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What does the future look like for the project management profession?

We are all living through an unusual time – and project managers are no exception. The world of work is experiencing unprecedented challenges and complexity due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the majority of organisations and industries affected in one way or another. So, what does this mean for the project management profession?

We recently spoke to Elizabeth Foley, CEO of the Australian Institute of Project Management, for her thoughts on what the future looks like for project managers.

What do you think are the key opportunities and challenges the project management industry faces and how should the profession be responding to these?

Project management is a profession found in a wide range of industries, which are being impacted in different ways by the pandemic. Some industries have seen major disruption, such as the airline industry, while others including the construction and infrastructure industries have been more moderately impacted to date. However, recent changes in Victoria with the Stage 4 restrictions is now hitting construction more in that state. There are even industries that have seen gains as a result of COVID-19, such as healthcare for example.

As a result of the current pandemic, some projects are being delayed, as decision makers are erring on the side of caution. However, there is also opportunity for the project management industry, especially in light of federal and state governments fast tracking expenditure on “shovel ready” projects. Using what is happening in NSW as an example, Planning and Public Spaces Minister, Rob Stokes, recently announced 13 new projects set to be determined as part of the government's plan to boost the COVID-19 economic recovery.

Project Managers and project management consulting firms should look to industries that are doing well or are unaffected and pursue opportunities in these industries. One of the many positive aspects of a career in project management is that the skills are transferrable, so Project Managers have the opportunity to move their career to where there is growth.

Apart from targeting government stimulus packages, some consulting firms are talking to their regular large partners and offering to do projects at discounted rates with their spare capacity. The key is to be flexible, communicate with your clients, and be prepared to adapt.

To remain competitive in today’s world of work, organisations continue to adopt new technologies to improve and transform their businesses. How do you think technologies and tools will continue to change or shape the future of project management?

According to The Future of Project Management: Global Outlook 2019, 71% of organisations reported using project management software to improve the management and control of programs and projects, and 51% of organisations use collaboration tools to support project delivery.

COVID-19 is expediting the digital revolution due to lockdowns and closed borders. While it is easy to monitor this through the huge growth in Zoom usage, we will inevitably also see an increase in digital technology for the project management profession.

Some technological changes will also be forced on the project management profession by regulation. For example, the NSW Building Commissioner recently said, “Gone are the days where you will be able to be a Project Manager (for a building) from a ute, using a mobile phone.” Regulation will require digital twins of buildings to be submitted to local governments. The digital model will provide a virtual environment to ensure the building is designed and engineered to a high standard and will become part of the planning process in the construction and infrastructure industries.

There are a number of implications for the profession. How do we educate and train up young Project Managers, who used to learn the ropes in administrative roles that are now performed by software, such as the role of a Project Scheduler? How do we upskill say, Project Managers in the building industry? This is an issue the NSW Building Commissioner, the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) and a number of other professional associations are looking at.

Project Managers who possess strong change management capability are highly sought by employers today. Why is change management an increasingly important skill and knowledge area for Project Managers?

Traditionally, project management came from a very task focussed discipline however change management is becoming an important skillset for Project Managers today. Change management incorporates behavioural management skills, such as engaging stakeholders and bringing people on the journey of the project with you.

Our research, conducted with KPMG and the International Project Management Association, showed 63% of organisations conduct projects that include change management capability. This statistic shows just how important the skill set and knowledge of change management is for Project Managers in their career.

As explained in our report, “The future of project management is as a connected facilitator of change and return on investment. This will require greater emphasis on aligning organisational change management capability with project delivery capability”.

Businesses are operating in dynamic and uncertain contexts, even more so now, in response to COVID-19. How has this impacted the way Project Managers approach project management?

Project Managers need to adapt quickly and be flexible. Project Managers are leaders and as a project leader it is essential to be aware of the mental health of your staff. This is a time where Project Managers should be transparent with stakeholders and clients and explain the risks and implications of COVID-19 on the project. Clear communication with both staff and stakeholders is key.

It may mean that some projects are now not viable, or it could mean that changes to costs, timelines and resources are required. For example, at the AIPM we have had to push out our major conference from November to February, and we are now looking to change to a completely virtual conference. It’s about being flexible, communicating well with both staff and stakeholders and making the right decisions for the project.

What does the future look like for the project management profession and how can Project Managers as well as aspiring Project Managers best prepare for this?

The project management profession is crucial to the successful delivery of projects, especially those that are being brought forward. For Project Managers or project management consulting firms that are looking for work right now, my advice is to look at opportunities in sectors less impacted by COVID-19.

Keep your professional skillset up to date by attending virtual webinars and events related to the project profession and learn new software skills so you’re prepared for greater digitalisation. Continuing to upgrade your existing skills will ensure your CV stands out to potential employers. Get certified as a project management professional, as this will show potential employers and clients you’re a cut above the rest.

Most importantly, be flexible. Remember that the skills of a project professional are transferrable. Projects are in the pipeline and there is plenty of opportunity for skilled and competent Project Managers to make their mark.