Yet another British project management standard

Bob Hughes, BCS author and chief moderator of BCS professional and higher education qualifications in IT project management, discusses the emergence of a new project management standard.

Over the years I have been involved in editing and contributing to BCS project management (PM) syllabuses and text. So, it was nice to be asked to be the BCS representative on the British Standards committee for project management standards (MS2, if you are in the know). The committee is responsible not only for British standards, but is what they call a national ’mirror’ committee contributing to international project management standards, such ISO 21500. I expect that you have probably never heard of ISO 21500.

MS2 is currently revising the British Standards document BS 6079 ‘Project management - Principles and guidelines for the management of projects’. Once again, I guess, the general response is ‘never heard of it’. Many may think that with PRINCE2©, and if you are really into this sort of stuff, the APM (Association for Project Management) and PMI (Project Management Institute) Bodies of Knowledge, we have probably got enough in the way of PM standards. It’s also the case that these standards are ‘generic’ PM standards aimed at identifying commonalities across projects in a whole range of business and organisations sectors. If you are in IT or software engineering, there may be other more focussed international PM standards, such as ISO 16326.

One reason for the relative obscurity of these standards is their cost. Standards cost money to develop, even when the subject matter experts are either unpaid volunteers (I don’t even get travel expenses) or are lent out by their employers, so they need to be paid for. A new copy of BS 6079 will set you back £244. This sounds like a reference book bought by institutions on the off-chance an employee or member needs consult it. But shouldn’t a PM guide be a well-thumbed handbook that the PM practitioner keeps in their metaphorical back-pocket. OK, it’s 2017 and it could be on their smart phone.

Things are not quite as bad, cost-wise, in the case of BS 6079 as most universities have access to the British Standards on-line repository which allows students free downloading of BS 6079 and other standards. So BS 6079 could aspire to being a document with which every engineering, business or other graduate from a subject discipline involving project management would be familiar.

The revision of BS 6079 is an opportunity to debate the changing expectations of the role of PM. Apparently there is a difference of view between the US-based PMI and the UK’s APM about the scope of PM responsibilities. It is argued, on the one hand, that the PM’s responsibility is to fulfil the obligations set down in the terms of reference. With IT this could be to develop an IT application that meets the agreed specification. There is also a commitment about the cost to be incurred and a deadline for completion - the traditional project triangle. Having given the client the agreed deliverable, say, a CRM application, it is the responsibility of the client to get the planned benefits.

The problem here is that a project could deliver its agreed products, but the installed system fails to meet the business objectives that motivated the project in the first place. There is a powerful argument that the scope of a project needs to be broadened to take account of the business context. In IT one way of addressing this has been the role of the business analyst. It is not unknown for a business analyst to also act as a project manager for a business change. However, we would not expect the business analyst to be responsible for the overall strategy of a business, advising in which markets the business should operate and what products and services they should sell.

So while the broader business view of the project is a good idea, the question is whether we are enlarging its scope to include things which have previously been seen as the expertise of people other than project managers.

One response has been an increased emphasis on the role of the project sponsor as the business lead for a project. The UK Civil Service has taken the initiative here by introducing a major training programme for project sponsors who come from and represent the client’s interests in the conduct of the project. Logically the role of the project manager is subordinate to that of the project sponsor. People designated as project sponsors need to be aware of what is expected of them. Perhaps there should an Association for Project Sponsorship…

The ideas above are not exactly novel, but producing detailed practical guidelines on how the business-project relationship is to be handled need a bit of thought.

I’ll try to keep you posted on developments. Any thoughts on this or other possible issues for consideration in formulating a new BS 6079 standard are welcomed!

May 2019
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