Exploring the potential for professionalization of project management


The Project Management Institute (PMI®) has undertaken the mission of “Building Professionalism in Project Management.”® Over 65% of the PMI's membership already identify project management as a profession. However, in the study of professions, project management is notably absent. According to traditional definitions of professions, project management would not qualify—in many countries it is not even recognized as an occupation for statistical reporting purposes. What then does project management need to do to achieve this societal recognition as a profession? This research addresses these questions in the context of the choices facing the PMI and all others interested in these considerations.

The journey that occupations undertake to evolve into professions can be a long and protracted one. This is evident, for example, in the progress of the nursing occupation as it evolved from the “handmaiden” role of one that provides a lot of TLC, to that of the independent healthcare professional. The purpose of this research is to present a framework within which to consider the professionalization possibilities of Project Management. We will look at other occupations and the paths to professionalization they have traveled, or are traveling, learn what we can about their journey, and assess how this knowledge can be used to further the cause of pro-fessionalization for Project Management.

Traditional professions faced the challenge of convincing the public and governments that it was in the public interest to grant control of the practice to the practitioners in exchange for assurances of an increase in the standards of practice and better service to the public. In Canada, the UK, and the U.S.A most of the professions evolved from the activities of practitioners who were successful in receiving public recognition of their claim to privilege and status. However, professional status in the future may be more difficult to obtain, governments are more reluctant to intervene in the occupational market and professional organizations will have to work harder to gain governmental approval and support. It is clear that the social and cultural conditions that gave rise to the modern professions have changed and that the emerging occupations must seek new paths in their quest for professionalization.

All professional types of occupations are faced with new challenges. In every case, threats to the maintenance of professional in-dependence or to the advancement of that independence are increasing with the absorption of all knowledge workers either into employment in very large organizations or acting as contractors to very large and dominant organizations, both public and private. The modern corporation is characterized by a focus on short-term profitability rather than long-term market strength. The value of professional standards and values is, therefore, easily compromised in the corporate world. A discussion of the professionalization activities of teachers, nurses and social workers and the relevance of their activities to project management can be found in “Exploring the Past to Map the Future: Investigating the Development of Established Professions to Understand the Professionalization of Project Management,” Zwerman, Thomas and Haydt, PMI Research Conference 2002, Seattle.

Project management is developing in an era dominated by large corporate structures that have very few ties to locale, and/or community. The social world of the 21st century moves quickly, operating under extreme stress, and has little time for the kinds of interpersonal activities that formed the basis of the occupational communities of doctors and lawyers. This is a world where few “professionals”’ have time for extended coffee sessions, parties, extended evening meetings, and all those other semi-social activities that help draw people together to form a common occupational culture. Project managers do not have individuals as clients, clients who will wait “patiently” to see them and defer to their professional judgment. Project managers must also contend with employers who seek maximum control over their employees; employees become accustomed to serving the short-term interests of the corporation more often than long-term concerns.

PMI is now faced with a number of decisions, not the least of which is how to pursue the course of professionalization; that choice requires an analysis of the actions that would have to be taken and the tradeoffs implied. This paper presents findings from the initial phase of a partially PMI-funded research project commissioned to explore the historical development of existing professions to map the potential for professionalization of project management. Drawing from the experience of other professional occupations, this paper examines required elements to move toward professionalization, and the alternative paths that could be taken to arrive at this outcome.

Requirements for Professionalization

Regardless of the specific path taken toward “professionalization,” several lines of activity would need to be pursued. Each of these topics is introduced below with reference to the actions of other potential professions, and to the implications for project management in accomplishing this goal (Ritzer).

Monopoly Over Use of the Name

The term “Project Manager” must be captured and controlled. As long as anyone can use that designation without regard to training or certification, it will be impossible to create an occupation that can lay claim to “professional” status. All analyses of “professionaliza-tion” processes include this criterion; but it should not be viewed in absolute terms. Registered nurses really don't care much about whether someone receives an informal designation of “nurse” here or there. What they protect is the center of their occupational world, hospitals, doctors’ offices, and clinics. Furthermore, the protection of that designation or “name” is an ongoing process, a continuing part of the struggle between occupations, and between occupations and employers, to achieve control over their work. This will require lobbying and related activities to win right to that “name” and then continuing efforts to police the use of the name.

Definition of the Field

What's in and what's out. All claims to professionalization include a negotiated statement regarding what the practitioners include in their claims and what they leave out. Doctors don't claim control or competency over everything in the domain of work in health. Teachers don't claim the exclusive right to practice in all learning situations. What “projects” will “professional” project managers assume as theirs and what will be left to anyone who wants them? Where does the casual practitioner fit into the world of projects and where does the “professional” project manager enter. Not all projects are equal and not all projects require a professional. Again, this is an ongoing process and the limits of the practice will be negotiated through time. Nurses do a number of things today that they did not do 20 years ago, witness the Nurse Practitioner.

Body of Knowledge

The most cynical of conflict theorists recognizes that the claim to “professional status” ultimately rests on the ability of the practitioners to lay claim to command, more or less exclusive command, of an esoteric body of knowledge which they declare to be essential to good practice. Virtually every analyst agrees on this. The inability to make this claim convincingly is, perhaps, the primary factor responsible for the failure of teachers and social workers to achieve full recognition as “professionals.” Nurses, on the other hand, suffer not from the lack of a “hard scientific” body of knowledge, but rather from the fact that another group of professionals, physicians and surgeons, has laid claim to controlling that body of knowledge. The PMBOK® Guide is a significant step in the right direction but the development of a full blown body of knowledge for project management will require a great deal of elaboration. The short statements on communication in the PMBOK® Guide would need to be elaborated in the context of PM, methodologies would have to be developed in an integrated context, control of the process would require a great deal of attention, indeed every aspect of the PMBOK® Guide would need to become the subject of elaboration and research.

Indeed, while the creation and maintenance of PMBOK® Guide is a step in the right direction to accomplish this goal, PMBOK® Guide does not hold an exclusive position in the world of project management doctrines. There are other project management guidelines promulgated by other project management professional associations worldwide as well as those crafted by individual gurus and large companies. Without agreement on what this body of knowledge is and who is in charge of developing and maintaining it, professionalization will be difficult to achieve.


There has been an emphasis on upgrading knowledge and developing the associated educational programs in every case of a modern occupation striving to upgrade to “professional” status. The major established professions and the three semi-professions of particular interest to Project Management, teaching, social work and nursing, have captured a home in universities laying claim to their own faculty/college. Accounting is the only profession that resides in someone else's home, business and management faculty/colleges; the others all have their own “Deans.” Project Management is found in one of several locations, including business, engineering, and planning. In addition, leading edge training in project management often resides within corporate training and consulting organizations and entirely outside the academic realm associated with higher education. Development of a recognized academic discipline will be crucial to the professional-ization project. Much work will be required on the development of an academic discipline and the integration of that discipline into the educational offerings of those specialized short courses in PM. There will always be a demand for a wide array of educational offerings, ranging from short courses offering an introduction to PM, and specialized short programs to full university degrees (Abbott).

Certification/Licensing and Control

Some decisional body must be given responsibility for designating who is qualified to practice. This may be very complicated with a number of certification and licensing alternatives such as are found in medicine. This may be much simpler as in the more generic licensing of teachers. In any event, if there is no effective certification and/or licensing scheme than it will be impossible for practitioners to lay claim to any sort of special status or privileges. This is the key to control of the name and to control of admission to practice.

Professional Associations

The associations become the center of control for the practitioners; they represent the interests of the practitioners to the outside world. Individual practitioners cannot conduct the struggle for recognition and privilege alone. A strong association mediates between public and private authorities on behalf of practitioners. The strength of the professional association is directly associated with the power and influence that accrues to that profession.

Obstacles on the Road to Professionalization

The two obstacles to professionalization that confront Project Management but that the established professions did not have to are corporate employers and governments that are reluctant to intervene. Understanding the role of these two institutions in the profession-alization process will be critical to achieving professionalization.

The Role of the Corporation

The modern corporation, public or private, is focused on control of employees in the service of short-term needs. Minimizing employee numbers and labor costs has become a way of life in many corporate systems. The professional demands independence of operation to follow “best practices” and maintain ethical standards. The pressure on professionals to give up their professional standards and act as servants to the short term needs of the employer is clearly demonstrated in the case of Enron and Arthur Andersen. The ability to amass sufficient influence to counter the expediency of the modern corporation is a prerequisite for professionalization today (Aldridge, 1996).

The Role of Government

Contemporary governments are not very responsive to requests for licensing and certification. The combination of ignorance and inertia creates a significant obstacle. Traditional lore defines the services of the professionals as essential to the well being of society. Your health, welfare, and financial situation, among others, are served by the professionals. Today's new “professional” occupations are vital to the well being of our societies. The links between the traditional professions seemed to be obvious as their services impacted directly on the lives individuals or the operations of small businesses.

Linkages between services to large corporations and the general health and welfare of the “nation” are not that obvious to all involved. Governments have not yet awoken to the fact that virtually all of the modern infrastructures of the political economy are to be created and managed by an army of unregulated workers. If ours is a world becoming “projecticized” then project managers are moving to the center of that system. Project managers, software developers and other emerging occupations may very well find one day that the governments of the world have taken notice and are ready to act. If/when such a day occurs, those occupations will be in a much stronger position if they have been the initiators of the new regulators, rather than becoming subject to regulations imposed from on high.

Given that these obstacles can be overcome, there are several different paths toward professionalization. Choices will need to be made. A few alternative paths derived from the study of other professions are discussed in the next section.

Alternative Paths to Professionalization

Paths that may be pursued can be categorized under four generic options. These are the state/province, the nation, the corporation or the associations. These are not mutually exclusive choices and a combination of them may be utilized at the same time.


This is the traditional path chosen in the United States and Canada. Certification and licensing are the prerogatives of the members of the federation. Each state licenses doctors and each province licenses lawyers. This is the route that CIPS (the Canadian Information Processing Society) has chosen to follow. CIPS is moving province-by-province through the nation with a voluntary certification program (www.Cips.ca). This certification package is one that CIPS created and that they manage. They are reorganizing the association around provincial bodies, a requirement of the certification process and they are developing a layered association with categories of membership reflecting their thrust toward professionalization. Their ISP (Information Systems Professional) designation is being negotiated as a standard for immigration purposes and is being advanced as a guide for employment. The certification is built around a combination of education and experience.


An alternative to the state/province route is the national route. This is being pursued in Australia with the most elaborate system for certifying Project Managers. The Standards advanced by the Australian Institute of Project Management were approved on the recommendation of the Australian National Training Authority Standards and Curriculum Council in June 1996. The Australian Institute of Project Management is undertaking the ongoing development of standards and has assumed the management of the certification program. The Australian government provides a vehicle for the association to use in their pursuit of professionalization.

While this route is not commonly taken in Canada or the United States, a notable exception can be found in the case of The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This body was formed following a scathing report on teaching in the United States. The report was commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation and culminated in the formation of an independent national body to oversee a new process of certification of teachers. The foundation's goals are to (1) raise minimum education standards for teachers, (2) introduce voluntary board certification, and (3) restructure schools to include a two-tiered system of teachers. The undergraduate degree in teaching is to be eliminated and be replaced by a system where prospective teachers first obtain a bachelor's degree in a substantive area, followed by a master's degree in the science of teaching as the minimum requirement to enter the field (Labaree, 1992, p. 124). Following this, they propose an optional clinical internship period in a “professional development school” where they might specialize in a given area (similar to a teaching hospital) and after this, they are given the option to obtain certification as a professional teacher via an exam taken from the proposed National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) (Labaree, 1992, p. 124).

Under this system, the structure of teaching would be transformed so that a hierarchy would replace the existing undifferen-tiated structure (ibid). The elite of the structure would consist of “lead teachers,” who have credentials beyond the master's level (such as a clinician or PhD) and possibly board certification (ibid). Lead teachers would be higher paid and would have a supervisory designation. As of March 2002, 48 states have provided legislation or policy incentives to encourage participation in board certification provided by the NBPTS; 411 school districts are currently participating (www.nbpts.org). There are now 300 testing centers in the U.S., indicating that the trend to professionalized teaching in the U.S. is established and growing. The national route is certainly worth considering in all cases.


The corporation will remain a dominant figure in the certification process and will appear in at least two guises. First, the corporation will certify it own people when there is a proprietary system at stake, as do software companies today. Secondly, some corporations will intervene to establish their own certification systems when they feel it is in their best interests, as in the case of defense departments and some other private and public organizations. Relationships with the corporate world will be managed over time; the strength of the party(ies) negotiating on behalf of project managers will be a key to the value of the corporate certification programs. Special programs developed within corporations can have negative consequences for PM, as well as positive payoffs. These efforts might decrease the autonomy of project managers and ultimately the recognition of project management as a profession outside the few corporations who pursue this path. If the programs of the several large corporations that develop specialized paths for PM are not subsumed under a large program for certification/licensing then these programs could undermine the autonomy of the project managers and their associations.


Ultimately, the key to the success of professionalization efforts will rest with the association representing project managers. If professionalization is to proceed, a set of national or international associations must be chosen to lead the professionalization process. At the very least, there will need to be one designated national association for each area. If the intent is to internationalize project management then a set of organizations with an international presence will have to be established. It is extremely unlikely that the professionalization process could achieve success in the face of competing national organizations or even in the case where incompatible international organizations claim common jurisdictions. This effort requires that practitioners accept the authority of the association and live with the benefits and frustrations resulting from that acceptance. It also requires some coming together of the various associations and a commitment to work together to avoid diluting their influence.

Implications for the Practitioners

There are serious implications for project management practitioners found embedded within these lessons learned from other professions. We conclude by presenting some conflicting views on the basis for certification/licensing and their impact on the individuals involved.

Arguments to Increasing Certification

The arguments over certification and licensing often go something like this: “Well, just because you are certified doesn't mean you're a good project manager”; “Taking a test won't tell you anything about whether or not she is a good project manager”; and “He has a lot of experience by he doesn't know anything.” There are all sorts of extensions of this.

Both established professions and those that aspire to it, utilize three techniques for certification—education, testing and experience. These are not mutually exclusively. Finally, certification and licensing are not designed to eliminate poor performance or to guarantee a very high standard in all cases. The value of licensing doctors came from eliminating thousands of quacks and incompetents and raising the general standard. As a consumer or patient, it is still up to you to find a “good” physician. The potential values arising through certification/licensing (professionalization) of project management are:

•  raising the general level of practice

•  Increasing the status of the practitioners

•  Increasing the rewards for practicing project managers

•  Screening out most of the individuals who should not be claiming that they are competent to practice.

Responsibilities (Costs?) of Professionalization

The effort required for the professionalization process is a significant challenge to the commitment of those who embark on this journey. The benefits of professionalization accrue to the majority of practitioners but the superstars often fail to see any benefit. Michael Jordan doesn't need the players’ union but most of the NBA players benefit from it. Many of the most successful practitioners are likely to oppose the constraints imposed on them.

Another consideration that will affect the response of members is the recognition of the liability assumed through professional-ization. The liability assumed by an uncertified, unlicensed worker is considerably less than that assumed by a registered, licensed member of a profession. The seal of the engineer or architect, the signature of the physician or lawyer, or the mistake of the dentist carries with it a personal liability associated with “bad” practice. A failed project, managed by an ordinary employee does not carry the same possibility for the assumption of personal liability.


It is most likely that these questions will be dealt with incrementally over time, or by the imposition of certification and licensing by governments should they finally get around to it. It would be best for all project managers if they take a proactive approach in pursuing certification/licensing.

This research is designed to ensure that project managers have access to all the input and historical lessons available, to learn from professionals who have already trod this path. The next phase of this research will endeavor to identify current best practices in pursuing the goal of professionalization.


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

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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