Educating project managers in the 21st century

This article is copyrighted material and has been reproduced with the permission of Project Management Institute, Inc. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited.

Frank J. Cesario
MPM Program Director
Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University

Background and Introduction

Formal education is becoming ever more important in developing skill sets critical for successful project management in the modern day. In the future, reflective project managers will be the most successful ones. Gone are the days when seat-of-the-pants ad-hoc approaches are adequate for achieving time, cost, and performance objectives in even simple projects where the speed of business dictates strict adherence to project parameters. Gone are the days when competencies in hard skills like scheduling and budget estimation are enough to get by. Gone are the days when projects can be undertaken without consideration of how they fit within the organization's strategic plan, or of how success or failure of projects may affect the company's financial position in the short and long runs.

Education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is needed in any quest to supply well-rounded project managers to the marketplace. This education should take students well beyond what is contained in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®), which could, in fact, be considered merely as the point of departure. It is necessary that modern practitioner education extend into intellectual regions that have not traditionally been considered part of what is known as “project management.” This may well include courses in the general management area as well as courses in logic, critical thinking, mathematics, and other disciplines where thought processes per se are the focus.

Simply put, what is needed are programs that have more breadth as well as more depth than what is covered in the PMBOK® and associated doctrines. The breadth part is coverage of the softer skills of leadership, team building, negotiating, and human resources development that add real-world context to the attributes that mark the difference between successful project managers and those who are not so successful. The depth part is to delve more deeply into the knowledge areas of scheduling, risk management, procurement, and so on, addressing questions of “why” instead of simply “how,” so that ultimately, perhaps, new solutions may be invented to solve old problems.

In designing undergraduate and graduate programs, a number of issues emerge:

  • What will be the overall organizational objectives?
  • What will be the relative objectives of each program?
  • What will be the complementarities between programs?
  • What will be the differences between programs?
  • What will be the synergies?
  • What outcome measures will be employed?

Ultimately, all of these questions boil down to choosing the appropriate courses and the methods of delivery that will add the most value. Optimal curriculum design thus becomes the issue of the day.

This paper describes the struggles that DeVry University has undergone in establishing undergraduate and graduate curricula that integrate into a sensible and productive whole. The “solution” has been to provide an undergraduate minor degree within the BSBA (Bachelor of Science in Business Administration) program and a full-fledged graduate major MPM (Master of Project Management) degree. Reasons why this “solution” was chosen over other alternatives are explored, and course objectives as well as interrelationships are explicated.

Philosophy and Considerations

In deliberating the choices, a basic question to be answered has to do with just what are the differences between graduate and undergraduate education, anyway? It is helpful to focus on the important dimensions that might serve to distinguish between the two arenas. Here are the dimensions of most relevance, using graduate education as the baseline:

Thinking: Graduate courses emphasize upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy
Applications: Graduate courses include contemplative cases and collaborative work
Maturity: Graduate courses focus on critical reasoning and communications skills
Research: Graduate courses develop research skills
Discussion: Graduate courses utilize forum and seminar protocols extensively
Materials: Graduate courses employ comprehensive texts and supplements

As an illustration of the first dimension, an intellectual distinction between undergraduate and graduate education may be made by considering elements of the well-known Bloom taxonomy of learning skills. In this paradigm, educational objectives and outcomes may be ranked in increasing levels of complexity and sophistication, as follows:

Level 1: Knowledge (e.g., remembering and reciting learned material)

Level 2:Comprehension (e.g., ability to grasp the meaning of material)

Level 3: Application (e.g., capability of using learned material in new situations)

Level 4: Analysis (e.g., skill in breaking down material into component parts)

Level 5: Synthesis (e.g., competence in putting parts together to form a new whole)

Level 6: Evaluation (e.g., judging the value of material for a given purpose)

One difference between undergraduate and graduate education is to consider where in the hierarchy of levels each sector would best fit. For example, an easy way to distinguish the two is to assert that undergraduate education focuses more on lower levels of learning (predominately Levels 1 and 2 and some Level 3) while graduate education concentrates more on higher rungs of the hierarchy (e.g., Levels 4 through 6).

Using an extreme example to make the point, what this means is that the same textbook could be conceivably be used both at the graduate and undergraduate level, with differentiated emphases. [Philosophy: “It is not the book that matters most; what matters most is how that book is used.”] Consider a simple example dealing with the typical project cycle. An undergraduate issue may well be to simply identify the different phases of the cycle and describe what takes place in each. A graduate student would focus more on issues of why it is appropriate to break down the project into phases, or on how and why conflicts may arise in the different phases and what might be some ways of resolving them. On a more technical issue, consider earned value management systems (EVMS). A low-level issue would focus on remembering what are the formulas in calculating such things as the schedule variance, cost variance, performance index, and so forth. Interpreting the results of specific calculations would represent a higher level of understanding and expertise. These kinds of issues would be representative of what could be considered as undergraduate questions. This is not to say that they are unimportant, for they certainly are essential metrics in the monitoring and controlling of projects. But a far more intellectual and reflective question has to do with what are the deficiencies of the EVMS set of calculations and how they can be downright misleading at times. The ultimate graduate level issue is how the calculations might be modified or adapted to correct for some of the deficiencies and provide more meaningful interpretations of what is going on.

Graduate education provides opportunities for consideration of “cutting edge” techniques and philosophies that may not yet have achieved wide acceptance in the industry. Critical chain project management systems would be a good example of something that would serve as an enlightening topic in a graduate seminar but would be considered as an exotic topic for any but the most advanced undergraduate students.

Projects should be an essential ingredient in any project management program, if not in every course in that program. A mix of individual, two-person, and multiple-person team experiences is desirable, with more collaboration and real-world simulation being the rule in upper-level undergraduate courses and in graduate courses.

Software training is a very important component of project management education. It is impractical to provide experiences over the wide range of software that is available today. However, Microsoft (MS) Project is accessible and has become somewhat of the industry standard, especially for managing small projects. Proficiency in the use of MS Project carries over easily to other software systems such as Primavera and Framework. Undergraduate treatment and use of MS Project would be relatively light while graduate use would be heavy, possibly using addons such as @Risk to for complex analyses.

Outcomes assessment is a major issue in the design of any academic program. It is important that every course have specific objectives and that achievement of these objectives be measured in a meaningful way through a combination of graded course components such as quizzes and exams, projects, and case studies. Those course objectives must be weaved together and be subservient to a set of overall program objectives. In addition, it is critical that a “capstone” experience be provided so that all of the educational pieces can be put together. The capstone experience is comparable to a thesis in a more traditional program. In project management, it is fruitful to employ teams in the development of a capstone project inasmuch as teamwork is pretty much the raison d'etre of what project management is all about. This approach flies in the face of traditional academic thesis approaches that focus on individual contributions. But, so be it.

Challenges

All of the above considerations became extremely critical issues in February, 2002 when a decision was made to merge DeVry Institutes and Keller Graduate School of Management into the single entity of DeVry University. Prior to that time, the DeVry Institutes served undergraduate students in a variety of technical fields and Keller Graduate School offered management education at the Master's degree level, with the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program being the most popular. At the time of the merger (within an overall DeVry, Inc. umbrella), project management education was limited to our Master of Project Management (MPM) degree, a Graduate Certificate in Project Management, and the availability of a project management “concentration” within the MBA.

While the consolidation of an undergraduate school and a graduate school offered many opportunities, it presented many challenges as well. The first major challenge was one of administration. Obviously, bringing two large sets of independent business systems and processes together under one roof involves considerable effort and ingenuity. That problem was solved eventually through a lot of hard work and the help of Oracle Systems. One practical major development was to develop and implement the concept of the DeVry University Center (DVUC) where both undergraduate and graduate education would be available. Existence of a DVUC in an area would facilitate the seamless transition of a student from the undergraduate realm into graduate level education.

The second major challenge was a bit subtler. It has to do with organizational culture. The two divisions of DeVry Inc. had been operating under separate sets of rules as well as mentalities for almost 30 years. Each division had its own “way of thinking,” if you will, as well as its own biases. The expected “turf battles” would need to be managed and overcome. Significant progress has been made along these lines, largely as the result of the implementation of a successful communications and development campaign that brought people together in intimate as well as remote forums to discuss and resolve common issues.

  The third major challenge was operational and, in a sense, it can be considered as a subset of the first. The different sets of rules included a difference in academic calendars. For example, most DeVry Institute courses were eight weeks long while all of Keller courses were of the ten-week variety. Of course, this meant that the academic terms were offset with each other and did not mesh. Something had to give. The solution to this problem was to transform the 10-week Keller into 8-week courses and then adopt a common academic calendar that applied to the whole university. The transformation to 8-week courses was done without the loss of essential subject matter content by use of an iOptimize course format that incorporated a required instructor-mediated online component into every onsite course. It must be mentioned here also that adoption of a uniform academic calendar meant that all existing 10-week online courses needed to be converted to an 8-week format as well. Platforms for both venues are provided by eCollege.

The final major challenge, and the one that brings us here today, is the integration of graduate and undergraduate education. Our concern in this Congress focuses on project management education, but it is obvious that this integration issue surfaces in consideration of all program areas throughout the organization.

A Solution

As mentioned in the introduction, the integration “solution” has been to provide an undergraduate minor degree (called a Concentration) within the BSBA (Bachelor of Science in Business Administration) program and a full-fledged graduate major MPM (Master of Project Management) degree as well as a Graduate Certificate in Project Management.

Undergraduate Concentration

The minimum number of semester credit hours required for graduation in the undergraduate BSBA program is 125. Within that framework, a minimum of 31 credit hours is required in the student's concentration area. Prior to or concurrent with matriculation in concentration area courses, students distribute courses in communications, humanities, social sciences, mathematics and science, and general business. This is representative of the breadth to which I referred before. Included in this distributed set required of all BSBA students is MGMT-404 Project Management. (We feel that it is very important for all business students to know the project management basics, whether or not they follow project management as a career path.) To get a sense of what is involved in that course, consider that the text utilized is the one authored by Gray and Larson.

Students opting for the project management concentration would take the following courses in addition to MGMT-404:

ACCT-434 Advanced Cost Management
BSOP-226 Total Quality Management
MGMT-340 Business Systems Analysis
PROJ-330 Human Resources and Communications in Projects
PROJ-410 Contracts and Procurement
PROJ-420 Project Risk Management
PROJ-430 Advanced Project Management
PROJ-460 Senior Project

This set of courses represents the depth to which I referred before. The courses were designed in a way that provided consistency with PMBOK Guide knowledge. Course descriptions may be found by consulting www.devry.edu.

Graduate Major

The Master of Project Management (MPM) degree is the second-oldest (after the MBA) graduate degree offered by Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University, being developed in the early 1990‘s and modified substantially since then. The overall requirements for the MPM degree call for the completion of 42 credit hours of graduate work (14 courses in all). For breadth, six general management core courses and two free electives represent eight of the total. For depth, the remaining six courses are program specific. These are:

GM588 Managing Quality
PM586 Project Management Systems
PM587 Advanced Program Management
PM589 Project Cost and Risk Management
PM598 Contract and Procurement Management
PM600 Project Management Capstone

Descriptions of these courses may be found by consulting www.keller.edu or by passing through from www.devry.edu.

Graduate Certificate and MBA Concentration

A student who enters Keller Graduate School and takes only the above program-specific courses along with any prerequisites that may be required will earn the Graduate Certificate in Project Management. The MBA Concentration in Project Management requires the completion of four project-management related courses within a student's overall program, as specified in the academic catalog.

Relationship Between Undergraduate and Graduate Courses

The reader will notice a certain degree of correspondence between undergraduate and graduate courses in a given project management subject area. This is inevitable in a field where the scope is pretty much defined by what is in the PMBOK Guide. The trick is to differentiate the courses in a way that will lead to the graduate course adding value to what may have been learned at the undergraduate level in a particular knowledge area. This is a particularly important consideration for those who wish to earn an undergraduate BSBA concentration followed by a graduate MPM degree. (Incidentally, this is a path that we do not highly recommend!)

The relationship between courses can best be illustrated by considering the difference between undergraduate PROJ-430 Advanced Project Management and graduate PM587 Advanced Program Management. While both are touted as being “advanced” beyond the basic courses, there are major differences between them. The biggest difference is that PROJ-430 focuses on a single project while PM587 addresses issues having to do with managing multiple projects. A second major difference is that PROJ-430 focuses on largely the technical issues of planning, scheduling, and monitoring, and PM587 incorporates a significant soft skills component having to do with leadership and team building.

Similar differences may be found in other course comparisons. For example, undergraduate PROJ-420 focuses on risk management per se while corresponding graduate course PM589 adds cost estimation and management to the mix. Also, the undergraduate PROJ-460 Senior Project is quite basic when compared to the complex project completed by students taking the PM600 Project Management Capstone course. In the latter, students working in two-person teams spend a great deal of time developing a project plan only to be told that an unpredictable major event has occurred that will force a revision of those plans while still staying within the triple constraint of time, cost, and quality. That unexpected event is designed to fall outside of the risk assessment domain that students have considered. While unexpected events do not occur in the undergraduate senior project, a complete risk assessment is expected there. And so on.

DeVry students wishing to pass through from the undergraduate BSBA concentration in project management to the graduate MPM degree program are given a certain amount of credit for undergraduate work when enrolling for their graduate program. Such transitions are governed by an “articulation” agreement that spells out what course exemptions are allowed based on the constitution of the undergraduate program.

Other Issues

This paper has outlined what are some of the more important issues faced by an organization desirous of offering integrated undergraduate and graduate formal education programs in project management. It has not covered the entire waterfront of issues.

Accreditation

Paramount among other considerations is the need to provide programs with sufficient content and rigor to be worthy of accreditation by appropriate accrediting agencies. “Are you accredited?” is one of the first things that students will ask when considering matriculation in a graduate school. Usually, the inquiries are referring to regional accreditation of the university--- in our case, by the North Central Association, the same body that accredits Northwestern, the University of Wisconsin, and other similar institutions. However, that question has been expanded lately to include the possibility of being accredited by PMI!

Faculty

Associated with accreditation is the issue of faculty. DeVry's mission statement explicitly asserts that we offer practitioner-oriented programs. To give credence to that statement is to offer students that are taught by instructors who are knowledgeable in the field yet have appropriate academic credentials. It is sometimes difficult to find people who have the appropriate mix. And it is sometimes difficult to convince the regional accrediting bodies that our approach is the optimal one, given our mission, and given that the vast majority of faculty at the graduate level hold full-time professional positions in the project management field and teach for us as independent contractors. On the other hand, through constant feedback and communications devises, our faculty is relied upon to provide inputs into course maintenance, revisions, and developments. This is one way we have of keeping current with what is happening in the workplace.

Curriculum Management

The complex academic environment that is now DeVry University requires substantial curriculum management skills. This is due not only to the fact that we have many programs but also to the fact that we are an international university with 59 locations in the United States alone. The administrative feat is to manage content and delivery over this wide spectrum of courses and location. Each of the major programs in DeVry University has a full-time director and each course has a manager. (One individual may manage several courses.) Program directors ultimately report to the Dean of Curriculum. Curriculum managers are constantly updating students based of faculty inputs, student inputs, publisher information, and participation in professional development activities (e.g., attending PMI meetings at the local and national levels),

Materials

Finally, the issue of course materials cannot be overlooked. I think our profession has a long way to go in developing textbooks and such that have academic rigor, yet impart practical knowledge. It seems that either a book is written by an academic who has obviously no practical experience or by a practitioner who imparts no theoretical structure. Surely, there is a middle ground that we should be seeking.

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 PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003

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