Isambard Kingdom Brunel - How does he rate as a project manager?

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Posted by APM on 11th Mar 2013

Jim declared his hand up front. He is absolutely smitten with Isambard Kingdom Brunel (IKB, or #apmikb) After all, he did build 25 railways, 3 ships, 100 bridges and tunnels, 8 piers and dock systems and 1200 miles of railway track in his life time!

In fact, Jim confessed that his fascination with this man had caused him to take his long-suffering wife on a Brunel cultural tour holiday - in which he learned much more about 'the great, short man with a top hat'!

The facilities and hospitality at Arup's Fitzroy street, London offices were great. It was especially fitting that the event was staged in the building where the life and work of Peter Rice (1935-1992) is being show-cased and honoured.

Jim reminded the audience that IKB had been declared runner up to Winston Churchill in the BBC’s poll to establish Britain’s greatest Britton, offering his own view "he should have come first as his legacy is everywhere."

The audience, a capacity crowd of 60-plus, that had turned out, as an alternative to watching an important European football fixture, were encouraged to weigh the evidence in in a new and interesting way. They were asked to adopt the persona of an APM Registered Project Professional (RPP) Assessor, and rate the great man as a project manager against the gold standard for project management.

Jim presented a balanced portfolio of his key achievements such as; the Thames Tunnel, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, the great ships along with some lesser known projects and facts. He highlighted two mandatory competences from the twenty-nine that make-up the APM’s RPP assessment framework, namely Leadership (BC03) and Professionalism & Ethics (BC09). Then, with forensic precision, he began to examine the available evidence against the constituent indicators of the relevant competences.

Despite any personal bias on Jim's part, his evidence was balanced. So, along with IKB's numerous successes, Jim outlined problems that had occurred along the way. For example when building the Great Eastern ship his relationship with John Scott Russell was toxic and there was no trust between them.

Jim's exploration of professionalism and ethics was particularly interesting. IKB was a reflective learner and maintained a detailed journal; clearly he had taken his own professional development seriously.

He was also motivated by the greater good; declining a knighthood on principle and accepting responsibility, and no fee, for the failed atmospheric railway venture.

Jim concluded, by taking a tongue-in-cheek look at business cases, and perhaps it was a good thing that they didn't exist in those times, as the expenditure on a number of Brunel’s projects was considerably over budget. And how could we begin to cost the 100 men's lives lost whilst excavating Box Tunnel? As we consider whether or not the business case was viable we have to remember that these were very different times to modern day major projects - such as the construction of an Olympic Park and HS2.

During the presentation Jim ensured that the audience were fully engaged, and when it came to voting he made use of innovative 'vote and post' technology enabling the audience to deliver their verdict; using a mix of text, tweet and web - along with the more traditional show of hands when necessary!

It is hardly surprising that the majority of votes from the RPP-assessing audience, were confirmation of their own view that Brunel had indeed satisfied the relevant RPP competence indicators.

The feedback from the delegates from the event has been overwhelming positive, which is hardly surprising as the material really was well-researched and delivered with a keen insight and great passion on Jim's part.
Clearly, this event has raised the profile of RPP, at the event itself and through associated publications, and arguably there is a good case for Jim's style of 'edutainment' to be shared more widely at other APM events in the future. 

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