A new model for project management education

Dominick Soldan


Each year companies invest tens of millions of dollars in Project Management (PM) education and training and end up with very little, if anything, to show for it. Expected productivity increases never materialize because the techniques and tools taught as part of the training are never put into practice in the project environment. In fact, productivity is lost as a result of the time the participants are in training and away from their project.

This paper identifies the reasons that PM education and training fails to meet the desired goals and presents a new approach designed to overcome these shortcomings and greatly increase the return on investment (ROI) achieved by the training.

Why PM Training Fails

Quite simply, PM training fails because the techniques, tools, and principles taught in the classroom are not transferred into the work environment. The transfer from classroom to workplace doesn't take place because of the following critical issues:

1. The training is either too generic or too high level and as a result the techniques are not transferred into practice. Participants will not apply something they see as irrelevant or not applicable to their situation. Nor will they apply the training if they cannot see a clear path to implementing it in their specific situation. In order to get students to apply what they are taught we must make it easy to identify applicable situations and try the new techniques on their project.

2. The information is provided too fast and in too large chunks for participants to absorb and there is no time to internalize the information. Students forget what they are told very quickly following training. Within 14 days after training students will have forgotten 65% of the material to which they were exposed (Spitzer, 1939). These “rates of forgetting” are demonstrated in Exhibit 1.

These figures refer to the percentage of presented information that is initially absorbed by students in the classroom. Teaching technique has a big impact on how much information students carry away from the classroom. Participants are more likely to remember things in which they are actively, rather than passively, involved (Reif, 1993). This is demonstrated in Exhibit 2.

When looking at these exhibits in the context of traditional training methods it is easy to see why there is very little of the training is transferred into the workplace. Most corporate training is provided in large blocks that occur as one time events, yet new knowledge and skills are only transferred over a long period of time (Haskell, 1998). Material should be presented in smaller pieces giving students time to absorb and practice application of the material. Immediately after a lecture, students were found to recall about 70% of the content presented during the first 10 minutes, yet only 20% of the content presented during the last 10 minutes (Hartley & Davies, 1978).

1. Participants are abandoned at the end of the training. There is no support to assist the participants in applying the new techniques once they return to the workplace. Students are left on their own to attempt to apply the new techniques or tools. Usually, there is no one they can turn to for help or advice. Without some kind of support structure students can only try to apply the new learning trial and error basis.

2. The training does not effect the organization, only the individual. If we want to achieve a significant ROI we need to effect the whole organization. This can be in the form of a project, department, division, or even a whole company. Yet traditional training focuses only on the individual with no provision for inspiring systemic change across the organization.

Exhibit 1. Rates of Forgetting

Rates of Forgetting

3. Participants don't have the time to fully absorb and internalize the new information. Training is seen as something separate from the “real” work on the project. As a result there is a great deal of pressure to “minimize” the time spent in the educational experience so as to maximize the time spent doing project work. Training is treated as a finite event. Participants attend the event and when it's over, it's over. Training is often seen as vacation by management. Many project managers view training as just one more demand on their already limited time. The objective of both parties is to hurry up and get the training over so that we can get back to the real work.

Exhibit 2. Transfer Method vs. Retention

Transfer Method vs. Retention

4. Students don't have an opportunity to practice applying the new techniques they are learning. Most of the training offered is delivered as a single continuous block. Once again training is seen as an event and when the event has passed the training is over. In fact the transfer of the learning into the workplace will never take place unless students see the workplace as a continuation of the training and not a release from the training. Often the schedule demands placed on project managers don't allow them time to try the new techniques. Students learn more by doing than by watching and listening (Bonwell & Eison, 1991).

If we are ever to realize a significant ROI from our PM education, we must ensure that transfer from the classroom into the project environment takes place. To truly be successful in our educational efforts, we must ensure that we address and overcome the issues that prevent transfer from taking place. We must ensure that training is specific enough so that it is viewed as applicable to the intended situation. The information must be provided at an appropriate pace to allow comprehension and internalization. Students must not be abandoned at the end of training and must have a support structure to help them implement the new ideas in the project environment. We must also make sure that what we are creating is a learning organization, we must in fact institutionalize the behavioral changes that we desire to inspire through the training. And we must ensure that students have both an appropriate amount of time to participate in the training and the opportunity to practice the learning.

In an ideal world learning would be a continuous process and the workplace and classroom would become extensions of one another.

RealTime-RightTime™ the Way to Make Project Management Education Succeed

RealTime-RightTimeTM Learning provides the framework for a new PM training and education model. This new model allows organizations to leverage existing assets to make PM training and education much more effective while improving project performance across the organization.

RealTime-RightTime™ succeeds because it addresses all of the reasons that training fails. It converts training from an event to an ongoing learning process that focuses on true organizational change and continuous improvement. In essence it brings learning and education to the students in the workplace and it is this learning in the workplace that is of crucial significance (Haskell, 1998).

Concept Overview

RealTime-RightTime™ is a long-term, tailored program composed of learning modules. Module topics are selected based on an organization's goals and needs. Each module focuses on specific learning objectives and integrates existing organization concepts and principles to ensure relevance to a specific organization and applicability to an organization's projects. Key learning objectives thread through the entire program to ensure continuity of the academic experience.

Modules include classroom meetings in either a physical (classroom) or virtual (online, video conference, etc.) environment. This provides a forum for synchronous learning to take place ensuring that the instructor and students get a chance to share real world experiences. The exact number of modules needed and the length of a module will depend on the learning objectives, type and volume of material to be covered, the ambient work environment, and student needs.

In addition to the classroom time, each module includes independent specified readings, discourse with tutorials, facilitated discovery of applications, and practical application on a real project.

The modular concept is shown in Exhibit 3.

Classroom meetings, called segments, are connected by field assignments, online group activities, and distance learning, all tied to real projects. The activities between segments are collectively referred to as the inter-segment.

While each segment is unique in content and delivery, all segments share common features. Each segment consists of a series of topics covering specific aspects of PM. The segments of the course collectively span the actions of the organizations project cycle.

Exhibit 3. The RealTime-RightTime™ Modular Approach

The RealTime-RightTime™ Modular Approach

Exhibit 4. Module Overview

Module Overview

Between segments, inter-segment activities are used to continue the learning process. Students work alone or in teams in their own project environment to further explore and apply the material. Instructor interaction continues during the inter-segment using online methods either synchronously or asynchronously. Inter-segments are activity rich with participant—participant and participant—instructor interaction. Inter-segments use Internet technologies, distance learning, participant exploration and application of techniques, and instructor interaction.

Inter-segments serve to strengthen the learning experience from the previous segment and prepare students for the topics to be covered in an upcoming segment. Asking students to think about the material in advance can effectively motivate them to watch for the answers in the rest of the class period (Felder & Brent, 1994). Inter-segment activities include individual reading of course materials, evaluation and preparation of responses to case studies, Internet discussions with other students and instructor or coach (using chat rooms or threaded newsgroups), work on real projects, work study activities (such as mentoring), and individual research on a related topic.

Exhibit 5. Example Scope Management Module

Example Scope Management Module

The true strength of a RealTime-RightTime™ program is in the inter-segments. The inter-segment concept leverages short (2–3 day) classroom segments into a month long learning experience where participants learn, try, and share techniques and tools to which they are exposed by doing. Participants immediately apply what they have learned in their own project environment reinforcing the learning experience and encouraging current and future application.

The use of inter-segments allows five days worth of material to be covered in only two classroom days. The short classroom session can even be scheduled over a Friday-Saturday. Reducing time away from ongoing activities. Combining academic with experiential learning produces higher performance for a lower total cost. Learning is immediately applied in the project environment to boost overall organizational performance.

This “segment—inter-segment—segment—inter-segment—segment—etc.” concept facilitates learning over the entire course of the program using subject exploration designed for today's adult learning environment. This concept allows the organization to minimize student time away from work activities and the cost of sustaining and operating the program. While providing the information in small, focused chunks and giving students time to practice. This concept is shown in Exhibit 4

The modular structure provides what is needed, when it is needed. Project work becomes the primary learning reinforcement process. Training becomes a tool to immediately transform the right techniques and tools into productive methods and results in RealTime.

The RealTime-RightTime™ concept encourages and enables participants to immediately apply the learning. This reinforces lessons, increases retention, and promotes immediate organizational improvement. Because the learned techniques are immediately applied in the project environment companies see an immediate ROI from a RealTime-RightTime™ program.

Expert coaching and practical work application replace the typical “telling” approach of classroom-based courses. RealTime- RightTimeTM leverages the participant's work motivation, pursuit of responsibility, and desire to collaborate to solve work-related problems.

Corporate coaches or mentors help participants to break down barriers and apply what they've learned. Coaches are accomplished performers within the organization and help participants apply learning and techniques in their existing work environment. Students can turn to their coach/mentor for extra help or advice. The instructor remains available to answer questions and provide advice via telephone, or the web, on an as needed basis, to help participants implement the learning objectives.

The use of corporate coaches demonstrates an organization's commitment to the students and to transferring the training into the project environment. It also helps to create the organizational infrastructure necessary to support the transfer. Having a senior individual as their corporate coach is seen as highly desirable by the students and helps to encourage strong participation. It also helps to encourage organizational learning since the corporate coaches are just as likely to learn as the students.

RealTime-RightTime™ makes heavy use of multiple delivery methods to create an ongoing classroom that encourages student involvement yet allows ample time for fulfilling work, customer, and family responsibilities.

Delivery methods include platform teaching, use of the latest texts and instructional materials, mentoring and apprenticing, online support, web-based training, tool based training, case studies, practical exercises, and application to real projects. All of these delivery methods combine to create an ongoing learning experience that keeps students constantly involved and encourages professional growth and self-learning while providing maximum flexibility for student work schedules.

Exhibit 6. Relationship Between ROI and Educational Methodology

Relationship Between ROI and Educational Methodology

Exhibit 7. Student Perceptions after 10 RealTime-RightTime™ Cohorts

Student Perceptions after 10 RealTime-RightTime™ Cohorts

An example module is shown in Exhibit 5.

The activities in the inter-segment are not generic exercises. They involve the actual application of the learning to the student's real project.

All of these features combine to make RealTime-RightTime™ unique in that it:

• Leverages a two-to-three-day classroom experience into a month of learning

• Makes use of existing corporate experience (in the form of coaches and mentors) and best practices

• Reduces training costs while increasing knowledge transfer

• Promotes continuous learning throughout an organization

• Accommodates geographically dispersed participants with different backgrounds and experience levels

• Allows participants to balance work, client, and family commitments

• Can be applied in an open enrollment or team based environment

• Because of its richness and the high transfer rate of the learning into the workplace the ROI (currently based on anecdotal evidence) from a RealTime-RightTime™ program is much higher than with traditional training approaches. The effect of RealTime-RightTime™ techniques on ROI is shown in Exhibit 6.

While RealTime-RightTime™ has only just begun to be implemented, early indications, based on student perception are that the information is much more useful and relevant. The data shown in Exhibit 7 was compiled from the results of 67 traditional programs and 10 RealTime-RightTime™ programs offered at a single company over the last year.

An Example Implementation of RealTime-RightTime™

The following example uses a fictional student named Mary to demonstrate the concepts and techniques used in a RealTime-RightTime™ educational approach. This is what the program looks like when viewed through Mary's eyes.

Mary submits a request to enroll in the PM curriculum via email or her company's web site. Her request is approved within two days and a welcome letter is sent to her via e-mail. The welcome letter provides Mary with a message from her instructor, John, welcoming her to the program and providing her with an Internet address and password. The letter informs Mary that John will be contacting her by phone within the next few days to answer any questions she may have regarding the program. John's note also asks her to write a one or two paragraph self-introduction to share with the instructor and other students.

The e-mail informs her that an initial course packet is on the way and that she should receive it in a few days. The course packet includes information on the overall course, a synopsis of the program, expectations, learning objectives, program schedule, instructor information, etc.

The packet also includes all of the course materials for the first module; interactive computer based materials, exercises, a reading list, articles, multimedia case studies, homework, team activities, and the necessary tools; all on a single CD-ROM. The latest PM textbook selected specifically for the first program module, is also included. Mary finds that she has been assigned a local Senior Project Manager to act as her coach and mentor through the life of the program. The packet includes contact information for her new mentor.

The included password provides Mary access to the Project Management Certificate Program web page and the workspace for her class group. Excited about this opportunity, Mary immediately accesses the new web page. She finds that the site provides all necessary information concerning the upcoming program. Mary finds a chat room, newsgroup, news page, an FTP area, a class roster, a library of relevant papers, a question and answer section, and other features designed to make interacting easy and effective for working professionals like Mary and her colleagues.

Mary also notices that she has a number of assignments to complete before the first class meeting four weeks away. These include readings; research on the importance of PM in the success of a project, information to start her thinking about her team project and an invitation to an Internet discussion group to take place in two weeks.

What Mary is most looking forward to is having her mentor available to help her implement the new things she will be learning as part of the program. In the past, students like her were always left on their own to try out what the learned. Mary was never comfortable with the “trail-and-error” method and this severely limited what new concepts she was able to implement in her daily work. Now, with helpful advice available when she needs it, Mary will feel much more comfortable trying these new techniques.

Mary completes the required assignments using the time available to her after work, on the weekends, and during low activity periods on her project.

Mary arrives for the first day of class enthused by the new certificate program. She knows that the recognition and Project Management Certificate (issued by a recognized local university upon successfully completing the program) will advance her career and improve her professional skills. During the two-day segment, which runs Friday and Saturday at a local facility, the class engages in a number of challenging discussions concerning all of the topics that were covered in the pre-segment materials. The contact activities include discussion of the case studies, small team breakouts, lecturettes, and guest speakers from within her organization, industry, government, and academia. Mary especially likes the way that John brings real-world examples and situations to life in the classroom drawing on his years of experience as a Senior System Engineer working on technically complex projects.

Halfway through the first module Mary has implemented four new concepts for better managing requirements on her project. Some of these implementations were tricky but with the help of her mentor and advice from her instructor she was able to implement them with relatively little difficulty. This never would have happened as part of past training classes. Mary expects that these new techniques will significantly reduce both the scope creep that many of her projects had experienced in the past and the risks associated with the current project.

When Mary completes her first segment she will receive a new CD-ROM that provides all of the necessary information and materials for the next segment. The assignments and materials will build on the foundation formed by the previous segment and prepare her for the upcoming segment. She is pleased to be working for a company that implemented this innovative learning method that allows her to grow professionally while still being able to meet her customer, family, and work commitments.

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

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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