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Project management vs. work management: understanding the difference

Matthew Brada

How useful would your household budget be if you only tracked your biggest and most predictable expenses – such as your mortgage or rent, utility bills, groceries, and car payments? As it turns out, Amazon shopping and Starbucks lattes have a tendency to add up and create budget surprises.

How successful would a diet be if you only followed good health practices during designated mealtimes but didn’t account for all the snack-time mishaps?

Similarly, how effective can your work team be if you manage your project plans well but not the rest of your work?

The problem with project management solutions

Project management software does exactly what the label implies – it helps you manage projects. It’s designed for endeavors that have defined objectives, clear start and end points, and distinct participant roles. As such, it doesn’t easily account for ad-hoc work, one-and-done assignments, ongoing work, cross-functional initiatives, and all of the other daily tasks that characterize work in the modern age.

Why is this a problem? Because most of the work we do falls into that second, undefined bucket. Industry surveys reveal that today’s knowledge workers devote just 40% of their time to their primary tasks – which is quite often defined as project work.

The reality of this modern age is that we spend a disproportionate amount of time responding to email, completing administrative tasks, attending meetings, and juggling one-off tasks than we spend accomplishing the work we were hired to do. Project management solutions are great at helping us with 40% of our work – but what about the majority 60% of the unstructured work?

That’s where modern work management comes in.

Modern work management: A comprehensive software solution that combines project management, intelligent work automation, and in-context collaboration to empower teams to do their best work much faster.

Project management vs. work management

Work management platforms are designed to encompass all enterprise work, both project-based and ad hoc. They provide a centralized space to collaborate, communicate, share and store documents, review and approve others’ work, organize and assign projects, allocate resources – the list goes on. If you’re not clear on how that differs from project management solutions, consider these definitions from Gartner:

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.

Work management is a set of software products and services that apply workflow structure to the movement of information as well as to the interaction of business processes and human worker processes that generate the information. Work management streamlines and transforms crucial business processes and thus can improve results and performance.

What work looks like without work management

As professional consultants, we recognize patterns in how are own clients engage with their work:

  1. A massive Google spreadsheet to track product details and sales data
  2. A custom-built web page to track individual projects toward completion
  3. Various isolated forms and reports buried in the website’s back end
  4. Shared Google docs to capture decisions, meeting notes, and project plans
  5. Trello to track the progress of a massive individual project: a year-long website redesign
  6. A customized web page for tracking the results of post-mortem meetings
  7. Email for sending and receiving assignments
  8. Workflow charts built in Microsoft Word for capturing processes and procedures.

Sound familiar? Worse yet, project management solutions cater for use by the project manager, and don’t take into account the business stakeholders. Not only is there a ton of manual effort required by the project manager in keeping everything updated. Data was also being duplicated in several different systems, and key details were constantly falling through the cracks. If a member of the project team – either stakeholder or the project manager – had a question, they typically consult five different systems to find the answer. Of course, it could be that individual projects that serve as a company’s bread and butter might sail along relatively smoothly. After all, they could be pros at managing traditional projects. But everything else is a mess.

What work management does that project management doesn’t do

Most of today’s knowledge workers are called upon to manage projects and other work initiatives, whether or not they have any training, and most are not currently equipped with the right tools for the job, nor are they familiar with the terminology.

57% of knowledge workers “have not been formally trained to manage projects but do manage projects,” 31% feel like their company requires them to use too many technology tools and solutions, and only 23% are currently using modern work management technologies.

Despite being a familiar term with a long history, “project management” as a standalone practice is no longer cutting it in the world of modern work, which is marked by constant digital transformation, the rise of the Hollywood model, culture of distraction, and a more integrated and holistic approach to work. Just ask Dignity Health, an organization that was already well versed in project management best practices. But they were still able to eliminate 38 spreadsheets required for monthly reporting and gain an estimated 20–25% in project management time savings – among other benefits – thanks to their switch to a modern work management platform.

Why such a drastic change? It comes down to a few key differences between standard project management practices and work management software. Project management solutions are often more narrowly focused, as they rely more on up-front planning and depend upon there being specific time and budget constraints – which leads to a sense of rigidity. Work management, on the other hand, tends to be more flexible, because it’s designed to account for all types of work, including open-ended operational work, cross-functional collaboration that’s not tied to specific projects, and ad-hoc tasks, on top of its built-in project management capabilities.

A holistic view of work

As Dignity Health case study exemplifies, managing projects well isn’t enough in the world of modern work, especially when we’re spending 60% of our time on everything but the work we were hired to do. Yes, project management is an aspect of work management, and a vital one at that, but organizations that focus exclusively on the first at the expense of the second are no different from dieters who only count the calories they consume at formal mealtimes toward their daily totals. Or budgeters who only track the cost of food, shelter, and transportation – and then wonder where all the rest of their money went (given that a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte at $5 a pop is one possible culprit).

Matthew Brada is a process re-engineering work management expert and owns the alliance between Capgemini Group and Workfront.  You can contact him at or 214-263-9681.