Innovative strategies to help students survive, adapt, and attain prosperity in today's environment of change
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This paper examines the way project management is studied and practiced in two different programs (Masters in Instructional Technology and Students in Free Enterprise) in two different disciplines (Education and Business) in two different universities (Midwest and Northeast US). The comparison suggests that project management may have a broader application than is currently recognized and that modified versions of project management courses may have a place in the market.
Organizations are currently facing constant, rapid, diverse changes (Harrison, McKinnon, & Wu, 2000; Byham, 1999; Nah & Lau, 2001; Ulrich, 2000; Akkermans, & van Helden, 2002). Technology is a prime driver of the change along with market competitiveness and global expansion. Companies need to respond to the drivers, but also go beyond them by addressing the fundamental business processes within their organizations. Technology is not only causing significant change, but also, as it cycles through its short generations of new product version development, impelling change with impressive speed. Companies must develop new skills and processes to recognize those elements of change that can be made beneficial and use them to advance profitably. (Nah, & Lau, 2001; Ulrich, 2000; Akkermans, & van Helden, 2002). Colvin (1997) argues that creating a sustainable competitive advantage is more than using technology. Technology is the “price of entry” and must be developed, but the competitive advantage comes from developing people. Real competitive edge comes from focusing on and working with the culture, leadership, and overall character of the workforce. When observed at the present time through this prism, educational institutions, by the nature of their mission, have a dual goal. They need to concentrate on their own internal enhancement and adaptability of their culture, leadership, and workforce and also find the means to transfer it to the students, whom the institution serves, to enable them to become professionals who will be able to effectively improve the organizations in which they will work.
Collard (2002) argues that when companies change from stable environments to one of crisis, the leadership needs to change accordingly. Crisis situations are characterized by rapid change, intense criticality of time regarding taking action, and the need for clear communication. If schools are to survive in the crisis-ridden societal environment of today they need to adopt practices that will help them optimize the process of making decisions and taking action. Academic programs that prepare students to assume leadership positions in schools, districts, or broader educational organizations need to find the means to include in their preparation a set of skills that will enable them to survive and prosper when facing crisis situations. This paper explores the implications and benefits seen by two university-level programs and their students in the inclusion of project management principles and applications to help to solve educational and business-related problems. The programs in discussion here are both located in the United States: one a masters program in instructional technology at a Northeastern university and the other an initiative named Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) connected to an undergraduate business school at a Midwestern university.
Instructional Technology Specialist and Project Management
The Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS) Master Program discussed here is located in a Northeastern university of 8,000 to 9,000 students. The program is designed to prepare students to be skilled professionals who are capable of assuming leadership roles (e.g., Director of Technology) within the field of instructional technology in individual schools, school districts, or regional educational settings. The initial introduction to organizational management is done through course work in which the students learn about instructional system design and practice through projects on the application of systematic process to compose an instructional solution to organizational problems. In this process they learn about needs analysis, goals, design of solutions, development, implementation, and evaluation. This work enables them with the knowledge and skill necessary for them to carry on the projects they will deal with professionally.
In one of the last sequences of required courses, project management is addressed. Through readings, individual and group work, and discussions, the students are introduced to such principles of project management (PM) as defining the scope of a project, anticipating the elements of scope creep, establishing a development timeline, defining the cost of development, determining the level of quality of each deliverable and ways to measure it, deciding how many and what kind of professionals are needed to complete the tasks, ascertaining the communication channels and frequency necessary for completion of the project, creating a risk management strategy, and arranging for the procurement of the resources for the project. They then produce a report proposing a technology integration plan to solve a school problem by applying the project management principles discussed previously.
The work of an ITS requires constant interaction with a wide range of personnel, including teachers, administrators, students, institutions of higher education, and funding organizations. The ITS must know how, when, and with whom to persuade, demand, compromise, take orders, and postpone. To do this variety of communication well calls for both talent and acquired skill. Because clear and continual communication is a necessity in the career of ITS professionals, the course applying PM principles to ITS activity includes numerous exercises designed to promote communication in various forms: structured discussion, presentations, group work, and writing. In the process of learning about project management, for example, the students, after reading about it, discuss it in an instructor-led session, break into groups to prepare a presentation on a specific aspect of it, come together again for each group to present, and then evaluate the presentations. An important part of developing writing skills is supplied by the Web log, or blog, that each student creates at the beginning of the course. During the course, the students post blog entries that record student perceptions of their progress. Because reflection on the what, why, and how of the course activities is so important, blog guidelines tend to be specific. For example, after the completion of the course assignment “Project management applied to a Technology Integration Plan” the blog posting directions are “Write and post a reflection piece, 400 to 700 words long, on your learning experience of the project management approach and how it can be used to enhance technology integration projects in schools.”
Practicing Project Management in SIFE
In a slightly different environment, project management concepts were utilized to help support students involved in Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a global organization that supports free enterprise concepts at hundreds of colleges and universities around the world. At a Midwestern university of about 16,000 students, SIFE is a very active organization that develops and delivers training programs for disadvantaged youths in two local school districts. The SIFE team has won several awards for their work and is viewed as one of the premier student organizations on campus.
Part of their success stems from the fact that they have continued to develop their ability to effectively manage projects. As is the case in most situations, they support short term projects performed by a single individual as well as long term projects extended over several months and supported by students, faculty members, and volunteer business professionals.
In order to more effectively manage this complexity, the team has recognized the need to develop their leadership skills. Koestenbaum (2003) has developed a context for leadership called the “Leadership Diamond”. Within the structure of the Diamond, he develops the concepts of Vision, Reality, Ethics, and Courage as the main components of a leadership mind. The leadership theory that is employed at SIFE is similar to the Diamond and serves the team by simply accepting that leadership is synonymous with the acronym “VALUE”. The V stands for Vision and is articulated via the creation of a feasible Scope statement. This has become a standard term used within the SIFE team to ensure that everyone knows the objectives of the project. The AL stands for Alignment; the components of the project are aligned through a viable work breakdown structure (WBS) and Timeline. Extensive use of mind mapping via the Mind Jet software package supports the alignment and facilitates distribution of information among the people involved. The letter U stands for Understanding, which is ensured by frequent status meetings with the entire team to review projects. Lastly, the letter E stands for Enactment. The project is enacted and becomes a reality through execution and close attention to detail and follow through.
Over the past year, the team has successfully completed several long term projects. During this time, they successfully ran a week-long entrepreneurship camp for high school students, co-authored the development of a business plan for cognitively impaired students in one of the local high schools, developed a product/service offering to help 8th grade students transition to high school more successfully, and conducted numerous one-hour-long workshops in support of the local school systems.
But why were they successful? How did they apply project management concepts in support of these endeavors? Initially, many of the students were not sure what project management would do for them. They viewed it simply as a process of populating an MS Project timeline and did not see how it supports the comprehensive needs of the project. Evening work sessions designed to acquaint them with the project management concepts contained in the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) helped them over this hurdle. Another effective resource was the use of brainstorming software (Mind Jet) to develop and clarify the scope of the different projects. The project management concepts were then continually reinforced in status meetings by making the project plans visible and relevant.
Almost all of the students embraced the concepts quickly and demonstrated the ability to effectively manage projects by zeroing in on the key elements. However, project management can be an extensive discipline, so in this environment, the focus tended to be on the following four areas: 1. Create an unambiguous scope statement; 2. Identify who is going to do what, when; 3. Identify how progress is to be communicated; and 4. Expect accountability and follow through by everyone involved in the project. This approach has given the SIFE team the ability to apply the most relevant concepts to their environment while still exposing the students to the true breadth of project management knowledge.
Essentially, students need help to overcome two possible sticking points in their development of project management knowledge. The first is awareness. The evening sessions that facilitate their learning about the PMBOK® Guide help them over the first hurdle. The second involves implementation. By focusing on the elements that serve them the most, they are able to implement the concepts without getting bogged down in too much detail. Project elegance will come for them in time as they add more depth and breadth to their knowledge. While in school, they have the opportunity to learn and apply the concepts in a positive manner by focusing on the basic requirements for project success.
Students are on a steep learning curve and most of their academic pursuits are done with an eye toward the grade that they will receive. In the SIFE environment, they do not receive a grade. Instead, they get to see the successful completion of a project and a satisfied customer. These results are more relevant to the working environment, and the students truly prosper in an environment that empowers them to have an impact. Also, in the course of their university studies students are very frequently assigned to projects in their regular classes. Unfortunately, the concepts of project management are not developed extensively during the early years of their academic careers, and as a result they often struggle with many of their projects until they gain relevant experience. The SIFE students' learning about project management helps them both with their SIFE projects and with the myriad of projects they encounter during their normal course participation.
Overcoming Resistance in the Instructional Technology Specialist
The initial reaction of the students towards project management is of resistance. They cannot immediately establish the usefulness or relationship of its principles to the solution of school-related problems, and they cannot imagine being able to implement the necessary discipline and attention to detail in a school setting. Many, however, by the end of the course, come to embrace the PM process. This is illustrated by excerpts from reflective blog postings.
As one student put it,
The biggest reflection of the Project Management approach is the differences between business and public education. Project Management is a common thing and the way we do business. We use planning tools, scope out the project, and address issues on quality and risk management every day. All of this comes natural to us in the corporate world. It just seems so much more difficult to do this in the schools. Another student's reflection says:
Project management is not a new concept to me. I have used the process informally over the last ten years…. Any project that is a one-of-a-kind enterprise…presents a complex management situation with many variables, some of which may be unknown…. The very worst part of the process is to have to provide answers…regarding one or more of the unknown variables…. I must both make up the answer and supporting data, and hope that all will work out…. The new information I have gained in this course…will help me to identify and document those unknown variables…. On the downside of learning new information about project management, I can no longer approach a project, size it up based on past experience, and dive right in hoping for a successful outcome. [The PM process]…is unwieldy and unwise in terms of both time and financial responsibility for an organization to rely on those skills in a single person…. While I will seek to use my new project management knowledge in my professional capacities, I believe I will continue to be restricted by limited time resources to provide just-in-time solutions….
So far, in this course I have learned a lot of new information about project management as a whole, as well as the intricacies of the management process. I had never heard of a Gantt chart before this class, nor had I participated in a project management plan that the team actually wrote out the potential risks, risk management, or thought about the communication process. It seems focus was primarily on getting the job completed and our successes were pure luck.
As someone who works professionally in the educational technology field, I am involved in many technology integration projects, both as a key player, and an observer. It seems to me that far too often projects are taken on and implemented…with lack of forethought and planning…. When troubles such as maintenance, compatibility, training, or a host of others arise (as they are bound to in this scenario), there is no idea how to deal with them At this point, the finger pointing usually starts. The project dies a not-so-peaceful death, and the players go their separate ways…. I remember several years ago, a consultant came into the institution to give a seminar on project management. There was grumbling from some participants who couldn't understand why they were being asked to attend. I still remember a quote from one attendee: “Project management? Why do we have to listen to that? We don't do that here…” By studying the risks and scope creep items and developing a contingency plan for the inevitability of the less-than-ideal situation, we greatly enhance our chances of success.
The ITS students included in this discussion generally shared the perceptions shown in the above postings. Many were impressed with the logic and practicality of the PM principles and at the same time found the complete PM process too time-consuming, too complete, too ideal, to be practiced in its entirety in their workplace. Most indicated, however, that they would like to be able to.
SIFE Students' Reaction to Project Management
There are two students in the SIFE team who truly maximized their learning with regard to PM principles. One was the president of the local SIFE (referred to here as K), and the other a SIFE project manager (referred to here as L). When asked about project management and the effect it had on them, here is what they said.
K said that initially he thought project management meant handling a project, but he did not know the details. Now it is much broader and makes a lot of sense. To approximate K's statement, “You start with the scope, lay out the work breakdown structure, do a timeline, and manage the resources. Without the focus on the scope statement we would all come to the project with different opinions and expectations.” Defining a clear Scope has been very valuable for him. He also said that resistance is not significant in the student population. Once they see how Project Management will serve them, they are very willing to embrace the concepts.
L also reinforced the ideas of a scope statement and student acceptance, but he went on to state how important project management would have been for him to learn earlier in his college career. He felt that incorporation of the concepts into academic curricula would be very valuable. He also learned the importance of a good risk management plan and emphasized the need to be very clear in the planning phase regarding what contingencies might come up and how best to handle them. He did acknowledge that in one of his projects, he did not have alternative strategies clearly documented, and as a result had to do some last minute scrambling to get the project completed.
These students are engaged in learning about project management. PM concepts are helping them deal with the ambiguity of their projects, and by having the PM framework to operate within they are able to assess what needs to improve in future projects. They both stated very clearly that more marketing of PM to students is needed in order to show them the benefits and that PM should be included as part of the academic projects that they are assigned.
This comparison of different programs demonstrates the broad application of PM principles and suggests that including PM in diverse courses of study may be a highly useful addition. Fields as diverse as psychology and stage design, biology and debate, any course, in fact, where a task must be completed within a set of conditions, might benefit from the PM process. PM could perhaps be equated with English, not specifically taught in all courses but understood to be necessary in all, or at least most, courses in an English-speaking environment.
Another perspective generated by this discussion is that an abbreviated version of PM, a PM “light,” might be more practical in some instances. Studying the environment of public schools, for example, could enlarge understanding of what parts of PM, and what intensity, would be possible, and practical, to apply there. This could result in designing specialized PM training that would impact specific venues.
Students like those whose comments are reviewed above could well be qualified, or want expend a little extra effort to become qualified, to earn Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM®) certification, the newly developed certification standard instituted by PMI. Although CAPM® is designed for people with less experience than those attracted to the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification, its value is built on the solid project management concepts of PMBOK® Guide. Two specific steps would help such students begin the journey toward CAPM®:
- Acquaint them with the PMBOK® Guide and Project Management concepts in a way that serves them in their daily activities. The SIFE program does that by incorporating the concepts into the attainment of the program's projects while the ITS program includes the concepts as an integral part of the curriculum.
- Encourage them to document their efforts within the process areas of Initiation, Planning, Executing, Managing and Controlling, and Closing. By doing so, they are learning what is included in these concepts and also building a personal portfolio of experiences to be used in the CAPM® application process when appropriate.
Both of these steps would serve the student population well. It would give them the structure to help with their projects and encourage them, while still in school, to lay out their personal plans for attainment of the CAPM® certification. By getting involved in student organizations such as SIFE and learning to apply good project management techniques, they will do better in school, be more marketable when they graduate, and be better positioned to launch their professional careers as project managers.
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© 2005, Mike Callahan & Celina Byers
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada
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