Innovative techniques in training and development of project management personnel


John Tuman, Jr.

Gilbert/Commonwealth Companies


G. Gil Seigler

The training program of Virginia Electric and Power Company's (VEPCO) Power Station Engineering and Construction (PSE&C) group originated from some very practical considerations and was designed to alleviate several very real problems. Both well-tested training methods and innovative techniques have gone into its development. Although this development is still in progress, enough of the program has been initiated so that a report on its design, development, and implementation can be given. VEPCO's PSE&C training program is unique in the utility industry, and its experience provides some useful insights.

Background and Goals

During the 1970's, Virginia Electric and Power Company, like many other utilities, faced a rapidly changing environment. The demand for electricity was increasing greatly, the financial outlook was especially complex, and regulatory agencies were seeking more and more information. Also, VEPCO began to build multiple power stations employing new technologies and new management approaches. This situation prompted VEPCO to take a more active role in controlling construction projects by expanding its project management capability. A major element in this program was the development of a data base project information and control system, called Project Information and Control System (PICS) to provide information in a concise and uniform fashion.

As part of the effort to assume more control over projects, a decision was made to design and implement a training program. The initial goals set for this program were to instruct personnel in both the theory of project management and its application and to explain the methods and techniques used at VEPCO, emphasizing particularly the specific characteristics of VEPCO's Project Information and Control System. This program was intended to be wideranging, flexible, and capable of further development and enhancement as the times required.

Organizing for the Training Program

The first step in establishing the training program was to define the categories of personnel to be trained and the areas in which they should be trained. Both ongoing VEPCO project people and project support groups, which are ultimately responsible for operating the PICS system and for providing project control services, were surveyed and analyzed to determine their staffing requirements. The categories of personnel who would be candidates for training were established on the basis of this analysis. Table 1 shows those categories.

Table 1 Categories of Personnel to be Trained

1. New Hires — This would include experienced as well as inexperienced personnel, generally with the following types of backgrounds:

A. Individuals with little or no industrial or utility experience — primarily recent college graduates.

B. Technically qualified individuals (planners, schedulers, estimators, accountants, etc.) from industries other than the utility industry.

C. Technically qualified individuals from other electric utility companies or utility related businesses.

2. Existing VEPCO Personnel — A number of in-house project and non-project personnel would be candidates for training; generally they would include:

A. Technically qualified individuals with little or no power station project experience.

B. Individuals with little or no project experience who need to develop specific technical skills.

C. Experienced project personnel who need training to advance to management positions or other technical disciplines.

D. Individuals from the functional VEPCO organizations who will interface with the project in some manner.

3. Other Personnel — Others not directly employed by VEPCO who might be a candidate for training, including:

A. Key individuals from A/E, Vendor, and Contractor organizations who, because of their involvement in VEPCO projects, need to become knowledgeable of VEPCO's policy, procedures, systems, and methods.

B. Individuals from utility related organizations who need to learn about PICS and VEPCO's systems, procedures, and methodologies.

The next task was to identify the topics or subject matter an individual must know in order to be an effective member of a project or project support teams. Initially, six broad areas were defined which project personnel should be knowledgeable about:

1. The Industry — Those involved in power station design and construction projects should have a good understanding of the requirements, regulations, problems, and needs of the industry in which they are working. They must be well versed in the rules and regulatory requirements which affect their immediate area of responsibility.

2. The Company — Project personnel must be thoroughly knowledgeable of VEPCO's policy, procedures, and management philosophy. Furthermore, they must have a clear understanding of how the company is organized and what the duties, functions, and responsibilities of each organizational unit are. They must also know how to get things done.

3. The Project — Personnel involved in the project must have a clear understanding of the goals of the project and the plans, procedures, and organization for accomplishing these goals. In addition, they must have some command of the technology of the project and understand not only the systems to be built but also the methods involved in designing and constructing the facility.

4. The Technical Discipline — Project specialists must have a command of their disciplines. Thus, the theory and techniques of planning, scheduling, estimating, cost management, accounting, and other project disciplines are particularly important in the training program.

5. Project Management — All project participants must have a clear understanding of how projects are managed and what is involved in their planning, staffing, organizing, and reporting functions. In addition, project managers must clearly understand what their project support people can do for them.

6. The Project Management Information & Control System — Project personnel must understand in detail, the project information and control tools available to do the job. This includes not only the computer software but also the procedures and routines for efficient accomplishment of required project management tasks. Management must be aware of the capabilities of the system and its limitations — what it can and cannot do for them.

These areas provided criteria for the development and selection of the specific topics and courses of study. The next step involved defining the level of detail to be provided in the training program. Considerable thought was given to: (1) the usual education and background of prospective participants; (2) the needs of the projects; (3) the time and money available; and (4) the methods for presenting the material. After considerable discussion, analysis, and appropriate trade-offs, it was decided to offer training at four levels of detail, later called “blocks” of training. These blocks (See Table 2) became the primary elements of the whole training program.

Table 2 Training Blocks

Block I — Introductory Training — A group of courses designed to acquaint the participants with VEPCO, the utility industry, the fundamentals of power station design, construction, and operation, and the basic principles of planning and scheduling.

Block II — Advanced Training — A group of courses which provide more detailed instruction in fossil and nuclear power stations, power station construction, and with using the Project Information and Control System.

Block III — Speciality Training — A group of courses which provide training in advanced techniques and prepare individuals for supervisory and specialized responsibilities within a discipline. Specific areas were planning and scheduling, estimating and cost control, and project accounting — all emphasizing the use of PICS.

Block IV — Management Training — A group of courses which were designed to serve middle and top management personnel who might not otherwise participate in a formal training program. These emphasize project management and control theory and application.

Formatting the Training Program

The next step was to determine the format of the training program. One option — to send personnel to outside institutions and organizations for training — was rejected, for three reasons. Outside training is expensive, and the large number of anticipated trainees would make it financially prohibitive. Training is needed specifically in VEPCO's PICS System. Project work schedules prevent the extensive use of time consuming outside training. A better option was to conduct the core training in-house, but there was one particular requirement, “The job comes first,” and an individual could be released for training only when noncritical time was available. All these requirements indicated that the best format would be a well-structured, learner-paced, self-study training program.

Identifying Training Materials

As shown in Figure 1, the first phase of the development plan consisted of an evaluation of training material from a number of sources. The possibility that a self-study program could be developed by purchasing suitable material and modifying it to fit our approach was investigated. The amount of suitable material available was abundant, but more detailed examination revealed that much of the material focused on only two general areas of training, project management theory and operator training. In the project management area, such techniques as CPM and PERT were well covered, but practical methods pertaining to planning and scheduling were rarely discussed. In the area of operator training, some fairly simple yet good discussions of such topics as the functioning of power plant systems existed, and some of this has been used. When the results of the survey of available material were matched against the study program developed (See Figure 2), it appeared that little effectively addressed the tasks involved in any major design and construction project. Topics which needed to be covered included: how to plan the job; how to develop a realistic schedule; how to develop a detailed estimate and budget; how to track progress and spot potential problems; how to organize and motivate a project team; and how to work in a very volatile environment with diverse organizations and still maintain a clear perspective of the project objective. In short, material was sought which dealt with the real life requirements of project management, especially as related to the utility industry. Unfortunately, much of the material needed did not exist, or at least was not in a form readily useable. The final conclusion was that VEPCO and Gilbert had to develop much of the actual training materials themselves. This turned out to be the most challenging part of the whole program.

Developing Materials for the Training Program

Although VEPCO did select “off-the-shelf” packages and textbooks for some of the introductory and advanced training, VEPCO and Gilbert developed almost all of the industry-specific and project-specific training materials themselves from their personnel who had actual experience in areas required. The experience, knowledge, and skills of these people were packaged in three forms: concise texts, called reference handbooks; audiovisual presentations or discussions on videotape; and models of specialized products, such as schedules and estimates. These materials comprised the basic elements developed for the self-study training.


Figure 1 Sequence for Development and Implementation Training Program


Figure 2 VEPCO PSE&C Training Program

Development of the training material followed this sequence:

1. Identify the subjects and topics desired;

2. Identify the individuals with the experience and expertise in the desired areas;

3. Select the best approach for packaging the training material (reference text, video presentation, sample product, etc.);

4. Develop a plan and schedule for the development of the material;

5. Coordinate the development of the material;

6. Review, refine, and finalize the material; and

7. Integrate the material into the self-study program.

Initially, it was planned that in-house experts would be given a description of the topic they were to address. Then these individuals would develop a written text of a specified length and level of detail which would later become, with inputs from others, a reference handbook. Also, these individuals would be expected to elaborate on their topics through a series of video presentations. The training staff would then edit the written material and the videotapes and integrate them into the self-study packages.

Developing the reference handbook material took somewhat longer than planned because it was necessary to utilize technical writers to recast the material in a form suitable for the self-study program. In addition, many of the people who could write prolifically were poor presenters on videotape. Developing detailed scripts for TV professionals to deliver the desired presentation was investigated, but proved to be a time consuming and very expensive approach.

While working with the engineers, project specialists, and construction personnel, it was noted that in casual conversation each could talk at great length and in great detail about his area of expertise. And in most cases, these discussions were lively and interesting. However, when these same individuals were put in front of the TV camera, they sometimes developed stage fright and became stiff. Using prompters, cue cards, and detailed scripts did not help significantly.

Through some innovative thinking and experimentation, several techniques evolved which helped to overcome the majority of the problems. One technique which helped was the interview or roundtable discussion. This technique worked well to encourage individuals in front of the camera to talk clearly about the things they knew. While using the interview or roundtable technique, the host, armed with a simple outline or questionnaire, can feed questions to the individual to draw him out so that he will address and discuss the topics of interest fully. Furthermore, by using charts, pictures, models, sample reports, or other tangible items, the interviewer can create an atmosphere in which the inexperienced presenter will relax and forget he is on camera and thus address his subject matter in a lifelike manner. Through experimentation we found that after the first few minutes most of the participants got right into the subject matter and only needed the interviewer to keep the discussion on track. When the presentations or discussions are completed, the tapes are edited, and appropriate charts and graphics are added.

The use of non-TV trained individuals to deliver technical presentations proved to be beneficial, for they conveyed substantial credibility. Reviewers noted that TV-trained individuals, used in some of the training tapes, seemed too smooth or not realistic and sometimes appeared to talk down to the viewer. VEPCO expects to continue to use technical personnel whenever possible.

Some of the other techniques used in developing training material included the following:

1. The Walk Through — Detailed reference CPM schedules and project estimates were developed as models for training. The key people who developed these products spent several days in a roundtable discussion talking about the methods, techniques, and practical considerations of developing them. The discussion moderator directed the flow of the discussion to ensure that all the points for training were covered. These discussions were all recorded on videotape.

2. The Diaries — As the planner, scheduler, and estimator were developing their respective inputs, they maintained detailed diaries or log books of what they were doing, how, and why. That is, they documented the procedures they used in their work, where the information came from, the assumptions they made, and how they arrived at various conclusions. Videotapes were developed when these individuals discussed the practical consideration of their work.

3. The Pictorial History Review — On most construction projects, a large number of photographs are taken to record the progress and problems of the project. Using videotaping close-ups of these photographs and certain project personnel to discuss the real-life history of the project, we were able to create a vivid and practical account of power station construction not found in textbooks.

4. The Project Model Walk Through — Another variation of the interview and discussion technique is to use a project model as the center of discussion. In this technique the participants stand around the model and talk about the systems, equipment, and construction techniques employed on that project.

5. The Chalk Talk — This technique is useful while addressing analytical topics, like developing a CPM schedule or performing calculations. Most technical personnel seem to feel comfortable explaining a subject on a blackboard or a flip chart. Thus, specialized topics can be presented in a step-by-step approach by technical personnel who can be guided by a host asking questions from off camera. This approach is especially valuable while developing visual explanatory material to supplement text reading.

6. The Field Study — Plant visits can be captured on videotapes and can be invaluable while acquainting new employees with existing facilities and familiarizing individuals with project progress, problems, and requirements. The host can question field personnel to bring out specific points of interest related to the training.

7. The Problem Situation — With a little bit of planning it is possible to utilize project personnel to present “what-if” problem situations that can develop or have developed on projects. These situations can be put on videotapes along with discussions by various project specialists of possible ways of addressing them.

Participating in the Training Program

The plan devised for guiding participants through this training program is simple and has proven to be effective. Each department and project conducts an analysis of training needs at least once each year, and training representatives identify candidates for training. Candidates may be VEPCO employees, contractor's employees, or others who could benefit VEPCO by participating.This completion cycle is illustrated in Figure 3. The plan includes a preliminary diagnosis of participants’ individual training needs to develop a prescribed program of study or training plan. Participants then complete the various modules of training identified in their individually prescribed plan. Training modules are composed of various sessions which are completed sequentially. Each session is further broken down into smaller components called topics. Topics are completed according to the sequence shown in Figure 4.

A Training Guide is given to each participant for each module and serves as a roadmap for completing the self-study training. This guide provides participants with progress reviews to confirm competencies acquired, and also gives directions for using videotapes, reference materials, estimates and schedules, and other supporting training material used within the module. Training materials, textbooks, handbooks, and videotapes are maintained in a training center, where individual video carrels and quiet study areas are provided. Since the training is learner-paced and scheduled at times covenient for participants, the training center is open all the time. Training centers are located at VEPCO's general office and also at various project sites in the field. Training materials, videotape inventories, and training schedules are coordinated by training coordinators in the general office and by assigned project staff in the field.

Experience and Conclusions

VEPCO's PSE&C training program assembles training in all the disciplines, functions, and techniques needed for effective project management and control into one package. The program gives VEPCO the ability to communicate its management philosophy to the entire project staff and support groups efficiently; it also sets forth the tools needed for implementing that philosophy.

Developing much of the program in-house and in conjunction with consultants has had the advantage of providing considerable flexibility and company-specific training, which is not offered by “off-the-shelf” or “canned” training. The use of technical personnel for video productions appears to increase the viewers’ (often technical personnel themselves) confidence of the program's credibility.


Figure 3 Training Program Completion Cycle


Figure 4 Topic Completion Sequence for Training

This program was initiated for practical reasons, and practicality has continued to direct its development. The emphasis throughout has been the application of theory and VEPCO's own requirements. This emphasis has resulted in a sound and useful program.

1This article was previously published in the 1980 Proceedings of the Project Management Institute, 12th Annual Seminar/Symposium, Phoenix, Arizona.



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