Thinking outside the BOKs
Mainstream project management practices are codified in various “bodies of knowledge” (BOKs) that serve as definitive guides or standards for the profession. This formalization of project management knowledge serves to propagate and legitimize practices regardless of their actual utility. Moreover, it also leads to a perception that project management practices are domain-independent. In a recent paper entitled, 21st century project management = open source body of knowledge, Jon Whitty calls for an open source approach to the development and dissemination of project management knowledge, with a view to addressing the aforementioned limitations of the “BOK-centric” paradigm. This post summarises the main ideas presented in the paper.
Why step outside the BOKs?
According to Whitty, many project management tools and techniques have become standard practice for reasons other than their utility. Some of these reasons include:
- Techniques that are easy to replicate (copy and pass on to others) have a greater chance of acceptance, regardless of whether they are useful or not. This point is discussed at length in my post on the memetic view of project management.
- Techniques that give project managers (and their managers) an emotional affect have a better chance of acceptance. See my post on emotional effect of project management artefacts for more on this.
As Whitty puts it, “One might say that we have been duped or perhaps more poetically speaking romanced by some aspects of modern project management…”
The main consequence of the above is that “standard” project management knowledge as embodied in books and BOKs isn’t necessarily a reflection of how project management is (or even, should be) practiced. Yet this is the official, authorized version of knowledge, used to train and certify project managers.
Another point that Whitty makes is that despite of the discipline’s attempt to rid itself of domain specific connotation, project management (in practice) is domain specific – there is a difference, say, between a corporate reporting system project and a health care project. It is wishful thinking to expect that a project manager will be able run a project in an unfamiliar area without first learning a bit about the domain. Consequently, Whitty writes that:
…we must acknowledge that each domain of work (e.g. health, arts, sciences, education) is capable of evolving its own methods for managing projects if given the freedom to do so. I suggest there is a moral obligation on all scholars and practitioners of project management to enable these domain specific methods to emerge…
Another point that I would add in support of Whitty’s arguments is that there is a difference between project management theory and project management practice (see this paper, for example). Projects are seldom, if ever, run by the book; it is a fact that most project managers do “think outside the BOKs” when practicing their profession. A body of knowledge reflecting how projects are actually run in practice would thus be very different from the prescriptions presented in books and BOKs.
Project management as a (controlled) democracy
To address the issues mentioned in the previous section, Whitty suggests democratizing project management knowledge by:
- A bottom-up approach to project decision making, involving all stakeholders, rather than a top-down approach implicitly advocated by books and BOKs.
- The recognition that project management needs to be tailored to the needs of specific domains, rather than striving for the lowest common denominator of domain independent tools and techniques.
- An open source approach to project management knowledge whereby anyone can contribute techniques and case studies based on their own (possibly domain specific) experiences.
- A culture that enables project managers to report their specific practices (and failures) without fear of reprisals.
Whitty clarifies that open source means more than free access. Among other things, it offers a means by which
- New techniques can be shared and evaluated by practicing project managers and academics.
- Domain specific project management knowledge can be compiled, tested and disseminated. This knowledge will evolve as it is supported (or refuted) through case studies and other data contributed by practitioners.
Obviously open source does not mean that anything goes; that would be a recipe for chaos and confusion. Oversight is needed to ensure that the repository is coherent and meaningful, and that contributed material meets certain quality standards. This is nothing new – most open source efforts operate this way already – Wikipedia being the closest in spirit to the one proposed by Whitty.
The role of professional organisations in an OS-BOK world
What role would professional organisations have in such an open source BOK world? Here’s what Whitty thinks,
The implications for an open source body of knowledge for project management will be significant for the current project management professional associations who control existing BOKs, particularly the PMI who hold the intellectual property to the current Guide. The PMI and others will need to abandon their ideals for creating a professional class of project managers. They could take a leadership role in the development and on‐going coordination of the human and technological mechanisms that develop and maintain the OS‐PMBOK and validate the source evidence of the various knowledge libraries. Their role might also be more like that of a vocational skills awarding body. As the various domain specific bodies of knowledge for project management emerge, the project management associations could have a place in developing and administering specific project management certification in conjunction with key industry bodies that represent the various domains. The project management associations will also need to establish new alliances with the academic community and lend support, cooperation, and channel industry funding towards evidence-based practice research.
Many of the activities listed by Whitty are already carried out by most professional project management organisations. As I see it, these organisations would continue to play an important role in developing the profession. However, they would no longer be the arbiters of what is legitimate and what isn’t.
Existing project management knowledge tells us how projects should be managed, not how they are actually managed. Seen in this light, Whitty’s proposal for an open source approach to project management makes eminent sense. Such an approach may lead to a body of knowledge that reflects the diverse ways in which project management is practiced in various (corporate and national) cultures and domains.