By Howard Birnberg


Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 "There is nothing new under the sun."


Recently, I was asked "what's new in project management?" While that's a fairly vague question, project management in engineering, architectural, and facilities management organizations is evolving slowly. Much of what is undertaken by project managers in firms hasn't changed dramatically for many years, but what has changed are the people who are the project managers.  Technology has also evolved as new software and hardware has been designed and implemented for and by firms. Unfortunately, many of the same problems plaguing project managers have also existed for decades, particularly communications issues. These have often grown worse as designers and facilities managers rely on email and texting for communications. Client needs and delivery methods have also changed, but approaches for meeting those needs has not changed significantly. 


As promoted at the turn of the millennium, Web-based collaboration in the construction industry never lived up to its potential. Adoption was limited by a lack of participation by all members of a construction project, nagging concerns (real or imagined) about the security of data, and the lack of interoperability between software platforms. It quickly became clear that the use of the Internet for project collaboration and management would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.   

Fast forward seventeen years, and we are now being inundated with glowing reports of Building Information Modeling (BIM). It’s the new Holy Grail, promising everything and much more than web-based project management was to provide. Seeing BIM in action is impressive, but will it lead the construction industry to a new promised land of profit, cooperation and quality? Disciples say yes; others have seen this all before and have doubts.  Even Engineering News-Record (ENR) magazine expressed concerns as early as March 2, 2009 issue (page 30) when the magazine noted, “The (BIM) technology monster will likely be tamed by 2020.” That year is quickly approaching and many firms are still struggling to see all of the promised benefits.

Other technologies are delivering positive results now. ENR’s technology survey conducted five years ago in February 2012 and reported in the March 12 issue of the magazine, highlighted some successes and cautions. The use of cloud computing continues to grow rapidly. As the magazine reported, “The shorthand term represents an immense global data-storage barn; a delivery system for high-end software running across the Internet and super-computing processing for previously unobtainable calculations..”   Caution is warranted.  One survey respondent commented on cloud computing, “…the benefits of cloud computing won’t be realized until use reaches critical mass.” ‘It works great for us.  We use it internally, but other companies just aren’t (as) interested, at least not yet.’

Hardware innovations can make project teams more effective. iPhones, iPads and many similar devices enhance communication, improve the distribution of information and generally make life easier for everyone. Unfortunately, the flip side of this is information overload and team members overwhelmed with data, options and choices. Software is becoming more complex as well. The ENR technology study reported, “…the need to improve the software that supports all of them (applications) was frequently mentioned.   The words that came up most often were (the need for) ‘cheaper,’ “simpler,’ ‘streamlined,’ ‘user-friendly,’ ‘interoperable,’ and ‘integrated.’” The goal for all hardware and software should be as one respondent commented regarding Apple’s iPhone: “it’s so versatile, works flawlessly and can be tailored to specific needs.”


The Baby Boom generation (born 1946-1964) now ranges in age from 52 to 71. Some are retired or retiring; others have risen to senior levels in organizations. The generation trailing them (Generation X) is relatively small and is leaving little footprint on the industry and on project management. Next up are the Millennials (born 1980-2000). It is this group that are now moving into the project management ranks in design and facilities management firms. According to Wells Fargo Bank, "The Millennial generation is now the largest age group in the U.S.-making up almost one quarter of the U.S. population.   Millennials are expected to spend $200 billion yearly, and $10 trillion over their lifetimes.   Millennials...have grown up with the Internet, their devices, and social media. Most Millennials own and use two or three different devices daily and check email and messages approximately 43 times a day, usually on smart phones."  

Millennials act and think differently than their predecessors. They are tech savvy; comfortable with technological change; but often lack earlier generations' drawing skills, communications skills, experience, patience, and contacts. Many still live with their parents and expect to make a great deal of money by coming up with some brilliant new idea no one has thought of before (see Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). They often think of a job as just that-a job, not a long-term career and readily change their position or even occupation.   It's to this group that design and facilities managers must look for hiring, training, and mentoring project managers. This is a significant challenge for senior management.   Internships are still very popular, but firms lacking mentoring programs cannot easily develop Millennials' skills. This generation is less willing to simply do as they are told--they want to know why they are asked to do an assignment, what the end result is expected to be, how it is going to be used, what they will learn from the experience, and a myriad of other issues.


The need for project managers to be good public speakers and writers hasn't changed for decades.  What has changed is the lack of focus on these issues. Many people, particularly Millennials suffer from fairly isolated life experiences as a result of technological change. Interpersonal/face-to-face communications and meetings are not as common as in the past. The use of email, text messaging, systems such as Skype, and other technology has resulted in a significant change in communications methods.   Remote monitoring of jobsites has even reduced the formerly common site visit by architects, engineers, facilities managers and project managers to only the barest number necessary required under a contract.  

The voluminous use of email has resulted in information overload making it difficult to distinguish the chaff from the important. Much may be lost as a result. Email and text messaging encourage a bastardized version of the English language in an effort to reduce the time and increases the ease of sending messages. Proper grammar, sentence form, punctuation, and organization of material is lost. In the past twenty to twenty-five years, this has resulted in a significant change in all aspects of project management as good written communications are vital for avoiding misunderstandings, confusion, and increased project risk.

While only a Luddite would deny current technology has been a significant help to project managers, it requires entirely new approaches to managing information, people, and systems.   Project management is still (and will always remain) a people process requiring individuals with strong communications skills to work together.


The client is the centerpiece of every project and the most important person/entity on the project team. Unfortunately, many organizations and project managers narrowly define a project team. Most consider the project team to only include those immediate firm members working on a particular project. The project team actually should include members of all organizations involved with a project--including clients, consultants, suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, engineers, architects, and so on. The total number of team members may include dozens or even hundreds of individuals from many different organizations.  

As technology evolves, the complexity of structures also evolves. New specialists join the project team, and old ones drop away. These changes require project managers to keep their knowledge up-to-date and remain flexible to the needs of their clients. Delivery methods also evolve and new approaches develop (for example, Public-Private-Partnerships, Integrated Project Delivery, etc.). Some of these changes are dictated by economics, regulations, legal issues, and many other factors.  

Legal issues in particular have required significant changes in how consultants and project managers operate. Two generations ago, architects and their project managers "supervised" construction--now they just observe (and often not even that as CM's, PM's and other do this). A generation ago, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) strongly discouraged members from undertaking design-build services. Legal constraints, risk management issues, insurance concerns and other factors will still weigh on project managers now and into the future.


"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."  -Socrates


Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers.   He may be reached at 312-664-2300, email: hbirnberg@gmail.com


Howard Birnberg