Towards more context-specific representations

of the role of project management



By Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon)

Sydney, Australia




Quite recently in this journal I published a series of seven articles on project contexts (starting with Stretton 2019e). The basic reason for developing that series was that non-contextual representations of project management tend to dominate the literature, with relatively little attention being given to the contexts of projects. Yet, as most project management practitioners can attest, managing contextual matters related to a project is typically a demanding task, and often a critically important one

This article discusses the current situation, and potential ways of developing more context-specific representations of project management. I will first discuss the context that is common to virtually all projects, namely that of the organisation(s) within which, and/or for which, the projects are undertaken – the Owner Organisation(s). Four main ways in which project-related services contribute to helping achieve the strategic objectives of such organisations will be identified, with comments on available guidelines, and their limitations.

I will then discuss the context of various types of organisations, the context of various types of projects undertaken by such organisations, and then propose a matrix to help identify combinations which could seriously merit relevant context-specific guidelines for the management of projects within these organisations.

An additional contextual issue is the escalating VUCA environment (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) of projects. Most non-contextual representations only cover predictable environments. We discuss the NTCP (Novelty, Technology, Complexity, Pace) project “dimensions” approach of Shenhar & associates, and their many substantial management guidelines, as part of the VUCA context.

Finally, I discuss the operational domains of Owner Organisations and their projects, and the importance of knowing how things are done therein. There are substantial published materials on project management in many industries, as is exampled by two recent project/program handbooks, which together discuss seventeen different industry sectors.  It is argued that there is a major opportunity to amalgamate, consolidate and publicise broad industry-specific guidelines for a wide range of sectors, as a starting point for developing a broad base of context-specific guidelines


The prevalence of non-contextual representations of project management

In the search to define a distinct body of knowledge and set of practices that could be claimed as “project management”, the focus has been on the project. It is largely isolated from its context and stripped to its bare essentials to enable the development of generic standards.                            (Crawford & Cooke-Davies 2010) 

The above quote appears to me to rather neatly summarise the situation with regard to the widespread representation of project management in non-contextual modes. The reasons for this being the case are readily understandable, and a multitude of beneficial developments in project management have ensued.

However, there are also some downsides. One of these is that such non-contextual representations of project management tend to reinforce a perception of projects as being ends in themselves (“projects-in-their-own-right”), which is still a rather prevalent perspective of so many in the project management community. However, the above perspective tends to ignore the fact that project management is a practice. It is therefore always undertaken in a real-world context.


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How to cite this paper: Stretton, A. (2020). Towards more context-specific representations of the role of project management; PM World Journal, Volume IX, Issue X, October. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pmwj98-Oct2020-Stretton-Towards-more-context-specific-PM-guidelines.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 over 200 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/.