COVID – so what’s project management got to do with it?

Article by Professor Alan Patching
Faculty of Society and Design, Bond University / 20 July 2020

There should be a lot to learn before the world declares ‘lights out’ on the COVID experience. Certainly, the intelligence of governments and societies at large would rightly be questioned if there were not vigourous and rigourous investigations and formal research into several aspects of it.

Responsible governments the world over are already analysing the impacts and trying to identify how they could have been better prepared for such a medical crisis, or perhaps how they might have better managed the spread of the virus. Pharmaceutical organisations are working around the clock with the objective of being the first to come up with a preventative vaccine and/or curative medication for the virile and venomous virus (yes, yes, I know – ridiculously risky, that radically wrong word usage, but this virus positively possesses as much if not more sting than any animal, and I thought readers of this possibly precocious piece pertaining to projects might align with the alliteration). University medical research facilities the world over are dedicating resources to finding an effective vaccine for it, and to understand important aspects of its development and spread.

Businesses everywhere, transport, travel and tourism related businesses in particular, will be – or at least should be – not only strategising survival schemes for future brutal crises, but also dedicating significant time and intellectual resources to a backwards look in order to formulate some at-least fractionally formidable future plans to avoid or better manage their impacts.

Indeed, schools and perhaps more so, universities, would sensibly be reviewing the actions they took in the face of the virus and rating their effectiveness as a minimum basis for preparation of potentially more effective strategies for the future. The list could easily be extended.

There are some very interesting aspects of all these actions. The following are of particular relevance to this article:

  • they were well outside of what was then considered normal business operations, in many instances, for the organisations mentioned.
  • they all had specific start dates, and will have definable end dates, albeit some might transition into ongoing operational functions
  • it’s likely they all had people dedicated to working on them, if only on a defined ‘hours-per-week’ basis, and that those dedicated resources will return to their business-as-usual roles after their contribution is completed
  • the efforts of those human resources were probably dedicated, hopefully in accordance with some semblance of a sensible schedule, to producing a clearly defined outcome

There would no doubt be more commonalities, but those above are sufficient to declare that COVID-19 has triggered an enormous upswing in a most important aspect of modern business – projects – and that has necessitated that many people have had to assume the most important role of project manager/leader in relation to these projects.

In 1988, only about eight percent of organisations outside of construction and heavy engineering industries used project management in any significant way. In 2019 PwC released what became known as ‘The Golden Thread Report’ concerning project management, about which the UK’s Association of Project Management wrote:

“Projects and project management are no longer confined to the traditional domains of construction and heavy engineering, and large capital investments. Instead, project management can be seen to be a ‘golden thread’ helping to drive quality, efficiency and the effectiveness of strategic change in all sectors and organisations, ranging from the contributions being generated within schools and charitable organisations through to central government and major technology programmes.”

The international Project Management Institute (PMI) seemed to agree, with a 2018 jobs report titled, ‘In a Time of Change, Demand for Project talent will Keep Growing’. The introductory phrase now seems prophetic, and there’s little from the current business environment to indicate the second phrase in that title is inaccurate. KPMG and the Australian Institute of Project Management in 2019 reported the need for even better performance of projects in Australia, and the PMI predicted that 87.7 million people would work in project management worldwide by 2017 (who knows, perhaps more, if pandemics become more common).

It’s complex in its simplicity, really, and of great importance to teachers who counsel students regarding career prospects. The simple fact is that project management might not be the sexiest sounding occupation to many high school students, but it is a career path opportunity that is screaming for more talent, a fact that has never been emphasised more that in a 2017 PMI report that estimated that the projected talent gap in project management could mean a loss in GDP across 11 countries studied of USD 207.9 billion in the ten years up until 2027 (and is there any other way to look at that other than as a huge opportunity for school leavers?)

So perhaps you might consider informing your students about project management career prospects. You might be doing them a life-enhancing favour.

We at Bond are taking this seriously. After several years of teaching a very successful Masters Degree course in project management, we have decided that there are numerous reasons that project management should be a first choice career option – and that means we should offer it as an undergraduate degree. Now we do. For more information:

Professor Alan Patching was Project Director (Chief Project Manager) for the design and construction of the Sydney Olympic Stadium, and around $20 billion worth of other projects across a range of industries. He teaches into the Bond Project Management program.