Project Management Institute

Exploring the development of a profession

lessons for project management from other occupations

Dr. Bill L. Zwerman, PhD, MA, BA,
Associate Professor,
Department of Sociology,
University of Calgary

Dr. Janice L. Thomas, PhD, MBA, BSc,
Associate Professor and Program Director,
MBA in Project Management,
Centre for Innovative Management,
Athabasca University
Adjunct Professor,
Project Management Specialization,
University of Calgary

Sue Haydt, MA, BA.
Research Associate,

Élisabeth Bruyère
Research Institute

Terry Williams
Maze Consulting

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

Many project management practitioners believe that they are members of a profession.
They are wrong.

There is no question that project management practitioners conduct themselves in a professional manner when carrying out the responsibilities of their occupation. However, a profession is a special kind of occupation with a particular set of characteristics that carry with them a set of privileges and responsibilities. There are very few of these traditional professions recognized by law in the western world. Common examples are law, engineering, medicine and accounting.

In the studies of professions, project management is notably absent. According to traditional definitions, project management does not qualify as a profession (Zwerman &Thomas, 2001) and in many countries, it is not even recognized as an occupation for statistical reporting purposes. While the activities of project management associations throughout the world reflect the growing concern with the achievement of professional recognition, this will be a decade of decision and action for project management. As the numbers of members grow and the occupation becomes increasingly important and commonplace in the world of work, the commitment of the membership to this lofty goal is likely to be tested.

Many, perhaps even most practitioners, when made aware of this distinction think that attaining professional status for the occupation of project management is a good thing. Obtaining the status of a full profession requires that the members of an occupation work together to achieve recognition. The core characteristics of a profession are defined by the memberships’ ability to capture exclusive use of the name of the occupation, to lay claim to the “exclusive” mastery of an esoteric body of knowledge, to achieve public and governmental recognition of the authority of the relevant professional association(s) to govern the practice of the occupation, and to set the educational requirements for entrance into the profession and continuance in the profession (for more on this see Zwerman & Thomas, 2001, Hodgson, 2002). Gaining control over these characteristics requires both heavy initial investment and ongoing efforts directed at maintaining this status.

The Project Management Institute (PMI®) states that its mission is “to further the professionalization of project management” with the explicit intent of developing a new profession. To further this mission, PMI provided a research grant to explore the lessons that can be learned from the development of the traditional professions and the activities of other knowledge based occupations in pursuing professional status in society. This research seeks to fill gaps in both the professionalization and the project management literature by exploring the status of the project management occupation within the world of occupations and professions, and more importantly perhaps, to draw lessons from the professionalization journey of other occupations to help guide the evolution of the project management occupation. Examining the efforts, trials, and accomplishments of both traditional professions (medicine, accounting, pharmacy, and engineering) and emerging professional occupations (social work, teaching, and nursing) should provide valuable insights into the future of project management. Particularly insightful for project management will be the identification of the professionalization activities in which other emerging professional occupations engage.

This paper is the final deliverable from this sponsored study. It reports on the strategies and issues of concern across the professional occupations examined, and reviews the key lessons learned for project management from this analysis. The authors focus on comparing project management's professionalization activities to the activities of other professional occupations. In doing so, it has been found that while project management association executives demonstrate a basic understanding of the challenges, they do not appear to be engaged in all of the activities deemed important by the other occupations.

Research Methodology

This study began in 2002 and involved three phases. Building upon initial work on the professional status of project management published in 2001 (Zwerman & Thomas), the first phase explored the sociological literature on the development of the traditional professions. The primary findings of this stage confirm that project management is not now a profession and has much work to do to obtain that designation (Zwerman, Thomas & Haydt, 2002).

The second phase involved a textual analysis of the websites of three comparable, knowledge-based, employee-oriented occupations (teaching, nursing and social work) that have been involved in pursuing professional status. Each of the “employee” occupations considered here share several problems and have responded in similar ways to the challenge of gaining recognition as a profession. All have had to deal with their bureaucratic masters and have struggled to achieve and retain recognition for their claim to professional status. Each has been subjected to the vagaries of the bureaucracies and is in a position where their claims must be constantly renewed. Each has struggled to lay claim to mastery of an esoteric knowledge base necessary to the performance of their special functions. Each has been struggling to define what is unique to their practice. What is it that “teachers” do that separates them from anyone else who happens to be in a teaching role? What is it that ‘social workers’ do that differentiates them from others who are helping and counseling? Each has faced the question of credentials and each has responded by upgrading the formal educational requirements associated with their occupation. Project management is facing all the questions that these occupations have encountered. The choices made by practitioners and their associations over the next several years could have a profound effect upon the development of project management as an occupation. Over 100 websites in three countries were reviewed between June and November of 2002. Key findings from this stage of the research revolved around the most common strategies for pursuing professionalization as discovered across the occupations examined (Zwerman, Thomas & Haydt, 2003).

The final stage involved surveying association executives from a subset of traditional and emerging professions (including project management) to explore the issues, challenges, and activities these groups report as important to this journey. The web-based questionnaire was directed at presidents of a number of national, state, provincial, and regional professional organizations. Data was collected between June and October of 2003. Results from this phase are reported in Zwerman, Thomas, Haydt and Williams (2004). The first two phases of this study have been reported at other venues (Zwerman, Thomas, & Haydt, 2002, 2003; Zwerman, Thomas, Haydt, & Williams, 2004) and are briefly reviewed here. The research monograph detailing all phases and findings will be published in 2004. This paper reports on the strategies and issues of concern across the professional occupations surveyed, and reviews the key lessons learned for project management from this analysis.

Theoretical Foundation

Historically, most studies of these occupations have been framed in terms of a structural-functionalist based “trait approach” to professionalization. This theory presents professions as occupations that possess particular traits that distinguish them from non-professions. These traits typically include: formal educational and entry requirements, a monopoly over an esoteric or discrete body of knowledge and related skills, autonomy over the terms and conditions of practice, a code of ethics and a commitment to service ideals (Roach Anleu 1992, p. 24; Hugman 1996, p. 132). According to this theory, nursing, teaching and social work (among others) are classified as “semi-professions” as they possess only some of the traits or have only partially developed some of the traits required by an occupation to be considered fully professional (Hugman 1996, p. 133). Project management clearly fits into the “semi-profession” category as discussed elsewhere (Zwerman & Thomas, 2001).

Newer literature examines alternative theoretical frameworks to further our understanding of professionalization. The most commonly used alternative theory dealing with these employer-employee occupations is “control theory,” as it addresses the locus of control in the relationship between professionals and bureaucracies. Traditionally, the literature on professions has viewed the relationship between professionals and bureaucracies as incompatible because of the fundamental differences between the norms of bureaucracies and professions (Roach Anleu 1992, p. 24). More recently, authors rely on “control” theory to conceptualize the relationship between bureaucracies and professionals. Under this view, claims to professional status must be placed in historical, economic, political, and social context and seen as being fundamentally shaped by these conditions, rather than assuming that claims to professional status are objective, inevitable, and timeless (Roach Anleu 1992, p. 24; Hugman 1991, p. 201). Next, claims to professional status (for example “autonomy,” or “esoteric knowledge”) are perceived as strategies in exerting occupational control and autonomy vis-à-vis other groups, including bureaucratic managers (Roach Anleu 1992, p. 25; Hugman 1991, p. 201; Aldridge 1996, p. 184). Thus, attention shifts from a focus on incompatibility of goals to a concentration on relationships between the two groups, such as the ways they interact and impinge on each other (Roach Anleu 1992, p. 25), on how the competing demands of each group are managed and what this can tell us about “the profession's power in the market, derived from the demand for its expertise (Aldridge 1996, p. 184).” Similarly, Hugman asserts that this approach places questions of “power at the centre of its understanding of professionalization (1991, p. 201).” Finally, occupations such as social work, nursing and teaching are considered “mediated” or “bureau-professions,” reflecting the reality that these professions developed mainly within bureaucracies (Draper 2003, Hugman 1991, p. 201).

In summary, this theoretical framework accounts for the struggles these occupations face, and the reality that members of these professions depend on organizations for their livelihood; yet provide an invaluable service to them as well. Today, researchers holding this conflict approach focus on the ways that rival claims to professional privilege and status are resolved in what is viewed as a competitive process. For example, they explore the nurses’ movement “up” the hierarchy in conflict with the doctors’ desire to maintain their privileges and status.

In conclusion, the control approach can be said to provide superior insights into the historical struggle of occupations such as nursing, teaching, social work, and project management to achieve professional status rather than having a firm grip on it. Indeed, some have pointed out that even the firmly established professions (such as medicine and law) are increasingly subject to post-modern conditions and broad social change, especially in the age of cutbacks (Hugman 1996, p. 135; Hugman 1991, p. 212; Labaree 1992, p. 126). Trait theory is no longer a satisfactory model by itself, even with regard to the “classic” professions. The majority of analysts favor theoretical models that account for change or the struggle to obtain professional status. Thus, this paper focuses on the processes and exercise of power in the pursuit of professional status with particular emphasis on what project management can learn from the struggles of other “semi-professions.”

Exploring the Journey to Professional Status

The journey to professional status engages occupations in a variety of different activities and strategies aimed at obtaining or maintaining professional status. Most of these activities relate back to achieving the characteristics of traditional professional status and fall under the following categories:

  • Gaining monopoly over the use of the occupation name
  • Defining and laying claim to an esoteric body of knowledge
  • Defining the field of operation
  • Controlling education and accreditation
  • Introducing certification and licensing
  • Making changes to professional associations

This section of the paper highlights findings from the website review and online survey with respect to the strategies and activities of these various associations followed by a brief assessment of project management's accomplishments and activities in this area. Much of this analysis was first reported in Zwerman, Thomas, & Haydt (2003) and Zwerman, Thomas, Haydt, & Williams (2004).

Monopoly over use of the Name

In order to qualify as a profession, an occupation must attain control and monopoly over the use of the practitioner title. A cornerstone in attaining and maintaining professional status is the importance of the name of the occupation standing for a particular knowledge or the theory and practices of the occupation. Professional association websites provide numerous examples of efforts to either protect or police the use of the title.

The Challenge for Project Management

The challenge for project management is to capture and gain control over the designation, “project manager.” As long as anyone can use that designation without regard to training or certification, it will be impossible to create an occupation that can lay claim to “professional” status. All analyses of “professionalization” processes include this criterion but it should not be viewed in absolute terms. Registered nurses really don't care much whether someone receives an informal designation of “nurse” here or there. What they protect is the center of their occupational world—hospitals, doctors’ offices, and clinics. Furthermore, the protection of that designation or “name” is often a lengthy and ongoing process, and a continuing part of the struggle between occupations, and between occupations and employers, to achieve control over their work. This will require lobbying and related activities to win the rights to that “name” and continuing efforts to police its use.

In countries that rely on skills-based certification of many occupations (e.g. South Africa and Australia), the local project management associations are working with government bodies to delineate skills-based competencies. This process takes them a step closer to being able to exclude the non-qualified or incompetent from using the name. In these jurisdictions, project management may be closer to achieving the status of a profession in some senses, but it appears to be a centralized government agency that creates and retains control over the title with the assistance of the project management associations. This is not a typical professional model and bears further research.

Efforts of others to protect their professional title

  • After long lobbying on the part of social workers, Alberta legislation passed in 1991 protects the name “registered social worker” but does not protect the term “social worker” or “social work”; social workers in Alberta are still lobbying for protection of this particular title (website #2).
  • Similarly, legislation in Pennsylvania (1987, The Social Workers’ Practice Act) protects the title of “licensed social worker” but not the term “social worker.” Nonetheless, the legislation is promoted as “…a mechanism for accountability” as complaints may be filed against licensed social workers by the state board (website #14).
  • Nursing associations in Canada have also sought title protection. Nurses in Nova Scotia lobbied and prepared for over a decade to change from a professional association to a college model. Finally successful, the passing of the Registered Nurses Act (January 2002), allows for the full legal protection of the titles/terms “nurse” and “nursing” (website #8).

Efforts of others to police the use of the title

  • The College of Nurses of Ontario website posts from the Quality Practice Newsletter, Volume 1, Issue 1, about cracking down on nursing impostors, noting that the incidence of impostors has increased in recent years (website #6). The College further recommends that employers do a yearly check of their employees to ensure they are registered members of the College (ibid).

Results from the online survey clearly illustrate the importance attributed to this characteristic by other professional associations. One hundred percent of the association executives of traditional professional associations reported having a firm grip on the legal title of the occupation. Likewise, 68% of the emerging professional association members reported a firm grasp on this characteristic. Only 28% of the project management association executives believed that they had a firm grasp on this trait. An interesting difference arises between the traditional professions and the emerging professions when they are asked to rank the characteristics most important to maintaining their hold on professional status. Traditional professions rank control over the title in their top five while the emerging professions do not. Acquiring and maintaining control over the title of the profession consistently ranked in the top five actions to be taken for all of the association executives in our sample.

The road to professionalization will require that considerable effort be directed toward defining the name of practice. This will entail a combination of applied research, and extensive discussion among practitioners, their employers, and relevant governmental regulatory bodies. The challenge faced here is significant and will require substantial effort to overcome successfully.

Definition of the Field

All claims to professionalization include a negotiated statement regarding what the practitioners include in their claims and what they leave out. Doctors do not claim control or competency over everything in the domain of work in health. Teachers do not claim the exclusive right to practice in all learning situations. The limits of the practice will be negotiated through time. Nurses do a number of things today that they did not do 20 years ago, witness the Nurse Practitioner (NP). The following strategies are prominent in the semi-professions studied.

The Challenge to Project Management

Clearly, if project management is to follow the example provided by the professionalization journey of the other semi-professions, more effort needs to be expended in answering questions like: What “projects” will “professional” project managers assume as theirs? Where does the casual practitioner fit into the world of projects and where does the “professional” project manager enter? Not all projects are equal and not all projects require a professional. At the same time, the professionalization of project management may require linking project management and the realm of general management. There is ongoing discussion around the role of the project manager in initiation and in closeout. Is the project manager only concerned with execution, or is there a role for them in initiation and closeout? Do project managers need to be able to tie project management to strategy, or is that the role of general management?

Formal delineation of Scope of Practice

With the expansion of the role of the NP, negotiations with the medical profession were required to clearly delineate scopes of practice. For example, in 2000, the Minnesota Nurses Association negotiated with both the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Psychiatric Society to develop scopes of practice (outlined in Memoranda of Understanding) for NPs to prescribe medication (Minnesota Nurses Association website, #11, Memorandum of Understanding). Similarly, in Pennsylvania, “[t]he Boards of Medicine and Nursing have jointly defined and regulated Certified Registered Nurse Practitioners to ‘perform acts of medical diagnoses and prescription of medical, therapeutic, diagnostic or corrective measures’” (website #21). These actions indicate that expansion into medical territory by nurses is occurring, but is a carefully negotiated process.

Similar processes of defining the scope of practice occur in the social work profession. Social workers in Quebec are struggling to have their proposed scope of practice, “Restricted Activities”, recognized officially by the Office des professions du Québec,( the government ministry that oversees all of the professions in that province) (website #20). The Ordre has also posted materials online that assure that Bill 90, which is the formal legislation that defines the competencies and scopes of practices of the health professions in the province of Quebec, does not interfere with the “restricted acts” of social work (as they have defined them).

Defining a clear scope of practice was identified as one of the most important activities, based on the frequency with which it turned up in the top five listings of all three groups. This was clearly very important to the executives from the traditional and emerging professions consistently ranking in the top five strategies pursued on an ongoing basis. Project management association executives did not rank this activity as highly. Instead, they selected establishing a wider scope of practice as a particularly important activity in their professionalization process. Thus, while other professional association executives work to clearly delineate what is within and outside their scope of practice, project management association executives report broadening their scope of practice as an important professionalization activity.

Project management needs to go well beyond questions regarding classificatory systems for projects, to an explicit inclusion of the theoretical base that defines the “project” in the context of the discipline.

Body of Knowledge

The most cynical of conflict theorists recognizes that the claim to “professional status” ultimately rests on the ability of the practitioners to lay claim to more or less exclusive command of an esoteric body of knowledge that they declare to be essential to good practice. These claims are often backed up by research into the effectiveness of these practices. Virtually every analyst agrees on this. The inability to make this claim convincingly is, perhaps, the primary factor responsible for the failure of teachers and social workers to achieve full recognition as “professionals.” This became very evident in the responses of the professional association executives to questions of important strategies for professionalization where promoting the unique nature of the body of knowledge was ranked in the top five strategies more often than any other strategy (68% of the time). This was the number one strategy for the traditional professions, followed closely by establishing a clear scope of practice. Emerging professionals also ranked this as the number one strategy, followed closely by increasing research and establishing a clear scope of practice. For project managers, setting standards and linking theory and practice were the most often reported strategies, followed by obtaining legal protection of the title, establishing internships, and establishing licensing.

Clearly, the project management group seems to be focusing on different strategies than the other emerging professions. The website analysis explores the efforts made to gain this professional characteristic by other emerging professions.

The Challenge to Project Management

For project management, the book, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), is a significant step in the direction of establishing a solid body of knowledge. Using volunteers to identify standard practices and document them is a great start. However, the development of a full-blown body of knowledge will require considerable elaboration. For example, the short statements on communication in the PMBOK Guide would need to be elaborated in the context of project management, methodologies would have to be developed in an integrated context, control of the process would also require attention; indeed, every aspect of the PMBOK Guide would need to become the subject of elaboration and research. Best practices identified by volunteers need to be rigorously examined to prove their value to the profession (otherwise the body of knowledge is open to politicking by practice originators and proponents). In addition, new practices and knowledge identified in research need to be incorporated into the PMBOK Guide on a regular basis.

While the creation and maintenance of the PMBOK Guide is a step in the right direction to accomplish this goal, the PMBOK Guide does not hold an exclusive position in the world of project management doctrines. There are other project management guidelines promulgated by other project management professional associations worldwide, as well as those crafted by individual gurus and large companies. Efforts to define standardized project management language and globally to identify global project management standards are examples of the recognition of the importance of these activities (see for example However, without agreement on what this body of knowledge is and who is in charge of developing and maintaining it, professionalization will be difficult to achieve.

Defining a new Body of Knowledge

The social work profession has made a number of attempts to strengthen its claim to a unique body of knowledge. A frequently cited example is the social work profession claim to the ability to deal with human diversity as its esoteric body of knowledge. Excerpts from a summary of a state hearing on the social work shortage in California, posted on the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), demonstrates efforts by the profession to promote this unique knowledge by outlining the educational foundation of professional social workers that makes them best suited for California's human services (website #12). The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers website presents the knowledge base of social work as unique and complex, drawing “ its knowledge from a wide spectrum of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities…[which] include: human growth and development, family dynamics, communication, organization and empowerment theory, psychosocial assessment and treatment, psychosocial research techniques and social policy development and analysis (website #18). Further, the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) has defined the body of knowledge of social work (website # #4, CASW Presents the Social Work Profession); thus, while social work cannot claim a scientific body of knowledge, it does claim to have unique knowledge and skills. This seems particularly relevant to the case of project management and bears careful observation.

Laying claim to a portion of an existing Body of Knowledge

Nurses, on the other hand, suffer not from the lack of a “hard scientific” body of knowledge, but rather from the fact that another group of professionals, physicians, and surgeons, has laid claim to controlling that body of knowledge. As mentioned earlier, NPs and the medical community have had to negotiate scopes of practice. However, the medical community is not always willing to cede control. The Florida Nurses Association (FNA) has encouraged NPs to protest legislation (Senate Bill 2190) limiting their scope of practice in unsupervised settings (website #25, FNA Action Alert). In this case, the professional association is fighting for autonomy of the NP to practice from a particular body of knowledge respected by the medical community.

Using Research to support and expand the Body of Knowledge

Despite a solid claim to scientific knowledge, nurses also still attempt to expand their claim to a unique and expanding body of knowledge. This is done by expanding efforts into nursing research. The Canadian Nurses Association makes several recommendations about how to strengthen nursing research in Canada. It outlines the responsibilities of individual nurses to generate researchable questions based on their practice experiences, for professional associations to lobby their government for funding for research, for nursing schools to promote research, and for more efficiency in communication of research results (website #5, “Position Statement: Evidence Based Decision Making and Nursing Practice”). Furthermore, nurses are concerned about linking theory and research to everyday practice, and take concrete steps to ensure this occurs.

Project management needs a well-focused research program that includes strong linkages between basic and applied academic research, research conducted by practitioners, and an active, open dialogue between the various parties. Dialogue should be opened between academic project management specialists, project management associations, and the major research funding agencies, which might be encouraged to recognize the importance of the practice.

Education and Accreditation

There has been an emphasis on upgrading knowledge and developing the associated educational programs in every case of a modern occupation striving to upgrade to “professional” status. The major established professions and the three semi-professions examined in this study have captured a home in universities laying claim to their own faculty/college. Accounting is the only profession that resides in someone else's home, business and management faculty/colleges; the others all have their own ‘Deans’. In contrast, project management is found in one of several locations, including business, engineering, and planning. Typically, project management is included as a chapter in textbooks associated with sub-disciplines of management or engineering (operations management or civil engineering, for example). In addition, leading edge training in project management often resides within corporate training and consulting organizations and entirely outside the academic realm associated with higher education.

Development of a recognized academic discipline will be crucial to the professionalization project of project management and much work will be required for the integration of that discipline into the educational offerings of those specialized short courses in project management. There will always be a demand for a wide array of educational offerings, ranging from short courses offering an introduction to project management and specialized short programs, to full university degrees (Abbott, 1988).

Challenges to Project Management

Project management associations have been reluctant to intervene directly, whether with respect to educational standards or to the content of educational programs. Project management has been left to the “market.” This has produced a large number of educational programs, ranging from one-day courses to doctoral programs at recognized universities. The inactivity of the associations with regard to direct participation in the developing educational programs has left decisions entirely to the practitioner, with very little constructive guidance. It is clear from the history of the professions that the educational process was, and is, a strong focus of the associations. At least three professionalization strategies have been identified.

Raising Educational Standards

Professional nursing association websites in Canada are rich with data about this occupation's commitment to raising the educational standard for entry (U.S. states sampled for this project did not reflect this trend). The following are provincial nursing associations that have adopted the Canadian Nurses Association recommendation in1982 that the minimum educational requirement to enter the profession be a baccalaureate degree: New Brunswick (1989), Newfoundland and Labrador (1992), Nova Scotia (1984), Ontario (year unknown - this association (RNAO) claims that they have been lobbying for this legislation since the 1970s); and Saskatchewan (1984).

The social work profession also makes efforts to upgrade and control educational requirements. For example, Quebec plans to raise its standard of entry into the profession to a master's degree in social work (MSW) (The Advocate, Summer, 2002, p.13). This initiative has sparked much debate about whether or not it will really enhance the profession, or whether it will only create a two-tiered system within social work. Introduction of the MSW as the minimum standard was mentioned only in the Canadian data.

Grandfathering current practitioners

To help realize this transition, nursing associations across Canada have developed strategies to overcome barriers to implementing this new requirement. One is “grandfathering” of nurses with a diploma-level education (i.e. no mandatory upgrading is required) will help integrate those who have already been practicing nursing for a number of years into the new system (grandfathering as a strategy is discussed in the nursing association websites of Alberta, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan). Another strategy, discussed vaguely, is to increase enrollment in nursing programs, and increase accessibility to education for those nurses without the BN (Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador).

Requiring Professional Development

The nursing profession in Canada has also developed continuing education programs (dubbed “continued competence” in some jurisdictions). These programs are mandatory for nurses in British Columbia (under the Nurses [Registered] Act), in Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories (as of 2004). Continued competence programs are voluntary in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Such programs consist of one or more of the following: self-assessment, peer review, continued education, maintaining a professional portfolio, practice review, written exams, and observed structured clinical exams (College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba website).

This is a debate that has yet to take place in project management even though the provision of project management education at all levels has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. Evidence from the online survey suggests that project management association executives recognize the importance of this strategy in building professionalization. Project managers were the only group that consistently identified establishing internships, and increasing minimum education standards as being among the top five professionalization strategies necessary to move towards professionalization.

Certification/Licensing and Control

Some decision-making body must be given responsibility for designating who is qualified to practice. This may be very complicated with a number of certification and licensing alternatives such as are found in medicine. This may be much simpler as in the more generic licensing of teachers. In any event, if there is no effective certification and/or licensing scheme it will be impossible for practitioners to lay claim to any sort of special status or privileges. This is the key to control of the name and to control of admission to practice. All recognized professions are licensed occupations. Professionalization strategies include voluntary certification and licensing

Voluntary Certification

Voluntary certification may be a step along the road to professionalization but it is not sufficient for full Professionalization, as was found in the history of the Alberta College of Social Workers (ACSW) (website # 2). It was not until 1999 that legislation in Alberta protected the title of “social worker” by requiring that all social workers be registered with the professional association (website #2, History).


The social work profession in various U.S. states has recently made efforts toward securing licensing. The Michigan chapter of the NASW notes that Michigan, along with two other states (unnamed), does not have licensure. It argues that licensure will enhance the social work profession in these states because “the criteria for obtaining a license are more stringent than those for obtaining certification” (website # 13, “Reasons for Licensure”). In another instance, Washington state social workers obtained legislation for licensure in 2001, after 22 years of lobbying (website #15, “Ethics, Standards and Licensure”).

The majority of both the traditional and emerging professions believe they have a firm grasp on the licensing characteristic of professional status as opposed to only 4.8% of the project managers. However, while licensing ranked in the majority of the top five lists from both the traditional and emerging professions as an important action to be taken, it did not appear in the top five list from the project manager's perspective.

It seems clear from the review of the websites that this is a fundamental requirement of professionalization, and one that has serious implications for both the practitioner and the professional association. To date, practitioners and professional associations alike in the project management realm have pursued efforts towards professionalization without tackling this potentially thorny issue. Virtually all established professions and those seriously aspiring to full professional status have pursued licensure. The implications of this will form part of the discussion in the presentation.

Professional Associations

The associations become the center of control for the practitioners; they represent the interests of the practitioners to the outside world. Individual practitioners cannot conduct the struggle for recognition and privilege alone. A strong association mediates between public and private authorities on behalf of practitioners. The strength of the professional association is directly associated with the power and influence that accrues to that profession. Strategies for gaining this power include pursuing college status or seeking dual status (union and professionalization).

Pursuing college status

Professional associations in the North American context are dynamic and innovative in their pursuit of professional status for the occupations they represent. A unique initiative in both social work and nursing in Canada has been to pursue “college” status: several Canadian Nurses Associations have renamed and restructured themselves “colleges” to enhance their claim to professional status. For example, the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia (formerly the Registered Nurses’ Association of Nova Scotia) is…only the third, after Ontario and Manitoba, to see its nursing profession formally transition to a college model to regulate the practice of registered nurses...through licensing processes, the establishment of standards, and competency and professional conduct services and programs (College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, “Press Release New Act Officially Changes 92-year History”).

Social work in Alberta has also recently introduced the college model. With passing of the Health Professions Act (2003), the association had to take on a college model (i.e. become the self regulating, regulatory arm for the profession) (Alberta College of Social Workers website). Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick have a slightly different approach, where the regulatory body and the professional association are distinct bodies but work very closely together, sharing committee or board members.

Pursuing Dual Status—union and professional association

Many associations, particularly in the U.S., choose to fulfill a “dual role” of union and professional association. One example of this is the California Nurses Association, a particularly vocal and active association that operates with a grassroots style of promoting the profession.

Project management is a very young occupation that has only recently started down the path to professionalization. Professional associations at this point are strictly voluntary organizations and have little or no authority outside that granted by the membership. One of the primary goals of these associations seems to be “growing the profession” in terms of size of membership, which might be in direct opposition to a professionalization strategy aimed at restricting membership to those that are appropriately qualified. It remains to be seen what sorts of changes in the professional association itself will be needed to further the goal of professionalization.

Lessons for Project Management from Other Occupations

Clearly, the semi-professions and professions studied here put particular emphasis on gaining control over the practice through protecting the name of the occupation and achieving and maintaining licensing and registration of practitioners. These strategies are not viewed as options. In order to achieve the status of a licensed occupation, these associations focused on gaining control over educational requirements (and raising educational standards) and the definition of practice. They spend considerable effort in lobbying for the legal authority to restrict access to their occupation. These professional associations also typically take on a disciplinary and quality assurance role in providing a common and credible picture of the occupation to the world.

In contrast, while project management association executives recognize that they have a relatively weak grasp on the characteristics of a profession, they do not report engaging in the activities deemed important by other occupations concerned with professional status. Reviews of project management websites, discussion groups, and publications provide evidence of reluctance on the part of project mangers to seek control of the name, to scope the limits of professional project management or to require higher educational standards. Research and work on the development of the project management body of knowledge does not seem to be a priority with either associations or practitioners. Indeed, project management associations’ efforts to increase “branding” and “market development” seem more in line with a corporate growth strategy than a professionalization strategy. There seems to be a disconnect between the expressed goal of creating a “profession” and the day-to-day strategies and operations of both associations and practitioners.

One of the key lessons learned from this survey of the activities and strategies of occupations seeking professional status may be that pursuing professional status requires a redirection of resources and priorities from where project management has traditionally been. This redirection is a long-term reorientation rather than a short-term strategy. The key decision is whether or not this is a strategy that the majority of project managers (or project management associations) want or need to pursue.


If project management is to become a “profession,” it will only achieve this status through the concerted effort of its members and professional associations. It is unlikely that governments will independently pursue actions to create a project management profession. There is some question as to whether or not they even understand that there is a developed occupation of project management, despite the fact that individual units may establish standards and definition programs for hiring and advancing project managers. Private corporations will act, from time to time, in such a way as to try and protect their short-term interests. They will not consistently act to create a situation where project managers are recognized as professionals and granted the autonomy of action characteristic of established professionals. Some may support the initiative, but many will resist in order to protect their autonomy and rights over the management of work.

The key to success will be in developing a defensible definition of project management that can be advanced as a profession, developing a well-defined and complex body of knowledge that can be claimed by the profession, working to protect the occupational name, and elaborating a significant independent educational program with an associated set of research programs.

At this time, the most significant challenge facing project management is gaining acceptance of the changes required in the operations of professional associations and practitioners. Professional associations, in particular, will have to decide whether to continue as a support for individuals when, and if, they choose to use it, or to move towards representation and pursuit of the collective “rights” of all project managers. Practitioners need to decide whether they see project management as a profession that should be self-regulating and to which they are willing to submit their practice for judgment, or whether they would rather see it continue as an occupation subject to the whims of the market.

This research identifies, and provides insights into, important practical questions that need to be considered in order to move the project management professionalization journey forward. These questions include:

  • Professionalization of what? And for whom?
  • What is the impact of professionalization on practice?
  • What is the nature of a global profession?

Each of these questions is explored next.

Professionalization of what?

To date, there is no consensus on the definition and scope of project management practice. This is a pivotal concern of the “professions” examined throughout this study. Decisions must be made about what to control—what to monitor—what to let go. Until there are clearly recognizable definitions of what is in and out of scope, to use project management terminology, it will be difficult to develop the kinds of standards and guidelines that will make for an enforceable profession.

Professionalization for whom?

While it is beyond the scope of this study to go into detail on the various roles to be played by actors in the professionalization saga, we do feel it is important to recognize and identify that key players in the project management industry are likely to play important roles in professionalizing practice. Key players in this process include academics, consultants, gurus, professional associations, corporations, and project managers. Professionalization will result in gains and losses to each of these groups of players. Whenever changes of the magnitude of professionalization of an occupation are undertaken, the power shifts will motivate a variety of behaviors and activities. Recognizing and paying attention to the interplay of power and political agendas will be important to managing the occupation through this change.

Impact of Professionalization on Practice

Written practice standards are an important stage in the development of a profession. Regardless of the potential for project management to achieve “professional” status, the promulgation of written standards, and the acceptance of these standards by important jurisdictions and organizations, requires a variety of changes in the way a craft is practiced. The courts and other organizations can take these standards into account in finding negligent practice. Some feel that it is only a matter of time before project managers are held legally accountable for the outcomes of projects. In some ways, this may increase the “overhead” costs of project management at exactly the time practitioners are striving to streamline practice in order to increase the value added. Interesting paradoxes are sure to arise.

What would a global profession look like: How would one be created?

Traditionally, professional battles are won first at regional levels and then possibly expand to larger jurisdictions. As project management is not a traditional profession, it will have to follow a different path; it is time to speculate on the path that efforts at globalization might take, and the end result that would be achieved. However, gaining acceptance of standards and licensing across political jurisdictions has proven difficult within countries such as Canada and the United States, let alone across national boundaries. Gaining international cooperation among professional associations may be a starting point but given the experience of other occupations, it is likely that this will be a difficult and time consuming process.

Final words

As in many research projects, we have answered most of the questions we set out to explore, but we have also raised a number of new questions that warrant further exploration. The study of professional occupations is rich in analysis of the traditional professions (law, engineering, accounting, and medicine) and those closely related to them (nursing, teaching and social work). Interest in the neo-professions clustering around white-collar work, growing rapidly as a result of technology and new organizational forms, is less prolific. This study contributes to our understanding of the professionalization of work. It also raises questions about the future of the “profession” in a world of increasingly educated workers and growing corporate power. Further research is required into the possibilities of embedding professions within corporate settings, particularly with respect to the tensions of professional standards versus corporate strategies, the distribution and sharing of power necessary and possible, and the ethical issues such occupations face. In the project management world, research has focused on improving and understanding the practice and process of project management. This study opens the door to the study of project management as an occupation within the world of work. Understanding how and why project managers believe project management is a profession and their level of commitment to pursuing a long and laborious voyage through political and corporate channels will be important to the success of this initiative. In addition, this type of research will provide insights into the potential for success of project management as a strategic resource in organizations. Members of traditional professions protect the veracity and power situation of their occupation through a variety of political and corporate strategies. The process of initiating project managers into these practices will make a difference in how project management is understood in organizations.


Support for this research was provided by a grant from the PMI Educational Foundation.

Websites Cited

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Zwerman, B., Thomas, J., &Haydt, S. (2003). Moving project management from occupation to profession: Exploring the journey to professional status. Proceedings of PMI Global Congress-North America 2003. Baltimore: Project Management Institute.

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Zwerman, B., Thomas, J., Haydt, S. & Williams, T. (in press). Professionalization of project management: Exploring the past to map the future. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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.

Zwerman, Thomas, Haydt, Williams, 2004
Professionalization/London, 2004



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