It is tempting to think of project management as a modern discipline, but its major concepts have their roots in the late nineteenth century. Read this article to learn the story of how modern management theory was influenced by over a century's worth of scientific, social, and business methodologies.
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Project management, in its modern form, began to take root only a few decades ago. Starting in the early 1960s, businesses and other organizations began to see the benefit of organizing work around projects. This project-centric view of the organization evolved further as organizations began to understand the critical need for their employees to communicate and collaborate while integrating their work across multiple departments and professions and, in some cases, whole industries.
Today, the basic precepts of project management are represented by the project triangle (project triangle: The interrelationship of time, money, and scope. If you adjust any one of these elements, the other two are affected. For example, if you adjust the project plan to shorten the schedule, you might increase costs and decrease scope.), a symbol popularized by Harold Kerzner in his landmark work, Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling.
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The early years: Late nineteenth century
We can travel back even further, to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the business world was becoming increasingly complex, to see how project management evolved from basic management principles. Large-scale government projects were the impetus for making important decisions that became the basis for project management methodology. In the United States, for example, the first truly large government project was the transcontinental railroad, which began construction in the 1860s. Suddenly, business leaders found themselves faced with the daunting task of organizing the manual labor of thousands of workers and the processing and assembly of unprecedented quantities of raw material.
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Early twentieth century
Near the turn of the century, Frederick Taylor (1856–1915) began his detailed studies of work. He applied scientific reasoning to work by showing that labor can be analyzed and improved by focusing on its elementary parts. He applied his thinking to tasks found in steel mills, such as shoveling sand and lifting and moving parts. Before then, the only way to improve productivity was to demand harder work and longer hours from workers. Taylor introduced the concept of working more efficiently, rather than working harder and longer. The inscription on Taylor's tomb in Philadelphia attests to his place in the history of management: "The father of scientific management."
Taylor's associate, Henry Gantt (1861–1919), studied in great detail the order of operations in work. His studies of management focused on navy ship construction during World War I. His Gantt Charts (Gantt Chart view: A predefined view that displays project tasks on the left side of the view, and graphical bars corresponding to the task's durations on the right side of the view.), complete with task bars (Gantt bar: A graphical element on the chart portion of the Gantt Chart view representing the duration of a task.) and milestone (milestone: A reference point marking a major event in a project and used to monitor the project's progress. Any task with zero duration is automatically displayed as a milestone; you can also mark any other task of any duration as a milestone.) markers, outline the sequence and duration of all tasks in a process. Gantt Chart diagrams proved to be such a powerful analytical tool for managers that they remained virtually unchanged for almost a hundred years. It wasn't until the early 1990s that Microsoft Office Project first added link lines to these task bars, depicting more precise dependencies between tasks.
Over the years, Microsoft Office Project packed even more information into the lines, such as progress lines (progress lines: Visually represent the progress of your project, displayed in the Gantt Chart view. Progress lines connect in-progress tasks, creating a graph on the Gantt Chart indicating work that is behind and peaks indicating work that is ahead.) against a baseline, variances (variance: The difference between baseline and scheduled task or resource information, they usually occur when you set a baseline plan and begin entering actual information into your schedule. Variances can occur in work, costs, and schedule.), and lines depicting status progress at a particular point in time.
Today, Henry Gantt's legacy is remembered by a medal given out in his name by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Taylor, Gantt, and others helped make project management a distinct business function that requires study and discipline. In the decades leading up to World War II, marketing approaches, industrial psychology, and human relations began to take hold as integral parts of project management.
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During World War II, complex government and military projects and a shrinking war-time labor supply demanded new organizational structures. Complex network diagrams (Network Diagram: A diagram that shows dependencies between project tasks. Tasks are represented by boxes, or nodes, and task dependencies are represented by lines that connect the boxes. In Project, the Network Diagram view is a network diagram.), called PERT (PERT analysis: PERT [Program, Evaluation, and Review Technique] analysis is a process by which you evaluate a probable outcome based on three scenarios: best-case, expected-case, and worst-case.) charts and the critical path (critical path: The series of tasks that must be completed on schedule for a project to finish on schedule. Each task on the critical path is a critical task.) method were introduced, giving managers more control over massively engineered and very complex projects (such as military weapon systems with their huge variety of tasks and numerous interactions at many points in time).
Soon, these techniques spread to all kinds of industries as business leaders sought new management strategies and tools to handle their growth in a quickly changing and competitive world. In the early 1960s, businesses began to apply general system theories to business interactions. In their book, The Theory and Management of Systems, Richard Johnson, Fremont Kast, and James Rosenzweig described how a modern business is like a human organism, with a skeletal system, a muscular system, circulatory system, nervous system, and so on.
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This view of business as a human organism implies that for a business to survive and prosper, all its functional parts must work in concert toward specific goals, or projects. In decades since the 1960s, this approach toward project management began to take root in its modern forms. While various business models evolved during this period, they all shared a common underlying structure: a project manager manages the project, puts together a team, and ensures the integration and communication of the workflow horizontally across different departments.
Within the last ten years, project management has continued to evolve. Two significant trends are emerging:
- Bottom-up planning This trend emphasizes simpler project designs, shorter project cycles, efficient collaboration among team members, stronger team member involvement and decision making. This trend is broadly known as agile project management (agile project management: A project management method that uses short iterations of up to four weeks, adaptive strategies, and collaboration among team members. Types of agile project management include Scrum, Critical Chain, and Extreme Programming.), and includes a number or related methodologies, such as Scrum, Crystal, Extreme Programming, Unified Process, and many others.
- Top-down planning and reviewing This trend is characterized by enterprise-wide decision making about the portfolio of projects that an organization should have, as well as by enabling data-mining technologies to make information in the portfolio more transparent.
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