Skip to main content

The project of Sustainability: the role of Project Management in developing a more sustainable economy and society

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PmSust (The project of Sustainability: the role of Project Management in developing a more sustainable economy and society)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

This project investigates the role of the Project Management (PM) profession in developing sustainable business practices.

Sustainability has acquired a growing strategic importance over the last 10 years bringing with it a requirement for changes in traditional practices and paradigms of production for its successful implementation. These changes are typically managed as projects and delivered by dedicated project managers who are assumed to have the knowledge and skills to consider the social, financial, political, cultural and environmental sustainability of a project. As such project managers, through their distinctive roles, skills and competences occupy an important position in accomplishing sustainability, but little is understood about how they do this.

Using qualitative methods such as interviews, content analysis and ethnographic observation, it focuses on how sustainability is incorporated in PM discourse and practice by studying: how the profession makes sense of sustainability, and also sustainability in practice. Therefore, the objective of this data collection is to understand the underlying ‘narratives’ that professionals use. The analysis of these data show how the concept of sustainability is conceived and applied throughout all the steps of the project.

The main impact on the business world relates to the understanding of how the sustainability mechanisms are implemented. This would help practitioners of project management deal with those factors in different institutional contexts and increase the chances of developing a more sustainable economy (through project management).
This study could boost the rate at which sustainability practices spread across the economy, and this could also help turn Europe into a more competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy (see first section).
The different activities in order to develop the research project are listed in the Technical Report (Part B).
The general objective of this research has been to understand the role of project management profession in developing sustainable business practices within projects. In particular, I focused on 1) on the role of project management professional associations in institutionalizing sustainability practices into project management tools & techniques and 2) on the contribution of project manager practitioners in implementing sustainability within projects.
Therefore, I started this research from the realization that a growing interest in sustainability and project management exists both within academic and practitioner debates. Therefore, taken together, the various work packages included in this research project, (systematic review, the qualitative analysis of professional associations, the survey and the ethnography of a real-life project - for details see periodic technical Report - Part B) advance our understanding of the role of the project management profession in developing sustainable business practices. To summarize progress beyond the state of the art, I divided the research outcomes into three areas: (1) the clarification of the problem which is linked to the abstraction of the definition of ‘sustainable project management’; (2) the solution that could address this problem; and (3) the process through which the solution can be implemented.

THE PROBLEM – A first step to progress research on ‘sustainability and project management’, beyond the state of the art, is the clarification that the definition of the topic itself is by its nature very abstract. Sustainable objectives encompass a multitude of elements, that, if not in open conflict, are often in competition one with the other (over project resources and time). What follows is the impossibility of achieving sustainability in all its different aspects (e.g. achieving social sustainability could hinder the environmental sustainability, or achieving environmental sustainability could complicate the achievement of economic sustainability, etc…). As such, sustainability is inevitably a balancing act between the priorities and concerns of different stakeholders; yet this consideration seems to be absent both from academic and practitioners’ debates, and this lack of clarity precludes further development in this area. The confusion in the meaning and in the development of many different streams hinders any positive impact that research on sustainable project management is trying to make.

THE SOLUTION – This research revealed that a potential resolution for this problem lies in the development of highly contextual solutions. Within projects, the achievement of sustainable solutions relates to the development and implementation of fit for purpose (i.e. tailored solutions) sustainable project frameworks. Project management needs to carefully consider developing such solutions (which first of all need to rank sustainable objectives according to project priorities) to fully meet sustainability. Therefore, implementing sustainability into a project requires a bespoke solution; there can be guidelines, but especially for large projects, there is no panacea.

THE PROCESS – A highly contextual solution needs a decision-making process which is locally co-created. Therefore, a bespoke framework is the result of a bargaining process among the various actors taking part to the project. Usually, a project involves several different actors (e.g. sponsors, owners, consultants, contractors, …) with different project objectives, professional backgrounds, cultures, and positions of power. Therefore, the involvement of these actors is essential to the success of a bespoke solution. The involvement of so many different actors require a process of co-operation (in terms of how to achieve sustainability), compromise (in terms of how to prioritise different sustainable objectives) and co-learning (in terms of how different actors make sense of sustainability). To explain this process in practice, I developed a model which can explain how sustainable project management took place in a specific construction project. The process is developed for construction projects and it is characterized by a number of circular steps: (a) instantiate sustainability vision into an artefact (i.e. the building) which represents it; (b) structure requirements and specifics for the building designers according to the original vison; (c) detail these requirements at a high level of granularity; (d) realization of the building (which with its many deviations from the original plan will differ from the original plan); (e) adjust the vision of sustainability according to the realized artefact. From the last step (e), the process restarts at point (a) in the next project. As these steps will involve a variety of actors, the process that emerges is a very complex one, but one that will ease the achievement of sustainable project management.