the people to do it again).

Being fast makes you responsive to business needs so your managers feel good about working with you, and also gives you a fighting chance of delivering before your competition.

It’s probably not a surprise to you to read that the trend in project management is towards real-time processing and moving data online because it’s more efficient. But there’s something else at work here.

Transparency.

Equipped to share

Digital businesses are transparent. They share information with employees that they would never have done 20 years ago. Transparency is a cultural imperative in many workplaces now, and on cross-functional, multi-disciplinary project teams it’s essential. Knowledge work – which is what I do all day, and I expect you do too – is primarily about facilitating connections between people and tasks to get work done. A culture of sharing makes today’s offices radically different to the workplaces that the Baby Boomers joined all those years ago.

Transparency matters not only because sharing knowledge is how we get projects done, but also because it provides a business advantage. If you can share something that sparks an idea in a colleague that in turn results in a new proposition for a new client… then you’ve created something very powerful indeed from information that you had all along.

Digital disruption hasn’t been comfortable for many firms, and it isn’t over yet. In fact, while ‘digital disruption’ might be one of today’s buzzwords, I predict that the term and the phenomenon will be around a long time. We’ll continue to see the emergence of new ways to use the internet at work (and I’m sure it won’t be long before every project team can find a use for a 3D printer).

We need to shape up, keep up and take advantage of the tools that let us manage projects in a way that’s compatible to the speed of change.
The challenge for today’s project and business teams isn’t about installing a new cloud solution for task management or time tracking. It’s about how you use the data in the system after you’ve bought it to gain an advantage.

What are you doing to stay relevant in the digital age?

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