Are corporate IT project managers a commodity?

Are corporate IT project managers a commodity?

We tend to think of project management, especially for those who practice it, as a set of tools, practices and methods, but what it is in terms of your customers and stakeholders is a service you are providing, the end result of which is the completed project.  They really don’t care what tools, methods or practices you employed but do care that they receive a finished deliverable that your project set out to complete.

With that being said, distilled to its essence, a service for managing a project is a business activity between a provider and a consumer, with your stakeholders being in the role of the consumer who pays you as a service provider of project management that renders this service in lieu of a fee (a fixed fee since as most PMs are full time employees that get paid a fixed salary).  You ability to command a higher fee is contingent upon your “unique selling proposition“.

The Project Management Institute’s infamous PMBOK guide defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result”, which indicates the need for a highly skilled project manager to ensure the timely deliver of that unique undertaking.  When the field was in its infancy or deployed in new and burgeoning industries such as IT was a decade or so ago, people with this skill could command high fees.  But using IT as a sample industry, since many PMs are hired in the IT industry, when the industry was in accelerated growth mode during the PC, internet and enterprise software and systems era, there was a urgent need for people who could manage the explosive growth of projects that were initiated by companies who required the market differentiation that these technologies provided.

But the technologies have matured and has even shifted towards being much more consumer oriented with the advent smartphones, tablets, cloud computing and social media used by tech-savvy end users.  This has given rise to “shadow IT” efforts with IT departments scampering to keep up while being weighed down by maintaining cumbersome legacy systems and all the baggage of updating software and hardware for it, that could be better spent on IT projects that directly benefit a company’s bottom line and delights end users.

The result of all this is that the IT project manager is stuck in the middle of all this having to manage legacy systems and all the hardware, software and database upgrades, migrations, patch work, etc. which at some point become indistinguishable from one system to the next since what they are in reality are old systems nobody finds valuable but need to maintain to protect a company’s assets.  This occurs in parallel while end users and business departments are moving forward using cutting edge, but easy to use and configured applications and devices for their own shadow IT.

This has made the IT project manager a commodity.  As Wikipedia states, commodification “is the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of attributes (uniqueness or brand) end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers. It is the movement of a market from differentiated to undifferentiated price competition and from monopolistic to perfect competition.”

With the depressed economy and lagging growth, compounded by commodification of IT systems and services, companies are now often looking for project management specialists that they can “rent” to perform planning, execution, and control of project tasks.  Job descriptions read like personal classified ads-looking for Project Manager with Agile/Scrum with 5 or more years of Java development using specific tools that the company is standardized on, or SAP PM 3-4 yrs. experience deploying a specific version and within a specific industry.  To make matters worse, barriers to decent-paying IT project management jobs have increased with many organization now requiring some form of certification.  This has in turn created a glut of training certification providers that have become commodities in their own right.  It is a vicious circle of increasing commodification as defined by Wikipedia.  The corporate IT project manager role is really becoming indistinguishable from each other.

So the pressure is on and the corporate IT project manager is becoming more and more viewed as a a bureaucratic cost of managing change.  The trend now is to reduce the cost of project management while maintaining basic services.  This is impacting those coming into the market as well as those who have been here for a while.

So is the corporate IT project manager a commodity?  What can be done?  That will be for future posts so stay tuned…

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