Project manager professional development programme

Abstract

Project management, as an emerging profession, is expanding into most countries of the world, including the countries of the Gulf Corporation Council–Arabian Peninsula. This paper builds on the work of the author, which was published as part of the proceedings of the 2004 PMI Global Congress – Europe and on the actual experience of implementing some of the ideas in the 2004 paper. This 2005 paper will focus on implementing a multi-faceted professional employee development program for the employees of an organization that is responsible to execute a substantial capital programme. We will highlight the author's observations, challenges, resistance to change and successes.

Introduction

The focus of this paper is on a program that was born in mid 2002 as the result of employee satisfaction survey.

Background

Late in 2001, this organization conducted an employee satisfaction survey and the result was quite unsatisfactory - less than 60% satisfaction. Some of the employees concerns were related to performance appraisal, employee development and training, among other factors. The author of this paper was entrusted with the development of a programme that will help improve employee satisfaction. The objective of the programme was to address general employee satisfaction challenges, but focus on development and training.

Initial Steps

In mid 2002, the author facilitated a workshop, with the purpose of identifying opportunities for improvements. We invited about 25% of the employees of this organization and we insisted on a mix of experience; the workshop included the top person in charge of this organization, all project managers, and a representative sample of the organization personnel, including the most junior level positions. This workshop was very effective, and through brainstorming, led to identifying many ideas that we could consider for implementation, one of which was an employee development program.

Constraints

Shortly after this workshop, a small team was organised, with the author in the lead position, to design the desired employee development program. This team had to deal with many constraints, such as:

  • Developing this program in a very short time.
  • We did not have any budget to or time to consult with other outside organization or try to identify international practices in this area.
  • One more constraints we had to deal with, was to identify and understand some other initiatives that were being considered for implementation by other organisations within our company, in order not to duplicate the effort.

Limitations

In addition to the pre-defined constraints, we were faced with post initiation limitations, such as:

  • The team did not have enough power to implement many of the ideas that we were coming up with since they were outside the influence of our immediate management “organisation”. Further, at that time our management did not feel the need or desire to pursue these challenging opportunities with upper management.
  • After we completed the draft of a comprehensive programme that was long term focused, we were asked to scale it back since there was a need “for immediate gratification” and we had to revise our programme to focus on short term gains in the interest of maximum benefits.

Resulting Programme

Programme Basic Principles

The resulting programme was built around some of the concepts and principles that we had identified in our 2004 paper (Ajam, 2004). These include:

  1. Emphasis on the importance of the individuals in taking a lead for their careers, or at least be involved
  2. Programme is built on the concept of The Four Stages of Careers (Dalton & Thompson, 1986)
  3. Development programme has to be competency based
  4. Balancing the need for on-the-job and classroom training
  5. Balancing the need of short term focus with the desire for long term “career path concept”
  6. Implement a system to ensure implementation of the development program
  7. Emphasis that the employee development process should be transparent
  8. Incorporate the concept of “Learning Organisation” and focus on knowledge sharing

Programme General Framework

Development Plan

In order to satisfy the first principle that was addressed above, we decided to start with the basic premise that every employee must have a Development Plan (DP). The DP should be developed by the employee, his mentor, if he has one, and his supervisor. This arrangement might seem obvious but it is not; even though we have been into the programme for two years and we still have employees that are not involved in their DP (some by choice). Even with significant resistance from many supervisors, we managed to get DP for most employees, although the quality of these DP varied significantly.

Each DP consisted of four sections. The first three sections were for the upcoming year – basically, 1 year plan:

  1. On-the-job competency based activities
  2. Formal training – in-company and out-of-company training
  3. Goals and objectives sections, where we could include things such as achieve Project Management Professional (PMP®) or conduct internal training sessions
  4. 5 Years look ahead – such as possible future developmental assignments
The Four Career Stages

Describing the details of this concept is outside the scope of this paper, yet: in summary, this is a model that is based on the premise that there are four career stages that a person will go through during a career. These are the Apprentice, Colleague, Mentor, and Sponsor stages. Our programme focused only on the first two but addressed all three stages (Dalton & Thompson, 1986)

Competency Based Programme

There are many competency based programmes that are available in the market, including Project Management Institute's (PMI®) Project Management Competency Development Framework, which we would have liked to use since it is an international system. However, this was one of our limitations; our parent organisation was developing a “technical” competency program for “project engineers”, which means that we needed to follow it. The challenge was that programme was not yet ready, but we were able to obtain enough information about it to incorporate it into our programme.

Once we had identified the necessary competencies that we wanted our engineers to acquire, we linked them to the four stages concepts. This link was basically identifying what competency and level of competence we wanted an engineer to acquire at the various levels of his career. These competencies, level of competence, and career stage were mapped via an excel spreadsheet.

On-the-Job Training

Once we developed the “competency spreadsheets”, we encouraged all supervisors, mentors, and employees to use it to complete section 1 of the DP; the on-the-job competency based activities and targets. In order to do this, the trio had to consider the type of work that the employee would be embarking on during the upcoming years; such as early engineering, detailed engineering, or construction phase of the project where the employee is assigned. This was the most difficult part of the DP since supervisors kept naming the project that the employee is working on rather than list the development activities and goals that the employee should be working on during the year. We had to recycle many DP more than once to get as close as possible to what we wanted.

Formal Training

This was section 2 of the Development Plan and easier to do than section 1 but still we had some challenges. In our company, we had many training organizations each with a different focus. To simplify the life of supervisors, mentors, and employees, the author team worked hard to develop a spreadsheet based tool to summarize all of the available in-company offered formal training and also identified many of the seminars offered by out-of-company providers.

Development Goals

In addition to the actual on-the-job development activities, we wanted our employees to pursue major goals and encourage them to share their knowledge. To formalize this concept, we used the third section of the Development Plan. In this section employees could list major goals; such as: pursue project management certifications, develop a tool for use by the employee unit or overall organisation, share their knowledge by conducting presentation at our monthly events, discussed below.

Long Term Focus

As we stated earlier, under Limitations in the previous section, we wanted to develop a balance between the short term focus (1 year DP) and long term “career path” focus. We had actually developed draft typical “career paths” for the various positions that existed in our organization. However, that was shut down so we developed a mid term focus and included on the DP a section for five years look ahead. That did not work and was not used by most people for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Supervisors did not have full control to decide the future assignment of their employees
  • As a result, supervisor did not want to commit to anything in writing for fear that the employee will take this “potential assignment” section for granted and insist on it – creating an environment for conflict
Ensuring Implementation

Once the above four sections of the Development Plan were completed, one major question remained: how to ensure implementation? To ensure implementation we devised a Compliance Index. This index was simple; we allocated “points” for all development activities (similar to PDU concept). These points were allocated to formal training and e-learning activities, developmental assignments, and development goals. The points were included on the DP before it was finalized. For the first year, we agreed to set a target of 60% for completion of the DP – basically actual vs. planned ratio.

Transparency

During the year, the author team was responsible to monitor completion of these activities and at the end of the first year (2003) we reported back to the whole organization on the status of our implementation and we could provide data on how we did at the overall organization level, unit level, and employee level. We did status all DP and sent back to employees their actual report “like a report card”; however, this report card was not “for the employee alone” it was for the whole organization since the employee did not have full control over their DP activities (course or assignments cancellation were, for example, factors beyond the control of the employees.) We also conducted year-end survey to gain feedback of the employees on the process that we followed during the year. Finally, we conducted accountability presentations to review the results of the Compliance Index and Feedback survey, with any employee who decided to attend.

It is worth noting that one of the things that we did to show our employees management commitment toward the implementation of these programs and transparency, we added a measure for our compliance index on the organisation balance score card that would be visible to senior management.

Other Related Programmes

Monthly Events

In addition to the Development Plans, we wanted to encourage knowledge sharing in the organization. Another goal that we had is to provide our young engineers with opportunities to gain additional exposure to technical, project management, and business related matters that might not readily be available to them. To meet both of these related objectives, we created a monthly knowledge sharing program, where we bring in young engineers for a day and have their colleagues present to them a variety of topics. Each of those presentations lasted from 30 minutes to 2 hours and we had multiple presentations and speakers during any given event.

When we started this program in 2003 it was mostly limited to our employees (not by design), then the word started to get out. During our second year we had many participants from outside our core organization. During a recent session, on our third year, we actually had more from other organizations than from our own. At this time, we are trying to shift this program into our “parent” organisation.

Certifications

When we embarked on these development programmes, we also noticed that for a project management organisation the number of PMPs that we had was only fractional in comparison to the number that are practicing PM. Initially, we started to promote certifications and one of our teams (that was on assignment in Canada) took on the challenge and a few of its members become certified. Then the author of this paper developed a PMP preparation program that was internal to the organization and conducted the first session in 2003 and we gained a few more PMP. In 2004 we opened this certification program to the “parent” organization and we gained more PMP. Now, we are conducting the certification program for the third year in a row.

Results, Challenges, and Lessons Learnt

Results of the Various Initiatives

Employee Satisfaction

After the initial implementation of the Development Program, employee satisfaction jumped to more than 80% but a year later had settled back down around 71%, which is still much higher than the survey that launched this effort.

Compliance Index

In 2003 our target was 60%; we achieved about 68%. We raised the target in 2004 to 70% and we achieved about 76%. This year target has been set to 75%.

Monthly Events

The willingness of senior employees to share their knowledge was a major challenge, more on this below. However, despite this challenge, we were able to conduct 9-10 sessions per year (mostly due to low level of activities during the summer). The overall satisfaction of participants was more than 90% - based on written feedback surveys conducted at the end of each session in year 1 of the program.

Certifications

This is another success story. It is due to the program that our organization sponsored we were able to double the number of PMP in the overall company within 2 years (not counting the result of 2005 – at this time we have about 20 people that will be taking the PMP exam in June). Further, it is worth noting that the number of PMP that achieved certifications as a result of this program is roughly equivalent to 10% of all the active PMP that are currently in the whole GCC region.

Encountered Challenges

Obviously, we faced many challenges, some of them we were able to deal with, others we could not. Here are some of the challenges that we faced and how we dealt with them.

Development Plans

One of the initial challenges that we faced was employee acceptance due to lack of trust. Our employees felt that this Development Plan idea is another “flavour of the month”. To deal with this challenge, we embarked on promotional “sales” trips where we visited each of the units (geographically spread out) and shared with them our thoughts and what we are trying to do to implement these concepts. The idea of Compliance Index and Balanced Score Card helped in minimizing the mistrust. At the end of the first year, we conducted the accountability report and presentation that we mentioned earlier, that also helped.

Another challenge that we faced was the resistance of the supervisors and line managers – mostly due to “lack of time”. We had to work with them closely to ease the “pain”. We created some simplified tools where the requirements could have been complicated or not readily available. An other time, we used “position power” where the manager was willing to help. At the end, the results were still mixed and some supervisors never truly complied and management did not step in to highlight the importance of this matter.

The challenge with 5 years look ahead was mentioned earlier and this was one of the things that we gave up on and accepted that supervisors will not do.

Monthly Events

As mentioned earlier, the challenge was to get the senior personnel in our organization to contribute to the sessions but they were quite hesitant. “Training is not our responsibility”, “we do not have time” were some of the comments that we heard. To deal with this change was not easy. We started to go outside the immediate organisation to identify speakers and a few were more than willing. We also encouraged the young engineers to present, which was a good thing as well. Finally, where we were short a presenter or two, the author stepped in and covered the gaps.

Certifications

Here again we faced many challenges, mostly lack of support from management. This was in various forms: (a) not allowing enough time for the program developer to enhance the materials, (b) not promoting the program as widely as possible, and (c) some managers did not allow their employees to participate because of “time constraints”. Also since this was a major initiative and since the PMP is a major challenge, especially because English is a second language for most program participants, we tried to establish some kind of recognition program to the employees who achieve the PMP. However, the result was also mixed – some managers supported this others did not.

General Management Challenge

In our organizations we experienced a high turn over in the chief position; basically we were getting rotation almost on a yearly basis. Most of these programs were implemented “three managers ago” and that manager was very supportive of these initiatives and allowed us to implement them, with some limitations as discussed earlier. Further, he was personally involved in some of them. Due to our immediate success in some areas, during the first year, the second manager that came along also supported the effort – but his personal involvement was not readily available. That weakened some of the programs, especially in areas where we need management “push”. The third and current manager provides an appearance of support, but he is far removed from the initial thoughts and history that led to these programs.

Further, in an organization that is responsible for a large capital program “project management” takes over as the key priority instead of focusing on the people who manages these projects. Professional development is seen as a disruption rather than a key success criteria and something we only do if we have nothing else. We understand that these are strong statements, but they are the reality that we had to deal with and we are positive that this current reality exists in many other organizations.

Lessons Learnt

Many of the lessons learnt through this process are identified in the text above but here are more:

  1. For certifications: many people under estimate the challenge for certifications, so it is easy for people to enrol in a PMP preparation program, but not many go through with the exam. To deal with this lesson, during our third year of the program, we insisted that program participants complete some pre-requisites, including applying for the exam with PMI.
  2. For monthly events: we started these programs as soon as we could, leading to many gaps in instructors, as mentioned earlier. The answer, line up the instructors/speakers for at least three months in advance and get their firm commitment; also have back up identified.
  3. For the Compliance Index: the accountability report and presentation were good sources of helping us gain the confidence of employees – we should have done this every six months instead of at the end of the year.
  4. Get the managers commitment identified and in writing – then do not waste time chasing uncooperative managers.
  5. A few times we encouraged some of young engineers to seek out speakers candidates from among their friends outside our core organizations. This worked well and we gained a few good speakers.

Closing

“We are not claiming the introduction of innovative or revolutionary concepts; all what we are doing is highlighting ideas, systems, approaches, programmes that are being utilised in many parts of the industrialised world.” (Ajam 2004) Having said that, our experience shows that although some of these ideas seem simple, yet they were hard to implement.

The implementation of the above programmes has been a challenge, hard work, and joy for the author of this humble paper. The challenges were frustrating at times almost leading to giving up. Yet, every time we were almost ready to throwing the towel, good news came. Good news came via a phone call from someone who just came out of a PMP exam with successful result. Good news came through a new PMP feeling triumphant that he had to come to our office for a hug. Good news, when a young engineer comes to you to thank you for the effort that is helping him learns new things in life.

This is the simple and shear power of knowledge.
This is what it takes to “build a knowledge society” (UNDP 2003).

References

Ajam, M.A. (2004, April) Project Management Achievements, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Arabian Gulf Region. PMI Global Congress 2004, Europe, Prague, The Czech Republic

Dalton, G.W. and Thompson, P.H. (1986) Novations: Strategies for Career Management. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co.

United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report 2003, Building a Knowledge Society; http://www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr

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.

© 2005 Mounir A. Ajam, MS, PMP (mounir_ajam@yahoo.com)
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Edinburgh, Scotland

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