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The Modern Project Manager

How the role of project manager is changing today.

Written by Philip Baker
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Learn to see the different forces operating across all the areas of a business as the role of project managers continually expands. 

As a project manager since the 1990s, Elaine Alexander, an instructor in the online Project Management Certificate program, has had an exciting front-row seat not only on the dramatic changes that have taken place in the field of project management over the last 20 years, but even more fascinating is the perspective on the change taking place across the world of business her career has granted her.

“It’s been a very exciting time to be in project management,” Alexander says, who is a program management consultant at Pfizer for the Evanston Group. “All organizations have gone through important and sometimes cataclysmic changes—in how they do business, in how they relate to clients, customers, and markets—and all these changes have had profound effects on project managers, both in the scope of their responsibilities and the decision-making role within organizations.”

Seeing the Different Forces Operating across a Business

Beginning her career in the defense industry working in a procurement role, Elaine quickly became impressed by the number of issues and functions project managers took on. It was immediately clear that they had a significant impact on the success and outcomes of projects, she says. Moving on to Motorola to write contracts, she worked closely with project managers and even had the good fortune to take advantage of a project management certification course offered internally by the company. Following that experience, she worked in project management as a developer of tools and systems.

“Project management back then was a matter of accomplishing a mission, like the development of a new product,” Alexander notes. “Things would generally stay pretty static throughout the project. Today, the external environment changes dramatically, so it’s not just a matter of managing tasks and making sure all the inputs and functions are aligned, but you have to manage the environment and see things more broadly. It’s a matter of being aware of all the different forces operating across the separate areas of the business.”

The Importance of Continuing Education in Project Management

From defense and then to telecom, Alexander continued to expand her areas of experience and knowledge not just by moving on to work in new fields and industries—such as medical products and pharmaceuticals—she also continued to learn. With an MBA from Temple University and two MS degrees, one in Communications Technology Management from Northwestern and another one in Human Computer Interaction from DePaul, she’s currently working towards her PhD in Organization Development at Benedictine University.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to try new things and learn more,” she says. “Continuing education is especially important in project management, particularly today. In addition to learning important tools and practices that have evolved over the past 25 years, today’s project managers need to also be aware of the way these tools and practices apply in different contexts and industries.”

Complex Research Applied to a Real-World Environment

The Certificate in Project Management, she notes, is unique for the way it strives to address the changes in the scope of the project manager’s role in recent years. While bringing students up to date on the most important research in recent project management scholarship, the project management coursework also offers many in-class activities that challenge students to apply that knowledge in a real world environment.

“Doing project management is not the same as being trained in project management,” Alexander notes. “Many people have taken a course and earned their certificate, but putting this knowledge together in practice is a very different scenario. At the University of Chicago Professional Education, we are looking to develop project managers and project leaders who bring to our classes the complex business issues they’re working on day-to-day. In that way, we’re able to provide depth and nuance to the material that you can’t find in your typical course on project management.”

Project Managers as Leaders

Of the many changes in project management that Alexander has seen in her career, she points to the emerging need for leadership skills as being particularly important. As their responsibility grows and project managers become the connecting link between various nodal points within an organization, their knowledge and broad experience equip them with the versatility required to develop responses to the sudden and often disruptive changes that take place in today’s business environment.

“Because project managers have shown their value in today’s world of business, they’re in tremendous demand,” she says. “They have a much more prominent position and an influential voice at the table in terms of an organization’s direction. It wasn’t always recognized, but now that the project management office has risen to a critical role in an organization’s success, the dynamics have changed."

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