Project management education, training, working & learning

a longitudinal study into the experiences of British Army officers in UK defence related projects



This paper draws on research undertaken to identify the benefits arising over time from Project Management (PM) Education and Training (E&T) at the level of the individual and the barriers that hinder the realization of wider organizational benefits in the workplace. The research adopts a longitudinal, mixed methods approach and includes an extensive review of the relevant literature pertaining to two key themes of interest, namely, views on the current approaches to PM E&T and secondly, consideration of learning in a complex, dynamic, project-centric workplace. The data set comprised a population of 51 army officers, all male and at the rank of major but from a number of different regiments. Data collection started at the time of their PM course at the United Kingdom (UK) Defence Academy (Q3 2008) and ran over a 15-month period as they moved into posts in defence projects. The research has successfully identified a range of beneficial changes at the level of the individual as well as a number of key barriers that hindered the application of that learning for the wider benefit of their organization, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). Four key barriers are identified and described, namely:

  • Different approaches to doing project work,
  • Various levels of understanding or application of knowledge,
  • Conflicting and entrenched behaviours, and
  • Set up and infrastructure.

The research concludes that whilst there continues to be merit in traditional courses in PM E&T, there is a real need for alternative approaches that better support further learning and project delivery in complex, dynamic environments. The research findings suggest that development initiatives built on traditional taught elements alone are inadequate, principally as a consequence of factors beyond the control and influence of the individual practitioner. The paper argues that the team constitutes the most significant unit of project performance, working within an environment shaped by the wider organization. Only when due consideration is made of these other levels of learning-as part of a coherent approach to the development of genuine ‘corporate competence’- will the benefits from classroom based PM E&T initiatives be fully realized.

1. Introduction

We are all too aware of the role of the British Army in respect of their military operational duties. Not so well known is the important role army officers have in leading, managing, and supporting the delivery of defence projects. This paper draws on the findings of directed research into the experiences of British Army majors as they transitioned from a course in project management to take up and work in roles in army-focused, equipment-based projects.

2. Research Rationale

Measures of project performance and success typically comprise three elements: time (Was the project delivered to the agreed schedule?), cost (Was the project within the approved budget?), and quality (Were the project deliverables or outputs in line with the original user requirement or contract?). The performance of defence projects, indeed major projects in general, against these three criteria is not impressive, and there is a real and substantive need to improve project performance recognized by government, the general public, and of course, the project management profession. Such problems are not unique to the UK. In 2001, the top five United States (US) weapon systems were projected to have a combined cost of about $290 billion. By 2006, this figure had almost doubled to $550 billion.

It is important to acknowledge the otherwise obvious fact, namely, that it is people who do project work and as such, their education and training clearly has a bearing on what they do, and how they do it (see for example (El-Sabaa 2001; Sauer and Reich 2009). However, projects are delivered by teams, not individuals, and teams working not in isolation, but as part of a wider corporate setting and organization. The benefits from an investment in an individual's project management education and training, PM E&T are therefore realized within the context of a much wider business context.

The overarching rationale for this research, therefore, was to better understand the perceived benefits of PM E&T at the level of the individual and then to explore the experiences of individuals as they transitioned to project related roles in the workplace. In this way, any ‘barriers’ that frustrate or even prevent the realization of benefits from such learning interventions might be identified, together with opportunities there might be to enhance learning in the workplace. An improved, evidence-based understanding of these issues and opportunities would, or at least could, assist in shaping strategic organizational and people development initiatives aimed at enhanced project performance, both now and in the future.

2. Research Aim

The principal aim of the research was to identify the benefits arising over time from participation in PM E&T1 and to determine the barriers hindering the realization of those benefits in the workplace. The over arching framework for the study is illustrated below:

Research Framework

Figure 1: Research Framework

3. Review of The Literature

The nature of the research aim pointed toward two main areas of the literature: firstly, that which presents views on current approaches to project management education and training and, secondly, consideration of learning in a workplace shaped by a project-centric environment. The following sections present findings from the literature in respect of these two main themes.

3.1 Terminology

The definitions of ‘education’ and ‘training’ used in the study are based on UK MOD guidance, which though not the only view, is the most relevant in the context of this research. MOD2 defines training as:

Activity that aims to impart the specific skills, knowledge and / or inculcate appropriate attitudes required by an individual in order to perform adequately a task or job.

Again, the MOD definition of ‘education’ is:

The development of intellectual capacity, the acquisition of general supporting knowledge, and inculcation of attitudes, which underpin performance and engender understanding, commitment, and ethos.

The research is interested in the relationship between ‘competence’ development as a related outcome of PM E&T. Here ‘competence’ is defined as (Spencer and Spencer 1993):

An underlying characteristic of an individual that is causally related to criterion-referenced and/or superior performance in a job or situation.

There are said to be five characteristics of competence [1993, p.116]:

(a) Motive: Things that generate thinking and cause action;

(b) Traits: Characteristics and responses to situations or information;

(c) Self concept: A person's attitudes, values, or self-image;

(d) Knowledge: Information a person has in specific fields; and

(e) Skills: The ability to perform a certain physical or mental task.

Of these, Knowledge and Skills elements tend to be visible and relatively easy to develop whilst Self-concept, Trait, and Motive elements are “more hidden”, “deeper” and “central to personality” (Alam, Gale et al. 2008).

3.2 Commentary on current approaches to PM E&T

Thomas and Mengel (2008) describe the current focus of PM E&T in the UK and Europe as being “training to the standards provided by the professional associations such as the Association for Project Management (APM) and Project Management Institute (PMI)” (p. 305). They contend that “this level of education fails to prepare project management students to deal with the increasing complexity that they face in today's working environment.” The same concerns are shared with professionals in the US. Pappas (2005) suggests that many training programs are “failing to adequately teach the skills needed to manage the high-level projects companies are now implementing” (2005, p. 62). One reason for this failure, she suggests, is the apparent lack of ‘integration management’ where despite adequate project specific processes, the wider consequences for other parts of the business, such as human resources and quality, are not fully considered. Her research also identified a further shortfall: communication. Projects, Pappas maintains, rely on “effective human interaction and collaboration from start to finish,” and she goes on to argue (2005,p. 67) that “Project Managers need a deep, wide toolkit in communications” that includes areas such as effective questioning, active listening, and communications analysis and assimilation.

Hartman (2008) quite literally adds another dimension in respect of developing the project manager's mind. Traditionally, he argues, project managers have been prepared by giving them, first and foremost, a toolkit comprising of a set of methodologies with perhaps some insight into human behaviour (‘soft skills’). However, virtually all typical body of knowledge elements are predominantly left-brain hemisphere oriented thinking (2008,p. 262) – logical and sequential thought processes and functions. Hartmann argues that other factors, which are predominantly right brain oriented thinking, are also necessary, such as comprehending context, seeing the big picture and identifying patterns. In respect of PM development, he concludes that “the primary missing ingredients have more to do with behaviours and the human condition than strictly with traditional project performance metrics” (p. 264).

Pollack (2006) argues in a similar vein, introducing the concept of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ paradigms3 and maintaining that the development of project management has been strongly influenced by the hard paradigm, commonly associated with a positivist epistimology4, deductive reasoning, and quantitative techniques. Practice based on the hard paradigm emphasises efficient, expert-led delivery, and control against predetermined goals. In contrast, the soft paradigm is commonly associated with an interpretive epistemology, inductive reasoning, and qualitative techniques. Practice based on the soft paradigm “emphasises learning, participation, the facilitated exploration of projects” (2006, p. 267). Pollack argues for greater consideration of this paradigm given that “traditional understandings of the role of the project manager are being re-evaluated..…from an expert role to a facilitator role” (p. 270).

In a survey of US-based PM graduate and certificate programs, Carbone (2004) concluded that such courses “must be supplemented with other educational aspects to have a complete project manager development program” (2004,p. 15). Formal training must be combined with experiential learning. He cites ‘soft-skill’ aspects as being particularly difficult to “train in a classroom”. “Just as you cannot teach a person to swim in a classroom, so the manager cannot be developed in one” (Mintzberg 1990). One response to this, suggests Carbone is on-the-job training with mentoring and coaching for both newly appointed and trained project managers (2004, p. 17).

Crawford et al. (2006) have described the current status of project management practitioner training and development as being akin to ‘trained technicians’, people who can follow detailed procedures and techniques, prescribed by project management methods and tools. This is in contrast to what the authors believe to be the real need, namely to “develop reflective practitioners who can learn, operate, and adapt effectively in complex environments” (p. 725). Crawford advocates a move from “prescription to interpretation, from know-what, to know-how, to know-why” (p. 718).

Smith and Winter (2005) also report on the need to shift mainstream thinking from forms of knowledge that can be addressed and disseminated through formal training courses, to non-mainstream thinking around ‘craft knowledge’ and ‘know-how,’ which they say, cannot. The primary unit of knowledge is the entity project and whilst the authors say this is appropriate, they argue that the right interpretation should be everything concerned with how that entity should be organised and managed–and not just ‘delivery’. They conclude that learning and development should be more integrated with people's work situations and professional activity, and viewed as a ‘social process’ in which the individual is able to integrate learning with the development of the organization and its practices–along the lines of the apprentice mode of learning, which the authors say, is now rarely adopted. A similar point is made by Levene (2003) who argues that PM can become an enabler of competitive advantage provided it embraces both delivery of projects and continuing learning and development at the level of the organization.

3.3 Organisational Learning

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline (1990) is widely acknowledged for his influence on the principles and practice of organizational learning. In his successor publication, (Senge 1994) an image is presented that brings together what the author refers to as the “domain of enduring change’ (or deep learning cycle) and the ‘domain of action’ (organizational architecture) in a way which is “more complete and more richly textured than can be seen from the ‘five disciplines’ alone” (1994,p. 42). The image that emerges when these ideas are brought together produces a useful framework for learning, contrasting the ‘tangible’ aspects (e.g., tools and methods) with other, less tangible concepts (e.g., attitudes and beliefs). This ‘triangle and circle’ model is shown below:

Senge's ‘Triangle and Circle’ (Senge 1994)

Figure. 2: Senge's ‘Triangle and Circle’ (Senge 1994)

In this model, the “key focus for activity is the triangle whilst the central causality of change is the circle” (Senge,1994, p. 40). Senge suggests that “we tend to assume that which is most tangible is most substantial, and that which is intangible is insubstantial. In fact, the opposite is true.” In other words, a focus on the triangle where changes can be made actually means that such changes are likely to be (and in fact often are) short lived. It is the circle of the “deep learning cycle” that endures and changes produced by this cycle are said to be “often irreversible” (p. 43). Despite this, it is these aspects of learning that all too often receive scant attention.

3.4 Workplace Learning

Michael Eraut has written extensively on the topic of learning in the workplace (Eraut and Hirsh, 2005; Eraut, 2006; Eraut, 2007). His longitudinal study of early career professional learning5 concluded that “the majority of learning was informal learning within the workplace itself” (2007, p. 408). Formal learning contributes most when it is both relevant and well timed, but “still needs further workplace learning before it can be used to best effect” (2007, p. 419). The study also concluded that managers have a major influence on workplace learning that extends far beyond their job descriptions. The role of such managers is to develop a “culture of mutual support and learning,” and not necessarily to provide all the support directly themselves but sharing this role with experienced workers, through some form of distributed leadership. Atkins and Gilbert (2003) also found that a lack of effective process to ensure such mutual support resulted in failures and issues for major clients.

3.5 Project Organisations as Complex Communities

Project-based environments share many of the features of Communities of Practice (CoP) defined as being “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in an area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002). Such communities have been pervasive for a long time so it is not that they are new, but rather, “for organisations to become more intentional and systematic about managing knowledge” within and across such communities (p.6).

Stacey (1996; 2001; 2003) writing on organizational complexity, refers to such cultures as “company or industry recipes or retained memories” and asserts that individuals who are part of a group are put under strong pressure by the group to conform, in effect, to share the mental models of the other members. One form of group learning is that which uses some form of repetition to push mental models into the unconscious where they can be recalled and used very rapidly. In such cases, “the richer the store of unconscious models, the more expert the person” (Stacey 1996). Stacey refers to this as “single-loop learning” (1996,p. 59) and he makes clear the dangers of this type of learning where the assumptions and simplifications upon which such mental models are built are taken for granted. This approach to learning “is highly efficient in stable circumstances but becomes dangerous when those circumstances change” (1996,p. 60). Single-loop learning in fact becomes a “serious liability when conditions are changing rapidly” (1996,p. 61). Managing far from certainty must take the form of double-loop or “complex learning” (1996,p. 64). Here, the consequences of actions lead to the questioning of the mental model driving the actions. In this way, “complex learning requires destruction of old ways of doing things” (1996,p. 65).

Stacey also argues that “knowledge is always a process and a relational one at that which cannot simply be located in an individual head to be extracted and shared as an organisational asset” (2001,p. 98). Organizational policies that disrupt relational patterns between people can “seriously damage its knowledge-generating capacity.” In other words, “the knowledge assets of an organisation lie in the pattern of relationships between its members and are destroyed when those relational patterns are destroyed” (Stacey, 2001,p. 110). These relationship patterns manifest themselves in a number of ways, but it is clear that there exists a link to organization culture. Thomas and Mullaly (2008) found that the “project management culture within organisations stood separately and distinctly from the organisation culture they existed within” (p. 355) and had a significant impact on how the practice of project management itself was viewed.

A final consideration is that of the levels within an organization that are involved in the ‘co-production’ and ‘co-development’ of knowledge. According to Berggren et al. (2008) socialization of learning must be “operationalized in both individual and collective settings within the organisation” (p. 290). This gives rise to three learning ‘spaces’ or ‘levels’:

(1) The Individual: the course delegate, the carrier of new knowledge;

(2) The team: by sharing experiences individuals develop new knowledge beyond the reflection of each individual; and

(3) The company: turning lessons into organizational development and corporate practice–and vice-versa.

These three come together to create personal learning and behaviour change as well as organizational learning and change. Just as new knowledge needs to be diffused within and across the sponsoring organization, so too can education and training interventions draw upon corporate experience.

3.6 Summary

This review of the literature highlights three fundamental points. Firstly, there is a significant body of literature underpinning claims of inadequacies in current approaches to PM E&T in respect of wider competence development. Secondly, the challenges associated with learning in complex, dynamic, project-centric environment are considerable and require responses that are more deliberate and strategic. Finally, there is a real opportunity for leveraging the intellectual, structural, and organizational capital of the project environment through the exploitation of new and innovative methods of learning and genuine competence development in the workplace.

The literature review led to the formulation of the following research questions:

Q1. What is the extent of students’ PM related E&T upon starting the training?

Q2. What are student views on their experience of PM E&T?

Q3. What are their perceptions of beneficial and other changes over time as a result?

Q4. What are the perceived barriers to the realization of benefits from PM E&T?

4. Research Method

4.1 Research Perspective

The research aim, objectives, and associated questions are seeking to explore elements of not only students’ perception but also the ‘reality’ of their workplace. To that end, neither extreme of the positivist nor the constructivist ontological positions were deemed to be wholly appropriate. Indeed, a starting position that had expected to rely principally on quantitative methods was soon subsumed into a more constructivist approach, with qualitative data informing a large part of the research findings. Broadly speaking, therefore, an interpretive paradigm has been adopted involving a mixed methods approach and the use of both quantitative and qualitative data collection methods to aid the search for meaning.

Moreover, a longitudinal approach was adopted specifically to measure “variations to views and perceptions over time” as a result of the change from individuals being students of PM E&T to taking on roles as practitioners in the workplace (Saunders, Lewis et al. 2003). The longitudinal timeline involved three phases: Baseline6 (time t=0), Initial Review (t+6 months), and Final Review (t+12 months). Each review comprised a custom-built on-line survey and a series of individual, recorded face-to-face interviews.

4.2 Surveys

An online facility was used for the surveys allowing data export to Excel and SPSS software packages for subsequent analysis. Surveys were designed for baseline, initial, and final reviews and piloted against a Research Question Matrix to ensure complete coverage of the (research questions) RQs at the appropriate point(s) in time7. The research was interested in trends over time, and it was important to ensure that responses would allow longitudinal analysis, although because of confidentiality issues, individual records could not be matched over time. Combinations of open and closed questions were employed, with each survey typically comprising around 25 questions. Attitudinal data was generally gathered using a 1 to 4 Likert scale.

Attrition of the surveyed data set was identified as a risk early on and proved to be a challenge throughout. Whilst the support of the MOD sponsor helped in mitigating this risk, there was nevertheless a reduction in response rates over the duration of the study. The six-month review had a response rate of 72% and the 12-month review 52%.

4.3 Interviews

Whilst quantitative data collection was seen as vital in identifying the ‘what’ of the research, interviews from the outset were always expected to begin to address the ‘why’ as a means of making possible “new articulation of experience” (Schostak 2006). A set of questions was prepared for each series of one-hour interviews. As part of the interview ‘scene setting’, and to address ethical issues, students were reminded that interviews were recorded and were invited to sign a consent form. A total of 21 interviews were conducted, with a minimum of five interviews at baseline, initial and final review..

The paper will now go on to present the key findings8 of the research under the heading of each research question. These findings are subsequently discussed in light of the literature in Section 6.

5. Research Findings

5.1 What is the extent of students’ PM related E&T upon starting training?

There was found to be a low level of familiarity with the PM discipline and what PM actually means. Only 2% (i.e., one student) claimed to be ‘very familiar’ with the discipline and what it entails and the same figure admitted to being totally unaware of the subject. Almost half, 49%, were ‘familiar with the term but unclear on its meaning’, whilst 40% claimed to be ‘fairly familiar with the discipline and what it entails.’

The results confirming a low level of familiarity with the PM discipline were borne out when students were questioned about their previous PM knowledge and experience. Some, 55% of students, had no previous PM E&T whatsoever. A further 14% had some knowledge from introductory studies (for example, as part of a first degree), and 31% recorded some other form of PM E&T from either Initial Command and Staff Course (Land) (ICSC(L))9 and/or their military / regimental training10.

To conclude, with respect to prior PM knowledge and experience, students embarked on their training with limited knowledge, little previous E&T and a low level of familiarity with the subject and what it entails. Those students with higher levels of knowledge and familiarity were predominantly from engineering related regiments.

5.2 What are student views on their PM E&T?

It was recognised that ‘military operations management’ had much in common with PM although the linkages and similarities between the two were not always clear nor fully exploited.

“An awful lot of what we do, certainly as junior officers and probably the NCOs as well, is project management by a different name”

“There are lots of different military tools, which have elements of project management I would suggest.…but we are seeing it from a completely different perspective.…I had a rough understanding and now have seen how the military have maybe doctored an approach that someone else has used”.

“I think it's brought a lot more structured approach to a lot of things we do probably subconsciously”.

Recent changes in the nature of military operations have perhaps been a factor:

“During the Cold War we sat in Germany practising the same exercise every year for when the Russians come across. That wasn't a project in the same way as go and fix Iraq for 5 years or go and fix Afghanistan in an expeditionary operating environment today”.

Students embarked on PM E&T with limited prior knowledge and perceptions that, in general, were rather negative toward the relevance of PM to their own futures. However, at the end of the PM E&T, an overwhelming majority of 92% of students believed PM E&T would be ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’ for them as individuals in their next posting. This compares with a slightly reduced figure of 84% in the ‘medium term’ and 83% for their ‘longer term’ futures. Put another way, PM E&T was considered to be almost as important for students’ personal long-term prospects as it was for their immediate and near-term assignments.

5.3 What are their perceptions of beneficial and other changes over time?

5.3.1 Relevance of PM to Individuals’ Military Careers

A key benefit of PM E&T was the realization by students of the relevance of PM to their individual military careers. As the following table shows, there was a significant reversal of students’ attitudes and perceptions concerning the relevance of PM first before, and then after PM E&T.

Table 1: Relevance of PM to Students’ Military Careers

Before PM E&T (%) n=51 After PM E&T (%) n=51 After 6 Months (%) n=37 After 12 Months (%) n=27
Extremely Relevant 5.4 23.5 35.1 19.2
Very Relevant 35.1 52.9 40.5 50.0
Fairly Relevant 48.6 22.5 21.6 23.1
Not at all Relevant 10.8 1.9 2.7 7.7
Total 100 100 100 100

At the time of the Baseline, when questioned on what their views had been before PM E&T, only 40% of students saw PM as ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ relevant to their military careers whilst 49% saw it as ‘fairly relevant’. However, this situation was reversed following PM E&T when 76% considered PM to be ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ relevant. After six months in the workplace, this figure remained at 75% but fell after 12 months to 69%-indicating a gradual reduction in the actual relevance based on the reality of the work place. Indeed, there is evidence that, upon arrival in the workplace, some students simply did not find what they had expected to find as a result of the content of their training.

5.3.2 Utility of PM to Organizations

In addition to exploring perceptions of the utility of PM to individual careers, the research was also interested in understanding students’ perceptions of the utility of PM to organizations that included not only their current teams, but also the wider MOD and organizations beyond the MOD. At Baseline, 87% of students believed PM E&T would be ‘very useful’ or ‘useful’ to their immediate team, whilst 90% believed it would be of use to organizations beyond the MOD. After six months in the workplace, the situation had changed to the extent that only 64% believed PM E&T to be ‘very useful’ or ‘useful’ for their team, whilst 89% still believed it to be of use to ‘others’. In other words, the value of PM E&T to the students’ teams was found to be less than they had expected for the wider MOD, whilst the value to ‘others’ consistently remained the greatest of all.

Table 2: Utility of PM to Employing Organizations

Baseline After 6 Months
Team MOD Others Team MOD Others
Very Useful 32.4 17.6 25.4 27.7 21.6 37.8
Useful 54.9 68.6 64.7 36.1 62.2 51.3
Of Little Use 11.7 13.7 7.9 30.5 13.5 8.1
Of No Use 1.9 0 1.9 5.5 2.7 2.7
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100

After 12 months in the work place, 92% of students responded positively to their having been ‘many’ or ‘some’ useful changes to them as individuals as a result of their PM E&T. At the level of the team, 77% of students said that there had been ‘some’ useful changes, but the balance, 23%, said there had been no beneficial changes at the level of the team. The same results were found in respect of the MOD as a whole. In other words, the principal beneficial changes that took place as a result of PM E&T were found to be at the level of the individual. Very few references were made, for example, to ‘improved teamwork’ or ‘better team performance’ nor for that matter to ‘improved organisational effectiveness’. Drawing on comments made after 12 months:

“I do not think it is changing at all as the wider Army is not educated in the ways of PM.”

“PM is becoming more widely recognised and used. However, the process is not pan-Army and therefore the results (and benefits) are patchy.”

“Project Management should become an integral part of our processes that is understood by all to some degree – not just those who practice it. This would ensure that those who are not practicing still understand the issues and outputs.”

5.3.3 The Language of Professional PM

An immediate and key benefit of PM E&T was found to be the opportunity to ‘learn the language’ of the PM discipline. This was evident in the Baseline survey where no less that 92.2% of all students found an awareness of PM terminology to be ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’. This figure reduced to 77% after six months though picked up to 85% after 12 months, perhaps as students internalised then reinforced this learning. Statements made in interviews after six months underlined this point:

“I think the most obvious benefit is the language, being able to speak the same language, or at least have an understanding of what civilian counterparts are talking about.… and being able to relate it to where that sits within our position – that is invaluable.”

“I feel confident with the common language I learned to be able to go in and interface with people. In fact I actually asked one of my contractors recently what type of organisation he worked in – whether it was project based or matrix – and he talked back in terms which I understood.”

Interestingly, after 12 months, references to the benefit of language shifted from the focus being on the individual to the focus being the team–an example where the team had benefitted and changed as a result of an individual's PM E&T. We can find the following statements in 12-month survey responses:

“More constant use of standard processes and methodologies across the IPTs11 has led to more people understanding the language of PM.”

“A greater understanding of the language of industry has been very useful.”

“After a year in post, the training has enabled me to be more effective in my role through an understanding of terminology.…knowledge of the language has allowed me to follow conversations and be confident in contributing to the team.”

5.3.4 Understanding PM Tools & Techniques

The Baseline survey provided evidence of some support for all taught PM topics with ‘Risk Management’ and ‘Life Cycle’ being the most useful12. Other topics, including ‘Earned Value Management’ and ‘Budget and Cash Flow Management’ were less valued. After six months, ‘Project Scheduling’ was found to be the most useful topic, followed by ‘Awareness of Terminology’. After 12 months, the situation remained very similar to that at six months with two notable exceptions: Project Scheduling and Budget and Cash Flow both fell in relative utility terms. These results are presented as a graphic13 below14.

Body of Knowledge Topics: Utility over Time

Fig. 3: Body of Knowledge Topics: Utility over Time

It is interesting to note that whilst the general trend over time is downward (i.e., topics generally becoming less useful) there is, however, one exception, namely, PM Terminology, whose utility increases during the 12-month period.

Over time, students demonstrated confidence and clarity around what project management meant to them, the tools, techniques, and process that are involved and how these could be applied:

“Somebody sent me a Gantt chart and I went straight to Microsoft Project, opened it up and used it and understood it.”

“I sat in the café in Kandahar with a project manager from an IPT at Abbey Wood and we discussed work breakdown structures on the project that we were working on, and how we were going to do the integration of this platform in theatre. And I sat there and I was laughing because I was actually using what I was taught.”

“Yes, the Gantt chart jumps out at me as a perfect example of ensuring that everything we see as the scope is represented … we don't simply stick to the chapters of the project, but we understand the paragraphs as well.…Are you going to hit your IOC15? No? Why not? I don't know. Where's your Gantt chart, it'll tell you on there why you've moved to the right.”

“Risk management is pretty fundamental, and the whole scheduling part, success criteria.……all of what I would view as important parts have been relevant.”

5.3.5 Beneficial changes: Summary

Four key benefits of PM E&T have been identified:

  • Appreciation of the relevance of PM to individuals’ careers,
  • Recognition of the longer term utility of PM to organisations,
  • Learning the language of PM, and
  • Applying associated tools and techniques.

However, the majority of the instances where these benefits were reported were found to be at the level of the individual. PM E&T, delivered at the level of the individual clearly has benefits at that level, but with little apparent penetration of this learning into ‘higher’ levels–be it the team or the wider organization. This is an important finding in the context of what follows – barriers.

5.4. What are the perceived barriers to realising benefits from PM E&T

Applying the learning of the PM E&T course in the work place was not without its challenges. Findings relating to the following specific barriers are presented below:

  1. Different approaches to doing project work,
  2. Various levels of understanding or application of knowledge,
  3. Conflicting and entrenched behaviours, and
  4. Set up and Infrastructure.
5.4.1 Approaches to project work

Even at the time of the Baseline, there was evidence of a perception that ‘different ways of working’ was likely to become a barrier:

“I am guessing that every IPT or team you go into will have their own idiosyncrasies and their little foibles and methodologies for doing things…so you won't be able to walk out of one IPT and apply the same principles and laws, exactly to another IPT.”

This proved to be the case. Students’ experience of ‘different ways of working’ hindering the application of learning was the most commonly stated barrier. After six months in the workplace, some 19% of survey responses reported ‘not how the team worked’ was a barrier. This figure increased to 35% of all respondents after 12 months. These results were borne out in interviews. Many students were frustrated by the way in which local approaches to work obstructed their efforts to apply their learning in order to ‘make a difference’:

“As much as you try and force the formal reporting procedures.…you just hit brick walls by a representative at every level in the structure, civil servant, military, there is an obstacle placed there…’it's not my job’ or ‘it's DECs job’ or ‘DEC don't want to do it’ or ‘we don't want to do it.”

“The problem is we have people within finance in order to check our projects through…and commercial wise everything has to go through commercial.…but they're not embedded in the IPT…it's an obstacle…”

“We need to have equal involvement from all the DLODs16…what we can't do is have different individuals every time you have a meeting, it's got to be the same person otherwise you spend half your time re-iterating what you said last time…you need a core group of people to work on a project.”

After six months in post, just 2% of students reported that ‘all’ of what had been learned could be applied whilst 8% reported that they had applied ‘none’ of the learning. Whilst 67% responded that they had been able to apply at least ‘some’ of what they had learned, the balance, 23%, had only been able to apply ‘a little.’ Moreover, and related to this, almost one-third of all students reported it as being ‘awkward’ or ‘a difficult challenge’ to apply their learning:

“I have often found on courses that I have done in the military before that there is a way that you learn on the course and then when you go to the job it's done differently.”

“In this particular area the process has been adapted to the role, the organisation and the individuals that are here.”

“It's been awkward – there are local adaptations of much that I was taught.”

“The staff within DE&S17 are certainly stuck in their ways.”

The situation was similar after 12 months, and although by that time no students reported that ‘none’ of what they had learned could be applied, some 31% had still only been able to apply ‘a little.’ After 12 months, one student had this to say:

“So if the guy who you are providing the deliverable for wants it in a set fashion that is not part of the tool set that we have been taught, then it is that product you are going to produce…there is a way of doing things with that particular organisation…when the boss changed over, you have to change what you do as well.”

5.4.2 Levels of Understanding

Statements made during six-month interviews pointed toward there being various and different levels of understanding both within, and across, teams:

“What is not easy is speaking to people who have no concept of the process of project management…and I find it frustrating when people don't. And this is not private soldiers, this is18 SO2s and SO1s, you've no idea, and question – do we need to somehow educate them?”

“It was them (HQ) just not understanding that actually there is a recognised process. It's guided by project management principles but is used by my office to run our projects, and other people do not understand the process.”

“I'd like my boss to understand but he hasn't got a clue…(And) it goes back to a lack of knowledge Army-wide about project management.”

“Education, the further development of individuals..…but willingness is missing…it's not as if they have to go far…only to a building next door…so that's been a barrier.…other peoples’ willingness to undergo further training.”

Again after 12 months we find that differences in level of understanding persist, though by this time, some students have begun to influence their own teams to the benefit of the project:

“We've implemented exactly the same processes across the teams… so we're pushing for that…and the people that are leading that are people that have attended the course.”

“Initially I think it was disruptive because new boy comes in.…has it helped? I'm going to be bold and say yes…bottom line is we're getting there now…we've adapted what we learned.”

5.4.3 Behaviours

Whilst the PM E&T included standard elements of ‘soft skills’, for example communication, teamwork and leadership, from a theoretical standpoint it did not (nor did it even attempt) to ‘teach’ behaviours. However, there is clear evidence that behaviours in the workplace presented barriers to the realisation of benefits as the following statements made in the six-month survey show:

“It's not been easy applying what I've learned because I'm the new boy, I wear green.”

“I think the cultural aspect is quite important, the right behaviours, everyone has to have the same understanding, the same framework, the same focus…its going to be an individual or individuals…It's personal relationships…if people don't get on that can have a massive effect.”

“I suppose the fact that people are still in their own little groupings – you have got dismounted close combat and mounted close combat and things like that, although there are things that cross over between the two, they are still in their own little stove pipes and may not talk to each other.”

“One could be military and civilian personnel sticking purely to their own stove piped processes and ways of doing things…local versions of paperwork, documentation which otherwise should be standardised.”

The evidence suggests significant cultural (and in some respects, structural) issues–between military and civilian and between teams and their supporting functions. The same issue was evident after 12 months:

“I think the same gap exists – to big a divide between civilian staff understanding and military expectations especially around UOR19 work.”

“The military invest a great deal (in us)..……but the skills we are taught are not put fully into practise because of the environment.…that being a lack of trust in the military in that we are posted for such a short period of time.”

“IPTs have a habit of not using the correct people from the right organisation to assist them.…there is still far too much stove piped work, which is not taking a unified view.”

“Changing culture is a slow process. TLCM20 and project management are permeating into my area, but slowly.”

These issues are deep-rooted and not likely to be addressed solely by any ‘traditional’ PM course targeted at the level of the individual. Nevertheless, the fact that they exist and hinder the application of PM E&T in the work place is significant for this research.

5.4.4 Infrastructure

A somewhat more obvious and certainly more physical barrier found was that of organizational infrastructure. Issues here ranged from the physical set up of the project team and its operating environment, e.g., office location, to the IT infrastructure that supported that environment.

“Four of us worked in two different offices, and as a result that led to a lack of shared processes. Information management in particular was key, because we were all running projects–what we found was that if we talked to each other we could share our experiences. By being in different offices we couldn't do that, so now we're in one office and what we do is talk to each other.”

“Access to systems and when I say systems, software is included in that…you learn how to use something…you come away and what you can't do is link it to others. Microsoft project is a perfect example.…I can use the software but I can't link because it's all through the web portal…you have to go through the Web browser.”

These issues were substantially corporate wide issues, and not unique to one area of the organization, nor indeed, one team. However, there is evidence that the lack of integration of such structures and systems is a real and significant barrier to learning–including the learning from experience.

6. Discussion

There are clear concerns in the literature regarding the very nature of traditional project management courses. Many academics and thoughtful practitioners argue that current approaches to PM E&T have been too preoccupied with the ‘what’ producing ‘trained technicians’ rather than the ‘how’ and the creation of ‘reflective learners’ (Crawford 2000; Carbone 2004; Pollack 2006; Hartman 2008; Thomas and Mengel 2008). The traditional approach at the level of the individual, they say, is too narrow and too shallow, and does not allow the effective transition and application of learning into a wider, organizational context. There is a need, they argue, for a shift away from ‘skills based’ toward ‘right of brain’ with a greater emphasis on attitudes, behaviours, communication, and ‘craft knowledge’ (Winter and Smith 2006; Hartman 2008).

However, this research has found that the principle of ‘first things first’ applies also to the development of project people. Even with a population of bright (masters level), able (company commander), and, militarily speaking, well-experienced army officers, there was nevertheless evidence of a high appreciation for a relatively21 traditional course of PM E&T. The research indicates, therefore, that an adequate foundation, knowledge, and understanding of essential project management principles and processes–as articulated in the APM or indeed, Project Management Institute's A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®Guide)- resulting in a fluency in the PM language, is an essential prerequisite for effective individual performance.

The research has therefore shown that an initial emphasis on developing the ‘trained technician’ and the adoption of a ‘hard paradigm’ brings real benefits. However, the research also indicates that in a defence context these benefits only apply up to a point. It has found that there are real and significant barriers, at levels beyond that of the individual, shaped by factors associated with the ‘soft paradigm’ (Pollack 2006) ‘behaviours and the human condition’ (Hartman 2008) and ‘group practice’ (Stacey 2003). These factors inevitably and adversely impact an individual's performance and his or her contribution to project performance.

The application of individual learning–even in the case of confident, pro-active, self-starting military officers–is challenged by the very environment in which, as aspiring practitioners, individuals find themselves working. Whilst ‘socialization of learning’ (Berggren and Soderland 2008) could be a feature of this environment, the research suggests that on balance, the experience of new entrants to the project workplace is rather more negative. For example, there is no reference to ‘on the job training’ (Carbone 2004) nor for that matter ‘intentional and systematic knowledge management’ (Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002). The research in the defence context has therefore confirmed what others have collectively concluded–that there is a real opportunity to better manage learning in the project workplace.

The characteristics of projects in an increasingly turbulent 21st century are such that whilst project management courses and qualifications continue to make an important contribution to building elements of competence, delivered in isolation, such interventions are inadequate. The nature of the challenges that ‘project people’ face requires a broader front of development activity, involving a deeper level of learning with a greater degree of team-based and organizational context and content. Such development activity would aim to address the range of other factors (i.e. barriers) that this research has identified as being significant. These include the nature and influence of the team, the level of engagement and quality of relationships, project and functional structures, cross departmental interface management, intra-group dynamics and organizational values and culture as well as elements of infrastructure and corporate policy. Investment in PM E&T at the level of the individual alone is, at best, a ‘leap of faith’ and at worst a waste of money unless it is positioned as part of such a broader, and arguably more strategic, development program.

We can look to more ‘mature’, project-based organizations whose business is about delivering commercial projects to paying customers to begin to see evidence of such development activities. Here, the traditional approach of project manager development is not applied in isolation but in conjunction with other elements of competence development (Thomas and Mullaly 2008). With such maturity comes recognition that project management competence comprises more than taught knowledge and skills. It involves ‘growing’ people with the appropriate motives, traits, and attitudes–elements of competence that can be employed to shape recruitment policy and practice, and over time used to build a corporate project identity and community. It is perhaps worth noting at this juncture that the army does not aim to recruit project managers. Rather, one could argue that the army looks to recruit leaders, able to execute military operations, with a range of technical skills, working with, and within an organizational construct that is based on values shaped by tradition, discipline, courage, and military fortitude. These are not necessarily the same qualities and values needed for a successful, commercial defence business. Transitioning learning to help people move from the ‘battle-space’ to a ‘business-space’ domain is therefore likely to be all the more necessary.

Both the literature and the findings of this research therefore point toward a common issue: the need for an altogether more strategic approach to people development and learning. This requires a move away from periodic, individual skill-based interventions to a paradigm where the same individuals are able to immerse themselves in learning as part of their day-jobs. Learning must be reinforced–not ruptured–by the organizational ‘pattern of relationships’ and supported by an explicit attempt to better ‘integrate learning’ with day-to-day project work (Pappas 2005; Smith and Winter 2005). Wenger's ‘community of practice’ provides project-centric organizations with a framework for the ‘co-production of knowledge’ as part of a systematic social process that goes beyond the knowledge and skill elements of competence to become embedded in attitudes, traits, and motives at all levels of an organization (Spencer and Spencer 1993). Such an approach-comprising a combination of individual, team, and corporate development initiatives that cut across levels-would militate against key barriers found in this research. Organizations would, in so doing, build not just ‘communities of practice’ but also ‘communities of learning.’

The important role played by the project work place in shared learning is therefore key and yet, based on the findings of this research, is currently under-valued, under-managed, and under-utilized as a ‘community.’ There is a real (and as yet arguably unfulfilled) role for senior management to actively shape such a community and equip its members with the means, modes, and mind-sets required for shared learning–an approach that fundamentally addresses the ‘Senge circle’ and avoids further tampering with the triangle. This is a facilitative role for managers, not a directive one, and here again we might ask whether there is the management competence (or for that matter, the motivation) in the workplace to address such a need. Effective inter-play between a ‘deep learning cycle’ and the organizational architecture is key. A preoccupation with the ‘tangible’–infrastructure, methods, and tools–at the expense of the ‘intangible’–awareness, attitudes, motives, and beliefs–risks producing the wrong kind of change, at the wrong level. This research has generated findings that indicate the need to more fully address these intangibles reflected in coherent alignment of policy, structures, learning, and working.

Stacey provides us with a further reminder of the challenges associated with learning in light of organizational complexity. When conditions are changing rapidly, ‘retained memories’ become a ‘liability’ and the blind application of ‘taught process’ entirely inappropriate. In such situations–clearly the case with large defence projects–'complex’ or ‘double-loop’ learning is needed, requiring the wider organization to work in a timely (not schedule driven) and collaborative (not competitive) manner to challenge mental models and to destroy as and when necessary old ways of doing things. Policy and practice must build and support, and not disrupt, relational patterns. Paradoxically, therefore, senior management must set aside its own mental models of learning and apply ‘double loop learning’ to the very process of learning itself.

Organizations implement PM E&T for two main reasons: either as a reaction to a specific trigger (such as customer feedback) or as part of a wide ranging organizational change program (Thiry 2004). However, strategic goals appear to be poorly defined as part of such projects and when they are, they are often less than clear measures of success. This research has also found a less than strategic HR approach to defining PM E&T initiatives and arguably even a lack of project management of E&T initiatives as projects in their own right. Put another way, there would appear to be less rigour in the management of investment in people as there is with investment in product.

7. Concluding Statement

There appears to be a paradox in project management today affecting education and training and project delivery, and it is this: despite growing interest and investment in project management education and training, project managers continue to make the same mistakes as they did 20, even 30 years ago (see for example Hartman 2008; Suikki, Tromstedt et al. 2004; O'Mahoney, Vye et al. 2007). In the words of Alam et al. (Alam, Gale et al. 2008):

“From an industry perspective, it would be useful to be able to say that if an outstanding project manager is responsible for a project, it guarantees success, but this is not always true…(in fact)…the relationship is, at best, tenuous.”

This paper describes the research undertaken to identify the benefits arising over time from PM E&T and the barriers hindering the realization of those benefits in the workplace. Using a longitudinal, mixed methods approach the research has identified a range of benefits from investment in PM E&T for army officers as well as the barriers that hinder the realization of those benefits in army-focussed projects. It has found that whilst there continues to be merit in traditional methods, there is a real need for a different approach to educating, training, working, and learning that better supports project delivery in complex, dynamic environments. The barriers to learning involve, and cut cross all elements of competence, not only knowledge and skill at the level of the individual which has been the traditional focus of PM E&T. The findings suggest that development initiatives that are built on these traditional elements alone are inadequate, and the returns on investments in this kind of PM E&T will not be fully realized, principally as a consequence of factors beyond the control and influence of the individual practitioner. In reality, the team constitutes the most significant unit of project performance, working within an environment shaped by the wider corporate. Only when due consideration and attention is given to learning and development at these levels will the benefits from initiatives taken at the level of the individual be fully realized. A more strategic response to PM E&T is needed, involving clearer articulation of the corporate business need and team objectives, and more careful consideration of what success looks like for the project business, not just for the project individual. Such an approach would require greater engagement with the wider organization which in turn would reduce the kind of barriers that this research has identified and so improve the realization of benefits to both the individual and the organization. It heralds a blueprint that would allow an organization to move from competent people, to competent team, to a truly competent corporate.


Technical Employment Training (TechET): A Brief Description


Technical Employment Training (Tech ET) provides students with the essential theory and practical skills necessary to perform effectively within the Military Acquisition Stream (MAS) in the MOD acquisition community. During the course students are provided with an understanding of the common methodologies, tools and techniques used by effective project managers, requirements managers and through life support managers. On successful completion of the course students will have obtained 20 Masters level credits from Cranfield University, the Association for Project Management (APMP) qualification International Project Management Association (IPMA Level D), and a series of common skills on which role-specific training can build.


To prepare selected core staff for project related appointments within the MOD acquisition community by applying a common understanding of the skills and processes required in the delivery of capability through all stages of the life cycle process.

Course Structure

There are two phases to the course.

  • Phase One is a four-week package that explains the skills and processes required for successful project management and systems engineering with special emphasis on MOD acquisition. A series of linked case studies will educate students in the processes and documentation in all stages of the MOD project lifecycle: Concept, Assessment, Demonstration, Manufacture, In-Service, Disposal (CADMID), including a warehouse project simulation. This part of the course culminates with students sitting the APMP examination.
  • Phase Two involves the application of the skills learnt in Phase One. During this phase students will be placed into Requirements Working Groups to research and report on a ‘real’ capability issue sponsored from within the MOD.
  • A two-hour masters Level exam in project management.
  • The APMP exam.

Designed for

TechET is designed as the foundation course for military officers working within all areas of the UK MOD project, procurement, and acquisition community.

ANNEX B1 : Project Management in the British Army: Matrix of Research Questions and Quantitative Data Collection

Project Management in the British Army: Matrix of Research Questions and Quantitative Data Collection

ANNEX B2: Project Management in the British Army: Matrix of Research Questions and Qualitative Data Collection

Project Management in the British Army: Matrix of Research Questions and Qualitative Data Collection


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1 PM E&T for the purposes of this research comprised elements of a four-week masters level course in Project Management and Systems Engineering. Brief details of the PM related component of the course are provided in Annex A.

2 Director General Education & Training's Strategic Plan, 2004.

3 A term that first came into popular usage following publication Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

4 Epistemology: interpreted to mean ‘the way knowledge is used and understood’ and what we see as valid.

5 The study focussed on the first three_years of employment of newly qualified nurses, graduate engineers, and chartered accountants.

6 Effectively at completion of the students’ PM E&T, i.e., Q3 2008.

7 See Annex B for the complete Research Question Matrix.

8 The findings have, of necessity, been summarized for the purposes of this paper. Further details are available from the author on request.

9 Initial Command and Staff Course (Land) – a 32-week course that all newly promoted majors attend at the Defence Academy. This includes some PM E&T on topics such as Risk Management and Project Life Cycle

10 The two regiments specifically mentioned in survey responses were Royal Engineers (RE) and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

11 IPT: Integrated Project Team.

12 The course was broadly based on the 37 PM topics of the APM BoK that make up the syllabus of the APMP qualification (IPMA Level D)

13 The Warehouse Simulation and APMP – both appearing here for completeness - are not BoK elements. Brief details of both are given in Annex A.

14 Coding used: 4 = Very Useful, 3 = Useful, 2 = A Little Useful, 1 = Not at all Useful

15 IOC: Initial Operating Capability

16 DLODS: Defence Lines of Development being those elements that only when managed collectively will deliver up a military capability. They are Training, Equipment, Personnel, Infrastructure, Doctrine, Organisation, Information and Logistics. DE&S are responsible for the Equipment LOD, while others, including Front Line Commands, are responsible for covering the remaining DLODs.

17 Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) is the MOD agency for procurement of military equipment.

18 Rank of SO2 is at Army Major and equivalent; SO1: Lt.Col. and equivalent.

19 UOR – Urgent Operational Requirement; IPT – Integrated Project Team

20 TLCM – Through Life Capability Management: the MOD's approach to managing the lines of development that together constitute a complete capability solution.

21 This statement is made conditional upon the word ‘relatively’ simply because the course itself adopts a case study approach, but still, the core PM teaching is classroom and APM body of knowledge based.

© Project Management Institute. All rights reserved.



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