Challenges for managing in the next decade

As we move towards the ‘teen’ years of the 21st century, changes in the way we work will create a range of challenges to anyone involved in project management. Many of the basic issues were outlined in our paper Project Controls in the C21 – What works / What’s fiction [download the paper]; these remain. In addition the rapid development of ‘Web2’ and social media are changing the way people accomplish work.

The Gartner Group have recently identified ten emerging trends in the workplace that will have significant influence in the ‘teen years’ [see the full report]. Some of these trends that will have a significant impact on the management of many projects are:

The De-routinization of Work
Automation and ‘self-service’ are taking over the majority of routine activities efficiently and cheaply. People add their uniquely human value in non-routine processes through their analytical or interactive contributions. Non-routine skills are those we cannot automate and cannot ‘control’ using ideas from the 19th century. The challenge of efficiently automating areas of project work and adapting to managing the non-routine ‘knowledge work’ work will be significant.

Work Swarms
Swarming is a work style characterized by a flurry of collective activity by anyone and everyone available and able to add value. Traditional teams consist of people who work together in a designated structure, who know each other reasonably well and are involved in a defined program of work. Swarms form quickly, attacking a problem or opportunity and then quickly dissipating. Closely aligned to ‘crowd sourcing’ swarming is an agile response to an observed problem or opportunity. The phenomenon is powerful but not controllable in any traditional sense.

Using Weak Links
Weak links are the cues people can pick up from people who know the people they may choose to work with. They are indirect communication links that can influence people. In swarms, if individuals know each other at all, it may be just barely, via weak links. Project managers will need to learn to navigate their personal, professional and social networks and develop and exploit both strong and weak links and that, in turn, will be crucial to surviving and exploiting swarms for the benefit of their project.

Working with the Collective
There are many informal groups of people, outside the direct control of the organization, who can impact the success or failure of the project’s work. These informal groups use social media as a key communication medium and are bound together by a common interest, a fad or a historical accident, and have been described by Gartner as “the collective”. There is strength in numbers and each collective may be the source of support or opposition. Smart project managers will need to learn how to live in a business ecosystem they can only partially influence. The influencing process will require a good understanding of these external stakeholder groups and an effective, empathetic communication strategy.

Simulation and Experimentation
Project work may be enhanced by actively engaging with simulated environments (virtual environments) will come to replace drilling into cells in spreadsheets. This suggests the use of n-dimensional virtual representations of all different sorts of data. The contents of the simulated environment will be assembled by agent technologies that determine what materials go together based on watching people work with this content. People will interact with the data and actively manipulate various parameters reshaping the world they’re looking at.

Hyperconnectedness is a property of organisations, existing within networks of networks, unable to completely control any of them. For example, there is no guarantee a subcontractor in your supply chain will perform properly, even if the supply chain is ‘under contract’. Hyperconnectedness will lead to a push for more work to occur in both formal and informal relationships across enterprise boundaries, and that has implications for how people work and how the work is managed.

My Place
The workplace is becoming more and more virtual, with meetings occurring across time zones and organizations and with participants who barely know each other, working on swarms attacking rapidly emerging problems. Their work will increasingly happen 24 hours a day, seven days a week via ‘Blackberries’ and other Web2 systems. In this work environment, the lines between personal, professional, social and family matters will disappear. Individuals will need support to manage the complexity created by overlapping demands. Forcing individuals to operate in an over-stimulated (information-overload) state will be detrimental to the person and their performance on the project team.

The challenge will be to adapt to this environment to obtain the potential benefits for the project, the team and the organisation whilst maintaining appropriate levels of governance and remaining focused on the objectives the project was created to achieve.

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