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Put digitalisation and sustainability at the core of academic curricula, project management educators urged

New approaches to teaching project management in universities are needed to ensure the profession will be able to address challenges like climate change and digital transformation, according to a leading academic.

Professor Christine Unterhitzenberger, Professor of Project Management at the Leeds Centre for Projects at the University of Leeds, says areas like sustainability and digitalisation must be made central to project management university programmes if the project profession is to deliver the changes society needs.

Prof Unterhitzenberger (pictured) says a lack of clarity around how the world will deliver the targets set at the most recent United Nations climate change conference, COP 28, means project, programme and portfolio (P3M) professionals will need to fill the gaps and find ways to deliver change through their work. Universities should therefore place sustainability at the core of project-related courses, she says, to equip the next generation of project practitioners with the knowledge and skills they need for this.

“What’s clear is that there’s no plan for how COP28 targets will be met. It will require substantial transformation of business and society and the project profession will have to play a crucial role.

“At the moment, I feel the project profession is waiting for someone else – maybe the government – to put legislation or policy in place and then we [the project profession] follow. As a profession, we need to take a more proactive role. There needs to be a broader conversation within the profession about that, then take that to government and industry, to explain how we deliver these transformations.

“Universities really need to work to embed sustainability into their curricula. There has been a lot of development of our understanding of sustainability in recent years, but this isn’t always reflected in curricula. I would like to see it included more holistically, so that it’s an underlying theme throughout programmes that defines what we teach and how we teach it.

“This needs to be based on rigorous research to further enhance our understanding of sustainability in the context of projects. It’s not just about decarbonisation – that’s related to the project output and maybe outcome. It is also about the project management processes and practices employed to get to sustainable project outcomes.

Understanding AI’s limitations

AI and data is another area where Prof Unterhitzenberger feels project management education needs to change, in order to respond to risk factors and limitations around AI that are emerging as the technology becomes used more widely. Ensuring learners are AI and data literate will avoid projects – and the people delivering them – falling foul of the current hype, she says.

“Without an in-depth understanding of AI’s limitations, not only will it not provide value, but it can actually harm students’ achievements – and, later on, project professionals’ work,” she explained. “We need to cut through the hype and understand what it can do and what it can’t do.

“Yes, AI can produce a schedule or a budget. But what are the intentions behind those? What are the considerations? If we don’t have AI literacy, we can’t evaluate quality of outputs.”

One area that Prof Unterhitzenberger feels should be scrutinised more closely is governance in the context of the use of AI. She is currently working with a PhD researcher to better understand how digital transformation shapes the legitimacy and agility of decision-making. She hopes to conduct further research on governance and the use of AI and digital transformation, stating: “If a generative AI tool gets something wrong on a project, who takes responsibility? And how is the use of AI regulated in contracts? These are areas we need to understand better.”

Prof Unterhitzenberger concedes there are unique challenges when it comes to researching topics such as these. Academic research must be methodical, rigorous, and in-depth, which means it can take time to complete – time that is not always afforded by the rapid onset of climate-related issues and fast-changing nature of AI. However, she feels that this does not mean these topics should not be researched rigorously.

She said: “When conducting research, we need to make sure that we do not only focus on, for example, current adoption or some incremental technical development in the context of AI or digital transformation. Research needs to advance our theoretical understanding of a phenomenon that have long-lasting impacts on project management practice.”

‘Use the momentum’

According to Prof Unterhitzenberger, there is already a great amount of interest in sustainability among project management students, creating opportunities for higher education institutions to evolve their offerings.

She also suggested there may be opportunities for the business and education sectors to collaborate for mutual benefit.

She said: “Students are so interested in sustainability. As educators, we need to use that momentum. My call is to colleagues to look at what they teach and embed it into curricula

“Universities are always open to collaboration with industry. Industry can support by providing topics for dissertations, for example, or by volunteering employees to be interviewed for research or participate in surveys.”

Professor Christine Unterhitzenberger will be speaking at APM’s Education and Research Awards, which form part of its 2024 conference ‘Navigating Tomorrow: Future Skills for Project Professionals’.

The conference takes place 5-6 June at the Coventry Building Society Arena, Coventry, UK. More information and ticket availability can be found here.


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