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Why HR should embrace project management

Learning about project management can help your career inside or outside HR

By Brian Kreissl

I have just finished a project management course at a local community college in an attempt to enhance my skills as a product development manager and help broaden my future options. A large part of my work history has been project-based in one form or another, and I therefore wanted to learn a bit more about this discipline formally.

But project management is a useful skill even for those in very traditional HR roles. I recently read somewhere that project management is one of the top skills sought by employers today, yet one need not have the formal title “project manager” to make use of those skills.

Different types of project managers needed

Contrary to popular belief, project management isn’t just for information technology, engineering or construction projects. Organizations have all kinds of projects, and people from all sorts of disciplines can utilize project management – including HR practitioners. And while some people are pure project managers, most organizations tend to prefer project managers who have at least some functional knowledge of the domains in which they manage projects.

Project management is defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI) as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” A project is really any kind of “temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”

The idea is a project should be a temporary thing with a definite goal in mind, a beginning and an end. In that respect, projects can be contrasted with operations, which are ongoing. Projects also have other specific characteristics, such as having resource constraints, being performed by people, as well as being planned, executed, controlled and progressively elaborated (changed and updated as further information becomes available).

HR project management

In an HR context, any fairly major initiative of a temporary nature related to human resources management would likely count as a project. Examples might include implementing a new human resources information system (HRIS), staffing a new production facility, developing a new competency framework, updating an employee handbook, handling the people side of a merger or acquisition or leading and implementing an organizational change initiative.

I would even count recurring annual HR programs such as compensation year-end, employee engagement surveys and flexible benefits enrollment as projects. The key is that such projects have a definite beginning and end, even if very similar projects are undertaken every year.

There are also cross-functional projects that HR frequently becomes involved in. While HR professionals may not formally lead such initiatives, they may be responsible for part of the project, which could be considered to be a project in itself.

The human side of project management

Every project manager’s basic goal is to complete the project on time, within scope and within budget. Yet, a huge part of any project manager’s job is also acquiring, developing, managing and coordinating a project’s human resources.

Anyone who thinks project management is all about tracking project deliverables using a spreadsheet or something like MS Project either doesn’t fully understand project management or has had slightly less than optimal experiences with project managers.

Because the people side of project management is so important, HR professionals are particularly well placed when it comes to moving into project management roles. In fact, one of the 10 Knowledge Areas recognized by PMI in its Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is Project Human Resource Management.

There is also quite a bit of overlap between the PMBOK and what I might call the “HRBOK.” For example, in my class we learned about basic organizational design, Tuckman’s theory of team development (forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning), Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, stakeholder analysis, organizational communications and employee engagement.

Even when HR professionals aren’t managing a project or working on a project team, they need to be able to understand projects in relation to employees who are seconded to them. HR also needs to be able to provide information to project managers relating to members of project teams, help resolve disputes among project stakeholders and help deal with acquisition of project human resources (either internally or externally).

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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