Understanding the professional project manager : cosmopolitans, locals and identity work

Hodgson, Damian E. and Paton, Steve (2016) Understanding the professional project manager : cosmopolitans, locals and identity work. International Journal of Project Management, 34 (2). pp. 352-364. ISSN 0263-7863 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijproman.2015.03.003)

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An abiding concern and mission in the work of Peter Morris over many years has been to develop project management as a profession, with particular concern to bridge the rift between abstract theory and practice (cf. Morris 2006; 2011; 2013). That this is necessary reflects project management’s status as a new ‘expert occupation’ (Reed, 1996), built primarily upon a specific set of competencies seen as applicable to a range of activities across industries. As the field has grown, project management practice has been increasingly standardised as practitioners have been ‘credentialised’ with a standard set of competencies, while being employed in an increasingly diverse variety of workplaces. As a result, many project managers rely upon both local ‘familiarity’ and domain knowledge of company and industry, and at the same time a formal global ‘competence’ in the practice of project management. In this paper, we seek to explore this duality, examining how project managers rely in part on the authority and expertise of the profession and in part rely instead upon technical expertise and industry/organisational experience to perform their role, and how these two are reconciled. Drawing on thirty nine semi-structured interviews in an industry where project management is established and ‘mature’, we adopt Gouldner’s (1958) cosmopolitan and local typologies to understand how project managers orientate themselves in relation to the two main institutions that dominate their employment. It further indicates that this binary distinction is complicated by a number of contradictions which project managers must make sense of in construction of a valid identity. Some project managers draw heavily on the cosmopolitan discourse, others draw on the localist discourse, but the majority seek to articulate positions which integrate both. In constructing the intermediate orientations project managers are implicitly challenging the utility of the concept of portable bodies of knowledge and universal methodologies. This questions the strategy of professionalism for this occupation and indeed opens a wider debate about the efficacy of new corporate professionalism. Further this research implies that both professional bodies and employers need to understand how to navigate these discourses. This reveals dual challenges. For the professions the challenge is to convince locals to become cosmopolitans by adopting the trappings of professionalism but without contesting too far the sovereignty of the corporation as employer. For corporations, the challenge is to capture the broad expertise of the cosmopolitan without compromising their affiliation to their employer. Ironically both institutions are complicit, often working together to meet different ends. Finally this research suggests that project management is rich in identity work and that this may provide an important lens to analyse the ongoing evolution of the wider management professions, specifically in relation to the compromises that professionalism brings to this particular form of expert labour.