This research paper has been prepared with a view to advancing the body of project management knowledge.
Published here December 2003.

Introduction | Why Model? | Early Eighties | Late Eighties
The Nineties | Models in the New Century | Summary

Why Model?

A model is some form of representation designed to aid in visualizing a thing that cannot be observed directly, either because it has not yet been constructed or because it is abstract. There are various kinds of modeling so we must first be clear on what we mean in this instance. First and foremost is the mental model - the image that forms in people's minds when a subject is discussed. Often we assume that a word or label means the same thing to all people, but as the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms demonstrates, this is far from the case. These tacit mental models about how we see the world tend to be so deeply ingrained that they influence how we take action and even inhibit acceptance of new ideas, or new models, however well presented!

Then there is the physical kind, three-dimensional models that may or may not be working mechanically but do demonstrate shape and physical relationships, such as in structural and architectural models. Or there are the mathematical kind expressed as formulae, such as financial or research models that explain how certain input variables relate to an outcome variable.

But probably the most common models are diagrammatic, including charts and figures that present information by visual impression that satisfy the old saying "A picture is worth a thousand words." No doubt these are the most common because the media, paper, is so readily available. However, they do suffer from the major drawback of being two-dimensional and various devices are often used to try to overcome this limitation.

Nevertheless, the benefits are clear. Diagrammatic models can

  • Enable each part to be identified, and labeled
  • Allow relationships between the parts to be identified, described and analyzed
  • Simplify the complexity of real systems and enable analysis and new insights at lower cost
  • Provide a common conceptual framework and thereby facilitate discussion, understanding and consensus building
  • Clarify relationships, pinpoint key elements and consciously block confused thinking
  • Test the assumptions behind the model being created
  • Test the impacts of different options without disrupting the real system
  • Express rules and relationships more simply and so assist in appropriate selection
  • Broaden our perspective allowing people to see a larger picture, if not the whole picture
  • Be flexible, permitting expansion as new information comes to light
  • Allow everyone to see their part without getting at cross-purposes, or getting bogged down on one small part of the puzzle

Indeed, perhaps the most important aspect is the identification of relationships between the parts that might otherwise by hard to talk about. Relationships tend to be subtle and more difficult to think about and discuss and therefore tend to be the pieces that are most valuable to understand and influence. This is particularly true of "project management" as a comprehensive discipline. If we could establish a robust model of project management that would better enable practitioners and educators alike to hold a shared vision, then we would be better positioned to establish and improve our practice, research, education and training efforts.

Back in 1987, Professor Linn Stuckenbruck made a strong case for a model of project management, firstly to "glue it all together" and secondly to make sure it is complete. He suggested that the model must do these things:

1. "Clarify the overall scope and extent of the comprehensive project management body of knowledge
2. Break up the body of knowledge into logical and understandable categories or divisions
3. Utilize and build on the work accomplished by the PMI ESA Project
4. Indicate the interrelationships between the various categories into which the project management body of knowledge can be subdivided
5. Take into account the complexities of project management and the integrating nature of the project manager's job and of his or her supporting team
6. Provide a breakdown of the project management body of knowledge can readily be utilized for storage and retrieval of all elements of project management, i.e. functions, processes, activities, tools and techniques
7. Be sufficiently simple and understandable to be useful (i.e. saleable) to present and potential project management practitioners
8. Be consistent with the course content of project management educational programs (particularly with the PMI sponsored program at Western Carolina University)."[10]
Introduction  Introduction

10. Project Management Body of Knowledge, Project Management Institute, PA, 1987, pages 2-3, 2-4
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