What's the impact of technology on project management?
When I embarked on my first job in the semiconductor industry, 30 years ago, I looked at the semiconductor technology as the largest enigma of the world. Those small components were into the nascent age of home computing and barely visible in your car or house. My focus was on program management and computer programming. This was done on mainframe computers and the only interface one had was a green monochrome screen with a latency that made the display look like slo-mo blinking Christmas lights on the tree. Home office was barely a reality as one had to connect a portable suitcase called “computer” to the home phone line and dial into the company’s entry gateway system. Work could take hours at snail speed of modem communication.
IT programmers, like me, were seen as weird individuals, as we would join others at yearly training seminars to keep us up-to-date with the next release of programming software. We were the some of the first to understand that we could program “windows” on mainframe computers to allow users to look at multiple pieces of information on the same screen. Yet, I had little knowledge about the semiconductor technology enabling all this, a server, far far away from me.
Computing power had another dimension
The Apple Macintosh launched 5 years prior of my first IT job and it was seen as a breakthrough that could not yet reach out to the average professionals as most computers were running MS-DOS and early versions of Windows. Those were quite limited in regards to connectivity and networking applications.
For most of you, reading this article, let’s be clear: 20Mb hard-disks and 5,25 inch floppy disks were the norm at that age… a far cry to the smallest USB Flash drive that you might find into your drawer.
One of my special assignments was to automate communication with distributors by sending automated faxes from a Mac IIsi of reports created by the mainframe system. At the time, this was seen like a great way to communicate!
Project management was done on Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets and emails, which I couldn’t be type unless I was logged into the company’s network. Most of the work was done through phone calls, meetings and lots of travel. Nevertheless, performance and requirements were very much the same as today: timelines, critical paths and incident mitigation were very much part of the normal life of a good project manager. I can recall that the main difference was the fact that teams seemed to be smaller (hence, communication was not the easiest) and more focused on getting the job done before hopping on the next project.
The beginning of home office
As I lived in the U.S. at that time, most home connectivity was done by cable modems with quite a good reliability. The public was now involved into the evolution of technology, it wasn’t any longer for the professional.
Consumers could connect and do online banking. AOL (America Online) started its market penetration and the famous “You’ve got Mail” came quickly along in the early 90s and Amazon was founded in 1997. Suddenly the home world collided with the office world and home office working started showing up.
Home computers could connect via VPN to the company network enhancing speed of communication.
For project management, this brought a new dimension to global assignments, making possible to work at any time of the day, adapting to timezones and more than ever, joggling professional and private life in a new way. That’s also when Microsoft Office started with the integration of multiple applications and the creation of a dominance of business tools still to be challenged today in the professional world.
Laptop: I thought this was the ultimate freedom
Finally came the era of the laptop… the portable computing times during which the public started to understand what really made a computer work. The computer chips (like we called them then), or semiconductors, suddenly made sense and the race for computing speed and on-board memory started.
In the mid 90’s, select employees were allowed to have a laptop (still with a modem for connectivity) to allow better productivity while on travel. I remember travelling the world with the hope that my hotel room had a phone with a jack connector so I could connect to the local phone gateway number.
As I used to work for Motorola’s semiconductor division, we all had a great understanding of the IBM PowerPC alliance which saw Apple create a new line up of powerful computers, including laptops for professional use.
I remember getting my first MacBook in the late 90s and it was like a breath of fresh air… I could work from anywhere (as long as there was a phone line to connect to be company sync my emails). From office to home office to anywhere-office…. Mobility was on the ramp up!
Project management techniques evolved quickly with multi-tasking approaches and shared communication. The cellular phone (not smart yet) was also there, after years of 1-way and 2-way pagers (the precursor of SMS). That was the time where I really thought that globalisation was already in action as one could connect from many places. Focus on regionalisation was at the core of most projects, starting to evaluate multi-lingual systems and custom interfaces to respond to the need for globalisation. The internet was just at its first steps (invented in 1989 but took a short while to turn into what we know today as the worldwide web). That’s where the Moto “Think Global, Act Local” really got big.
From there, the sky became the target
Quickly the revolution the smart phone with the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the Blackberry shifted the focus from laptop communication to mobile device. Initially limited to email and texting, working for project management and sales groups was all about being reachable at all times and able to work from (almost) anywhere. Shared servers continued the evolution of central data repository to enable collaborative project management (which still is not a standard) thanks to VPN networks.
Project Management Bandwidth vs. Throughput
Despite the continued progress towards Cloud technologies, apps running on mobile devices, WiFi, high speed 4G (and coming 5G) networks, I am surprised about how little collaboration has been accepted in the field of project management.
Too many, of all generations, are still in a mode of having their data on their devices (and sometimes not even shared between computer and mobile devices) and not feeling comfortable in sharing files, doing multiple people’s updates on the same document or even conference collaboration.
Project management today has the same priorities as it had then: precision, timeline, inclusion, deadlines and budget to name the key ones. My assumption here is that one would think that with all the technology evolution done in the last 30 years, we might be more efficient, successful and reduce the stress we have on large projects…. Not at all!! Instead, our work habits have changed the pace and, instead of working on 1-2 projects at the time, we all work on 5-10 projects at the same time. This means to me that we haven’t much changed the speed of execution but instead have focused in running more projects in parallel than previously. It feels like the highways we have: speed limits are still there but we increase the number of lanes instead.
An expanded definition of teamwork
Project management requirements haven’t changed much over time. The priorities of timing, budget and resources are the same today as they were in the past.
The difference lies in the tools: the enablement we have to collaborate and reduce the duplication of effort is much stronger today. This requires a greater deal of trust into the system and the team as then, one doesn’t own a document or a file any longer. That collaboration element and the meaning of “sharing” (like in files, folders), takes time to settle itself into a team of co-workers. The concept of owning an idea at the individual level must change to “TEAM”.
As teams are stretched around the globe and travel budgets are limited, many working on the same project haven’t event met to establish the bond of teamwork. It is proven that team efforts yield better results when team-building events are regularly performed. Technology can bring a lot and make it easier but it won’t replace human contact (at the contrary of what many management teams like to think). Yet, the concept of team ownership is dramatically expanded from “contribution” to “idea sharing”.
It is all about technology and teamwork
As I type this article on my laptop and will most likely review its final draft before publication on my tablet, clearly, technology has helped making me more productive and flexible to adapt and integrate my work in my daily private life, yet, it has only very partially sped up the speed of execution.
Technology as clearly allowed freedom about where and how ideas are collected, processed and put into motion via project management.
Teamwork has expanded from a collective manpower group to an anonymous-like sharing of ideas and concept that, if used wisely, accelerates and pushes forward the limits of what can be achieved.
My thinking and the capturing of ideas (which is at the core of any project) still runs pretty much at the same speed as before. The evolution of project management promises many savings (in time and money) and seldom delivers unless you are ready to break new grounds and accept the changes it brings along.
After 30 years in using technology for project management, I just can’t wait to see what the next 30 years will bring.
About the writer: Flavio Stiffan is a business development specialist with focus on creating market expansion strategies supported by academia programs. He has implemented and managed alliance networks and is at the core of academia relationship management with a network of over 130 universities and 300 technology companies and distributors. For more articles, visit www.stiffan.eu or check out his profile on LinkedIn.
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