Project management certification

best practices and pragmatism

Dr. Ed Hoffman,
NASA Academy

Dr. Jon Boyle,
NASA Academy

Mr. Anthony Maturo;
NASA Academy

Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference
11-14 July 2004 - London, UK

In December 2000, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Chief Engineer's Office released the NASA Integrated Action Team (NIAT)'s report on Enhancing Mission Success: A Framework for the Future (NASA, 2000). It addressed recommendations contained in a series of earlier reports chartered in response to Mars Program failures, Shuttle wiring problems, and a generic assessment of NASA's approach to executing “Faster, Better, Cheaper” projects. These reports not only addressed root and contributing causes of specific problems and failures, but also looked beyond those incidents to make broader recommendations to the Agency on ways that it might improve program and project implementation. One action was an evaluation of the “advisability of a formal NASA certification process for Program/Project Managers.” As part of this action, the NIAT Report called for a benchmark study with industry and government organizations.

Project Management and Certification

Since the 1960s, companies and organizations that engage in complex tasks and operate in a dynamic environment have increasingly found formal project management to be a mandatory practice (Kerzner, 1998). The Project Management Institute (PMI, 2000) defines project management as the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities in order to meet project requirements. In the NASA environment, the project manager is the person responsible for the successful accomplishment of a project that meets the needs of the customer, including the total range of project activities from supporting formulation of requirements through satisfactory delivery of the final products. There are also single project programs in NASA (e.g., Cassini) that are part of larger programs made up of multiple independent projects. NASA's program managers provide integrated program planning and execution functions, in addition to their responsibility for successfully accomplishing the program and meeting customer expectations.

Competencies and Certification

The terms competency, standards, and criteria are often used in determining the qualifications and requirements for certifying professional groups. Competencies are statements of specific knowledge, skills, abilities, characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors that enhance job performance for particular roles within an organization (Lucia and Lepsinger, 1999). Process standards provide guidance about the knowledge, tools, and techniques that are useful in the practice of the profession (Cabanis, 1999). Standards describe the conditions under which the competencies are performed and the criteria that define the actions or outcomes required for the performance to be considered “to standard” (Hale, 2000).

An effectively designed competency development process includes identifying top performers and determining what they do and how they do it by identifying factors that lead to superior performance. The most useful models are customized for individual divisions and roles within the greater organization (Hale, 2000). Tailoring competency models for organizations can have a variety of scopes, with some models identifying core competencies required for all levels of a work force, and other models focusing more on developing competencies for a specific unit, type of job, or position, such as programmers working in IT. In industry, organizations that manage the development of capabilities of their managers through competencies gain a competitive advantage in business processes such as recruiting, retaining, and motivating high-performers (Lucia and Lepsinger, 1999). Competency models address such business needs as clarifying job and work expectations, maximizing productivity, enhancing feedback processes, allowing the organization to adapt to change, and aligning individual and team behaviors with organization strategies and values. Holtzman (1999) points out that, “by establishing proven and accepted standards today, project management professionals can be better prepared for the challenges of the future.”

The application of external project management standards should be placed into an organization's specific context if the potential benefits of assessment, certification, and ongoing development are to be realized. Crawford (1999) says that assessment links learning outcomes with learning objectives in a meaningful way. She identifies several standards against which assessment can be made, including A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), the International Project Management Association (IPMA) Competence Baseline, and the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management. The author notes, however, that these external standards of certification tend to be based on a static interpretation of the past, neglecting continuing professional development; the standards tend to be generic and do not capture the complexities and variations of specific project environments; and that personality and attitude components may be de-emphasized or neglected.

An ongoing online project management study conducted by Interthink Consulting, Inc. (Mullaly, 2001) identified a number of factors that are representative of organizations that are highly successful in managing projects. These factors include a formal project management career path, an integrated curriculum and training program that supports the organization's processes and career development strategies, and a system that recognizes and rewards professional accreditation and advancement. Hale (2000) points out that an organization considering a performance-based certification program should first develop a justification for the expenditure of resources (both money and people) to create and deploy such a program so that the cost of certification can be compared with alternative solutions.


Two federal government agencies and five private sector companies that currently have or are considering implementing a program/project management certification processes were contacted and participated in this study. The participating government agencies are named, but the private corporations will remain anonymous to prevent issues of unfair competitive advantage. The public agencies were the Department of Defense (DOD) and the General Services Administration (GSA). The private corporations were selected from various industries, to include high tech, insurance, and construction engineering services.

Each participating agency/company was studied using two different qualitative methods. First, a structured interview was conducted with personnel identified as the certification “process owners” within the agency or company, the people responsible for project management development within the organization. Second, when available, a focus group of representative program/project managers selected by each organization's process owners was interviewed to identify project management career development and certification practices, processes, and experiences across different levels of the organization.

The interviews and focus groups were conducted using a set of questions developed in consultation with internal NASA stakeholders. These questions guided the structured interview process and directed the discussion of focus group members. Telephone interviews were conducted when travel and scheduling did not allow for face-to-face meetings. Telephone and face-to-face interviews and focus group discussions followed the same format in order to ensure consistency of the process and comparison of the results.

The following overarching instructions were used in the interviews and focus group discussions:

  • Describe the organizational project management development and certification process
  • Describe how the project management development and certification process is integrated into other business processes within the organization
  • Describe the benefits of developing and certifying project managers for the organization, and the metrics
  • Describe the problems that project management development and certification present for the organization
  • Describe what the organization would do differently in developing and certifying project managers in light of the history of the process to this point
  • Describe what the organization would recommend to NASA in considering the development and implementation of a project management development and certification process


Department of Defense (DOD)

The Department of Defense's Acquisition Personnel Development system was originally driven by a need to educate and train defense systems acquisition personnel. Previous failures in defense systems acquisitions had convinced Congress that legislation was needed to improve the effectiveness of the military and civilian acquisition work force through a formalized set of training and career development requirements. In 1971, the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC) was established to “promote and support the adoption and practice of sound systems management principles by the acquisition workforce.” DSMC is now part of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) that was established in 1992, comprised of several Department of Defense education and training institutions and organizations. DAU provides acquisition education and training, and fosters acquisition policy research. The campuses provide training for acquisition professionals in all acquisition career fields. Each educational institution provides acquisition courses that encompass basic, intermediate, and advanced acquisition curricula. DSMC plans, schedules, and conducts program management courses and provides executive level continuing education to support the acquisition management workforce. DSMC's courses include a mandatory core course for Level III acquisition professionals, post-core courses that improve the effectiveness of the newly assigned program managers who have completed the core course program, assignment-specific international acquisition courses, and executive courses.

Certification is a process by which DOD component organizations determine that employees have met the minimum standards established for training, education, and experience in the DOD acquisition career model. The Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) requires that the DOD and the Services establish formal acquisition career paths and career development activities for military and civilian personnel. This is implemented through 11 career fields and 15 acquisition position categories, covering the entire range of acquisition-related jobs, such as Information Technology (IT), finance, contracts, logistics, and testing and evaluation. The DAU has specified certification standards for acquisition positions that draw from the pool of personnel from the 11 acquisition career fields and 15 acquisition position categories. The certification process serves a diversified work force of approximately 135,000 personnel, with about 9000 serving in the project management career field. Specific qualifications in education, experience, and training for each acquisition position category are defined for three career levels of basic or entry (GS-5 through GS-8), intermediate or journeyman (GS-9 through GS-12), and advanced or senior (GS-13 and above). Supervisors and employees prepare Individual Development Plans for Levels 1 and 2 employees to outline how mandatory and desired certification standards will be met. Grandfathering is not permitted, but equivalencies are granted based on previous experience, education, and alternative training that is successfully completed and documented in accordance with course competency standards and specific procedures of the DAU, and by the procedures of the particular component organization. Exceptions are approved according to component organizations, and processes for certification vary according to the needs of the particular component.

The DAU curriculum is extensive, and covers desired and mandatory elements defined by each career field for its employees. Fundamentals courses consisting of 20 weeks of resident training are required for everyone. There are also extensive selections available in the areas of auditing, business and financial management, contracting, property administration, information systems, logistics, program management, quality, system engineering, and testing. There is an initiative in transferring basic and intermediate courses to the Web, allowing for a combination of mandatory resident and Web-based courses to fulfill certification requirements. For continuing education, there is a requirement of 40 hours annually. This entire process is integrated with organizational business processes, and the Individual Development Plan (IDP) supplements the required annual performance reviews. Personnel records establish certification as a criterion for selection of assignments and promotion.

Two organizations within DOD, the Naval Facilities Command (NAVFAC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), were interviewed but currently do not possess project manager development and certification programs. NAVFAC has adopted the DOD program, while USACE is currently benchmarking to identify best practices. There are several stand-alone efforts within USACE that develop project managers, but the headquarters desires an integrated and comprehensive approach.

General Services Administration (GSA)

Project management has been identified as the primary way that the General Services Administration (GSA) conducts business, and the organization started to look seriously at developing and certifying their project managers 10-15 years ago. The organization has progressed through different approaches depending on government and business imperatives. GSA's current approach centers on design and construction project management and the related support elements. GSA does not possess a multi-level competency framework, but is working towards a defined model. Current desired skills and traits for project managers have been developed by the GSA Project Management Center of Expertise, and cover Business Skills, Communication Skills, Influence Skills, Managerial Skills, Problem-solving Skills, Technical Skills, and Traits (such as Agreeableness, Assertiveness, Confidence, Conscientiousness, Judgment, and Trustworthiness).

Project management courses are outsourced, and each department maintains a list of training vendors that meet the requirements of the organization in terms of project management development. Other developmental activities are offered by the Human Resources department through the University for People, covering basic-level project management. The Central Office identifies organization-wide business imperatives and contracts for activities such as Sustainable Design, a required activity for all GSA project managers. Web-based programs are currently generic, but there is a desire to develop and organize Web-based project management tools and techniques. GSA is attempting to develop a project management template that will integrate the existing tools and databases.

GSA looked at PMI Certification, but found that the majority of employees did not like the content of the program and that the certification process tested knowledge, not capability. They are now looking at other programs that are more construction-specific, but will continue to view external programs as part of a comprehensive PM developmental approach. GSA will continue to sponsor and pay for a corporate membership with PMI for all of their project managers. The organization is concerned about the training and development of contractors, and views external certification as a possible discriminator in contract performance, though this is not a formal requirement.

In terms of integration with Human Resources, Individual Development Plans (IDPs) for project managers are used by the organization to identify gaps in capability and develop a training plan. The IDPs are tied into the biennial performance reviews that cover the elements of Budget, Schedule, Customer Satisfaction, and Management. Rewards and incentives are controlled at the department level by the payment of bonuses through the achievement of performance-based targets in terms of project scope, schedule, and budget. GSA has also developed a voluntary grassroots developmental activity that they call the Project Management Guild that focuses on bringing together project managers, architects, and engineers both internally and across the federal government in order to identify and develop best practices and promote employee development and recruitment. It is viewed as a project management community of practice. The program is very successful and the organization wants to formalize the process. The Guild is sponsored by executive management and is managed by a cross-functional steering team. To promote Guild activities, a budget is provided to each major project department by senior management. For mentoring, GSA has a process in place that formally assigns junior project managers to senior project managers, but there is no evaluation of the effectiveness of the program. The concept is valued, however, as a necessary component of their PM development and certification program.

Company One

Company One is a private, family-owned engineering and construction company that provides support in all phases of projects, ranging in activity from the conceptual phase through designing, building, operating, and dismantling. In the late 1960s, Company One introduced project management as a better way to conduct business than stove piping. The transition was difficult because designers and engineers did not want to give up their responsibilities without a fight.

Company One uses project management (PM) to pursue new business areas, such as the operation of industrial plants. It is organized as a matrix, with functional areas (such as engineering, procurement, safety, contracts, project operations, etc.) responsible as “keepers of the knowledge” for each of their particular disciplines. The matrix format provides a stable organization that keeps project managers up to speed in their particular area. Human Resources provides general organizational training, but the specific disciplinary training design rests with each functional area. When a project comes in, a project team is staffed from the functional organizations, collocating the basic team and assigning personnel as required, with the team ebbing and flowing according to the life-cycle status of the project A Corporate PM committee looks after the welfare of organizational PMs and their assignments in projects that range from six months to seven years and longer. To qualify for selection and development as a PM, the majority come from internal recruitment with an average of five to seven years with the company, and approximately 30-40% come from external recruitment efforts. Performance and a record of accomplishment, along with demonstrated leadership traits are the key qualifications.

Company One's PM training program is a three-tier model. The first is a basic level program lasting five days that orients PMs and support personnel to the overall organization and operations. The program is competency-based, covering the basics in contracting, procurement, and other topics. It is a resident course offering valuable opportunities for networking between 25-30 personnel per course. Tier two is a middle level program that emphasizes hands-on experience and additional PM tools and techniques. This part of the program is currently under development, with the majority of content placed on the Web. An internal PM simulation is being considered, with mandatory certification at this level for all PMs. Tier three is a program that emphasizes management of project portfolios and strategic considerations.

Direct outcomes from training are not measured, but there is an intuitive confidence demonstrated by managers based on a current average rating of nine on a 10-point scale. Courses are also taught by the functional managers and paid for by the functional managers out of their budget for support personnel, with project operations paying for the training of PMs. Their managers have identified all attendees as excellent performers. In terms of capturing experience, Company One uses resume files and an internal skills assessment tool, but relies heavily on the knowledge of personnel by the operations managers.

There is a requirement for all outside people to go through tier one, regardless of experience, with no grandfathering allowed due to fear of diluting the organizational culture. The PM career path contains responsibilities at each level as well as job descriptions, and integrates to the corporate career path. This element is closely coordinated with HR, consisting of a defined PM career path, desirable positions for development at each level, and job descriptions for each level. The PM population is 500-600 personnel, with the majority possessing a BS in Engineering and an MBA. Potential PMs may be assigned as deputies on real-world projects, so that real-world learning occurs in a performance-based environment. External certification is not required, but is supported if pursued, particularly with PMI. Internal certification will soon be required at tier two. The organization has a tracking mechanism for training and development, and is mature enough to track learning and experience in a centralized database. Pre- and post-tests are given for all courses. The training and career development programs are tied into HR. Yearly performance reviews are tied to individual development plans, and attendance at training that addresses identified capability gaps requires supervisor approval. Individuals indicating an interest in, and capability for, project management are referred to the project operations area, and this effort is coordinated with functional management as well as with Human Resources (HR), which is tasked with identifying, developing, and retaining excellent people across the entire organization. Additionally, a program called People Days allows senior managers to highlight their important people, who are then looked at in a special book as candidates for PM positions.

Company One uses a three-element model in ensuring project success. The first is providing standard organizational tools and processes for PMs. The second is providing effective and efficient training for PMs. The third is the implementation of Readiness Reviews and Management Assessments, jointly sponsored by the project operations and quality control areas, where functional managers travel with operations managers to visit a project as a team over a two-to-three-day review of a project. The review checks on the use of tools and whether or not the project team accomplishes what they signed up to do, and collects and shares best practices. This element acts as a forcing function in some ways and occurs two to three months after the award, usually once or twice a year.

Several new tools and techniques are being developed internally (a Project Portal, a Project Knowledge Matrix, Project Team Workbooks, and checklists for project life cycles of smaller projects that typically have less-experienced personnel). Enterprise tools are used (Primavera for schedules, Expedition for subcontracting, and an internal PM tool for contracting). The preference is to use commercial products as much as possible, because internal tools require a high level of maintenance.

Retention of PMs is based on flexibility and mobility, with standard relocation policies that outline how and when PMs will be assigned and reassigned. A capable and mobile person is the most valuable asset for the company. The organization tries to implement standard tools and practices across all projects so that individuals going from one project to another have an easier transition. Rewards and incentives include promotions, annual bonuses, assignments, and merit increases. The bottom line in retention and rewards is performance over all other criteria, in terms of safety, cost, schedule, customer satisfaction, and the fulfillment of specifications.

Company Two

Company Two is a major information technology and services organization that began its PM development process in 1990 as an international initiative for software developers It followed the DOD model in initially establishing the minimum criteria. The company soon realized that common processes across the organization were needed to handle expanding the business and training new personnel to requirements. The entire organization formally committed corporate investment to project management development and formal certification in 1996, with executive level champions for services and products serving on the PM Center of Excellence Steering Committee, hundreds of hours spent with organizational teams, and quarterly progress reports to the Chief Executive Officer.

There was a two-year phase-in period where grandfathering was not permitted, but equivalencies, self-assessments, and condensed fast-track curricula for experienced project managers were made available. The PMI examination was mandatory in this transition period. Grandfathering was viewed as defeating the purpose of mandatory certification, and there were many complaints during this transition period.

Company Two has identified project management as the way that work is conducted within the entire organization. Company Two realized that it takes more time to do things from a project management perspective. Managers usually “shoot from the hip” and make mistakes before moving to a formalized project management process. It has taken the organization 10 years to fully come to the realization that project management is a better paradigm than gut feeling and intuition. The model is currently a mandatory PM certification process backed by a corporate PM competency model defining expected capabilities at each PM level, with functional area professional requirements identified and integrated for particular communities such as IT and finance. There is a five-tier PM career system that formally certifies project managers at the top three levels, with project management viewed as a full-time career field with clearly defined career paths and specified minimal levels of education and experience at each level. Career paths for PMs have always been in place for Company Two, but the organization has moved from 57 different project management jobs down to five, making the promotion path much clearer and emphasizing that project management is not simply an administrative function anymore.

In this system, managers determine whether they want to track a person as a PM. There are still some problems in convincing the manufacturing and development divisions in their perception of giving up their engineering stripes. Project support personnel are fitted in under the rubric of Integrated Product Teams (IPTs). This framework is imposed as a series of checkpoints and life-cycle elements that are employed for cross-functional teams under a Product Development Team Leader who is not under the rule of mandatory certification yet. To be certified, PMs must defend how and where they achieved their capability, and defend their level of performance through documentation of three project profiles in a standard format at the third level, and four project profiles at each of the next two levels. There are a mandatory 29 days of prescribed resident tier-one education that is designed to drive consistency in knowledge and behavior across the organization, with the tier-one curriculum bringing personnel together and increasing at the advanced levels. In addition, there is a minimum yearly lifelong learning requirement and a mandatory re-certification every three years through standard project reports. PMI certification is required as an input for the third level, paid for by the organization.

The PM development and certification process is closely tied into other business processes as an integrated approach of people, tools, and methods. It crosscuts management processes and is ingrained in all business and technical processes. Several personnel commented on the huge challenge of having to look at diverse company processes to define the fit with PM development and certification. There is a strong integration with Human Resources, resulting in clear job descriptions, improved recruiting and retention, and clearer specific job family assignments for PMs. There is a voluntary tie-in of the PM process to performance appraisals, but it is clear that certification is required for promotion within this organization. The PM records are maintained in a central corporate database, signed off by supervisors and reviewed by a certification board of peers drawn from eight different specialty areas—that is, hardware development, software development, and strategic business process. Each certification board possesses a business process focus, and board members can nominate members, or executive management can nominate members depending on business imperatives. Some company divisions view the PM development and certification process as promotion review board, although that is not how it is intended. Incentives were pulled out of the process once it became mandatory as a condition of employment. It began in a prescriptive fashion simply to move 13,000 people in one direction.

Company Three

Company Three is a major defense systems contractor and has developed a project management development and certification process that began in 1993, when Project Management was identified as a key company core competency. The organization formalized PM as a profession with clear career paths, comprehensive position descriptions; and job aids such as a PM Guide were established to help the employee's transition to the new career field. Minimum qualifications were established as criteria to enter the PM profession, and standards were set to define how personnel would be considered qualified, certified, and re-certified. The PM development and certification program was standardized throughout participating Divisions and Companies within Company Three, and each organization defined their Project Manager roles and responsibilities along with their particular Project Management career path. In order to emphasize the program and ensure integration into other business processes, a Project Management Executive Steering Committee was created to oversee the process and to grant certification and re-certification approvals, with similar steering committees created at each Division.

The PM development and certification program follows a specific cycle in order for employees to achieve two separate but related elements of the program: qualification and certification. For qualification as a PM, an official application is completed and forwarded to management for review and approval. A Company PM Steering Committee reviews and approves the application, then forwards it back to the employee, marking the employee as qualified for PM development and certification. At this point, the employee completes a self-assessment process and reviews gaps in PM capability with management. A development plan is created so that the employee can now move towards certification as a PM through approved development activities over a period of time.

The certification cycle begins with completion of an official application that is forwarded for management review and approval. The approved application is then forwarded to the Company PM Steering Committee for review and recommendation for approval. The application is forwarded to the President of the Division or Company for review and approval, and then sent to the PM Executive Steering Committee for review and approval. Once approved, the application returns to the employee, and a self-assessment is created so that management can review the next steps for continuous improvement in capability for the newly certified project manager. The self-assessment instrument consists of eleven Major Categories assessed (e.g., quality/process, PM, technical skill, risk, proposal, etc.); 31 Sub-Categories (e.g., leadership, planning, organizing, preparation, strategy, relationship, etc.); and 157 specific components and skills (e.g., vision, empowerment, communication, analysis, assessment, metrics, etc.). Each of these assessments is based on particular skill competency levels that are defined as Level One (entry and qualification), Level Two (basic knowledge and awareness), Level Three (ability to perform with assistance), Level Four (ability to perform without assistance), and Level Five (ability to advise and lead others). In terms of training and education requirements, there are specified resident training courses that are required to be considered qualified or certified (Project Management, Subcontract Project Management, New Manager Leadership, and Systems Engineering.

For certification, an experience equivalency may be acceptable in lieu of certain classroom training, but employees are not grandfathered into the program. These equivalencies are defined by the Steering Committees, and non-company specific training may be acceptable in lieu of company training if the employee makes justification. Key external PM training and certification programs may be substituted for the self-assessment requirement and certain elective training when applying for certification (PMI Project Management Certification and the DOD Defense Systems Management College (DSMC) Advanced Project Management Course resulting in a DOD Level III Certification). The experience summary is used for Steering Committee reviews and follows a standard format. The Committee is looking for a minimum of three years of project management experience, and the employee is expected to cover all related experience (industry and military), to include project name, type, value, responsibilities, challenges, and successes. This summary is required regardless of a DOD Level III or PMI certification.

Company Four

Company Four is a major electronics manufacturer that initiated development of the Project Management Professional Development Program approximately five years ago under the auspices of its corporate university. Poor project performance, lack of knowledge and skills of Project Managers, and costly production delays led to the development of the program as a strategic imperative, thus enjoying the support of senior management. A needs analysis identified that very few of the organization's project managers had attended specific PM-related training. Company Four is product-oriented, servicing clients in the government and private sectors with products and services from the areas of computer technology; semiconductors; and corporate services to include research and development labs and communications products and services.

Company Four currently collaborates with ESI International to develop and implement the development and certification process. ESI develops and manages programs and courses specifically related to project management. As part of the relationship, George Washington University approves course content and awards course completion certificates as well as a Master's Certificate in Project Management, a Master's Certificate in Technology, and a Master's Certificate in Global Business Management. In addition, the Project Management Institute administers the Project Management Professional (PMP) examination for personnel (850-900 employees since 1995 for the organization), and certifies project managers who pass the examination and meet the qualifications.

The company piloted Risk Management training in 1996 and the PM curriculum in 1997. The peak year for number of training days worldwide was in 1998 with 65,000 - 68,000. In addition to resident offerings, the organization offers web-based and CD-ROM-based training for distance-learning students. For project support personnel, there is available a two-day interactive workshop and Team Training workshops. All of the courses are open to all employees, even those not planning to pursue professional credentials.

The organization defines five levels of Project Management for the organization in terms of competency and desired capability. Each level must meet the PM competency requirements identified for that level, defined as customer/market relationship, manageable risk/impact (encompassing technical risk, schedule risk, market risk, etc., where the impact is market value against dollar value, strategic value, etc.), defined span of influence, and experience, education, and knowledge (ranging from a minimum of a BS/BA Degree, with four to seven years of experience, and training defined as six credit hours of PM courses at Level One to 20+ years experience, 10+ as PM, and six additional credit hours of PM courses at Level Five). The levels are Level Five (Vice President, Projects), Level Four (Director, Projects), Level Three (Principal Project Manager), Level Two (Senior Project Manager), and Level One (Project Manager Level). There are nine project management competencies in the model (building customer relationships and stakeholder expectations, leadership, project management tools and information technology, monitor project performance, business acumen, management skills, project execution, project management knowledge, and project planning). The organization has identified 12 management competencies that are not specific to PM, but fundamental to effective management, and increase as the project manager climbs the career ladder (communications, creativity, decision-making, flexibility, influence and persuasion, initiative, loyalty, negotiation, relationships, change management, integrity, and strategic thinking).

The development and certification process has been integrated closely with the business imperatives. Originally, the corporate university had difficulty finding a corporate sponsor, but eventually found a Corporate Vice President for Engineering to agree to sponsor the PM initiative. From this, a Corporate Engineering and Project Management Council was established to serve as a Business Review Board to establish disciplines, funnel selection of project managers, sort requests for participation in program, create screening criteria, and advise on curriculum.

Company Four recruits Project Managers from inside the organization, only occasionally recruiting externally. A predictive assessment tool used by NASA to select astronaut teams is used in PM workshops to identify and select PM recruits, creating a personal and communications profile that identifies whether or not a person would do well as a PM.

Tools and techniques include a Portfolio PM Tool, an Interface Management Tool, and “Dante,” a collection and database tool that collects and maintains core project information. For project support personnel and projects that need assistance, Company Four also provides consulting and mentoring services to help implement PM as a core competency within the organization. Consulting, mentoring, and training support is provided directly to project teams in the topic areas of project management, risk management, strategic planning, team building, change management, problem solving, and organizational and business development.

Project managers are evaluated in terms of project slippage, cost delays, project milestones, meeting scope, staying within budget, and team skills. Rewards and recognition are regularly given for successes, and sometimes for failures. The organization has challenged and empowered the PM and engineering communities to develop methods and processes to complete projects ten times faster, supporting efforts such as Six Sigma and 10X or Cycle Time Improvement. Project Managers report to the Corporate Council every six weeks to show improvements by percentage. Gains are measured on cycle-time baselines in terms of the number of projects completed on time, slippage of late previous periods, meeting scope, and staying within budget.

Company Five

Company Five is a major engineering organization that has possessed a development process since the inception of the company in the 1950s, mainly due to the nature of the work and the sophistication level of the clients. The company has discovered that project management is the best way to handle change and complexity within the organization. Office managers are driving the requirement for a PM development and certification program because they are looking for a tool to communicate expectations to the staff and develop them to identified competencies. It is seen as a valuable management initiative, and has the backing of senior executives.

The PM competency model is recognized as a critical element and priority for the program, since there is only a freestanding curriculum in place. In terms of career levels for project managers, there is only an informal distinction between junior- and senior-level capabilities. The organization is in the process of incentivizing and formally identifying the milestones during a PM career, and coordinating with the HR department in the identification of career paths. Upcoming initiatives include defining eligibility requirements, creating competency definitions, and driving towards the goal of creating a mandatory PM certification process. The current project management initiative is Web-based, distance learning-centered, with new modules being fielded on a regular basis. Convenience and the timing of training delivery (just what's needed, just in time) is driving the curriculum development process, so Web-based module development is being pursued aggressively across the company. All of the training modules are internally developed, because the company discovered that the majority of off-the-shelf products were not tailored enough towards company requirements, and were rated as boring and generic. The company collaborated with a web authoring company to put subject matter on the web for them. This identified experts from across the company in particular subject areas. The distance-learning curriculum covers functional technical skills, consultative selling, risk management, finance and budget, and team management.

Company Six

Company Six is a major insurance provider that has developed its program in the context of business change with a new CEO. The organization does not currently have a profession of defined project managers except in the IT sector, but more and more positions are being created and identified as project management-related, with compensation identified as a critical issue. Company Six envisions an internal group of PMs who possess deep skills and can act as mentors, and another group that will move in and out of project management, meaning that a professional core of PMs will manage the bigger projects while others will manage smaller, less-risky projects.

The organization has a modest PM curriculum in place, both internally developed and externally contracted. PMI certification is encouraged, but the organization feels that it complicates the internal process. The organization stays true to about 70 percent of the PMBOK Guide, with emphasis on the more applicable elements driving creation of internal solutions. The company reimburses personnel to pass the PMP examination.

The organization considers itself relatively early in the PM maturity model, since they are still defining the PM process, and their PM competency model has not been blessed across the different company sectors. The goal is standardization of the PM process and language, and they are working towards achieving buy-in across all business processes and functional areas and expanding to include project support personnel. The original project management development process was overhauled due to a need for quicker turnaround in business imperatives, primarily market responsiveness. The new model emphasizes the development of project managers who can work within a self-funding project cycle requiring tangible benefits at each phase of the project in order to fund the next cycle of related projects. This company does not currently certify PMs, but is driving towards that goal through design of a model emphasizing different levels of capability across different business processes and functional areas, building in flexibility through overarching processes and allowing discretionary practices and requirements as needed. Company Six views the systems approach as critical, with integration into the HR processes as essential. PM training is under HR, but HR does not control the business processes for PM within the organization, and must rely on the business divisions in communicating accurate resource requirements. The business metrics of the impact of project management development are not yet in place, but the initial metrics will focus on the PMs at the level of training and development. Improved organizational success is viewed as an increased capability by PMs in selecting projects based on more realistic and pragmatic outcomes, with these success metrics and lessons learned folded back into the development and certification process for other projects to learn from.

Benefits of Certification

The following were specified by all as benefits of a competency-based certification program for project managers:

  • Emphasizes performance as a discriminator in decision-making
  • Consistent and recognized definition of capability across the organization, and by industry and customers
  • Enhanced confidence in the capabilities of project managers
  • Consistency in what they can do and what they know
  • Common project management vision and language that can be used across the organization
  • Allows for keeping up with the rapid development of technology
  • Provides a foundation for effective project management development and mentoring, allows for the development of communities of practice, and develops a knowledge management infrastructure
  • Transforms the company to become project-based, well beyond the level of merely running projects
  • Encourages the asking of hard questions in a non-attributional environment
  • Defines clear professional career paths for project management professionals
  • Achieves competitive advantage for individuals in terms of promotions and assignments
  • Provides an opportunity to add another dimension to recognition & retention programs
  • Benefits are clearly seen and supported by management and employees
  • Provides an effective basis to measure the project management skills and experience of individuals and organizations including external validation by organizations such as PMI
  • Provides higher capability in successfully managing critical projects for the company

Problems in Certification

The following were identified as problems by all in transitioning to a PM certification program:

  • Technical management requirements in functional areas are difficult to capture and time-consuming to define, with many similar concepts holding different names
  • It is difficult to define a common language and processes for a large number of people
  • Underestimation of the power of resident courses in creating and maintaining an effective culture. It is often sacrificed simply due to budgetary pressure and inability to quantify the difficult metrics of organizational impact of training
  • Mid-level bureaucrats are typically resistant
  • Continuing education requirements beyond the top level are usually nonexistent
  • There is a tendency for over-reliance on tools rather than a true integration of the cultural and system element
  • Achieving buy-in at all organizational levels is a problem, in that it is easier to intellectually agree but not truly support the effort
  • The mentality that a formalized project management development and certification process gets in the way of creative collaboration causes problems
  • Cross-company teams that involve management, technical, and project manager skills must resolve integration issues in career progression, with project management skills cutting across functional areas
  • Organizational issues impact the practice of Project Management, such as centralized versus decentralized control, horizontal and vertical integration issues, and matrixed resources
  • Bureaucracy and administration requirements are a problem, making project management development and certification impossible
  • Management education on the project management development and certification process, with emphasis at the middle management level in overcoming reliance on intuition and gut feelings
  • Creation of a trusting environment and encouraging management culpability in failures
  • Allowing project managers to be trained and certified
  • Use leaders’ time to serve as teachers and mentors
  • The lack of a forcing function to make it happen
  • Very difficult to administer an effective program that does not have a centralized champion within the company ensuring that the program is meeting the objectives set out for it
  • People are accustomed to attending traditional training as a break from work, and now realize that it is a different environment, one in which performance is critical and will be measured
  • An organization that has undergone several significant reorganizations that have eliminated entire divisions, losing several significant improvements that never had a chance to come to fruition
  • Senior management tends to pull away and reassign personnel that show project management capability, thus removing talented people from managers who are left with a less-than-optimal view of developmental and certification activities
  • Implementing a systematic project management development and certification program takes time for project managers to learn and perform, and the organization takes a risk in assigning new project managers. The organization must be tolerant of mistakes, and must build in safety nets, such as management emphasis on using organizational resources to solve project problems

Overall Recommendations

The following overall recommendations were made by all pertaining to NASA:

  • Define common knowledge and common requirements across the entire organization and create strong competency frameworks
  • Articulate a careful and valid definition of the competency and capabilities and the requirements at each level
  • Develop a competency-based project management development model
  • Create a strong competency-based training model
  • Standardize the language and project management processes as much as possible
  • Carefully develop clear goals, roles, and responsibilities defined for both contractors and NASA

Specific Recommendations

All organizations were either moving towards a formalized and rigorously defined project management assessment and certification program, or already possessed one. Assessment and certification was viewed as a management tool that allowed managers to have faith that a minimum level of capability was present and that a common language and set of tools was used across the project management workforce. The organizations varied in their levels of certification, use of external assessment and certification organizations and resources (such as PMI), the level of enforcement of assessment and certification standards, the definitions of various stages of certification and re-certification, and the way that equivalencies were defined and granted. The strongest programs had tailored their approach across different elements of the greater organization, and had devoted tremendous amounts of time and effort in collaborating with and updating the stakeholders. In terms of granting equivalencies for identified components of a development and certification model, all organizations permitted waivers and exceptions, but universally prevented grandfathering of experienced personnel into the programs. Grandfathering was seen as diluting the potential and cultural importance of the programs. Specific recommendations on certification and career development were:

  • Plan towards mandatory certification
  • Distinguish between qualification and certification, with the latter being advanced in nature
  • Adopt an existing career development process, if possible, because all models tend to have common and already identified components
  • Develop a project management career path that covers roles and responsibilities, rotation assignments, standard tools and techniques
  • Practitioners must be educated about the level of commitment required
  • Prevent grandfathering, because it impedes the transmission of organizational culture. Carefully define equivalencies and exemptions with each component organization
  • Carefully define equivalencies, but do not grandfather project managers. Offer fast-start courses for more experienced Senior Management personnel to speed up the certification process

Executive-level support did not necessarily come at the beginning of a PM development and certification program. In fact, most programs were started as pilot programs or voluntary efforts that eventually attracted the attention of senior management, beginning at the grass-roots level. When the programs achieved senior management visibility, the maturity of the process was sufficient to export across the greater organization. It is especially important to note that all organizations identified initial resistance to any perceived mandated developmental program, as well as ongoing resistance at middle management level. Small successes along the way ensured that the best programs were integrated into the culture of the greater organization, and that the process owners were spread across the organization, incorporating the majority of functions. Recommendations pertaining to executive support were:

  • Obtain high-level executive sponsorship
  • Obtain senior management sponsorship
  • Use a steering committee at senior management level to achieve continued emphasis
  •  Create a critically-important total environment with a strong supporting structure to include tools and techniques
  • Emphasize a systems approach--integrating people, process, and tools--as a major business transformation challenge
  • Tie the program to the strategic plan
  • Concentrate on culture change, or the effort will fail

External resources such as PMI were identified as valuable in terms of organizing the body of knowledge required for project managers, but were deemed as only part of the solution. Several organizations supported external certification as part of their internal program, while others required an external certification at certain levels of their development model. Both approaches seemed to satisfy the respondent organizations, but extensive tailoring was accomplished in order to contextualize the competency model for the organization. The majority of organizations devoted resources for employees who wanted to pursue external certification, of which PMI was cited as the most popular alternative. All organizations cautioned that a certification program, such as the PMI PMP program, should be identified as only one part of a larger comprehensive PM development and certification approach for the organization. Many organizations make the mistake of trying to take the easy way out through a quick fix of requiring external certification. Recommendations pertaining to external resources were:

  • Find a partner such as ESI International and George Washington University
  • Create strategic partnerships with external partners, such as universities, government agencies, and the private sector
  • Incorporate a strong team leadership component emphasizing Integrated Product Team processes, and train at the team level as part of the development process

Integration into HR processes was deemed critical by all organizations. It seems that the tighter this integration was, the better the alignment of the organization in terms of strategic business goals. Zemke and Zemke (1999) specified that the decisive test for any type of competency development model is whether and how well the model fits into the organization's performance management system. For the organizations in this study, this system's view of PM development and HR business processes is seen as an ongoing requirement in order to clearly articulate the relationship between job descriptions, recruitment of new personnel, retention of seasoned project managers, and proper compensation, incentives, and rewards for exceptional performance. All organizations recommended full and careful integration of the certification program into Human Resources.

Project management tools and techniques were seen as valuable elements of the programs, and the most successful programs attempted to field tools and techniques in parallel with the developmental and certification programs. Several organizations warned of the trap of using tools and techniques, such as an enterprise-wide PM Information technology system, as the definition of the total program. Education about emerging and new tools and techniques was also seen as a major element in any ongoing career development activity in terms of re-certification and continuing education. Recommendations pertaining to tools and techniques were:

  • Try to have tools available to roll out at the same time that the methodology is rolled out, and keep putting more tools and content on the Web
  • Divisions such as IT will try to convince you that buying a good PM tool is all that is required for good project management
  • There is a tendency for over-reliance on tools rather than a true integration of the cultural and system elements
  • Leverage the Web as much as possible for training and tool delivery
  • Readily-available training and tools
  • Carefully set criteria for outsourcing Web-based content
  • Use in-house subject matter experts to develop the content and outsource the Web formatting of the lesson plans
  • Achieve buy-in with all stakeholders early in the process
  • Integrate performance ratings and developmental plans
  • Try to establish a system that forces usage of materials
  • Carefully involve management in the development of the program and in the delivery
  • Balance Web-based elements with traditional resident training modules
  • Develop contractor and client contingency
  • Meaningful support and review process that discourages “dog and pony shows”
  • Use knowledgeable people
  • Make it supportive rather than audit
  • Rotation of individuals
  • Emphasize contract administration
  • Identify a strong process for change management because of the competing requirements during implementation, individual rice bowls, and major restructuring of business processes at this level. Manager's Workshops are essential
  • As the process matures, other communities will buy into the process
  • Knowledge management is also viewed as a giveback activity, and needs to be measured at a certifying board level
  • Develop trust and synergy through a systems approach
  • Communities of practice become increasingly important as the process matures, so maintain the momentum in changing from the prescriptive mode

Mentoring was identified as a critical component of several programs. This was situated in the organization as a way of giving back, and as a critical element in creating strong communities of practice and allowing for the transfer of best practices, leading to creation of a knowledge management framework. The mentoring activity was used as a feedback loop into these PM development and certification models, adding the value of perspective on successes and failures to the development of new project managers within the organizations in the study. The majority of organizations did not have a formal mentoring process in place that includes metrics on the effectiveness of their mentor. Recommendations pertaining to mentoring were:

  • Managers must be encouraged to embrace new behaviors, such as mentorship
  • Mentoring is a key component of the process and needs to be measured as a give-back activity, reviewed at board level
  • Include a strong mentoring capability


It is clear that the decision to implement a formal certification program based on a set of specific competencies for a large, complex organization like NASA is a major, serious decision that impacts the culture of the organization. For certification to be successfully implemented and achieve the desired results, corporate or agency leadership must be ready to invest substantial time and money, and lead a process of culture change. Substantial resistance must be expected, and leaders should have clearly in mind both the agency problem that formal certification will solve and the way that certification is likely to change the agency and its culture. For NASA, the recent Columbia Accident Investigation Board report (2003) has, in particular, revealed issues caused by a dysfunctional management and culture, and may in part be addressed by standards of project management certification. However, there is an issue that must be addressed.

It may be that the purpose of project management, which is to release greater human and organizational potential by escaping from the rote rules and deadening routines of bureaucratic management, would be undercut by instituting more rules and general requirements for certification of project managers before they could function as project managers. Certification rules and practices may give assurance that all project managers in NASA at specific levels possess comparable qualifications, but some persons with leadership potential may find a formal certification process too constricting. Further, Downs (1967) and Schein (1992) remind us that, as organizations and leaders age, they will be tempted to institute rules for the sake of agency and career security. In interpreting the results and recommendations of the benchmark study, attention should be paid to whether formal, universal, prior certification for project managers sacrifices too much of NASA's potential for change and adaptation to fast-changing circumstances in favor of perceived agency security. Would the problems created by certification be more or less serious than the existing problems meant to be solved by certification?

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