By Luke Carothers
Despite elements of project management existing since the construction of the pyramids, the role has only recently been codified as new projects rely on technology and push the boundaries of height and design. When project managers first started appearing on jobsites, some worried that their role represented more money from the budget and another bureaucratic layer to contend with. However, new projects must contend with phasing and new technical work and must rely on new technologies. Additionally, bigger projects usually means more investors, and thus more voices in the conversation. A confluence of this and other factors has made project management an invaluable asset to construction projects.
One of the people who has seen the trajectory of project management’s importance and influence over the last three decades is Raouf Ghali, CEO of Hill International, one of the largest construction management firms in the world. Ghali joined Hill International in 1993 and assumed the role of CEO in 2018, but his experience as a project manager extends back more than three decades. After graduating with an M.S. in Business Organizational Management from the University of LaVerne, Ghali worked for a time in the defense industry before moving on to work for Disney. While working for Disney, he helped the theme park giant grow, opening a new park in Paris and expanding the locations in Anaheim and Orlando.
After leaving Disney, Ghali began working for Hill International. His first assignment for Hill was one of their first international project assignments in Armenia. When Ghali started at Hill, their international business began to grow rapidly. Ghali notes that, in the short 3-4 years where the International business was growing so quickly, there was also a massive Arabian Gulf expansion taking place. By working in multiple areas of this expansion, the International arm of Hill’s firm firmly established themselves in the region and grew rapidly. At the same time, the firm also fostered growth in Europe after the European Union (EU) was established in 1993. With the EU came massive plans for infrastructure improvement, of which Ghali and Hill were a part of.
Ghali gained a wealth of experience in these early years of Hill’s international expansion and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming President of the International division, then COO, then finally CEO four years ago. According to Ghali, the principles of project management didn’t originate in the construction industry, but rather in the defense industry. This is why Ghali moved over from the defense industry to Disney. During this time, Disney was experiencing rapid growth in almost all areas of business, but particularly in the popularity and use of their theme parks. Realizing the need for the project management principles of the defense industry, Disney hired Ghali and others to apply those same principles to the development of their theme parks. Ghali also points out that many in the construction industry viewed project managers as “just an additional cost.”
Ghali and his colleagues worked to establish the project management role as essential to the construction industry, collecting data to suggest that projects who utilize project management services save two to three times more money over the course of the project than what the fee is. This is especially true, as Ghali notes, when project management is involved from the start. In addition to monetary savings, project management is useful in resolving conflicts between stakeholders and catching errors and omissions. For more complex projects involving multiple firms and agencies, such project management services have become an integral part of operations. When issues arise, they are allocated to the project management team rather than the client. These bigger projects also typically involve investment from large, third party entities such as financial institutions. In these cases, the project management team represents an independent third party that can assure the drawdowns and construction are going to plan. This is also true in public sector projects where funding is being drawn from a government or public agency.
As projects have become bigger and more complex, the need for a project manager has increased exponentially. While size does certainly add to the complexity of a project, there are other factors that come into play such as the technology being used, phasing, and technical work difficulties. As the industry continues to push the limits of height, location, and technology, new issues arise requiring things like specified geotechnical work and span analysis. Such projects require innovative and new technologies and processes.
Ghali cites technologies such as BIM as making the process easier for all involved parties, which is a good reason why it and similar technologies are being increasingly adopted and deployed. However, according to Ghali, this search for technology to make the project management process easier began with finding adequate scheduling software. This points to the importance, from a project management perspective, of keeping with the construction time as it relates to the overall budget for the project. Adequate scheduling software allows project management teams to account for different phases of construction and the various stages of technical work that have to be done. Ghali believes that this technological development allowed project managers to highlight “critical paths” that ensure the project is completed on time and within the budget. The next step was developing project control systems that fully integrate together to monitor not only the schedule, but also the cost and quality. When combined with BIM, these project control systems don’t just help alleviate issues when they arise, but rather they solve them before construction begins.
Project management’s reliance upon technology has only increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020. While many people were able to work from home, many projects were deemed critical and kept working. Project managers have increasingly adopted a number of technologies that allow them to work both remotely and at a distance, providing critical safety to the people working on the project. For example, drone pilots have begun performing building inspections as well as horizontal road surveys at a more rapid rate than before. Ghali notes that, while many of these new technologies were adopted as measures to keep workers safe during the pandemic, they have the added bonus of streamlining various parts of the project management process. Ghali cites a typical inspection of a stretch of road that would typically be done by 15-20 can be accomplished much faster with just five drones.
As technologies continue to rapidly develop, the role of the project manager will surely continue to evolve. With the continual improvement of BIM and other modeling technologies, the day-to-day work life of a project manager will surely change.
Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.