Home-grown versus store-bought project management training
what to choose and when
Josephine Stevens is Chief Operating Officer of a fictitious 150-person software development company called Satellite Software. Satellite has just acquired project management software to be used by each of the company's 10 product managers. Stevens must now decide how to train these people. “Send one of our Computer Systems people to a course,” she orders the Director of Product Development, “and then he can come back and train everyone else in how to use it.”
Michael Parks, Human Resources Development Manager of a fictitious 3000-person pharmaceutical company called Perpetual Pharmaceutical, faces the same situation. But he elects to hire an outside consultant to set up and administer all of his corporate training.
Each of our decision makers has specific needs to address, within an overall corporate structure. They have analyzed those needs, placed them within their internal contexts, factored in the trade-offs which are always a part of such decisions, and gone in different directions. And both decisions may well be correct!
When should you use internal staff to conduct project management training? When does it make more sense to seek such training outside your own company? The following criteria should always be weighed when facing such a decision:
- Is your corporate culture habituated to project management?
- How specific is each of your projects?
- How is training perceived and evaluated?
- How complex a curriculum do you
- What is most cost effective?
We begin with the most crucial of these factors—the cultural climate in which project management is being conducted.
Cultural Change vs. Tweaking
Project management techniques demand new perceptions and new ways of working: upper management must understand the inevitable trade-offs between time, money, and quality and be prepared to decide what will be sacrificed or where extra resources will be required; functional managers must collaborate with project managers to provide the right people at the right time; and employees used to a functional management hierarchy within their organization must learn to negotiate the tricky terrain of serving two masters—the project manager and the functional manager.
The success of any project ultimately depends on the understanding and commitment of every member of the organization. All members of the project, from the accounts payable clerk through the chemist or engineer, must recognize the interdependence of everyone on the project team and understand that even their own specialized functions have far-reaching implications for the project as a whole.
These currents of interdependence and accountability run both ways on a project. In a conventional hierarchical organization, this way of working represents a difficult shift, as dramatic as a switch from fission to fusion. Both modes of operation generate lots of heat and light, but, on an atomic level, require very different ways of working.
Just as athletes may need coaches, organizations like Satellite Software that are new to project management may need objective guidance in instituting such a radical change. They need change agents who are unaffected by in-house corporate politics, or at least who are perceived as being unaffected. Rather than regarding her company's project management training as a simple expenditure, Josephine Stevens needs to view it as an opportunity to implement the kind of cultural change that will be essential to its success. She should seriously consider either external training or outside consultants, with the goal of both assisting and assessing the major transition that Satellite Software is about to go through. The consulting company has guided many other clients through the metamorphosis ahead.
On the other hand, Michael Parks' company, Perpetual Pharmaceutical, is no stranger to project management techniques. They're almost a hallmark of the industry, where the time and maze of testing and licensing activities required for each new product demand rigorous scheduling and cost analysis. For his company, acquiring new project management software is like acquiring a new car. The steering and controls may take some getting used to, but the method of getting from here to there is essentially the same.
Yet the cultural impact of the new software is but one issue which other factors may outweigh in the decision algorithm.
Unique vs. Template Projects
Highly specific projects, or those on very tight deadlines (such as a power plant outage which is scheduled in hours) may require an in-house person to train planners in the development process for specific project networks. A knowledge of general principles is not enough in these cases. The trainer must understand the specifics of the project's life cycle to help students come up with viable alternatives and what-if scenarios.
As any software developer will testify, each project is one-of-a-kind. Josephine Stevens could identify some milestones like “programming started,” “code compiled,” “documentation sent to the printer,” etc., but the specific activities associated with those milestones can vary significantly from one project to the next. If Satellite is developing a completely new product, the programming activities may be many and complex, while the documentation activities might be relatively straightforward. On the other hand, a simple software update may be a trivial programming task but a major documentation headache. No one project management template will work for all of Satellite's projects. Each project will require unique project management and each project manager will be facing uniquely different challenges.
For Perpetual Pharmaceutical, the project life cycle is relatively unchanging. While development time may vary from drug to drug, the testing and approval seeking activities are fairly constant. Other industries like home construction or highway repair also engage in fairly uniform, repetitive projects. For these businesses, a very experienced outside trainer might be useful to help develop a single master network which the internal project managers can then clone, tweak, and refine from one project to the next.
Stature vs. Familiarity
Trainers at Satellite Software take time from their regular jobs to teach classes. The instructors therefore know intimately the specific situations, the political considerations, and the internal procedures which must be addressed. Additionally, an internal instructor may have a more direct relationship with the students and, as significantly, with their supervisors.
But this is a double-edged sword. When taught on site, by a co-worker, there is less likelihood of the students treating the course with the seriousness it deserves—it's too much like every other day. A final examination, with certification or promotion for passing, can help this problem. But it's important to keep in mind that ongoing relationships between instructors and students pose certain risks. Instructors are less likely to “flunk” an inadequately prepared student if that student is their friend, or if they're aware of the job-related consequences of not passing. An outside trainer can more objectively assess each student's performance, without concern for the long-range impact on the student's job or on their day-to-day relationship.
Michael Parks likes to use outside vendors whenever possible so that he can more objectively evaluate them. At Perpetual Pharmaceutical, as at many companies, dedicated internal trainers are rare. Their principal job is usually something else—customer support, MIS, or human resources. Thus, no one wants to be too harsh on internal instructors because they probably weren't hired to teach. By purchasing training, Parks can apply the same rigorous standards he would use in buying any other service or product.
Further, he's found that outside vendors are automatically granted a level of credibility usually denied to internal trainers. A purchased course generally has more status; students come to it thinking “If the company is paying for this course and instructor, they're probably pretty good.” Even more important, students think “If the company is sending me to this course, they must be serious about implementing project management. I'd better make sure I get something out of it.”
And, of course, an independently delivered and graded exam serves as an evaluation of both the students and the instructor.
Standard vs. Customized Curriculum
When Michael Parks took over responsibility for corporate training, he thought that the ideal would be to have a series of interconnected courses, customized specifically for how Perpetual does business. Such a curriculum would, of course, require a large pool of internal instructors and course developers.
Now that he's done the job for a couple of years, his philosophy has shifted slightly. He still favors the idea of a large and very modular curriculum. It's clear that everyone needs a slightly different knowledge and skill set relating to project management. Top level executives need to know how to interpret the project status information they'll be getting, but they certainly don't ever have to lay hands on the project management tools being employed. Schedulers need to know their way around the software, but can remain blissfully unaware of market window or contingency planning associated with the project. In light of these differing needs, a series of incremental, specific courses targeted to different subgroups is preferable to a couple of mammoth courses for everyone. This kind of curriculum would seem to argue in favor of an internal training staff, one that could ensure that the courses dovetail properly.
On the other hand, teaching highly specific skills is not the same as using highly specific examples. Parks found that in courses using case studies based on Perpetual's actual products and organization, students got bogged down in the details. For example, they argued about who was likely to report to whom, instead of grasping the larger concept of how Work and Organizational Breakdown Structures should intersect. One advantage to more generic, off-the-shelf courses taught by outside vendors was that they don't allow for in-jokes and haggling over specifics. They permit students to see the forest rather than become obsessed over the number of trees.
Parks' ideal is to have a modular, well-integrated curriculum developed and taught by an outside vendor. He believes that this will give the company's curriculum both objectivity and internal consistency. This is a sensible and cost-effective model for a large company like Perpetual Pharmaceutical. But what about a smaller company like Satellite Software? Their training needs are simpler. They need to teach a smaller range of skills to a more homogeneous audience. That, combined with earnings one-tenth those of Perpetual, suggests that a different approach may make more pedagogic and financial sense.
Recurring vs. One-Time Costs
There are a few obvious truths about the cost of training. If offered by an internal person, it may not be good but it will probably be cheap. However, as with anything else, the cost of training declines with volume. The more people a company trains, the lower the per-person cost, particularly if they contract with outside trainers who will come on-site. (On-site training also offers the less tangible benefit of being automatically somewhat customized, simply by virtue of the application-informed questions the students ask.)
Further, there is no guarantee that training by an internal person is better. Indeed, unless the content is very application-specific, it probably won't be. Outside vendors are professional trainers. Of necessity, their instructors are competent at least, superb at best. They bring a breadth of experience and knowledge of other applications to the classroom that an internal person cannot match.
For Satellite Software, the cost of developing customized training is not justified. There is a low turnover rate among the work force, so there will be little need for repeated training. With such one-time costs, either the one or two people who receive outside training should put together a course, or a completely generic package should be purchased from a vendor. If the internal option is used, the course will almost certainly not be as polished. The internal trainers can offset this disadvantage by doing what a vendor can't, i.e., make the course as application and company specific as possible.
For Michael Parks, the cost issue is quite different. At any given time, at least 300 Perpetual employees must be skilled in various aspects of project management practices and software. Further, the identities of those 300 people will shift fairly often, as technicians, statisticians, and doctors migrate back and forth between hospitals, universities, and Perpetual Pharmaceutical, so the training need will be ongoing. Finally, due to the wealth of other training requirements in a company of its size and technical sophistication, Perpetual already has a well-established infrastructure to develop and deliver training.
For Parks, sending 300 people annually to off-site courses is financially out of the question. Even scheduling twenty on-site courses each year is pretty exorbitant. For Perpetual, as for many companies, the best route is to use an outside training vendor to complement the internal training structure that already exists.
How Outside Vendors Can Support Internal Trainers
In a support role, outside vendors are generally most useful to large organizations with ongoing training needs and an infrastructure to support them. Project management training specialists can customize an existing generic course for a particular company, or they can develop company-specific workshops for use in a generic class. They can also serve as subject matter experts for an internal course developer and operate on a consulting basis.
Perpetual Pharmaceutical is going to a single vendor from whom they will license all their project management training. Under the terms of their agreement, the outside vendor will train and certify all of Perpetual's internal instructors, and provide them with Instructor Guides and overhead transparencies. In addition, they will give Perpetual a camera-ready copy of a Student Guide, to be reproduced as needed. In addition to paying for instructor training and materials, Perpetual will pay this outside vendor an up-front licensing fee valid for the first 300 Student Guides printed. They will then pay a modest royalty (which decreases as volume increases) for all additional Student Guides reprinted.
Beyond being subject matter experts, outside vendors can often serve as instructional technology specialists as well. In the future, Satellite Software may want to purchase some form of computer-based training (CBT) or videotapes, while Perpetual Pharmaceutical can afford to invest in interactive videodisc training. Many course development companies can produce such training products, either entirely on their own or with the client serving as subject matter expert.
Josephine Stevens and Michael Parks have evaluated their companies' project management training needs and have elected two different approaches to addressing those needs. They've considered corporate culture, project templates vs. unique projects, training costs, and trainers' status. In attempting to choose between external or internal training, they've each elected an approach that satisfies a combination of needs. Good project management training doesn't have to be either internal or external. Nor does it necessarily have to be expensive, application oriented, or prestigious. Good project management training is what best suits the needs of each individual company.
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October 1989 pm network