Project Management Institute

Some formal education and experience background implications for project managers

Air Force Institute of Technology

The development of new products or systems gives rise to unique problems and demands on organizational resources and relationships. The traditional bureaucratic form of organization, with its formal specialization, fixed lines of communication, and standard procedures has seemingly failed to provide the desired efficiency in use of resources and has proved to be unresponsive to changing conditions. As a result, both the Department of Defense and industry have turned to a project form of organization in an effort to increase the efficiency with which total organizational resources are used in achieving the desired goal — a new product or system.

It would be self-defeating to devise one single, universal project form of organization. In fact, the essence of project management involves tailoring the organization to the needs of a particular project. There are, however, general similarities or attributes of such organizations. They are established to accomplish a specific goal — when that goal is fulfilled the organization is dissolved. Such organizations centralize responsibility for integration of all goal-directed activities in a single individual, the project (or program) manager. But the project manager does not necessarily have direct line authority over all people working on the project. He typically has to “borrow” specialized human talent from functional organizations that are only generally committed to supporting his project. Further, the resource requirements in terms of dollars, specialists, and materials change as the project proceeds from its inception to completion. The kinds of problems and tasks facing the project management team tend to change as the project advances through its several phases. For example, as shown in Table 1, in the United States Air Force a new weapon system may proceed through five phases (conceptual, validation, full scale development, production, and deployment), each with its own peculiarities (2).

Management Problems in the Project Organization

The project manager's role is typically to direct and integrate resources in the development and production of a system while meeting performance, schedule, and cost objectives. The project manager is supported by a number of subordinates who work with specific subprojects, subsystems, or supporting tasks. Thus, while there is only one project manager with overall responsibility (the program director), there may be many subordinates who manage subprojects in their own right.



Phase Typical Tasks Relative Size
1. Conceptual Study, analysis, and refinement of concept Very small
2. Validation Further study and analysis to identify major program characteristics, component and subsystem engineering, development, test, and evaluation Rapidly growing from small to medium
3. Full Scale Development Design, fabrication, test, and evaluation of the system. Very large
4. Production Quantity production, quality control, schedule and cost monitoring, system modifications, training. Very large at beginning and diminishing as problems are lessened
5. Deployment System/subsystem modifications, updates, provisioning Relatively small

Wilemon (7) has pointed out a number of characteristics of project management that can serve as an indication of the potential for complex managerial problems. Two of these characteristics or indications of complexity of particular significance to this article are, an orientation to change and a deductive approach to identifying responsibility. In the first instance, it is recognized that change is ever present so management must be flexible. Problems change, budgets change, the environment changes, and the political situation changes. The second characteristic results in a breaking down of major tasks into manageable components. The result is that many “project managers” are responsible and accountable for particular project tasks or portions thereof which in turn sum to the total project.

The major problems associated with successful overall task accomplishment are factored into sub-problems just as the overall project task is factored into manageable subtasks. The sub-problems themselves are not.necessarily easy to solve. To attain a given goal there may be a number of possible competing means. Choice from even a limited number of these means may involve considering many factors. The decision maker is faced with trading off desirable and undesirable outcomes in choosing the best alternative. To accomplish this choice, the decision maker selects criteria against which he evaluates each alternative. That which most completely meets the criteria is chosen.

The importance of the decision maker's value system on the direction taken in trade-off decision situations is well recognized (3;4). However, the potential for harmful suboptimizing caused by these different value systems has not received the same level of recognition in the literature. According to Simon (5), many decisions are concerned with satisfying a set of constraints rather than achieving a single goal. In such a situation, the individual's background may influence his choice of one or more of the constraints as more goal-like than the others. Thus as individuals differ, so may their choice from among the set of available “goals.” The result is that although a decision reached in any one task unit may be satisfactory (meets overall constraints), differences in the direction of the various decision maker's biases may result in undesirable suboptimization.

If educational and experience backgrounds are, among other factors, determinants of the individual's value system, then we might expect people whose education and work experience has been dissimilar to differ in their decision making behavior. Hence, to achieve homogeneity of behavior, we might desire individuals with generally similar education and experience. Further, if the nature of the tasks and problems facing the organization change with time, we might desire that the organization's managers possess different common backgrounds at different times.

For these reasons the human element is particularly important to the success of system acquisition projects and will probably become more so. Selection of suitable individuals for project management duties is a topic of continuing concern. Efforts to improve the selection process will probably continue to be aimed at identifying factors thought to be important to success. Two perhaps obvious factors are the education and experience background of the manager. The next section, titled Study 1, discusses the findings of research dealing with the relationship between decision making behavior, education, and experience. The following section, titled Study 2, discusses a study that identified education and experience backgrounds considered appropriate by Air Force Program Directors.

Study 1

This section presents a synopsis of the research by Barndt (1) concerning the relationships between choice of alternatives, educational background, and work experience background. Several hypotheses were tested to investigate if: (1) individuals with similar formal education or work experience backgrounds might tend to make the same choice from alternatives in a trade-off decision situation, and (2) differences in adaptability to changed roles might be associated with the decision maker's educational or experience background.

The research used data obtained in a decision-making experiment. The data producing subjects were 586 United States military officers attending full time professional military education courses. Each subject answered a questionnaire that called for his choice of alternatives in three trade-off decision problems and a resume of his work experience and college level education. The problems were similar in that each involved a choice from among hardware item alternatives, each of which met or exceeded a specific performance minimum at not more than a specified maximum cost. Each alternative was stated to satisfy all cost and performance constraints. Of the three alternatives available in each problem, one offered lowest cost and performance, a second offered highest cost and performance, and the third offered a middle ground choice with respect to cost and performance. The problems differed in the specific item of hardware, the setting, and the positional duties and responsibilities (role) of the decision maker.

The subjects were categorized according to education and experience backgrounds. Thirteen education background categories were possible based on combinations of undergraduate and graduate level education in (1) economics based disciplines; (2) social sciences, humanities, and arts; (3) science and applied fields; and (4) no college education. There were nine potential experience categories based on one or certain combinations of the following five basic categories: (1) operations; (2) scientific, engineering, maintenance, or research and development; (3) technical support (material and financial); (4) technical support (other); and (5) professional.

The procedure involved having each subject first work a problem where no specified positional description or expectations were defined. The presumption was that the individual's own value system would be more free to dictate the most goal-like constraint, and would thus have the greatest influence on the choice from alternatives. The second and third problems assumed that the subject would play a performance oriented and cost oriented role respectively. The role prescriptions were introduced by providing a position title and a brief list of duties and responsibilities. Performance and cost were selected as the underlying role orientations to match the problem constraints and because performance and cost were assumed to be constraints widely recognized by the subjects. The frequency of choice alternative by the members of the various background categories in each of the three problem situations constituted the basic data used in the research.

Hypotheses concerning homogeneity of choice among similar background categories were tested using chi-square techniques. The sign test was used to identify differences in choice associated with changes in role. Hypotheses were tested at the .05 level of statistical significance.

Analysis of the data generally supported the idea that some education and experience backgrounds were associated with the subject's choice from the alternatives. Table 2 shows the various education and experience background categories which showed either strong or negligible indications of (1) commonality of choice from alternatives and (2) an association between changes in the choice from the alternatives and changes in role.

Study 2

This section summarizes the research by Smythe and McMullan (6), who examined the education and experience backgrounds desired of Air Force System Program Directors. The objective of the research was to identify and compare major qualifications desired of project managers during different phases of the system acquisition process.

The five phases of the weapons system acquisition life cycle (see Table 1) were combined into three categories on the basis of similarity of tasks and separation by major decision points. The conceptual and validation phases were combined into the “young” category. The full scale development phase became the “mature” category and the production and deployment phases were combined to become the “old” category.

Data was obtained concerning the educational and experience backgrounds desired at each of the three “stages” or categories of the acquisition life cycle through personal interviews with Program Directors of major Air Force weapon system acquisition programs and with the directors of major subunits that were involved in developing or acquiring a number of systems or sub-systems. A total of twenty-four such Program Directors and “directors of programs” at the general officer and colonel level provided interview data.

Each Program Director ranked both the education and the experience backgrounds, supplied by the researchers, in order of perceived importance to a program manager separately for each stage of the acquisition life cycle. Each interviewee thus provided six rank orderings, three for education and three for experience. The education backgrounds that were rank ordered were graduate education in business administration, financial management, industrial management, personnel management, systems management, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and operations research. Experience backgrounds that were rank ordered consisted of command/operational experience; staff positions at headquarters level; engineering/laboratory experience; and system program management experience. Table 3 shows the six rank orderings provided by each interviewee.







The individuals’ rank orderings were combined to form composite rankings for each of the six cells shown in Table 3. Comparisons were made using the Spearman rank correlation procedure between young and mature, young and old, and mature and old both with respect to the rank order of educational qualifications and experience qualifications. The resulting correlation coefficients provided the basis for conclusions concerning whether there were or were not differences in the education and in the experience qualifications desired in the various stages.

The correlation coefficients indicated a considerable difference in agreement for both the education and the experience backgrounds desired in the young stage and the other stages. As shown in Table 4, there was low agreement in rank orderings between young and mature and between young and old stages for both education and experience. However, there was high agreement concerning the relative importance of education and experience qualifications between the mature and old stages. The magnitude of the differences in the correlation coefficients between the young and the other stages and the closeness of the high correlation coefficients between the mature and the old stages indicates two separate rankings of preferred qualifications — one for managers of programs in the young stage and another for managers of programs in either the mature or old stage.


Table 4


Because the choices available to the interviewee were restricted, it is not considered appropriate to make statements concerning what the most important qualifications are. However, conclusions may be drawn about the relative desirability of the general areas of educational discipline and experience, with respect to the sample.

As shown in Tables 5 and 6, both education and experience in the engineering disciplines appear to be more highly desired during the young stage (conceptual and validation phases) of the weapons system acquisition process. In the mature and old stages (full scale development, production, and deployment phases), management academic disciplines and experience in project management/staff work are perceived as being relatively more important.



Stage of Acquisition Process
Young Mature/Old
1. electrical engineering 1. systems management
2. mechanical engineering 2. financial management
3. systems management 3&4. (tie) business administration-industrial management
4. financial management
5. business administration 5. operation research
6&7. (tie) industrial management-operations research 6. electrical engineering
7&8. (tie) mechanical engineering-personnel management
8. personnel management



Stage of Acquisition Process
Young Mature/Old
1. Engineering/Laboratory 1. System Program Management
2. System Program Management. 2. Headquarters/Air Staff
3. Headquarters/Air Staff 3. Command/Operational
4. Command/Operational 4. Engineering/Laboratory


The two studies generally support each other. Individuals with educational specialties in the sciences and applied fields or in economic-based disciplines tend to be homogeneous with respect to choice in trade-off decision situations. They also tend to display an adaptability to changing roles. Homogeneity of choice was also associated with experience in the scientific, engineering, maintenance, or research and development fields. Because of external environmental influences, unique problems, and the difficult tasks of integrating many diverse activities toward attaining specific goals, it might be expected that similarity of decision making behavior (homogeneity) and adaptability to changed role expectations would be characteristics generally desired of personnel chosen for project management duties. The preference for an engineering education and experience background in the young stage and for a management oriented educational and experience background in the mature and old stages is consistent with this expectation. That is, an engineering educational speciality falls within the definition of science or applied fields, while an engineering/laboratory background falls within the definition of experience in the scientific, engineering, maintenance, or research and development fields. Similarly, the management disciplines fall within the definition of an economics based discipline while system program management experience falls within the definition of experience in the scientific, engineering, maintenance, or research and development fields. Table 7 shows the relationships of the most highly desired project manager experience and education qualifications to those broad education and experience backgrounds found to show a tendency toward homogeneity and adaptability in trade-off decision situations.

The study indicates that those individuals most desired for project management positions have the kinds of common educational and experience backgrounds that foster similar decision making behavior. However, the specific common education and experience background most desired for a particular project probably depends on the phase of the life cycle in which that project finds itself. In the early conceptual and design phases, the ability to relate to the technical aspects of the project and to achieve an understanding of the approach to problem resolution appears to be most appropriately provided by individuals with engineering backgrounds. Later, as the project's problems shift to those of integration, scheduling, and cost control, and as the size of the organization grows, managerial knowledge and experience appear to become relatively more important to achieving a unity of effort.

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12. Mueller-Mehrbach, H. “Ein Verfahren zur Planung des Optimalen Betriebsmitteleinsatzes bei der Terminierung von Grossprojekten,” AWF-Mitteilungen, Munich, February, 1967.

13. Pascoe, T. L., “An Experimental Comparison of Heuristic Methods for Allocating Resources,” Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Engineering, Cambridge University, 1965.

14. Patterson, J. H., “Alternate Methods Of Project Scheduling With Limited Resources,” Naval Research Logistics Quarterly, December, 1973.

15. Patterson, J. H., “Project Scheduling: The Effects of Problem Structure On Heuristics Performance,” Naval Research Logistics Quarterly, forthcoming.

16. Wiest, J. D., “A Heuristic Model for Scheduling Large Projects With Limited Resources,” Management Science, February, 1967.








Continued from page 40


1. Barndt, Lt. Col. Stephen E. “A Study of the Relationship Between Decision Maker's Education and Experience and Alternative Choice in Trade Off Decisions.” Technical Report, AU-AFIT-SL-1-75, School of Systems and Logistics, Air Force Institute of Technology (AU), Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, 1975.

2. Department of The Air Force. Program Management, Air Force Regulation 800-2. Washington, D. C.: Department of The Air Force, 1972.

3. Freeman, John R. and Harold E. Smalley “Determinants of Hospital Supply Decision,” Nursing Research, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer 1965), pp. 244-253.

4. Knorr, Klaus. “On the Cost Effectiveness Approach to Military R & D: A Critique.” Paper presented at the 29th National Meeting of the Operations Research Society of America, Santa Monica, California, (May 1966).

5. Simon, Herbert A. “On the Concept of Organizational Goal,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol, 9, No. 1 (June 1964), pp. 1-22.

6. Smythe, Major Ralph E. and Captain William J. McMullan. “An Evaluation of the Major Qualifications Desired of Air Force System Program Managers.” Unpublished Master's thesis, School of Systems and Logistics, Air Force Institute of Technology (AU), Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, 1974.

7. Wilemon, David L. “Project Management and Its Conflicts: A View from Appollo,” Chemical Technology, Vol. 2, No. 9, (September 1972), pp. 527-534.


1 This article was in part based on a master's thesis “An Evaluation of the Major Qualifications Desired of Air Force System Program Managers,” by Major Ralph E. Smythe, USAF, and Captain William J. McMullan, USAF, conducted at the School of Systems and Logistics, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The author of the article, who directed the research, is responsible for the selection of material from the thesis, its integration with other self-generated material, and the resulting article.

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