Published here December 2018


Musings Index

A Look Back at the Original PMBOK - Part 1

Then and Now

Please read these observations together with the paper Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Revisited, 2018 in the Papers department of this web site.

In this Musings I wish to draw some comparisons between our project management expectations of those days, over 30 years ago, and compare that with what exists today.

Thirty or more years ago, the established project management environment was significantly different from what it is today. At that time, many large construction projects, particularly much needed energy and infrastructure works were the order of the day. The larger projects tended to be let out to big, well-established, EPC[1] companies with broad experience in the business. Lesser projects were either designed in-house or let out to independent well-recognized design consultants, followed by competitively bid construction companies. The content of the 1987 PMBOK document was largely culled from the collective experience of a majority of senior members of the Institute[2] of those days.

Today, the "concepts of managing a project" has spread to any size of project effectively ranging from the proverbial family dog kennel to rocket launches designed to discover the universe. The market has also changed significantly, from projects in the infra/structure construction arena to a much larger number of relatively smaller projects for the entirely new information technology and hi-tech industries. Significantly, many such projects are not procured under contract, but conducted with in-house "human resources".[3]

This means that the largest part of the real cost of many projects is no longer a direct part of a project manager's responsibility. However, in practice, this means that such employees are typically expected to work on more that one project at a time. This often leads to severe conflict of engagement, with less focused attention on each assigned project. This makes the project manager's job of managing a project team whose members have competing allegiances much more complex.

A New Approach

About nine years after the launch of the original PMBOK document, the PMI Standards Committee produced a new form of standard: "A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge" (The Guide). This Guide introduced the membership to the concept of "Systems Thinking". That is, how the outputs, from a collection of "processes" in one or more phases of a project, provide input to processes in a subsequent part. This distinction was very innovative at the time.

At the same time, substantive changes were also made to the text, such as:[4]

  • Emphasis that this document is NOT the PMBOK.
  • A change in the approach to the Framework section, to introduce the concept of Project Management Processes.
  • A revised definition of "project".
  • A revised view of the project life cycle.
  • Change in the name of the major sections from "functions" to "knowledge areas".
  • The introduction of a ninth knowledge area, namely "Project Integration Management".
  • A significant reorganization of the original document.
  • "Knowledge Areas" described in terms of their component processes.
  • An "intent" to update this Guide regularly.

It is not clear whether these changes received the same rigorous attention as the original PMBOK document. In spite of generating much heat at the time, some of these changes are certainly questionable and do not appear to have been properly debated. Still, the application of "Systems Thinking" as to how the various disciplines within the Body of Knowledge relate to each other is perfectly valid. But since projects are unique by definition, the connection possibilities are almost endless.

Repeated Updates

Consistent with the intent noted above, we have seen the issue of a series of "Guide(s) to" around every four or five years that have increased from the original 100 pages or so, to close to 1000 today. It is not clear whether these increases really improve the value of our knowledge of project management, or whether the exercise is now more of a money-generating marketing ploy. Either way, a reasonable question to ask is: "What Body of Knowledge are these Guides now referring to?" Is it really the one and only PMI PMBOK published back in 1987? Or is it just some vague collection of "processes" so painstakingly described in the latest issues, but which may, or may not, apply to any given project in question?

A couple of fallouts from this descriptive approach is that the project management community has been hungry for a "How to" rather than a "What is" document. A complete Project Life Cycle[5] is essentially described by the high-level phase sequence of "Start — Organize/Prepare — Work — Close".[6], [7] However, The Guide states that each phase, stage (or other sub-division of time) is (or should be) characterized by five Process Groups, namely:[8]

  • Initiating Process Group,
  • Planning Process Group,
  • Executing Process Group,
  • Monitoring and Controlling Process Group,
  • Closing Process Group,

Needless to say, each of these groups consists of sets of specific processes that should be closely examined and adhered to when appropriate. Moreover, this collection of Process Groups as a whole is applicable to each and every phase of a project. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, the titles of these five groups look suspiciously like the steps in the project life cycle itself. This not only leads to much misunderstanding when taken this way, but it is also sometimes taken as the much sought-after "How to" recipe for project management itself.


The gathering together of a document encompassing what constitutes managing a project without trespassing on the coveted territories of general management, established professional engineering associations, or competing specialists like the American Association of Cost Engineers, was a major strategic achievement.

It not only stood the Institute in good stead but, together with the other four "attributes listed", provided the foundation for the highly successful Project Management Professional (PMP) certification program. In short, it put the Institute on the international map with a clear path to a recognized certification of its members and a solid financial foundation.

For me, the most remarkable thing that stands out is the fact that of the original set of nine separate core management disciplines identified, seven have survived to this day with considerably extended content and understanding. As published in 1987, these consisted of Scope; Quality; Time; Cost; Risk; Human Resources; Contract/Procurement. The remaining two, Framework and Communications, have rather languished for lack of focus. They seem to have failed to convince many in the project management community of their essential importance to running a project.

Up to 2013, only Project Stakeholder Management has been added. And this subject is still in its infancy, not least because you cannot really manage (external) stakeholders, but only try to influence them.


The Project #121 team members were unanimous over the definition of a project in the first place, namely:

"A project is any undertaking with a defined starting point and defined objectives by which completion is identified. In practice, most projects depend on a finite or limited resources by which the objectives are to be accomplished."[9]

This has been dunned down to the rather woolly:

"A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result."[10]

This definition does not speak to the considerable challenge of dealing with limitations of resources such as manpower, materials and money.

Further, at the ground-breaking workshop conducted under Project #121, Peter Georgas's Cost Committee found the need for a PMBOK structure having the following characteristics:

  • Simple;
  • Logical;
  • Saleable;
  • Comprehensive;
  • Compatible;
  • Systematic and
  • Understandable.

It is difficult to find all these distinguishing qualities in the recent issues of the "Guide".

But the Guide is only a guide and not the Project Management Body of Knowledge itself as originally envisaged. As I confidently observed at the time:

"Clearly much work still has yet to be done on the PMBOK, but I am confident that it will be done."[11]

Thirty years later, that expectation has yet to be fulfilled.

1. EPC: Engineer, Procure and Construct companies
2. The Project Management Institute was formed in 1969 with under 100 members compared to over 500,000 members today (2018)
3. In other words, employees paid on permanent wage or salary charged to a corporate administration account, rather than to a project budget.
4. Abstracts from the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Preface to the 1996 Edition, pp vii-viii.
5. Covering the span of a project's life.
6. Or similar words that convey the same intent such as "plan, organize, execute, deliver".
7. The Guide 5th Edition, 2013, p39.
8. See Chapter 3 and Appendix A1 of The Guide, 5th Edition, Project Management Institute, 2013
9. See original text — PMBOK Revisited, Paper, December 2018.
10. PMBOK® Guide Fifth Edition, Glossary p 553.
11. See original text — PMBOK Revisited, Paper, December 2018.
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