Project Management

A Story of Monks, Trees, and New Horizons for the Evolution of the PMBOK® Guide

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By Maria Cristina Barbero, PMI Standards Member Advisory Group

The Black Monks, so called in reference to the color of their religious tunics, are monks of the monastic Catholic religious order who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. This Rule provides some guidelines for monastic life where reading is one of the compulsory activities built into a monk’s very regimented schedule. In the 6th century one of them, Cassiodorus, pushed the practice of copying texts of all kinds over just reading them. Copying texts became an important part of life in monasteries.

So, in the Middle Ages monasteries and monks were hubs of culture. Monks were sharing a seat and desk with other monks in “scriptoria” (open spaces for writing activities) where they were dedicated to conserve the biblical knowledge over a world of wars, famine, and epidemics simply through copying texts. To be honest, it was not just about biblical texts but also grammar and later encyclopedias that constituted the body of knowledge these monks wanted to conserve with their work. And, again, it was not just copying. It was also about adding or integrating these texts with something new they could capture during other monks’ travels. The final aim was to transfer this knowledge to posterity as well as have a base for training young pupils, usually sons of princes, kings, and other nobles.

 Let’s focus on how the bodies of knowledge were growing,   transforming, and adapting to new discoveries. In medieval   Christianity all that was known was represented as a static   pyramid having few possibilities of evolution (for example, the   Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical structure of all matter and   life, derived from Plato and Aristotle, and thought to have been   decreed by God). Later, the most common representation of   knowledge changed to a tree—the pyramid had been rotated. The tree can expand and evolve. You can add branches and leaves. Seeds generate new trees.

Nowadays a body of knowledge is intended to be a complete set of concepts, terms, and activities that make up a professional practice, as defined by the relevant learned society or professional association. These bodies of knowledge in general evolve in accordance with the “tree model.” The body of knowledge of project management (PMBOK® Guide) is defined by PMI “as a term that describes the knowledge within the profession of project management.” PMI recognizes that the body of knowledge of project management has no definable limits and that “no single book could contain the entire PMBOK.” Therefore, PMI developed and published the PMBOK® Guide which is intended to be a guide to this vast body of knowledge.

The PMBOK® Guide has been for years perceived and used by trainers, consultants, and project managers worldwide as a “golden box” where the knowledge of project management was maintained. Since 1996, like other bodies of knowledge, it is a tree that continuously evolves. More content is added periodically to the constellation of knowledge elements that a project manager should know and use (practices, tools, techniques, skills).

The “tree model” survived for centuries. It is just in the last thirty years that things dramatically accelerated the demand for a new model of representing knowledge and bodies of knowledge. Change enablers include the web, user media and devices, micro-computing, 3rd party platforms, Internet of Things, availability of large volumes of data, communications strengthening, and overall the willingness of humanity to share their own experiences and contribute directly to the growth of knowledge in most sectors and industries.

 Several new contents are available and today each   single body of knowledge potentially collides with other   bodies of knowledge and requires a representation that   is a web where new branches of the original tree draw   over branches of other trees.

Therefore, the evolution of the PMBOK® Guide had to be rethought and that’s what PMI and volunteers did over the last couple of years. My colleagues already introduced areas of change in the PMBOK® Guide and in The Standard for Project Management.

What I want to remark on here is my thoughts on the intrinsic why of this big shift that is not a whim but, more than ever, a need. PMI cannot evolve the body of knowledge following a “tree model” simply adding branches and leaves to the body of knowledge, but must open it to future evolutions in a modern multidisciplinary and digitized context. The structure has to support the evolution of knowledge while at the same time providing a framework that better represents the interaction of a system of systems that influences project performance.

I think this approach to the evolution of the PMBOK® Guide will enable the reasoned and appropriate maintenance of the evolving knowledge and practice of project management.


Posted by Marjorie Anderson on: November 08, 2019 10:57 AM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Great Analogy - Thanks for sharing this. It will be exciting to see how the new version of the PMBOK will turn out.

Dear Marjorie
Interesting Maria Cristina's view of what the PMBOK Guide should be
Thanks for sharing

To extend the analogy, I'm glad that the Seventh Edition is going back to the "roots" of project management (e.g. principles) rather than the branches & leaves as the Fall raking of the latter was taking WAY too much effort :-)

Thank you, Maria Cristina, for this fascinating history lesson about monks, scriptoria, pyramids and trees, and the clever tie in to the PMBOK® Guide and the upcoming changes we will witness in the Seventh Edition and the release of the new Standards Plus tool demonstrated as an Alpha version at the recent Conference in Philadelphia.

It is truly a web of trees overlaying trees, yet presented in way that allows relevant filtering and searching for leaves culminating in a drill down to pertinent wisdom - retaining links to the root - the PMBOK® Guide.

You see where we can go with this analogy? You have set the stage, my friend! :)

All these analogy is great philosophical discussions on the evolution and transformation of PMBOK , which can generate great intellectual discussions -
Hope PMBOK 7 is more applicable, relevant and practical for those project managers in the engineering, construction, manufacturing and Information Technology , etc. Industries -
A practical PM guide that can be used to optimize the utilization of people, financials and physical resources is what is necessary and essential - Continuing down the path of Scrum Agile ( Rugby and ProjectManagement- ?? ) to Discipline Agile seems more marketing focused rather than focusing on relevancy
practicality and applicability !

Lets wait and see what the future PMBOOK 7, brings in terms of effective pratical project management approach. Thanks for sharing your thougths.

Love to hear different approaches to thinking about accepted concepts and designs to grow and challenge the profession.

As an aside, would be great to have any images placed in these articles as clickable so the audience can appreciate them as much as the author. Thanks!

Thank you for the post, Maria,

The PMBOK tree has gained much mass and height over the years from extensive growth, but there is a limit to the height a tree can grow, as leaves at the upper limit of the tree cannot efficiently deliver energy to the root system due to the size of its trunk, hence stunting further growth.

PMI’s recognition of this issue and its decision to fell the tree to have the material to “system engineer” a new structure is brilliant and quite honestly overdue. However, there could be unforeseen circumstances when making the “cut” if environmental factors are not properly considered (e.g., the political wind).

The systems engineering view will provide us the structure to support the current and future domain of our profession, with that I agree. I look forward to this process!

I see that an important keyword is “practical”. People ask for a more “practical” text judging – I guess - that the actual PMBOK Guide is not. When I read “practical” I wonder whether people want something different in contents or simply shorter. Or, they want a book that teaches how to be a project manager to people who are not. Let me comment these cases.

Volunteers and professionals from the PMI staff are working on delivering a different configuration of the Standard of Project Management and the PMBOK® Guide text: shorter and simpler to browse and read. Based on principles (see ) with the Standards Plus product that is going to be the “practical side of it”

But in case we give the word “practical” the meaning of something that transforms anyone in a project manager just because she or he has read the book, or something that fills the gap between "not knowing what to do" and "managing a project well", well, that's not possible. Like when you buy a book that "tells you how to ride a bike": it is “practical” for sure. But you’ll discovery soon that you cannot read how to ride a bicycle and then bike! The same – somehow - for managing a project.

Thank you

Maria Cristina

Thanks for the clarification- Love Mike Frenette's analogy of baking a cake-really practical - principles based-standards.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I personally can't wait to the public review!

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