Nearly 100,000 articles on project management shed an interesting light on what our predecessors were talking about and when.

Last year in the International Journal of Project Management, Julien Pollack and Daniel Adler reported on 50 years of PM research trends to distill where the industry has come from, and where it’s going. Their report acknowledges passing fads as well as those that have withstood the test of time.

When Pollack and Adler set out to examine the evolution of project management, they knew that a standard literature review wouldn’t do. They wanted to check out everything, so they sourced 94,472 unique records of PM research (published between 1962 and 2012) from the Scopus and ISI Web of Science databases.

The keywords and abstracts that authors used to describe their work were analyzed in terms of word frequency, rate of change and the co-occurrence of keywords and abstract terms. Comparisons were made between the frequencies of key terms and rapid changes in the ways that terms were used in the literature to identify emergent trends.

Long-Term, Overall Transformation from Siloed to Holistic

First and foremost, the research indicated a change in emphasis in project management research from a technical engineering orientation to one which encompasses a broader organizational perspective.

Also, recent bursts of keywords related to environmental issues, strategic planning, project managers, knowledge management, business and innovation suggest a movement from technical and industry-specific issues to an emphasis on the interpersonal aspects of project management and the role of the field in the broader organizational context.

Education and Financial Investment Dominate the Early 00s

Use of keywords related to education enjoyed a period of popularity from 1999 to 2005. This may be attributed to the growth of project management professional associations, the increasing significance of certifications as a route to employment, and the widespread increase in university education focused on developing the capabilities of project managers. Also in the first few years of this century, keywords related to cost, contracts and investment were popular from 2001 to 2006.

Interestingly, keywords related to cost and contract management were more strongly associated with the construction industry than the IT industry, while issues associated with education were more strongly associated with IT than construction.

Recession Period: Information Systems, Innovation, and Decision Making

Keywords related to computer networks and information systems were popular from 2008 to 2012, while specific keywords related to new product development and economics were popular from 2009 to 2012.

Entering the second decade of the 21st century, popular keywords such as “Research,” “International conference,” “Research projects” and “case study” indicated an increase in legitimizing project management as a separate field of research. And keywords like “Innovation” and “New product development” suggest that project management is now viewed as a potential way of driving or managing change and innovation within organizations.

The very recent burst of “project managers” as a keyword could be related to an increasing focus on the competencies required to act in the role, or a shift from a mechanistic perspective that considers the role of project manager as interchangeable, to one that acknowledges the impact of the individual project manager experience.

Finally, through the frequent co-occurrence of decision making with other keywords, the research revealed that decision making is and has been central to the PM function.