I spent many years in my 20s thumbing through the oil stained pages of my Haynes car repair manual. It told me everything I need to know about replacing the steering column, the shock absorbers, fitting a new radiator and starter motor. The manual contained in a body of knowledge in the form of how to information about the car. Of course I could have had my own ideas about how the steering column functioned and fitted with the rest of the car. I could have relied on my instinct, added my own bits and pieces and hoped for the best. But no doubt the consequences would have been bad for me and other road users. Thankfully for the safety of us all, making a car function safely is not a matter of opinion or belief.
So in my 40s Im faced with a temperamental project rather than a temperamental car. The only official how to manuals I have at my disposal is the collection of works knows as the project management body of knowledge (BOK). Various project management institutes and associations publish their own versions of it. They all say pretty much the same thing in perhaps slightly different ways. However, there is a fundamental difference between the books that contain car repair knowledge and those that contain project management knowledge. I wonder if you've noticed.
The information in the Haynes manual is about the thing in itself the car. Alongside the technical drawings of clutch plate assembly there is a picture of the real thing. The information on the page is knowledge about the car. This is very different to the contents of all the BOKs. The BOKs have no information about the project I am immersed in. In fact, they have no information about any project I know. They seem to contain page after page of how I could conceptualise various aspects of a project. Theres information in there on how to think of a project in terms of a lifecycles. Theres information on how to conceptualise the management of risk or quality. There are ideas on the interplay of the concepts of time, cost, and quality, and how they should be considered. And so on. All of the BOKs contain ideas, concepts, and processes. These are things that can be found in the minds of a group of people called project managers. There is no information in the BOKs about the thing in itself the project. This would be like opening up the Haynes manual and finding loads of concepts and ideas that car mechanics use to think about fixing cars. Not really something very useful.
My view is twofold: Firstly, we should view the current PM BOKs for what they are, just pages of concepts that project managers use (or say they use) to manage their projects. Secondly, we need begin to create a new PM BOK that actually tells us something objective about the various types of work people face every day. What do you say?
Jon Whitty is a Senior Lecturer in Project Management at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. On the 28th of November 2012 he will be in the UK and will be leading an interactive discussion that invites participants to challenge preconceptions about project management knowledge. For more information please click here.