To the Bok and Beyond (Take 2)

Every project practitioner worth his or her salt will be familiar with the concept of a ‘Body of Knowledge’ – or BoK – providing as it does the foundation knowledge upon which the project profession is built and whose very existence supports collective claims that ‘project management’ is indeed a profession. But relatively few practitioners will have had the opportunity – or the need - to explore the various Bodies of Knowledge that exist. If that is you, then this piece may be of interest.

In the UK, the Association for Project Management (APM) BoK was first published in 1992 – exactly 20 years ago – in the days when APM meant something different (Association of Project Managers). Now in its 6th (2011) edition, the APM BoK has been written by project managers, for project managers and presents an overview of the knowledge required to manage projects. In the US, the Project Management Institute (PMI) established its first project management body of knowledge as a ‘white paper’ in 1983, and went onto update it several times through the 1980s and 1990s. It was not until 1996 that the first edition of the PMBOK Guide (pronounced ‘pimbok’) was published in its current format. Now in its 5th (2013) edition - there has been little alteration to its original concept and structure.  So, how do these two BoKs compare and can it be argued that one is ‘better’ than the other?

Let’s start with a little more history. When APM launched its certification programme in the early 1990s it did so having come to the conclusion that the PMI BoK did not adequately reflect the complete knowledge base that project professionals needed. The PM BoK, it was argued, was essentially focussed on delivery and largely ignored the all-important ‘front-end’ – the link to strategic intent - and management across the total project life cycle. This is still borne out in the structure and content of the BoKs of today. 

The APM BoK 6th edition (‘AB’) has 4 sections, each broken down into a number of component parts which add up to 53 topics in all – some old, some new - topics that range from ‘communication’ to ‘configuration management’, from ‘sponsorship’ to ‘sustainability’. Crucially, and for the first time, AB addresses each of the 3 ‘p’s: project, programme and portfolio, with narrative of the relevance and meaning of the topic at each of these levels. This makes for a very interesting departure to previous format - all in about 250 pages.

Inevitably, each topic ‘chapter’ is concise, and the narrative under each ‘p’ is therefore often very brief, with pointers to more detail – all aimed at conveying the knowledge relevant to the discipline of managing projects. Think of AB as a ‘source book’, succinct sign-posting on the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’.

The PMI BoK (‘PB’) is different. It claims to be “the globally recognized standard and guide for the project management profession” and deals with specifics, and provides (in double the number of pages) a detailed ‘how to’ on methods and processes. It comprises 13 sections – 2 by way of introduction, a third on ‘process groups’ and then a section on each of the (now ten) knowledge areas: integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communications, risk, procurement and stakeholder management. The 5 process groups (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring & controlling and closing) – 47 processes in all – are described under each knowledge area heading. So, for example, ‘time’ as a knowledge area is defined by the processes ‘plan schedule management’, ‘define activities’, and ‘sequence activities ’and so on.  This combination of ‘process group’ and ‘knowledge area’ provides a useful handrail, as a ‘what’ and a ‘how’ manual of proven, traditional ‘good practice’.

So, if AB is about signposting, PB offers you a map and a compass. Now, back to that question – which one is ‘better’? Clearly, it depends. Each has merit and both can (and are) used to very good effect in informing exam curricula, shaping practitioner development and enabling the dissemination of good practice. There is a case to be made for having both on the shelf – with no fundamental differences in their principles; both can be used concurrently to very good effect.

I think there is a far more interesting – and important – question, one that I asked back in 2012 when we were working with the previous editions. Namely, is the existence of AB and PB sufficient as a basis for practitioner development and the management of projects? Here, I would venture that the answer is still a resounding ‘no’.

In being so bold, I could, to begin with, raise the very real questions of validity of the knowledge represented in a BoK. Project management knowledge is ‘situated’ – its legitimacy is derived through its group endorsement. If such knowledge is ‘situated’, then how valid is the data used to inform the BoK when it is the same group that generates and compiles the data? Some might argue it is a good example of a ‘self-licking lollipop’?


But there is an even greater concern that as project professionals we would want to own up to and over time deal with – and that is the extent to which any BoK is able to support, guide and inform the management of projects in complex, dynamic situations. There are no easy answers but let’s at least be bold and brave enough to own up to the intrinsic limitations of our established bodies of knowledge if only to be in a position to welcome new ideas. After all, as Senge had us believe, it is the de-construction of traditional mental models that is a first step in the construction of new ones fit for dealing with change within change. 

© Dr Bill Egginton 

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