Editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine. Published here July 2000.


Musings Index

Practice versus Theory

Professor J. Rodney Turner, Department of Business and Organization, Erasmus University Rotterdam, has observed that "Project Management is becoming established as a profession, and an essential part of that is [that] practitioners should have a theoretical knowledge of the subject from which they can make predictions about which approaches will lead to better outcomes." And that set us thinking. What is the origin of project management and where is its theoretical foundation?

If the essential ingredients of project management are planning, organization and control, then such activities can be found in the great works of the past. Indeed, even as far back as the building of the great pyramid by universal genius (and project manager) Imhotep for his master (and sponsor) King Zoser. In fact much of our understanding of the ‘discipline’ of project management comes to us from the experience gained through the execution of large civil works. If these sources represent the genesis of project management, then as a candidate for becoming a learned profession it is instructive to discover that engineering itself only became such a profession in the middle of the 19th century.

One of our greatest engineers, William Rankine (1820-1872), a Scottish engineer probably best known for the Fahrenheit temperature scale and his work on soil mechanics both of which are still in use today, was a prolific writer of text books. In 1855, his inaugural address as regius professor of civil engineering and mechanics at the University of Glasgow was titled "The harmony between theory and practice in engineering" an address that he wrote in one week — and in Latin. In it he distinguished between theoretical science, concerned with  what we are to think, and practical science concerned with what are we to do — often in situations where scientific theory and existing data is insufficient.

Thus, Rankine saw the need for a series of text books, of which he produced many volumes translated into many languages, on engineering subjects which were based on scientific principles rather than on contemporary practice. In this way, Rankine provided a more substantive basis for a systematic university engineering education. In Rankine’s day, engineering was attached to the faculty of arts but did not qualify for graduation in that field.

Now, if we switch to project management, we find an abundance of books extolling the virtue of current practices, often as "best practices" but, nonetheless, essentially based on rules of thumb. Of fundamental theoretical treatise in project management there are virtually none! Is the discipline (we can hardly call it a profession) based on shifting sands? Probably. If we are to have a discipline, let alone a profession, It is time that our present-day professors came up with some solid underlying theories.

A place for them to start might well be my paper "First Principles of Project Management".

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