Technology disruption is impacting us like never before. Almost everything is connected, and devices and machines that are not yet connected, are soon getting there.

Everyday we read about adoption or usage of AI, blockchain, digitization, sensorization, 5G, vision-based computing, augmented reality, virtual reality, immersive experience... the list goes on.

These technologies are driving changes in business models, allowing new entrants into the market within a shorter timeframe, and helping new competitors to emerge. New skills are required to manage this adoption and disruption.

It is obvious that these wide-ranging changes are going to challenge both the old ways and the old lens through which we look at the way we work technologies and manage projects.

We are working with technologies that are clearly horizontal in nature. As their adoption has increased, customization to the specific needs of the vertical industries is growing. In simple terms, technologies need to solve problems by morphing themselves to address the unique problems that customers in each domain face. One size does not fit all — and it cannot be truer than in the case of technology.

Additionally, there is the dimension of "ROI of digitization." This is a question a large number of customers are contemplating while they increase their budgets and wrap their arms around the "digitization-led spend."

Therefore, we as practitioners in the field of project management have to now:

  1. Manage the challenge of rapid digital disruption, and the skills and abilities required to work with them;
  2. Understand the challenge of domain-related problems that need to be solved; and
  3. Understand the impact of ROI of digitization by the customer.
This needs a different approach from what we have been used to. We need to think of different dimensions to understand the dynamics and influence of all these factors as we go about our daily jobs/projects.

It requires us to add to our repertoire a lot more knowledge about the business and domains that we work for, the business processes, business models, products, and customer relationships.

This article talks about the importance of project managers cultivating domain knowledge in an era of digital disruption.

With increased pressure on how business is done, the competition positioning, the quality of experience, product margins and performance, there is a significant onus on project management to ensure that the end objectives are met.

Project managers used to consider project management itself as a domain, and traditionally focused on the triple constraints of performance, cost, and schedule. Today, we need to fit domain knowledge into the triangle, as project managers are expected to resolve tough business problems and give forward-looking advice to stakeholders, customers, and teams, by applying business concepts with the solid backing of technologies.

Project managers need to have a good mix of business and industry skills, functional and technology skills, with strong project management skills, along with an openness to learn and explore. Just like with the traditional triple constraints, where one affects the other, you cannot simply ignore one of these three factors here. They must be balanced, and must work together.

For a project manager, domain knowledge is no longer a nice-to-have skill in this era of automation, artificial intelligence, and digital transformation.

Bitcoin is a great example — we need the correct combination of business scenarios, processes, and concepts, and back it with the right technologies for successful application.

Domain knowledge is required in all phases of a project, program or a portfolio to define business needs, validate requirements and decision-making, identify flaws in business processes, enable real-time analysis and testing, and implement procedural improvements. And we need to do all of this, while determining the acceptable performance levels, collaborating across multiple teams, and simplifying information access and sharing.

There are three main deterrents to project managers in cultivating domain knowledge:
  1. Vastness of the industry domain makes it less accessible, compared to technical skills. These niche skills are also difficult to ascertain and qualify.
  2. Stigma attached to domain skills, since technical skills are considered more important and relevant. There is also a notion of redundancy associated with these skills.
  3. Attitude of individuals towards learning newer domain skills/ technologies, and the assumption that the customer has the relevant business knowledge, which can be drawn on a need basis.
An individual project manager can align and adapt to these needs by making "conscious learning" a part of his or her daily ‘to-do.’ While there are conventional methods of learning available, a lot can be achieved by simply aligning to the discussions led by business teams, linking customer, solutions and architecting teams, and aligning to the vertical competency teams within the organizations. Formal and informal conversations with these stakeholders can give valuable insights and information about the customer, and ease the process of learning.

Much has been said about a proactive attitude, temperament and desire to learn. It is these very factors which will drive project managers to be self-motivated in seeking people and information, as they go about proactively building their knowledge base. Once the initial alignment is done, the rest is far easier to accomplish.

The challenge, therefore, is individual project management capacity, and the capability and willingness to unlearn and learn.

PMI Excellence Enablers Forum (EEF) has worked on a project, ‘Cultivating the Functional and Business Knowledge in Project Managers.’ A white paper based on the project will soon be released.
(Ritu Singh is the chairperson of PMI EEF and former head of Cross Content PMO, Thomson Reuters. She now works as a freelance consultant and artist.)