Post-Industrial Project Management in the Era of Knowledge Work

May 17, 2018 by Mike GriffithsMike Griffiths



We know old concepts that govern agriculture do not apply to industry. Engineers do not consult the weather or growing seasons before designing machinery. Yet many project managers who work in the knowledge worker domain still apply project management approaches developed for the industrial era.

This mismatch of approaches wastes effort and misses important new risks.

This article identifies the mismatch of applying industrial project management in today’s post-industrial marketplace. We first examine how to determine if your projects are: industrial, knowledge work, or hybrid. Then classify project management tools and techniques.

Fortunately, for every industrial focused approach there are modern knowledge worker equivalents. Using this information, we can apply the right tools for the job or at least identify the risks of mismatched projects and techniques.

Work, like people, has evolved. Humans started out as nomadic hunter-gathers following the seasons and game. Then, when they discovered farming, they settled and built permanent home sites. This change was christened the Agricultural Revolution and heralded a huge shift for how people lived and worked.

Next came the Industrial Revolution. Farmers and craftsmen (craftspeople really) moved from distributed communities to live in expanding cities where the industrial mills and factories were booming. Again, this was a massive change for humanity. Schools focused on timekeeping, rigor, and repetition to prepare children to work in factories. Conformance to schedules and plans made the scaling of a workforce possible.

Concepts like Taylor’s Scientific Management provided tools for tackling big engineering endeavors and applying specialized labor. Progressive decomposition of work and detailed scheduling of tasks allowed complex projects to be planned and managed. Techniques like work breakdown structures, network diagrams, and Gantt charts were taught to project managers to tame and track engineering work.

These techniques work well for tangible, stable, and mostly predictable projects. As long as an organization has a history of building a similar product, then the gap to a new design or bigger scale can be reasonably estimated and planned for.

Difficulties arise when we try to use these approaches on intangible, unfamiliar, and new environments. Differences in understanding frequently occur when we lack physical reference points such as, “I want a wooden door like this one, but a foot taller.”

These differences result in more change requests, more reported defects, more uncertainties, and risks.

In novel, intangible environments, like software development or filmmaking, things rarely progress predictably enough to follow the “Plan the work, work the plan” mantra of industrial projects.

New technology evolution accelerates the rates of change. Demands to deliver faster worsen the situation.

Many of today’s projects fit this new breed of project that were christened Knowledge Work projects by Peter Drucker.

Also, many traditional industrial projects have been automated or offshored to cheaper labor markets. This leaves a higher proportion of new projects developing largely invisible, intangible, difficult to reference, products, and services—knowledge work.

I am not suggesting all project work has changed. Just as we still have farmers—and hopefully always will—we still have traditional industry and industrial projects. So, while not all work has changed, the fastest growing segment has.

The increasing role of software in business also means a larger proportion of projects have at least some knowledge work component.

To help diagnose your project types, answer the following questions about the nature of projects you execute.

If you scored more on the left-hand side of the table, you are engaged in mainly industrial type projects. This is good news for reliable execution: traditional project management tools and techniques should serve you well.

If you scored more on the right-hand side, you are firmly in the knowledge worker domain. You should move from industrial project management approaches and adopt knowledge worker ones.

If you scored equally from each column, you are in a hybrid environment. Here you likely need to draw on a combination of approaches to be successful.

The tools and approaches of the knowledge worker revolution address the complexity and ambiguity that accompany these projects. Let’s dig deeper to understand the characteristics and appreciate post-industrial project management techniques.

Knowledge work projects bring subject matter experts together to collaborate on new and unique products and services. This might involve scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, software developers, or web designers working with the b...

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