Sustainability as a competence of Project Managers


By Gilbert Silvius, PhD

LOI University of Applied Sciences

The Netherlands


Sustainability is one of the most important challenges of our time. How can we develop prosperity, without compromising the life of future generations? Companies are integrating sustainability in their marketing, corporate communication, annual reports and in their actions.

The concept of sustainability has also been linked to project management. The recently published version 4 of IPMA’s Individual Competence Baseline (ICB4) addresses this relationship explicitly and states that the project manager should be able to assess the impact of the project on the environment and society. This paper investigates the implications of this and aims to answer the question What sustainability competences does a project manager need to develop in order to fulfill the responsibility for sustainability that the ICB4 puts on him or her?

By studying the literature on Education for Sustainable Development, we will establish a framework of five key competences for sustainability. By specifying these key competences in relevant knowledge, skills and attitude elements, we aim to contributed to the interpretation of the sustainability conference included in the ICB4 and thereby by the further development of sustainability competency of project managers.

Keywords: Project management, Sustainability, Competence, ICB4.


relationship between sustainability, or sustainable development, and project management is being addressed in a growing number of publications (Silvius & Schipper, 2014).

Pasian and Silvius (2016) even identify sustainability as one of the evolving schools of thought in project management. The attention that is being given to the relation between sustainability and project management by the academic community, seems to be in contrast with the way the standards and best practices for project management address this relationship. Eid (2009) concludes in his study on sustainable development and project management that the standards for project management “fail to seriously address the sustainability agenda”. And more recently, Silvius (2015) concludes that “on the logical areas of impact, the standards of project management processes (PMBOK® Guide, PRINCE2® and ISO 21500) fail to refer convincingly to sustainability considerations”.

However, it might be argued that with the explicit reference to sustainability in the new IPMA Individual Competence Baseline version 4 (International Project Management Association, 2015), this situation is about to change. ICB4 competence element Perspective 3 “Compliance, regulations and standards’, includes the indicator “Identify, and ensure that the project complies with relevant sustainability principles and objectives”. And the description of this key competence indicator states that the project manager should be able to “assess the impact of the project on the environment and society” and that he/she “researches, recommends and applies measures to limit or compensate negative consequences”. With the explicit reference to the effects of project’s processes and products on the environment and society, the ICB4 acknowledges the relation between projects and sustainability, and establishes a role for the project manager in this relationship.

This should be considered a breakthrough for sustainability thinking in project management and a great recognition for the academics and practitioners that in the past years advocated the relationship between projects and sustainability in publications, presentations and consulting. However, with sustainability now “on the map” as a key competence indicator for project managers, the question comes up what this indicator actually requires in terms of competences. “Being able to assess a project’s environmental, economic and social impact” is a clear statement, but what knowledge and skills are required for this? It is this question that this paper aims to address. What ‘sustainability competences’ does a project manager need to develop in order to fulfill the responsibility for sustainability that the ICB4 puts on him or her?

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. First the role of the project manager regarding the sustainability effects or impact of a project will be discussed. After this paragraph, we will explore the concept of professional competences as prerequisite for adequate functioning in a profession. Following the establishment of a definition of competence, we will explore the competences related to sustainability and establish a framework of five key competences for sustainability. Based upon this framework, we will we then specify the key competences for sustainability in knowledge, skills and attitude elements that are relevant for the role of the project manager.


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About the author

Dr. Gilbert Silvius

Utrecht, The Netherlands



Dr. Gilbert Silvius (1963) is professor of project and programme management at LOI University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He initiated and developed the first MSc in Project Management program in the Netherlands and is considered a leading expert in the field of project management. Gilbert has published over a 100 academic papers and several books. He holds a PhD degree in information sciences from Utrecht University and masters’ degrees in economics and business administration.

As a practitioner, Gilbert has over 20 years’ experience in organizational change and IT projects. He is principal consultant at Van Aetsveld, project and change management, and is a member of the international enable2change network of project management experts. He can be contacted at [email protected].