The Impact of Technology on Project Management: Pre-1950s to the Modern Age
Project management (PM) dates back as far as there has been a need to achieve things. Although the process of completing a task hasn’t always been referred to as PM, and for the most part was merely regarded as a group of activities that needed to be completed, the foundations were still the same; work that was constrained by time, resources and finances.
The earliest known use of a PM system was the building of the pyramids in Ancient Egypt - although the manner in which this project was ran would be a little more than questionable in this decade. Project management as we know it today began to reveal itself during the industrial revolution, when businesses and industries began to expand rapidly and automation was introduced into sectors.
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During and after the world wars, activities were beginning to be completed on a larger scale, meaning there was more need for budget, supply and labour management. The evolution of technology allowed for more effective project scheduling, as automobiles meant increased mobility and allocation of resources, while improvements to the telecommunication system meant it was quicker and easier for different people working on the same project to communicate.
Perhaps the most significant developments in project management are the invention of the Gantt chart in the 1910s, which illustrated the start and finish times of elements of a project, and the introduction of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) - a chart which displayed the relationship between critical tasks of a project.
Notable projects of this time period include the construction of the Hoover Dam from 1931 to 1936, which included the employment of an estimated 5,000 workers, and the Manhattan Project, which was a research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II and involved 125,000 workers, cost nearly $2 billion.
The 1950s and 1960s
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There was significant advancement in technology over these two decades as the Apollo mission, one of man’s biggest projects to date, was launched with the objective of sending man to the moon, and the first automatic plain-paper copier was invented by Xerox in 1959.
Furthermore, between 1956 and 1958, several core project management tools were introduced, including the critical path method (CPM) and the program evaluation and review technique (PERT).
The CPM was developed in the late 1950s by Morgan R. Walker of DuPont and James E. Kelley Jnr. of Remington Rand. The algorithm, which schedules a set of project activities, can be adapted to any type of project, including construction, aerospace, defence, software development, product development and engineering.
PERT was developed during the Polaris missile mission by an operations research team, and is a decision-making tool for meeting objectives on time. The tool takes into consideration three factors (time, resources and technical performance specifications) when making decisions to find the fastest way to achieve end-objectives.
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This decade saw a rise in computer technology. Microsoft was founded in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and the size of computers was reduced from mainframe to mini-computer, making them more affordable for medium-sized companies, allowing them to update their business technology.
This advancement also resulted in the emergence of several PM software companies, including Artemis and Oracle in 1977, and Scitor Corporation in 1979.
Additionally, material requirements planning, or MRP, was introduced to manage manufacturing processes through three objectives:
- Ensure materials are available for production
- Maintain lowest possible levels of materials
- Plan manufacturing, delivery and purchasing activities
The 1980s and Early 1990s
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This period saw a dramatic shift in project management, from assignment to profession, as the growing interest in the science and art of its systems and processes was expanded on, and industry best practices were developed and refined.
Developments in the information management sector, including the introduction of personal computers (PCs) and networking facilities, resulted in low-cost computers with high efficiency being available to a wider audience. This meant companies of all sizes could afford to use computers to manage and control complex project schedules.
There was a number of groundbreaking projects carried out during the 15-year period. The Channel Tunnel involved the collusion of English and French governments, financial institutions and construction companies, meaning differences in language and metrics had to be scrutinised. The catastrophe involving the Challenger space shuttle focused attention on risk management, group dynamics and quality management.
Late 1990s and 2000s
Focus during this time was on the internet and the influence it had on how businesses carried out their work. The new fast, interactive and customisable medium allows customers to browse, purchase and track products and services online, resulting in companies becoming more productive, efficient and focused on what the client wants.
What’s more, the connectivity of the internet means that data can be automatically uploaded and shared, granting access to anyone, anywhere so they can:
- Input a task’s most recent status;
- Offer updates on the project’s progress;
- Communicate any delays or advances.
A major project undertaken was the Year 2000 project, or, as it’s more commonly referred to, the millenium bug. This project referred to the worry about the functionality of computers at 12am on January 1st, 2000, which went on to become a global phenomenon. The problem was that even if it was resolved at one company, immunity wasn’t guaranteed, as a breakdown in the supply chain could still affect the whole operation.
The solution was to set up a virtual project office over the internet, which allowed organisations to monitor and communicate millenium bug efforts, develop a risk management plan and deliver uninterrupted coordination at the turn of the century. The crisis was averted, but not without a valuable lesson on the importance of risk management in a company.
Project managers used to be regarded as task-oriented personnel with not a great deal of knowledge on business or strategic matters, and were brought on board after the planning stages had been completed. Nowadays, what was once seen as just a means of organisation has become a vital commodity, as capturing best practices is now a necessity of any business.
Today’s project managers are much more involved in business decisions, including:
- Establishing project objectives at a technical and business level
- Developing a strategy that connects the project and company objectives
- Selecting and prioritising management portfolio projects
- Deciding on the organisation’s offer
What was once seen as a method of organisation has evolved into a valuable part of an organisation, as those in project management roles are today seen as managers and strategic thinkers, rather than administrators.