Collaboration creates a culture of project management



With California's changing mix of transportation modes, escalating population and congestion, and a number of multifaceted projects slated for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the need for project management is at an all time high. This paper explains how Caltrans collaborated with California State University, Sacramento, to utilize project management training as an organizational change agent.


For more than 100 years, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and its predecessors have been responsible for planning, designing, building, operating, and maintaining California's state highway system. Over time, that role has evolved to include rail and mass transit. As the backbone of California's multimodal transportation system, Caltrans promotes the State's economic vitality and enhances its quality of life by “providing for the mobility of people, goods, services and information” (California Department of Transportation, 2003, ¶4). As California's transportation needs have expanded over the past century, so has Caltrans’ focus.

With the changing mix of transportation modes, escalating population and congestion, and a number of multifaceted projects slated for California's 15,000 mile State Highway System and 12,000 bridges, Caltrans’ need for effective project management is at an all time high.

Although the Highway Design Manual included project procedures as early as 1960, and some training in core project management concepts was provided as early as 1989, Caltrans had never fully implemented a continuous project management training program or completely embraced project management as a way of life at the organizational level.

In California's tough economic climate, how could a publicly-funded agency like Caltrans afford to train employees in a new skill area, create processes, and shift the culture? When it came to project management training, Caltrans opted to partner with the College of Continuing Education at California State University, Sacramento. The result is an award-winning product that is changing the way that Caltrans views project management from the inside out.

The Route to Collaboration

Needs Assessment

The Caltrans Division of Project Management is responsible for the management and delivery of Caltrans’ portfolio of transportation improvement projects. In addition to developing the overall workload and budget for the transportation improvement portfolio and monitoring the delivery status of portfolio projects, the Division also develops and implements processes and tools to improve project management, and trains more than 11,000 employees in their use (State of California, 2003, ¶5).

Caltrans began using vendor-led classroom-style project managing training in 1997. It was fairly effective but also expensive and required travel for nearly all employees. The cost and time commitment of the vendor-led training made it virtually impossible to implement it at the widespread level needed to spark a shift the organizational culture.

At the same time, the Division wanted to incorporate more of their own content into the project management training process. T. Murphy (personal communication, February 6, 2004) states that:

In building this training model, we desired a few things: the ultimate costs to be lower and to have more of the content be Caltrans specific. Every organization has policies, procedures, and processes that are their own and lots of the vendor programs focused more on IT examples.

In evaluating their own resources, the Division realized that they already possessed documentation on a significant number of their internal policies, procedures, and processes. What they needed was a structured training platform through which to distribute the information already in existence. By tailoring the project management courses around transportation projects, the Division knew that they could add a practical element to the training and help employees to better understand and apply the information.

In the 2000/2001 fiscal year, a Capital Skills Development plan required the Division to deliver multiple project management courses to a large number of people spread throughout the state. The plan included three years’ funding, but the Division knew that it needed to build a survivable training model that could continue when the money dried up.

After investigating various alternatives the Division turned its attention to a blended delivery solution that would move the majority of the training content into online courses and utilize classroom training only for courses that wouldn't translate well into a Web-based environment.

With that goal in mind, the Division realized that they lacked the internal tools and expertise needed to transition to an online learning platform. They wanted to put the majority of their focus on the course content, not the logistics and administration of running an online program. In their quest to focus on content quality and minimize the administrative and technological learning curve, the Division looked for a partner who could compliment the areas in which they lacked expertise.

Partner Selection

The Division looked for an educational institution that already had experience in both project management training and online education. The search led them to compare programs at all of the California State University and University of California schools and narrow the field to the continuing education units at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and CSU Sacramento. In the end, CSUS was the best fit for the Division's goals.

The partnership with the CSUS College of Continuing education yielded benefits beyond administration of the training's online learning platform.

  • CSUS had a credible reputation with Caltrans employees.
  • The employees would be able to earn a certificate which would encourage them to complete all of the courses, not just one or two.
  • As a sister state agency, it was easier to develop and implement the contracts required to carry out the collaboration.


Unlike instances where an organization simply pays an educational institution to develop and deliver content, the Division and the College of Continuing Education collaborated (Exhibit 1) on every step of the development and delivery process.

Collaboration Map

Exhibit 1 – Collaboration Map


Through a collaboration built on the core competencies of each organization, Caltrans and the College of Continuing Education developed the Caltrans Project Management Certificate Program. It offers a blended delivery platform with seven online and two classroom-based courses.


  • Introduction to Project Management.
  • Project Scope, Schedule and Cost Management.
  • Project Quality Management.
  • Project Communication Management.
  • Project Risk Management.
  • Project Procurement Management.
  • Ethics for Capital Projects.

On Site

  • Project Human Resource Management.
  • Application of Project Management Fundamentals.

The online courses equip students with a foundation in project management terminology, processes, and skills. The classroom courses give them an opportunity to simulate typical project management work experiences. The program is targeted toward employees at the senior level and above (1,500-2,000 people) who handle project delivery at Caltrans.

J. Helfrich (personal communication, May 11, 2004) states that:

This program is unique in that we can reach so many more students throughout the year at a much lower cost than we could with live classes. It allows students to utilize familiar tools and current project examples and it brings together employees from different districts across the state which is a huge benefit in terms of networking, idea sharing, and creating organizational synergy.

The first online course was offered in December 2000 and to date 92 Caltrans employees have completed the program with an additional 228 currently enrolled.

While all of the courses lay a foundation based on the Project Management Standards as prepared by the Project Management Institute (PMI®) and published in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), all of the examples, case studies, and exercises utilize Caltrans information, forms, and feedback, equipping students with practical tools that are immediately applicable on the job.

The Results of Collaboration

Improved Project Management Skills

Assessment data shows that an understanding of project management has occurred and the benefit is a more knowledgeable and skilled staff that is better able to deliver the capital projects that improve mobility across California (Shaw, 2004).

Each online course includes a pre and post-assessment of the curriculum's targeted knowledge and skills. In the case of Introduction to Project Management, students achieve a consistent 55% on the pre-assessment, while the average post-assessment score is 95%, indicating that students are gaining the desired knowledge (Shaw). The ability to measure learning outcomes is an added benefit of the online learning environment as few providers of classroom-style training perform this type of assessment.

Now Caltrans project team members ask questions like, “what are the project risks?” and “how is that group addressed in our communication plan?”. In the past, these types of questions, when considered, weren't widely understood. This training has helped to implement a recognized system of project management tools and process that everyone can use and understand.

Increased Value of Education

Through this program, Caltrans is helping their employees develop lifelong skills and exposing formally educated employees to the importance of transferable skills and the value of professional certification. Of those students who have completed the program 14 have gone on to become certified Project Management Professionals (PMP®).

One of those students is senior ramp metering engineer Adrian Levy who became a PMP in spring 2004 and said:

I went to a tough engineering school and it really took the wind out of my sails. I had to work pretty hard to finish college so I developed an aversion to anything academic. Finishing this program was a real accomplishment for me. It's a real certificate that is recognition from a real school and I feel that it's given me some self-credibility and self-assurance (personal communication, February 27, 2004).

Established Employee Networks

Delivering a significant portion of the program online also brings people from Caltrans’ 12 districts and different divisions, classifications, and backgrounds together. Caltrans has used various forums to communicate project information in the past, but the opportunities to bring together hundreds of employees were few. Because the online courses require students to use real projects for their assignments and include a discussion forum for reviewing others’ work, the students are sharing experiences and challenges in a much more immediate way. The online courses are creating a network of colleagues who share information, successes, and lessons learned.

This employee network accomplishes two other important things.

  • It increases the consistency of language, processes, and resource utilization, which are critical elements in an organizational culture.
  • It increases the sustainability of the program as co-workers recommend it to one another, see others earn the PMP certification or decide to send an entire unit through the program.

L. Nguyen (personal communication, February 27, 2004) says:

I've had my certificate for almost a year and I finally put it up. The reason that I did that is to promote the program to my staff. I have a lot of meetings in my office and it's generated more interest. It sets an example for my staff because if I only took a course here and there, then they would say, ‘that's how you did it so why shouldn't we'.

The students who complete the program are fueling an organizational shift toward a culture steeped in project management language and traditions.

Strengthened Economy and Workforce

Ultimately, a program like this will strengthen California's economy and build a more skilled state workforce. Technical staff that can also function as project managers bring value to the organization and efficiency to the expenditure of tax dollars because they understand the bigger picture and have more to contribute.

Employees from the seven capital divisions of Caltrans (project management, environmental, design, engineering services, traffic operations, construction, and right of way) are attending the program together. While all of them may not go on to function as project managers, the skills utilized in this program ultimately strengthen the entire organization.

The Secrets of Success

Although Caltrans has steadily made progress in project management over the years, several factors aligned to make this particular venture more successful than others. They include the conditions, collaboration, communication, quality, and context that surround the certificate program.


Without the right environment in which to flourish, the program wouldn't have been as successful in sparking an organizational culture shift. The program received support from management at both the Caltrans headquarters in Sacramento and from each of the 12 district office throughout the state. Caltrans headquarters works with the state government and conveys its priorities to the districts through policies and procedures. The districts (where much of the staff resides and the bulk of the work is done) are significantly autonomous because they are physically removed from Sacramento. Their local management directs the day-to-day operations and heavily influences the priorities of the staff there. Therefore, in order for a Caltrans initiative to succeed, it must have the support of both Sacramento and the local district offices. The training has also been a success because organizationally, Caltrans has evolved enough to embrace it and to utilize the knowledge provided.


The Division of Project had the money and the subject matter expertise to produce its own project management training program, and the College of Continuing Education already had a generic project management certificate program available to any Caltrans employee. However, by combining their respective abilities and backgrounds, together the two organizations produced a better, more powerful, product than either could have managed alone.

Caltrans would have continued with vendor-led classroom-style training, restricted by cost to a minimum number of employees, and would have had to abandon training altogether when the funding vanished. Without a partnership with an organization that had instructional designers, a technical support team, and an online learning platform, the online program would have been much more difficult for Caltrans to develop.

The College of Continuing Education's existing project management program was too vague for Caltrans’ audience. Even if the College had set out to offer a transportation-related project management program, without the content knowledge and vision provided by Caltrans it wouldn't have inspired the ownership that students feel toward the Caltrans-specific program.

The collaboration of a few individuals ultimately resulted in a phenomenon that has begun to impact the organizational culture of an agency with more than 23,000 employees. Malcolm Gladwell (2002) calls this the “law of the few” (p. 19) in which a handful of people ultimately drive large-scale cultural or social change.


The College of Continuing Education worked with Caltrans to develop a communication plan designed to sell the product to employees by demonstrating the organizational return on investment as well as the individual benefits for each student. Whereas employees had to seek out training in the past, the Division took a proactive approach to promoting this program.

The College of Continuing Education designed a glossy postcard that would stand out from typical Caltrans e-mail, catalogs, brochures, and memos. The postcard included quotes from top level management indicating their support, and directed employees to a website for answers to anticipated questions. Debbie Mullins, administrative assistant to project management in the Division of Project Management, then traveled to every district offering a 10-minute PowerPoint® presentation to clearly communicate the program's benefits.

That person-to-person contact was extremely important as Gladwell emphasizes when he says “…it is safe to say that word of mouth is—even in this age of mass communications and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns—still the most important form of human communication” (2002, p. 32).


Curriculum developers researched available project management training programs, completed project management courses, read books and technical articles devoted to project management, and most importantly, studied PMI's Project Management Standards. They also reviewed Caltrans internal project management publications, directives, and guides.

The resulting product was a high-quality project management program that was not only immediately applicable in the students’ work environments but also cost-effective, consistent and convenient.

As Shaw points out:

The cost savings for online versus vendor-led classroom training derive from the cost of course development, delivery (including instructor time and facility rental), student time and the associated travel costs. Using Introduction to Project Management as a sample, the online delivery was found to be 156% cheaper than delivering the same course in a classroom setting – saving Caltrans $950,000 between December 2000 and September 2002 when more than 600 students completed the course. The savings allow the program to continue operation today even though funding for project management training has all but disappeared (2004, p. 65).

In terms of consistency, the online training format enables Caltrans to deliver project management training to employees statewide without the inevitable variations introduced by individual instructors. Following years of struggle to impart consistency in what project management is and what it means at Caltrans, the online training ensures that every student receives the same information and practices the same set of skills.

The increased convenience speaks for itself. Employees are completing the certificate program in sync with their own schedules while missing fewer days in the office and spending less time away from their families.


Perhaps the greatest contributor to the program's success, however, is that through this program, Caltrans redefined project management within its own organizational context. By stripping away information that was irrelevant to their organization and focusing in on how project management should work in a transportation-centered environment, Caltrans was able to make the training stick.

Students like Cindy Simeroth are evidence that the knowledge obtained in this program is sparking a cultural shift at Caltrans. Simeroth (personal communication, February 24, 2004) says:

Coming into my job cold without any project management background, it was very helpful to get the knowledge base and have the processes explained to me. Before this program everything was just a big black hole. I was taught this task and that task without seeing how they were related but now I understand how the tasks work together. I've taken a lot of the forms from the courses and started to use them.

The Vision for the Future

The collaborative team of Caltrans and the College of Continuing Education envision a bright future for online learning in both project management and the Department of Transportation.

Strengthen and Expand the Project Management Profession

Every graduate of the Caltrans Project Management Certificate Program strengthens the project management profession. Fourteen program graduates have gone on to become certified PMPs with more students preparing for future exams. The Division now offers a two-day test prep class to prepare students for the PMP exam. When the program started, there were 11 PMPs in Caltrans project delivery. Today there are 101 (T. Murphy, personal communication, August 31, 2004).

Open the Program to the Public

In spring 2004 the College of Continuing Education opened the Caltrans Project Management Certificate Program to the public as the Project Management Certificate Program for Transportation Professionals. This allows counties, cities, towns, contractors, architects, and designers who work with Caltrans to enroll in courses with Caltrans employees and strengthen the network of transportation professionals in California.

Helfrich states:

The public offering of this program creates an environment where people from all aspects of the industry are able to gain comprehensive project management training and see how Caltrans does business. This will enable them to more closely align their own project management functions to the Caltrans model, facilitating a more flexible network of partnering agencies.

Even though the examples target transportation professionals, large scale infrastructure, or public works, the curriculum's solid foundation in project management skills makes it appropriate for almost any audience.

Shift the Concept of Training at Caltrans

Other divisions at Caltrans are now building on the Division of Project Management's online training success. Several are now developing their own online courses and the Division of Training has introduced a Caltrans Overview course, all using the lessons learned from the Division of Project Management.


Through the collaborative partnership between Caltrans and the College of Continuing Education, the Division of Project Management was able to review the past, assess their current and future needs, and implement change at the grassroots level. As employees completed the courses, they generated excitement which led to increased buy-in until enough students were involved to spark an organizational shift toward a culture steeped in project management language and practices.


California Department of Transportation (2003) Caltrans Today. Retrieved August 19, 2004, from

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

State of California (2003)Project Management. Retrieved August 19, 2004, from

Shaw, Allison L. (2004, July). Open roads. PM network 18(7), 62-67.

©2004, Lee Towe
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California