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Wed, 28 October 2020

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How will project professionals rise to the challenge of the coronavirus recovery?

How will project professionals rise to the challenge of the coronavirus recovery?

From infrastructure to climate change mitigation, projects are an essential part of how we as a nation respond to the biggest economic and social challenges we face – and that makes the skills of the project profession central to the UK’s fortunes over the next decade and beyond | Credit: PA Images

David Thomson, Head of External Affairs | Association for Project Management

5 min read Partner content

Faced by constant change, we need professionals who can innovate, solve problems, and provide a blend of technical expertise and broad leadership skills to deliver complex and transformational projects.

Digitisation projects. Infrastructure projects. Carbon reduction and climate change mitigation projects.

Projects are an essential part of how we as a nation respond to the biggest economic and social challenges we face – and that makes the skills of the project profession central to the UK’s fortunes over the next decade and beyond.

So how does the project profession ensure that it’s fit to rise to the challenge?

That was the question at the heart of a ‘big conversation’ that we at APM, the chartered body for the project profession, launched last summer.

Through a wide-ranging set of discussions and thematic papers, we’ve examined the future of our profession and the role it needs to play in the next 5-10 years – and we are launching our summary report, The Adaptive Project Professional, setting out eight big ideas for the profession’s future. 

It starts with the challenge of how we develop adaptive project professionals.

Faced by constant change, we need professionals who can innovate, solve problems, and provide a blend of technical expertise and broad leadership skills to deliver complex and transformational projects.

APM will play its part in building that adaptive capacity – but we also need a bold new approach to skills policy and joined up support for project professionalism across critical public services and industries.

Why being adaptive matters in the post-Covid world

Being adaptive is critical because in the digital era, change can sweep through our economy and society at unprecedented pace. ‘VUCA’ conditions – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – meant that simply referring to an established body of knowledge for textbook answers about how we handle problems isn’t an option.

Complex and chaotic situations demand that we innovate, experiment and adapt at pace.

In that sense, Covid-19 has been a case study in disruption and adaptability. Projects were critical to the initial response: from hospital preparations, to the building of the Nightingale network, to new social security and income support policies, to fantastic projects involving the likes of Formula One teams to develop better ventilation technology.

In addition to the challenges we identified at the outset of Projecting the Future, we now have the imperative to build back better and make a reality of the rhetoric of levelling up.

Diverse policy aims, like the delivery of 5G, improving national transport infrastructure and achieving the transition to a net zero economy, will be delivered through projects.

The big drivers of change we identified pre-pandemic – automation and AI, climate change, demographic change, the future of transport and mobility, smart cities, the changing nature of work – haven’t gone away. In some places, Covid-19 will act as an accelerant on trends that were already visible: in others it will have completely unpredictable effects.

Ultimately, the project profession will thrive because change is what we do. An adaptive mindset means that we need to embrace change and recognise its implications for projects, striking the right balance between clarity about goals and benefits, and flexibility.

As today’s report confirms, APM is launching a range of initiatives to make sure it plays its part in creating an adaptive profession. But we need action across government and business too.

Delivering adaptability

That action stems from the other ideas in our report. One is building the profession’s pipeline, embedding new entry routes for young entrants as well as pathways for more mature, mid-career switchers, recognising the disruption to professional jobs caused by the pandemic – and the inevitable disruption set to be caused by automation and AI.

We need to build on the early successes of new Project Apprenticeships, including at degree level, and redouble efforts to build awareness of the project profession as a desirable career at the heart of some of society’s most fascinating challenges.

At the same time we need to strengthen the culture of professionalism through life. We need an ambitious new approach to skills that supports learning at all life stages, with improved support for professionals to train, retrain, and keep learning: as AI becomes ever more sophisticated, professional jobs will be at risk of automation.

We need to look again at skills accounts, which have been used successfully in places like Singapore, and at how skills policy relates to employment support services, as the CBI has recently argued.

Projecting the Future thrived because of a spirit of openness and collaboration, recognising that the complex challenges we face cannot be solved by any one group alone.

At APM, we will continue that spirit with partnerships with other organisations to promote training and development, to promote recognition of British project management expertise globally via the Chartered Project Professional standard, and by continuing to build the evidence base on what works. But the critical conversations also need to involve key organisations in the project sector, government and public bodies.

We look forward to the next stage of the debate about how we develop a truly adaptive profession and turn our eight big ideas into a reality, to ensure the project profession can thrive in its role in transforming the economy and society for the better.

David Thomson is head of external affairs at APM, the Association for Project Management.

APM’s Projecting the Future report on the adaptive project professional can be found at apm.org.uk/projecting-the-future, alongside the preceding discussion papers. Views on the final report’s recommendations are welcome via ptf@apm.org.uk

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