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ISO 21500 Emerging as New Standard for Project Managers

With roots dating back fewer than 100 years, the project management discipline has evolved during one of the most spirited periods of innovation and technology advancement the world has seen. These days, work is underway worldwide bringing this applied science into its sharpest focus yet through the development of a new project management standard called ISO 21500.

Just as there are ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards for organizational quality (ISO 9000) and environmental management (ISO 14000), when completed the new ISO 21500 standard will provide guidance and principles defining good practice in project management.

“To ensure openness and that the standard is globally accepted, ISO has solicited information from different countries, companies and individuals,” says Michael Kamel, chairman of the Canadian ISO 21500 Advisory Committee. The mammoth undertaking began some three years ago, when the British Standards Institute (BSI) approached the ISO about creating an international standard for project management. Currently, experts from 31 countries are involved, including Canada through the Standards Council of Canada. Five other countries are observing, while the Project Management Institute and International Project Management Association are among other major players.

“We have multiple ways of working together,” says Dr. Kamel, a professional engineer who is also president of the Project Management Institute’s Montreal chapter and manager of corporate strategy consulting at Deloitte. The process involves teams from each country producing components of the standard independently; country representatives meet periodically to discuss global and specific issues.

“One of the main challenges is the conversion of everyone to a common way of doing things,” says Dr. Kamel.

Unlike pure sciences such as physics, Dr. Kamel says project management is an applied science – one based heavily on practices and anecdotes of what works best. “It’s a grassroots discipline formalized initially by practitioners, rather than academics. But because it is newer than other management disciplines such as operations, there are not as many existing anecdotes.”

He says the work on ISO 21500 is building a solid base – a global framework – on which further anecdotal evidence on best practices may be built. “It will help us solidify our understanding of the best ways to do things under various project circumstances.”

Developing the standard is itself complex, but Dr. Kamel is confident the effort will be worthwhile. “With this standard, we will start to understand the world of complexities called management – and specifically project management,” he says.

The next milestone: constituents will meet in Japan this June to confer and continue the advancement of a standard that will eventually impact project management around the world.

This article originally appeared in a special information supplement on project management in The Globe and Mail on April 23, 2009.

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