Building, validating, and implementing a PM competency model

the experience of one aerospace company

Introduction

A prominent aerospace company was looking for a tool to assist in managing the personnel development activities and career paths of its project and program managers. The paper describes the process used to construct a Project Management Competency Model. The strategy of building, in-house, a model based on a pre-existing framework proved to be a feasible and economical approach. Lessons learned are presented.

The Company and Project Contexts

This paper describes and discusses the building of a Project Management Competency Model for use by a prominent aerospace company. The firm has over 100 people in project and program management positions. The personnel are organized in a four-level hierarchy: Program Director, Program Manager, Project Manager, and Project Administrator. The Project Administrators are administrative assistants to the Project Managers. Their projects have budgets averaging $25M US and last 30 months.

The company has a very weak matrix structure. In the past, the company's success has been based largely on technological leadership. As the company has grown and the market has become more competitive, the ability, or inability, to deliver complex projects on time and on budget, and to meet stakeholder expectations, has become critical. In recent years, the company has seen a slow emergence of a project management orientation. The positions of project and program manager have received more recognition, but a clear project management methodology is not yet in placed. In 1999, the time the model was developed, the creation of a Project Management Office was being considered. Without having made a formal investigation, it can fairly be said that the firm did not have been a very high level of Project Management Maturity. The development of a Project Management Competency Model was one of the many steps being taken to reinforce and develop the project management function.

The firm wished to have a tool for use in managing personnel development. More specifically, they were looking for a tool to assist in managing training and development activities, career path planning and succession planning, including the allocation of resources to these activities. The PM Competency Model was to be the basis for managing these activities.

Contact was established with the University of Quebec's Master's Program in Project Management. Hélene Guérette, coauthor and student in the program, was given the mandate to build the PM Competency Model with substantial support from two supervisory teams, one in house and one from the university. The in-house supervisory team was made up of two senior project managers, a program manager, and a program director. Brian Hobbs and Normand Pettersen, the other co-authors and professors in the Master's program were the university supervisors. The model has been built and validated with significant contribution from the project and program management personnel within the firm and the supervising teams.

The Methodology

Considerable work has been done on competency modeling, not just in the field of project management, but also in many application areas. In recent years, a substantial literature has been published, and several competency models have been proposed. Very early in this project, it was decided that rather than build a model from scratch through an inductive approach, the effort would draw on this previous work. A project plan based on this general was prepared and presented to the program director for approval. The paper describes the process of building and validating the model. The entire process took six months with Hélene Guérette working full-time on the project. The steps in the process were briefly as follows:

1. Review of the literature and search for an appropriate model to base the rest of the project on.

2. The choice of the reference model.

3. Adjusting the model by adding elements the literature review indicated were relevant

4. Adapting the model to the firm's context and requirements with significant input from personnel in project and program management, human resource management, planning, marketing, and proposal development. This process was carried out section by section for the entire competency model through a series of workshops.

Exhibit 1. The General Three-Part Competency

The General Three-Part Competency

5. Each section was discussed and validated first with members of the supervising teams, then with groups of project and program management personnel and then again with the supervising teams.

6. A scale was developed for measuring the level of mastery of each of the competencies identified in the model. Using this scale, the Program Director and the Program Manager specified the level of competency each of the categories of project and program management personnel would need to attain in order to be effective in their respective positions.

7. A user guide was produced by adding an introduction and a conclusion to the document presenting the model.

8. An implementation strategy was developed.

The Choice of the Reference Model

Following a review of the relevant literature, an examination was made of several existing project management competency models. The “Enhanced Management Framework for Information Technology: Project Management Core Competencies” model of the Treasury Board of Canada was chosen as the reference model. The model, available at http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/emf/Solutions/PMTrainDev/corecomp/PMCCE.html, is based on the approach used in PMI's PMBOK® Guide. The Treasury Board Model did not fit the firm's specific needs. But the model that was developed, did maintain the basic structure derived from PMI's PMBOK® Guide.

The model is divided into three sections: general management, project management, application area specific knowledge, see Exhibit 1. The general management section was based on Pettersen's integrated list of predictors (Pettersen 1991) and a review of the relevant literature. The project management section is organized following PMI's nine knowledge areas. It's structure and content have been heavily influenced by PMI's PMBOK® Guide. The final section, of course, contains material that is specific to the firm and its industry.

Building the Model

The model building process was hierarchical. First, competencies were developed and validated, section by section. Then, in a second round, the competency indicators were created and validated, again working section by section. For this part of the model building process, a team of project management personnel was assembled that would participate in the many workshops that would be required. This competency identification and validation team was composed of the two senior PM's from the in-house supervisory team, four other senior PM's, two junior PM's and four Project Administrators. The workshops were all organized and moderated by Hélène Guérette.

For each of the sections, the process of defining and validating the competencies followed the following steps:

1. Elaboration of a draft model based on a review of the literature and discussions with the university and in-house supervisory teams.

2. Validations by the university and the in-house supervisory teams centered on different subsets of the following questions:

• Is the model logically structured and coherent?

• Are the competencies included in the model consistent with PM competencies identified in the literature?

• Are the competencies defined in the model mutually exclusive? In other words, was there important overlap between different competencies?

• Are they relevant to the realities of project management roles within the firm?

• Is the list of competencies complete?

3. Two workshops were run with the competency identification and validation team in order to channel the project management personnel's contributions and to validate that the list of competencies was complete and that it made sense in their context. The workshops were a consensus-building activity.

4. Validation of the resulting lists of competencies with the in-house supervisory team, first by the senior PM's and then by the Program Manager and Director.

Once the lists of competencies had been agreed upon, the competency indicators were defined for each section of the model in turn through the following steps:

1. A series of interviews was conducted with the Program Manager and Director, with Project Engineers and with people in the Marketing and Proposal Preparation Department. These are the people the project management personnel deals with the most often in their daily work. The interviews were conducted to identify the expectations that these groups had with respect to the competencies of the project personnel. A preliminary list of indicators for each competency was drafted based on the interview results and on the literature review.

2. Validation of the list with the supervisory teams.

Exhibit 2. Structure and Content of the PM Competency Model

Structure and Content of the PM Competency Model

3. The project personnel's contributions were again sought through two consensus-building workshops.

4. Validation of the resulting lists of competencies with the in-house supervisory team, first by the senior PM's and them by the Program Manager and Director.

5. The model building process took three months. Once it was complete, the model was presented at a meeting of Directors and Vice-presidents.

The model is divided into three sections and each of the sections is organized into three levels: groups of competencies, competencies, and competency indicators the structure of the model is presented in Exhibit 2.

The Assessment Tool

For the competency model to be used to define and evaluate levels of competency, an assessment tool is needed. The assessment tool is based on adding a scale to the competency model. The scale that was used has four levels: No knowledge, Basic knowledge, Working knowledge, and Mentor. The program manager and the program director to work together to specify the level of competency each of the categories of project and program management personnel would need to attain in order to be effective in their respective positions. At the time of writing this evaluation have not yet been done. The tool could be used as a basis for assessing present levels of competency and as the basis for gap analysis.

Implementation

The Project Management Competency Model was presented to project and program management personnel. A period followed during which personnel and managers could comment on the model. The model was well received and few comments were returned. Some minor adjustments were made, however, to accommodate comments.

One Year Later

At the time of writing, it has been over a year since the model was completed. The authors have met recently with the members of the in-house supervisory team who report that the quality of the model and the work that went into it has not been questioned. They have received many positive comments and there has been no overt criticism of the model. However, the model has not been used very extensively and has had very little impact on the firm. The lack of use of the model can be explained by two sets of factors: first, the nature of the model and the way it was developed, and secondly and more importantly, significant changes that have taken place within the firm. Recent developments, however, may have created an opportunity for the model to be of considerable benefit.

The Nature of the Model and the Way It Was Developed

As the model was being produced, the authors expressed their concern that the model would be too elaborate and cumbersome for use as a management tool. Three factors seem to have contributed to producing an elaborate and detailed model. First, the wide participation of company project management personnel in building, discussing and validating the model lead to the identification of many elements that at least some people felt should be included. Second, there was an obvious concern that no important element be left out. Third, the firm's project management processes and the role of project management personnel in these processes are not clear and well developed. This has lead to the inclusion in the competency model of some elements that could be part of the description of PM processes and roles. These elements refer to what PM personnel should do, as much as, they identify competencies the personnel should possess. This result can be seen in Exhibit 2 where the number of indicators for each of the project management competencies is rather high.

An alternative development and implementation strategy might have facilitated use of the model. The strategy that was used was to first developed the model and then implement it. Another approach might have been to develop and implement each section of the model in a staggered or modular approach. For example, after developing and validating a section, perhaps the PM competencies section, work could have begun on defining the required levels of mastery of each competency for each PM position, on evaluating current levels of competency, and on gap analysis. If this approach had been taken then two things might have happened. First, at least some of the model would have been implemented. Second, early implementation would have brought the issue of too much detailed to a head much earlier. As it was, concern was expressed, but action was not taken to control or reduce the level of detail being built into the model.

The model's structure may provide a simple way of dealing with the high level of detail. As is stated above, the model is divided into three sections and each of the sections is structured into three levels: groups of competencies, competencies, and competency indicators. It is at the level of the competency indicators that there is great detail. A simple way of reducing the model's level of detail would be to move up a level to the level of the individual competencies and to consider the competency indicators as descriptors of the individual competencies rather that items each requiring separate measurement. A detailed investigation of this approach has not yet been undertaken.

Significant Changes Within the Firm

As with any organizational change effort, changes in the context can have significant impacts. The industry within which the firm operates has been very turbulent in the last two years. Important changes within the firm include: a major reorganization, significant growth and turnover, acquisitions, new top management, and the program director who was the project sponsored and the human resource management liaison changing positions. The pressures of ongoing activities and shifting priorities have meant that implementing the Project Management Competency Model has been on standby.

Recent Developments and New Opportunities

The firm continues to undergo considerable change. One of the most significant of which has been the appointment of a new CEO. He has implemented several changes in the firm. Two of these changes, an increased focus on project management and an increased emphasis on a competency-based approach to human resource management, have created a context within which the Project Management Competency Model may prove to be very useful.

The Human Resource Management Department has produced a general competency model for use in managing all human resources from the manager level down. This model consists of 21 general management competencies plus “technical expertise and learning.” The model was developed using the Leadership Architect® Competency Cards (Lombardo). The general management competencies are very close to those identified in the general management section of the Project Management Competency Model. The model developed by the Human Resource Management Department does not, however, contain the project management specific competencies found within the Project Management Competency Model. It is foreseeable that as the general competency model is implemented for positions in project management, the project management and technical competencies sections of the Project Management Competency Model will be used as the basis for defining specific project management and technical expertise.

As the project management function continues to develop within the firm, the roles and responsibilities of project management personnel, as well as project methodologies, tools and processes are becoming better defined. The model is presently being used to help better defined the competencies required to fill different project management positions at different levels. Better definition of roles and processes will eventually allow a simplification of the competency indicators within the project management competencies section of the model.

A Project Management Office (PMO) has recently been created. The implementation of the Project Management Competency Model will become the responsibility of the PMO, for whom the model may be seen as a useful tool.

Some Conclusions

The strategy of choosing an existing model as the basis for building a company specific model has proven to be a feasible, an economical, and a practical approach. It would not have been possible to build a model from scratch using the same resources, and in the same timeframe. With this strategy, a company can build its own model. However, building a competency model is not an activity that practicing project managers are familiar with. If those responsible for project management in an organization wish to develop their own model, they would be well advised to seek guidance from experts familiar with the conceptual and methodological pitfalls that are inherent in such a project. Building its own model does give the company control of the process and the product. Because it is done in house, there will need to be support for its construction, and hopefully for its use afterwards.

The process of producing the model has had beneficial effects within the firm. It has helped identify ambiguities in PM processes and roles. It has also contributed significantly to increased awareness of the PM roles and the competencies required to fill them. The process has also increased interest in project management and project management professionalization.

The building of a Project Management Competency Model might well have been conceived of as been part of an organizational change effort. If this had been the case, then a different approach might have been taken to developing and implementing the model. But even with a perfect implementation strategy to project might well have fallen victim to the turbulent environment within which the firm is evolving. But then again, this turbulent environment may have created a context within which the model will be implemented.

Competency modeling has been very fashionable within the business community in recent years (Schippmann 2000). The trend has certainly been visible within the project management community. One cannot help but wonder whether firms have not been victims of yet another management fad. Management fads tend to promise all-encompassing results to those firms that jump on the bandwagon. Firms that jumped on the project management competency bandwagon have tended to act as if creating a Project Management Competency Model was an end in itself, and that once the model was created many project management problems would become easily manageable. In reality, creating a competency model is only the first step in a long process. In many ways, building the model is the easy part.

References

Lombardo, Michael M., and Robert W. Eichinger. 1992-1996. The Career Architect, Leadership Architect® Competency Cards, version 3, Copyright 1992-1996 Lominger Limited, inc., http://www.lominger.com/products/devplan_plus.htm

Pettersen,Normand. 1991. Selecting Project Managers: An Integrated List of Predictors. Project Management Journal, XXII (2), 21–25.

Schippmann, Jeffery S. et al. 2000. The practice of competency modeling. Personnel Psychology: A Journal of Applied Research, 53 (3), 703–740.

Treasury Board of Canada, Enhanced Management Framework for Information Technology: Project Management Core Competencies, http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/emf/Solutions/PMTrainDev/corecomp/PMCCE.html.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA

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