Projects and project management in the context of society


Projects and project management for a sustainable social impact


By Reinhard Wagner

Munich, Germany


Project management primarily evolved in the context of technical achievements and was later brought to perfection there (Morris 2013); we have already elaborated on this in the first part of the series. It was, for example, about using project management to realize the development of missiles, the realization of infrastructure or complex software systems. The aim was to work systematically and professionally towards the objectives by using resources as efficiently as possible and limiting risks to a great extent. This aim was pursued by perfecting the way in which projects were planned, the methods and techniques used, software solutions and fine-tuned processes employed. Those involved had to become qualified and often certified in the project management procedures applied. Even the introduction of the Agile Manifesto and agile methods for implementing software development projects did little to change this fact. The fact that projects and project management were also applied outside the technical sphere was almost overlooked during this time. It is only in recent years, triggered by the pressing societal challenges, that this area of application has increasingly come back into focus. Because as early as the 17th century, well before the industrial revolution, Daniel Defoe wrote about projects as a way of solving societal challenges, such as medical care, improving educational opportunities for women, or general welfare (Defoe, 1697). In this part of the series, we would therefore like to explore the question in which areas of society projects and project management are applied today, what challenges arise and how these are solved.


Before we contextualize projects within society, we must first address the notion of ‘society’ itself. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term as “a large group of people who live together in an organized way, making decisions about how to do things and sharing the work that needs to be done. All the people in a country, or in several similar countries, can be referred to as a society.” A society is constituted within certain (spatial) boundaries and exhibits a social structure. The social structures have been described in the past decades by authors such as Max Weber (Tribe, 2019) or Anthony Giddens (1984). Societies exhibit patterns of relationships (social relations) among individuals who share a particular culture, values, or institutions. In principle, a society relies on state institutions (from the national to the municipal level), the economy, and above all on civil society with a wide variety of activities, including but not limited to education and training, arts and culture, sports, welfare and religion.

With the economic development since the beginning of the first industrial revolution, projects have established themselves as an integral part of working in companies. No wonder that in studies on projectification in the economy (Wald et al 2015), the proportion of time spent on projects compared to total working time is more than one-third in many countries and continues to rise. However, these studies also show that this figure is lower in the public sector and, depending on the level of development and the economic system in the particular country, even significantly lower (Ou, Hsiung and Wang 2018).

This probably has to do with the fact that public administration traditionally tends to perform routine and sovereign tasks that are repetitive in nature and aimed at stability. In recent years, however, there has been a great deal of pressure on the administration to renew itself, e.g., in the form of digitization or eGovernment, which requires more work to be done in collaborative projects with partners from industry (Hodgson et al 2019). On the one hand, the difference in experience in the realization of projects between the private and public sectors can lead to problems in public-led projects, such as Berlin Airport. On the other hand, it is also an opportunity to learn from each other, e.g., in the context of public-private partnership (PPP) projects (Wagner 2022). Especially in the context of urban development (Grabher and Thiel 2015a) and smart cities (Wagner 2018), many projects are implemented in a collaborative effort between the public authorities and private-sector companies interested in making a contribution to solving challenges.

Grabher and Ibert coin the term ‘Project Ecology’ that denotes “relational space, which affords the personal, organizational, and institutional resources for performing projects. This relational space encompasses social layers on multiple scales, from the micro level of interpersonal networks to the meso level of intra- and inter-organizational collaboration to the macro level of wider institutional settings” (Grabher and Ibert 2012: 176).


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Editor’s note: This series of articles is by Reinhard Wagner, PMWJ honorary global advisor and former Chair of IPMA. The series aims to position projects and project management in the context of society as social activities performed by and for people. The focus is on a sustainable social impact, which is to be achieved through the projects, and less on the management of the projects and the immediate deliverables. At the same time, projects are to be positioned as a means of self-realization through which people can jointly work for their communities, the environment or society as a whole. The series is aimed at the global community of project management practitioners, researchers, and those interested in learning about current developments in the field of project activities in society and how to achieve sustainable social impact through this engagement.

How to cite this article: Wagner, R. (2022). Projects and project management in the context of society; Series on projects and project management for a sustainable social impact, PM World Journal, Vol. XI, Issue III, March. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/pmwj115-Mar2022-Wagner-projects-and-project-management-in-the-context-of-society-series2.pdf

About the Author

Reinhard Wagner



Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 35 years in the field of project-related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Automotive, Engineering, and Consultancy, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH, a leading PM Consultancy in Munich/Germany, he supports executives of industrial clients in transforming their companies towards a project-oriented, adaptive and sustainably successful organization. Reinhard Wagner has published 36 books as well as several hundred articles and blogposts in the field of project, program and project portfolio management. In more than 20 years of voluntary engagement he served the German Project Management Association (GPM) as well as the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in a range of leadership roles (including President and Chairman) and was granted for his international commitment with the Honorary Fellowship of IPMA and several of IPMA´s Member Associations. Reinhard is Senior Lecturer at the Alma Mater Europaea and is currently finishing his doctoral thesis on the topic of Project Society. He can be contacted via reinhard.wagner@tiba.de.

To view other works by Reinhard Wagner, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/reinhard-wagner/