A formal education experience for project managers
by John R. Adams
IN THE LAST 10 YEARS or so, the tremendous technological advancement in the communications field has initiated a revolution in many other fields, including education. It is now possible to obtain full academic degrees through the World Wide Web from any location where access to the Web can be obtained—in some cases without ever setting foot on a physical campus.
However, there are still questions about the quality of the degrees that are obtained across the Web, with informed opinions varying widely. Web-based delivery of education is an issue that few people in the academic community take lightly: the Web is already accepted as a useful adjunct to university-based courses, while predictions range from the Web as a source of specialized class support to the demise of resident academic institutions as we know them today.
From the project manager's standpoint, Web-based delivery of formal education clearly offers a new and largely untested opportunity for obtaining an education specifically tailored to the project management field, an opportunity that for many has not previously existed. The important issue in pursuing this opportunity centers on the selection of a program that will provide a useful and high-quality education targeted to the needs of the project manager.
The opportunity for a Web-based education should be excellent news for project managers. In the past, the nature of their work made it difficult for project managers to obtain an appropriate project management education. The remote location of many projects; the high level of responsibility placed upon project managers to achieve budget, schedule, and performance targets; and the uncertain travel schedule needed to deal with owners, team members, vendors, and other project stakeholders have frequently made it impossible for project managers to commit to classroom meetings on specific days for a period of weeks into the future.
The lack of project management degree programs in the United States generally forced those who could commit to regular classroom schedules to opt for a master's degree in business administration. In short, prior to the development of Web-based education delivery systems, many project managers found it impossible to obtain an education tailored to their specific needs. Although this seems to be slowly changing, even today few recognized academic institutions offer degree programs in project management.
To make use of the new educational opportunities that exist on the Web, an individual must be technically competent in using the computer and the Internet. The individual also must be sufficiently self-motivated to persevere through two years or more of weekly assignments mixed in with his or her already heavy work and family responsibilities. In the case of project managers, these are generally not a problem. The nature of their work typically demands technical competency with the computer and the Web—a “project manager” who fails to demonstrate high levels of commitment and perseverance is unlikely to remain long in the field. Pursuing a formal education online is a process that seems to be ideally suited to the project manager desiring to further his or her education within this profession. What remains is the problem of identifying a high-quality educational experience from among the growing number of offerings on the Web.
Educating Project Managers—The Traditional Approach
From a university's perspective, project managers constitute what can be defined as a “target market.” If we look at project managers as those people who currently define themselves as such, this is a relatively small target market. Initially, it consists mainly of members from the various project management professional organizations, including the Project Management Institute (PMI®), the International Project Management Association (IPMA), the Australian Project Management Association (APMA), and a variety of other smaller, nationally based project management associations from around the world. This is the definable, measurable portion of the total target market. We know this group is only a small portion of the total of those that manage projects. There is no known estimate that addresses the real size of the total target market. As a minimum, however, it is several times the total of the combined memberships of the professional organizations.
Another attribute of project managers as a target market is that those expected to want a formal education in the field are likely to be those who are either new to or not yet involved with professional PM organizations. These are individuals who in all probability have been managing projects in the past but have not yet decided to build their careers in the field. Formal education thus becomes a path of entry into the profession. One of the roles that educational programs should fill for the profession involves spreading the word about project management and getting those who manage projects interested in the field as a profession. In this sense, high quality and effective degree programs in project management become useful marketing tools for the professional organizations that help make degree programs viable.
Traditionally, universities have had a difficult time providing an education to project managers. The difficulty has not been in creating the curriculum, but rather in identifying and reaching this target market. We should recognize that there are several specific issues to deal with in providing a degree program for project managers.
First, project management is little known as either a field of study or as an area in which to build a career. Since most undergraduate students are unaware that such a thing as project management exists, there is no opportunity for them to select it as a field of study. This means there is little demand for an undergraduate degree program in project management. Universities normally aim their offerings initially at the undergraduate level and expect the demand for higher-level degrees to originate from those who earn the undergraduate degree.
Our field has originated in a different way. Individuals generally learn about project management after they have left college and been employed in the workplace for several years. A few of these individuals then see the opportunity to build a unique, very interesting, and rewarding career developing new products and services for others to use in an ongoing repetitive manner. The result is that most people seeking a degree in project management have already earned an undergraduate degree in some other field and are unlikely to be interested in a second undergraduate degree. A successful project management degree, therefore, is likely to be at the master's level. It should be designed so that it can accept students with a wide variety of undergraduate academic backgrounds, and it should be directed at individuals who are fully employed. Almost by definition, project management requires an advanced degree taught on a part-time basis in order to reach those most likely to need the degree in building a career.
A closer look at the typical project manager's job also points out that the traditional classroom-based learning model is largely irrelevant to the working project manager. In most cases, the project manager's job requires a great deal of commitment to the work. Projects tend to offer high-stress, high-pressure employment where the project manager is responsible for meeting detailed schedule, budget, and performance specifications on a day-to-day basis. The project's site is frequently in a remote location. The project's manager must visit owners, vendors, suppliers, and other project stakeholders on an unpredictable schedule to deal with problems that arise on the project. A five-day, 40-hour workweek is practically unknown within the PM field, which frequently makes it difficult for the project manager to deal with his or her work and family commitments, much less the task of gaining a formal education.
At best, we can expect formal education to be a third priority for most project managers. On the other hand, universities and faculties like to believe that their students’ primary commitment is to their education. The reality of project management as a target market thus requires the university and its faculty to adjust their approach to dealing with students, a situation that is frequently either unrecognized or resisted by both the university and its faculty.
The faculty creates another issue for universities attempting to develop a degree program tailored specifically toward the needs of the project manager. There is no recognized field of project management within academia. Our current universities do not produce doctorates in this field, and there is no group of Ph.D.-qualified faculty competing with each other to create textbooks and courses within the PM field. Most professors learn their field by earning a series of degrees within that field, culminating in the Ph.D. They then look for employment within the academic community, teaching what they have learned.
Quality Issues for Online Education
Exhibit 1. This exhibit summarizes an evaluation process for potential students looking for a high-quality and desirable online project management degree program. The middle column lists highly desirable aspects of a quality online degree program. The third column identifies sources of evidence for the potential student to use in evaluating the program.
Since there have been few opportunities for formal study of project management in the past, faculty must develop qualifications elsewhere for teaching project management. The accepted solution is to select faculty members who, in addition to having an earned Ph.D. in an “appropriate field” (one related to project management), also have extensive research or working experience within the project management field. Such individuals are difficult to find. Creating a faculty of such individuals is even more difficult because their degrees would also need to be “appropriate” for the school or college within the university that would be hosting the degree. A Ph.D. in education, for example, would in most cases be unacceptable to a college of business or engineering.
This points out that project managers have a very difficult time fitting into a university's traditional methods for delivering education. It also points to the difficulty of finding faculty qualified to teach the students. Project managers require a part-time degree program taught in a manner that can be integrated into an unpredictable schedule, that is flexible enough to allow other activities to take priority over academics for at least short periods of time, and that makes efficient use of the limited number of qualified faculty available to teach such a program. Enter the World Wide Web.
Educating Project Managers—The World Wide Web
Despite what you may have read or heard in the public news media, delivering an education over the World Wide Web is a controversial topic in the academic community. Clearly, it is recognized that the Web should have some role in formal university education and that that role likely will expand as the Web continues to develop [“Taking Steps for Campus-Wide Integration for WebCT,” 13 October 1999, retrieved from http://www.webct.com/service/viewcontentframe?contentID=1249426], but there the consensus ends. Among the major controversies involving the Web that face universities today are issues involving the selection and compensation of faculty for working in the medium; identifying and modifying the appropriate university policies, procedures, and schedules to deal with online education; and integrating online educational activities with traditional classroom instruction.
Most of the academic Web-based instructional activity today is a form of experimentation, from the university's viewpoint. They are testing this new environment to determine how it should integrate with their traditional activities. Current university online instruction largely involves support for existing classroom courses (a Web-enhanced course) or complete individual credit-granting courses (a Web-based course) [Carol Vallone, “Testimony…on the Internet, Distance Learning, and the Future of the Research University,” presented to the Subcommittee on Basic Research, Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, 9 May 2000; retrieved from http://www.house.gov/science/vallone_050900.htm]. Those rare instances where full degree programs are being offered online (a Web-based degree program) are generally considered to be tests designed to evaluate the technology and help determine how online education might impact the university. The task faced by these programs is to prove that the demand exists, that they can support themselves, and that they can deliver a quality education equal to that obtained through classroom-based education.
A basic attraction of Web-based education is that the schedule can be adapted to the requirements of the student.
Some of these programs are proving to be successful, but only where the strengths and weaknesses of the World Wide Web as an educational delivery medium have been carefully analyzed and the program structured with these characteristics in mind. From the university's standpoint, the World Wide Web has some very specific strengths and weaknesses that users need to understand before becoming involved with Web-based educational programs. While these strengths and weaknesses in themselves may seem obvious to the user, it is their impact on the traditional university system that is the real focus of concern here.
Strengths. The greatest argument for using the World Wide Web to deliver educational programs is its ability to reach previously isolated target markets that desperately need educational services. Our practicing project manager is one of these target markets, one that provides well-qualified, highly interested and committed students. Viewed from a global perspective, the Web offers an unprecedented opportunity to expand university services and improve educational opportunities for literally millions of people who previously could not have hoped to obtain an advanced education. From the standpoint of the individual educational institution, however, this “opportunity” must be viewed from two sides. On the one hand, there is an opportunity for increased revenue from a potentially much larger student body. On the other hand, there is the potential for increased competition from other universities for existing students, as well as for the newly targeted students. The potential clearly exists for a major restructuring of the academic community, based upon the various universities’ abilities to adapt to and benefit from the Web as a delivery medium. There are great opportunities, but also significant threats to the status quo.
Weaknesses. Making use of the Web for the delivery of educational services is not an easy task for the established university and its faculty. The lack of face-to-face contact that is endemic to online education eliminates the typical faculty member's easiest and most widely used form of education—the lecture. It also tends to reduce the spontaneity that many faculty members cherish in the classroom. Faculty members must carefully organize and structure each lesson plan, much more so than is commonly done in the classroom. Training aids and supplemental reading materials must be converted to digital form for distribution to students, a task involving a redesign of previous class support processes, a significant additional workload, and one fraught with potential copyright difficulties. In effect, the faculty member moving to Web-based instruction must learn an entirely new method of delivering that instruction, one that makes intensive and extensive use of the faculty's time and energy. As a result, it is imperative that universities carefully select those faculty members who are knowledgeable of the technology involved and interested in learning a new approach to delivering quality education if they expect to develop a quality online project management degree program. Note that there is high demand for such faculty in other university programs as well, and that the project management faculty would still require practical experience in the project management field. Such individuals are rare in universities today.
In addition, many university administrators find instruction on the World Wide Web to be more of a problem than a benefit. Web-based students tend to demand year-round education, a process that flies in the face of normal university schedules and faculty contracts. Adjusting to the delivery of education online frequently requires the university administration to support two completely different schedules, to adjust salaries and workloads for faculty members, to provide flexibility in faculty evaluation systems, and to invest heavily in the required communication technology and support staff. Hanging in the background is the potential threat of being too successful across the Web and being left with unused classrooms, dormitories, and campuses as a heritage of successfully developing and implementing distance learning.
The net result is that universities are approaching distance learning cautiously, taking one step at a time, and limiting their commitments until the benefits have been explored and demonstrated. This approach is natural and prudent, given the level of investment the United States has in its current educational facilities and processes. The individual wishing to obtain an education over the Web needs to understand this situation and select an educational program carefully, looking particularly for quality as defined within the conditions prevailing for a Web-based education delivery system. The indicators of quality within traditional classroom programs frequently include the reputation of the university, the program's accreditation status, and the publication record of its faculty. Each of these might apply, but in different ways, to online education. Since online education is currently aimed at specific target markets—groups that find it difficult or impossible to obtain an education in classroom-based programs—the measures of online quality should pay particular attention to the program's ability to match the characteristics and meet the specific needs of the chosen target market.
Quality Issues for Online Education
From the student's point of view, the real potential for quality, online graduate-level programs lies in tailoring the education to the student's business and career needs. From the faculty standpoint, this task is neither simple nor easy to accomplish. Few faculty members have current working experience in jobs related to those held by the students, and fewer still have an interest in using the student's job experience as a factor in the educational process. The fact remains, however, that an online education tailored to a specific target market provides unprecedented opportunities for both the student and faculty to research issues related to problems faced by students on the job, and to draw upon the student's working experiences in the educational process. Any online graduate degree program that fails to take advantage of these research and experience opportunities to tailor and expend the learning process should not be considered a high-quality educational program.
In selecting an online degree, the potential student should carefully examine the program being offered, looking for the extent to which it is tailored to the student's needs, and the extent to which it uses student-generated input as part of the learning process. Faculty qualifications should be reviewed from the standpoint of their demonstrated willingness and ability to design and implement this tailoring process for the student's benefit, as well as for their academic and teaching credentials. To the extent possible, the grading system, as well as individual assignments, should be investigated. As a minimum, the prospective student should discuss these issues with the faculty, the program director, and current students in the program. If the prospective student finds it difficult to reach these individuals, that program should end up very low on the student's priority list for degree programs online.
Now let's discuss five separate quality issues for evaluating online degree programs and suggest some measures for evaluating these quality issues in a given degree program. (Issues and recommendations are summarized in Exhibit 1.) Many more quality issues could be raised and discussed, but a student who investigates prospective online degree programs from this perspective will gain a level of information far in excess of what the “normal” prospective student usually uses to make a final program selection. It is hoped that the added information will help prospective students make better decisions.
A Quality Program Requires Quality Faculty. Online instruction in a degree program that is intended to enhance and stimulate a professional's career requires the faculty to assume an entirely different role than that of the typical classroom instructor, and the consequences of the faculty's input may be much greater. During the program, the professor should be in contact with each student at least weekly, providing suggestions and advice about problems the student is facing in the work environment, as well as in his or her studies. In this environment the professor becomes a mentor, an advisor, a supporter of the student, and to some extent a consultant to the project on which the student is currently working. Many faculty members are uncomfortable with these new roles, at least partly because of their lack of practical working experience in the field. The prospective student should carefully review the faculty member's background, in terms of both academic and working experience. If the background is based strictly on academics, then the instructor is unlikely to serve well in the advisor, mentor, consultant, supporter roles.
A Quality Program Requires a Unique and Quality Curriculum. One of the leading trends in the current project management environment is the rapid growth and adoption of virtual projects—projects conducted on the Web, where the team members may have little or no opportunity to meet each other during the course of the project. Qualified project managers are currently difficult to find for such projects, but the number of such projects appearing in the literature is increasing dramatically. A distance-learning education might be termed a “virtual education” except for the somewhat negative connotation such a phrase might evoke. The distance learner must develop essentially the same skills as the team member on the virtual project. The curriculum for an online project management degree program should make use of the data available on the virtual project, and more specifically should make use of the project manager's job as an educational asset to help the student learn. Assignments in the course should require project manager students to apply the concepts learned in the program to the projects they are implementing for their employers, and report the results obtained from implementing the concept back to the student team and the faculty. Feedback from the professor and the other students may be used to explain why the trial was either successful or unsuccessful. Note that this form of learning is almost completely unavailable to the classroom instructor. It provides a unique curriculum, in most cases tailoring the basic lesson plan directly to the needs of the individual student.
A Quality Program Should Match the Student's Work Conditions and Constraints. A basic attraction of Web-based education is that the schedule can be adapted to the requirements of the student. Any factor in the program that requires a class to come together simultaneously for the school's or the professor's convenience, online or otherwise, detracts from the basic flexibility made available by the Web. While it is typically necessary to require students to log in, say, at least once per week, to review lesson plans and submit work for grading, the program should be essentially asynchronous; that is, students should be able to log in and complete their assignments based primarily upon their personal schedules.
Since teamwork is the hallmark of a project management environment, the program should emphasize and practice the basics of building teams online. This means that students must communicate and work together on the Web, with some of that communication being synchronous within the individual teams. This, of course, also reflects the typical project manager's work environment. Project managers must make and keep appointments within the teams they manage. They also should be able to make and keep appointments within their study teams. The key point here is that the participants should develop their own schedule.
Since teamwork is crucial in the project manager's world, a degree program for project managers should actively evaluate and grade the individual's interaction with the team. This interaction should constitute a significant portion of the overall grade. Designing the program in this manner gives participants an educational environment similar to that required in their work, and skill developed in the degree program will directly enhance their ability to perform in their work environment.
A Quality Program Should Use Current Course Materials. Current course materials are essential in any quality degree program. The nature of these current materials for an online program, however, is different from those in traditional degree programs. Clearly, online project management degree programs should be using the current project management literature in building the curriculum. The program should be designed around the current project management body of knowledge embodied in the PMBOK® Guide. It should draw from current project management periodicals and symposia proceedings, and should also require students to research project management materials online. Current texts should be used. In addition to all this, online students have the opportunity to obtain and use current materials drawn from the projects they are managing and from the procedures being used by their employers. This is a source of data unavailable to most classroom-based programs and is one that should play a major part in a quality online project management degree program.
A Quality Program Should Be Relevant to the Student's Career. In creating a quality project management degree program, never forget that the “students” are employed professionals working in the project management field. They are likely to be much more knowledgeable of their working environment and their career potential than the professor. Typically, however, students’ perspectives are limited to their own work histories. The competent professor should be able to provide a much broader view of the project management field. The challenge is to bring this broader perspective to the student and to the student's employer in a manner that can be used to improve both the student's potential and the employer's capabilities. Assignments should require new concepts and ideas to be tested in the student's working environment, with the results being analyzed by the individual student, his or her team, and the professor. These evaluations should specifically look for opportunities to help the student incrementally enhance the employer's project management procedures and practices.
The degree program, and the student's participation in it, can thus become part of a continuous improvement program for the organization's project management system, providing increased value to the employer as well as to the student. This in turn can provide a very real career enhancement for the student. Improving the policies and procedures used by the employer can help the organization mature in its use of project management. Being responsible for helping create these improvements can be a major asset in helping the project manager build his or her career. This form of instruction places high demands on the professor's competency. In a sense, the professor who uses this approach becomes an unofficial “consultant” to the employer as well as to the student. Potential students should carefully investigate a program's faculty to assure that each professor has the background for providing this form of assistance, and review typical assignments to assure that the professors are using this method of instruction.
DISTANCE LEARNING IS rapidly gaining a reputation as an effective potential source for earning an academic degree, but it is best applied to very specific target markets that have difficulty obtaining a degree through normal academic procedures. Because of the nature of project management work, project managers constitute one of these specified target markets. While it is now possible to obtain a masters degree in project management online, it is important that the professional thinking of pursuing this degree path understand the differences between a quality program taken in residence at a college or university and a quality program taken online. The value of the education to the professional will depend largely on the quality of the program selected. Most project management degree programs have websites available that describe the program's philosophy, content, and faculty. One program, developed in the manner described above, can be found at www.wcu.edu/cobmpm. ■
Reader Service Number 204
John R.Adams, Ph.D., is a professor of project management and the director of the Master of Project Management Degree Program at Western Carolina University. Adams initiated the MPM Degree Program in 1984, the first degree program of its kind at a nationally accredited university in the United States. In 1998 the program was migrated to the World Wide Web. Adams’ project management experience includes 20 years as a project and program manager with the U.S. Air Force. Widely published, Adams is a past president and chair of PMI®, and also served as PMI's first director for Educational Services and as vice president-Technical. He is an Honorary Lifetime Member and a Fellow of PMI.
October 2000 PM Network