The nature of ‘systems’


and some early systems contributions

to modern project management



By Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon)

Sydney, Australia


I had been working in project management (PM) environments in the construction industry for some twenty years before coming across Cleland & King’s classic 1968 book Systems Analysis and Project Management. This was the first time I had seen a connection made between project management and ‘systems’’. However, this particular type of connection simply did not equate with my own experience in the construction industry, and thence did not appear to be particularly relevant to my work at the time.

Then, a decade later, along came another classic project management book which included ‘systems’ in its title, namely Kerzner’s 1979 Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling and controlling. Further, in addition to having ‘a systems approach’ in its title, Kerzner asserted that “… project management is an outgrowth of systems management” (p.13). Moreover, similar assertions have also been made by many other authors. For example, Yeo 1993:111, said that, “The practice of project management has its origin in systems analysis and systems engineering”.

Now, these are very specific assertions that project management originated in, or is an outgrowth of, systems management. However, of course, this is simply not the case. Many writers have pointed to ancient projects such as the Giza pyramids, Stonehenge and a myriad others, which would certainly be classed as projects in most modern definitions – although Morris 2013:12 discusses them in a chapter entitled “Project management before it was invented”. Most recently, we have an in-depth contribution from Patrick Weaver 2022 in this journal on the evolution of project management, in which he proposes nine historic classifications of project management from around 9500 BC to the present day. Six of these are prior to the 20th century.

At a much more modest level, in Stretton 2023e I discussed some general management and associated antecedents of modern project management, most of which also precede the systems era. The latter is generally dated from around the early 1960s – although, as we will see, there were some isolated systems influences prior to that.

Now, continuing with the subject of systems, after the above quotation, Yeo 1993 then went on to say that the Systems Engineering approach “….has provided the conceptual basis for the development of the many modern project-management concepts, procedures and techniques that are familiar today”.

Here we move into different territory. There is no doubt whatever that systems approaches have been the source of many of the more modern techniques used in project management. Yeo and other writers, including Morris 2013 and Morris 1994 have listed many such examples, which will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

However, as I tried to get a better understanding of what ‘systems’ were about, I found substantially different interpretations of their nature in the project management literature – in short, ‘systems’ tended to mean different things to different people. It appeared to me that ‘systems’ approaches were probably somewhat pluralistic (not unlike project management?), which made it an even more difficult subject to get my head around. It was not until I came across Checkland 1981 that I began to get a better overall picture of the nature of systems.


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How to cite this work: Stretton, A. (2023). The nature of ‘systems’, and some early systems contributions to modern project management, PM World Journal, Vol. XII, Issue V, May. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/pmwj129-May2023-Stretton-Systems-and-contributions-to-project-management.pdf

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD 

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published 250+ professional articles and papers.  Alan can be contacted at alanailene@bigpond.com.au.

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.


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