Improving project management skills in the South West

Dr David Owen is Associate Professor in Business Management and Operations (Education) at Plymouth Business School. He lectures to both undergraduates and postgraduate students on project management. David is a qualified Prince 2 Practitioner and is presently helping to develop a Masters programme in project management at the University.

Dr Owen frequently engages with regional businesses; if you would like to contact him to explore how his expertise could support your business, please contact him via email.

 

Increasing digitalization in many organisations, which has continued at pace during the pandemic, has impacted thinking on project management. Once a linear process, involving detailed planning and preparation before moving on to execution and delivery phases, many organisations are now adopting ‘agile’ methodologies in their project management approach. Dr Owen describes work undertaken between the University of Plymouth and businesses in the South West towards deepening the region’s project management skills base and also outlines some of the benefits of agile project management methodologies.


Skills to face the change

As working environments have become faster paced and technology adoption has increased, change management and project management skills and experience have become part of the general management toolkit. Managers in organisations are increasingly required to empower their teams to deliver projects in our ever-changing world. They also require soft skills to deliver these projects successfully. With even more change predicted as we build the post pandemic economy, and deliver large scale projects to aid that recovery, project management skills will continue to be in high demand.

Boosting the region’s project management skills

The University is responding to the forecasted need for more project managers. It has recently set up a new Apprenticeship Academy with Babcock International Group plc.

The Academy was created to establish a centre of excellence for the development of project delivery skills. It will deliver short courses in project management and apprenticeships to prepare and educate the next generation of project managers in the South West. It offers an integrated pathway of education, training and development across all areas of project management, for all levels of staff, from those who are starting their careers to more experienced colleagues.

In addition to this, the University has developed close relationships with major local and regional businesses to identify ways in which knowledge and expertise in the project management sphere can be shared effectively. We will be introducing a new masters programme in project management and have invited industry partners to work with us on the programme’s development. We anticipate such collaboration continuing through partners’ participation in the programme advisory committee and on assessment panels. We are also sourcing local expert speakers and identifying organisations who can provide work placements for students. All of these initiatives will ensure the programme is kept up to date, responding to market demand and employer needs.


Benefit of external expertise

It is valuable to work with external organisations and build in opportunities for students to experience solving real world problems; the students get a client experience and insight into the world of employment. This also benefits the employer organisations as they review the students’ work, thinking and observe their approach to problem solving and dealing with issues. It also lets employers familiarize themselves with the local talent pipeline of students graduating and entering the employment market.

Working with external organisations in this way means the programme can be managed iteratively; we can access up to date thinking from other sectors on project management approaches and implementation and can also share intelligence from our research and research networks with external partners. All of this insight can feed into the programme curriculum, ensuring our students develop the skills employers requires and seek. We have also been liaising with accreditation bodies to ensure that students leaving the programme have a professionally recognised qualification.


An agile future

Agile project management has largely been developed in response to the digital revolution. It employs an iterative approach to project management, repeating steps in a process, building incremental improvements at every stage. This allows adjustments to be made along the way. Relevant stakeholders can be consulted with and engaged across the development process and are able to respond to changes in the external environment so that any adjustments can be made earlier in the project’s life cycle.

Using some new software implementation as an example, an agile approach would typically involve the creation of a minimum viable ‘test’ product which is then shared with customers. They will engage with the test product before feeding back their experiences to the project team and developers. These customer responses will then inform the next stages of the product’s development. Working in this way often results in the development of a more bespoke, successful and relevant product as opposed to one that is planned in an abstract manner, under a linear system, and shared with customers towards the end. An organisation like Tesla, which creates cars in which software is a huge component of the overall product, is able to bring cars to market much faster than traditional manufacturers. Tesla can also future proof sold vehicles through regular software updates which customers can access remotely.

Even traditional organisations and industries, where the adoption of digital platforms and processes has been limited, can benefit from adopting elements of agile in their operations and administration.

Soft skills are key

When training people to manage projects, developing communications and other management skills are key. It is likely that there will be a need to communicate to a diverse range of both internal and external stakeholders, including customers, to deliver the project. The engagement and interaction with customers and other stakeholders during a development process can be hugely beneficial in understanding customer wants, needs and experiences. It also means customers have a voice and a stake in the product’s development. We have seen project management approaches evolve so that evaluation not only takes account of successful project delivery but also explores a project’s success based on how it has benefitted stakeholders.


Project(ed) future

Project management can be applied in many circumstances. Approaches like agile help us retain a flexible approach and keep up to date as well as respond to developments and changes in sectors and markets. Many organisations based in the South West can benefit from project management in some way and I am optimistic and hopeful that we can build a sustainable base of project management expertise in the region.