Project management in the UK in 2014 is buoyant. Despite a number of major government backed projects still having problems, the public mindset is more inclined to focus on the successes of events like the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
In the commercial world project managers are very much in demand and more and more companies are recognising the value of experienced project managers. One challenge is to grow the pool of talented, experienced project managers to meet this demand. How to do this provides the basis for an interesting debate.
The debate has two aspects to it. The first is whether or not project management is a profession. The second is qualifications vs experience.
Is project management a profession
All the major project management bodies such as the Association for Project Management (APM), the International Project Management Association (IPMA) and the Project Management Institute (PMI) talk about project management in ‘professional’ terms. But just because something is described as a profession, does that actually mean it is?
There’s and expression that if something looks like duck, sounds like a duck and walks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Let’s look at the project management ducks and see if they all line up.
- The major PM bodies mentioned above all have codes of ethics and/conduct.
- They have a range of qualifications based on learning, examination and some degree of experience. There are wide variety of levels across the organisations though and it is difficult to see how they all match up.
- Comparison to other professions
- A typical profession, eg an accountant or a lawyer, has much of their practice grounded in law. Their own professional standards tend to support or expand on the interpretation of the law, but there is that underlying substance of law. Project management practice, whilst widely accepted and documented through various Bodies of Knowledge does not have a legal basis.
- Nor do project managers face the same financial penalties for mis-practice. Remember what happened to Arthur Andersen over the Enron scandal. Independent or consultant project managers will have professional indemnity insurance, but that is to cover contractual issues rather than basic legal issues. And no such equivalent exists for employee project managers.
- Another issue is the range of different project management roles that’s exist from construction, to engineering, to systems development to corporate change. Whilst there are many common skill sets across these sectors, I would not know where to begin in running a major engineering project because I specialise in systems and corporate change. Trying to build a range of common examinations and standards to match this diversity without an underlying principle such as the law is very challenging.
- So whilst project management may look like a profession, it may quack like a profession, it doesn’t walk like one in my book. Having said that, I am a long standing member of the APM and have the letters MAPM available to me. I conduct myself in a professional (with a small ‘p’) way and in accordance with the Association’s Code of Professional Conduct. I would encourage all project managers to become members of one of the big associations. There are a host of learning, development and networking opportunities. But I don’t consider project management to be a profession in the same way as I do accountancy.
Qualifications vs experience
To be credible, qualifications have to demonstrate value on two fronts. To the person taking the qualification they must be of value in requiring them to learn the principles and subject matter of the topic. To the potential employer of that person, they should demonstrate a certain level of technical competence.
Many construction and engineering firms have training programmes dedicated to project management leading to certification by one or more of the big associations. These are rightly to be applauded. In corporate and IT project management these schemes are very rare and yet the costs and benefits at stake are every bit as great. The survival of some of our largest companies depend on the execution of complex change and restructuring projects. Yet still there is too little attention paid to developing project managers and, even more importantly, the project management culture needed to achieve ongoing excellence in execution.
One way to tackle this is to recognise project management as a core skill for ALL managers. Not that all managers become project managers, but that they develop an understanding of the principles and understand their role in the delivery of a project. Too often as project managers we come up against line managers refusing to play their part or project sponsors that don’t understand the vital role they play or how to perform it. This must be addressed for companies to realise the full benefits if the projects they commission.
So should all project managers become qualified? In an ideal world where the right qualifications are truly valued, yes. Sadly we are a long way from that in change and IT projects. Instead, we have situation where qualifications are treated as badges. Something to get to enable you the pass the initial screening by recruiters too lazy to do the hard work of understanding the candidates real ability.
Prince2 and the way it is trained and promoted is a big culprit here. Somewhere in the region of 400,000 people have taken the foundation or practitioners exam, but do I see that number of experienced PMs in the market. In short, no! There is no experience requirement associated with Prince2 unlike the major associations qualifications. And the training is focussed on passing the exams – two in a week long course to practitioner level. That doesn’t teach project management, it’s exam cramming.
A former business partner of mine decided to get Prince2 certified when we started our business. He went on a 5 day residential course and we’d catch up each evening. After the first day he reported a good level of discussion and debate. After day 2, the debate had reduced because they had to do the foundation multiple choice exam. After day 3 he reported that the tutor had curtailed the debates “because I’ve got an exam to get you through”. Exam technique took over. That doesn’t make a well trained project manager. Oh, and in seven subsequent years in business together he was never once asked if he was Prince2 certified and nor did any client apply the methodology.
Am I in favour of qualifications? Absolutely, but with the major associations. Are they right for all project managers? Yes, but they are essential for construction and engineering.
What about training. In my view there is always more to learn. Too much project management training focuses on the technical skills without the interpersonal skills to use the technical skills wisely. People deliver projects to people, for people, impacting people. And people will interact with all the processes and outputs from the technical skills etc. A well defined and constructed detailed project plan is needed for every project. But at that level of detail it will be gobbledygook to most sponsors. Without excellent communication skills the PM is set up to fail.
So project managers should be selective in the training they take. Good training will lead them not only to their professional qualification of choice, but also how to apply it in practical scenarios with real people. And let’s start the campaign for project management awareness training for all managers – it’s a core skill.
Project management is alive and well in the UK. The report card says ‘could do better’ but 9 out of 10 for effort. Keep up the good work and learn from your mistakes, or preferably those of others.