Project professionals and workplace learning


Patrick S. W. Fong

As society is changing at a faster pace than ever before, changes in organizational structure, structure of work, type of work being done, expectations of those in charge, and lack of certainty about the future may affect employees’ performance and adaptation to changing demands. As workplaces change, learning new skills and knowledge is critical to the success of today’s employees. They may use a variety of learning strategies to manage these changes, and they continue learning while employed for different reasons. They may also meet different barriers and be motivated by different factors during the process of workplace learning. Senge (1993) stated that learning enhances employees’ capacity, so that they manage to do something that they could not do before.

In order for professionals working in projects to upgrade their knowledge or skills, workplace learning is very important. Therefore, the aim of this study was to assess the methods, purposes, barriers, and motivations for workplace learning among project professionals in the Architectural Services Department.

Workplace Learning

Rylatt (2001) stated that workplace learning is learning that can be applied to the job, and is a sustained and high-level development of the employee in line with organizational business outcomes. There are three types of workplace learning, as identified by Marsick and Watkins (1990): formal, informal, and incidental.

Marsick and Watkins (1990) define formal learning as typically institutionally sponsored, classroom-based, and highly structured, with the institution controlling the objectives and the means by which the learning will occur. They describe informal (and incidental) learning as occurring outside formally structured, institutionally sponsored, classroom-based activities, taking place under non-routine conditions or in routine conditions where reflection and critical reflection are used to clarify the situation. In addition, informal learning may occur when people decide that they need to know something and then take the steps to learn it, which may involve a mentor or other resources (Marsick & Watkins, 1990). According to Sorohan (1993), informal learning is self-directed, self-motivated, and purposeful. It might involve a learning guide, such as a mentor, and might produce explicit knowledge. Marsick and Watkins (1990) described incidental learning as a sub-category of informal learning because it is largely unconscious and is usually a by-product of some other activity, such as trial-and-error experimentation, learning from mistakes, learning by doing or by interpersonal experiments, or sensing the organizational culture.

Watkins (1990) showed that 90% of workplace learning is informal or incidental. Carnevale and Carnevale (1994) provided similar estimates: 83% informal and incidental learning, and 17% formal learning. Marsick (1987) reported that adults have always learned informally at work, not only the more obvious skills needed to manipulate the tools of their trade, but also ways in which to better understand and relate to themselves, their colleagues, and the organization. They learn consciously through informal, apprentice-like observation and modeling, or through trial-and-error. Or they learn less consciously by becoming socialized into conformity to organizational norms, or through outright resistance to those norms. Billett (1992) and Vickers (1994) similarly stated that there are several limitations to formal learning, such as the failed transfer of acquired knowledge and skills from the school to the workplace. Kling (1995) argued that no other place is better than the workplace as a natural learning environment for employees to learn exactly what their employers want them to know. Therefore, it can be concluded that informal learning is valued as a highly effective way to acquire knowledge and skills.

Based on Marsick (1987) and Carnevale (1989), informal learning methods include self-directed learning, mentoring, feedback, supervision and peer review, collaborative learning, team learning, action learning, the practice of reflection, and reading. Because no amount of education during their youth can prepare adults to meet the demands that will be made on them, it is essential for employees to continue learning from the workplace through different informal learning methods. Consequently, their contribution to the company and society can be enhanced. In addition, employees have control over choosing the appropriate informal learning methods for different learning tasks. They may simultaneously adopt more than one learning strategy, and different employees may have different approaches towards different learning strategies.

Knowles (1985) assumed five main characteristics for adult learners that distinguish them from children: self-concept, experience, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, and motivation. Many researchers have attempted to explain why adults participate in learning activities. Foremost of these is Houle (1961, 1990), who found that adults continue their learning for a variety of reasons. Three primary orientations to learning are goal, activity, and learning. According to Houle (1990), the reasons for workplace learning are due to the presence of three main types of adult learners, namely: goal-oriented, activity-oriented and learning-oriented learners. Figure 1 is a summary of the different types of learners, including their intentions for learning, learning process, and results at the end of a program.

Orientations of learning

Figure 1. Orientations of learning

Given the views of Houle (1990) and Cross (1981), it is essential to point out that most employees fit into the goal-oriented category: their learning in the workplace may be mainly due to fulfilling their different goals, such as getting a promotion, keeping pace with changes in the workplace, and increasing their competitive power. However, as noted by Houle (1990), some learners may fit into one of the categories— viz. goal, activity, or learning—more often in their lives, but only a very few adults would represent any one of the pure orientations.

Motivation in learning is a compulsion that keeps and encourages a person within the learning situation to learn (Rogers, 1996). The implication of Rogers’ view is that motivation is very important for employees to continue learning in the workplace. Motivation is important, as proved by Walberg and Uguroglu (1980). If two people of identical ability are given the same opportunity and conditions to achieve, the motivated person will surpass the unmotivated person in performance and outcome. Wlodkowski (1999) similarly discovered that, with motivation during the learning process, things go more smoothly, communication flows, anxiety decreases, and creativity and learning are more apparent. As a result, motivated learners probably get much more out of an instructor than unmotivated learners do. In order to enhance employees’ learning from the workplace, motivation seems to play an important role. There are four kinds of motivations influencing and affecting the adult learning process, as suggested by Biggs and Moore (1993): extrinsic, social, intrinsic, and achievement motivation. It can be seen in Biggs and Moore’s findings that there are two main types of factors motivating employees to learn from the workplace: extrinsic and intrinsic. The social and achievement motivation can be the sub-category of the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, respectively. Knowles (1985) and Rogers (1996) both pointed out that most, but not all, adults are dependent on intrinsic motivation. They also agreed that intrinsic factors are stronger and more enduring than extrinsic factors. However, Kidd (1973) argued that it is not always true that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation in learning effect. In short, it can be concluded that the majority of employees are usually motivated intrinsically to learn from the workplace. To some extent, extrinsic motivation is also essential for them, even though it may sometimes be inferior to intrinsic factors.

Case Organization: Architectural Services Department

The Architectural Services Department (ArchSD) was established in April, 1986. It is a multi-discipline department responsible for providing professional services and advice for procuring and maintaining government and quasi-government buildings and facilities in Hong Kong. Its range of services includes providing professional analysis, design, cost estimation, risk analysis and documentation, contract administration, maintenance, project management, and associated services for government and quasi-government building projects, such as Hospital Authority projects.

Research Methodology

The research aimed at investigating workplace learning among project professionals in ArchSD, and was carried out through a questionnaire survey. In order to study workplace learning in depth and in a logical way, the questionnaire was divided into several parts by focusing on the following issues: methods, purposes, barriers, and motivation for workplace learning. To produce an objective and reliable document, the questionnaire was piloted on 10 professionals, including architects, quantity surveyors, and engineers from ArchSD in 2005. After they completed the questionnaire, they gave feedback on the wording, length, and layout of the questionnaire, which was then revised.

The samples were randomly selected from the latest Hong Kong Government telephone directory. The total number of selected samples was 210, including architects, quantity surveyors, building services engineers, and structural engineers. They ranged in professional grade from senior to chief. Out of 210 questionnaires, 113 were returned, a response rate of 53.4%. However, some questionnaires were not completed, and some were answered inappropriately. Therefore, valid questionnaires numbered only 108, constituting 51.4% of the distributed questionnaires, which is an acceptable level.

Survey Findings and Analysis

Regarding the gender distribution, there were 85 male and 23 female respondents - 78.7% and 21.3%, respectively. For the age distribution, nearly 60% of the population was aged between 41 and 55, compared with 17.6%, 15.7%, 5.6%, and 3.7% of respondents aged 31-35, 36-40, 25-30, and 56-60, respectively. With respect to marital status, 18.5% of respondents were single, the remainder married. For the position distribution, over half of the respondents were professional grades, such as architects / quantity surveyors / engineers. This was the largest proportion, compared with 38% and 9.3% of respondents who had posts as senior and chief, respectively. Because the population of structural engineers and building services engineers is too small, they are grouped together as “engineers” in order to provide a more objective analysis. Architects, quantity surveyors, and engineers each occupy approximately one-third of the total population.

This section attempts to find out which circumstance is helpful for public employees to learn, and their self-directing power to learn. The respondents were also asked about their experience with formal and informal methods of learning. The methods for workplace learning in this survey can be classified into two main groups: formal and informal (see Figure 2).

Formal vs. informal learning methods

Figure 2. Formal vs. informal learning methods

Both formal and informal circumstances are helpful in enabling most project professionals to acquire new job-related skills or knowledge. This is exemplified by the fact that the majority of gender or career respondents agree that these circumstances could help them to acquire skills from their workplace (see Figures 3 & 4). Most respondents thought that different circumstances could provide them with different chances to acquire different skills or knowledge, which are useful and essential for their career development. For instance, formal learning methods, such as attending seminars or training programs, might give them theoretical or background knowledge related to the profession and made them better understand the tasks. Informal learning methods, such as discussion among team members or mentoring, might give them real work examples and thus help them to apply newly acquired skills to the workplace.

Circumstances helpful for acquiring skills - by gender

Figure 3. Circumstances helpful for acquiring skills - by gender

Circumstances helpful for acquiring skills - by discipline

Figure 4. Circumstances helpful for acquiring skills - by discipline

It is perhaps surprising to note that more males have self-directing power to learn than females. The evidence for this comes from the fact that nearly six out of ten males learn voluntarily, but the majority of females may sometimes learn voluntarily or compulsorily (see Figure 5). This may be because females may either have more inertia to begin the learning process, or have a narrower psychological need to be self-directing. They consequently require some external pressure to push them to learn.

Learning voluntarily / compulsorily - by gender

Figure 5. Learning voluntarily / compulsorily - by gender

Figure 6 shows that the majority of architects and quantity surveyors can direct themselves to learn, but over half of the engineers sometimes learn voluntarily or compulsorily. It seems inappropriate to conclude that engineers are lazier about learning, but this may illustrate that more architects and quantity surveyors direct themselves to learn when they are employed. From the above data, it can be generalized that the majority of respondents are self-directed learners, which parallels one of the characteristics of adult learners identified by Knowles (1985).

Learning voluntarily / compulsorily - by discipline

Figure 6. Learning voluntarily / compulsorily - by discipline

The genders seem to indicate a similar frequency of using different learning methods. An illustration of this is that there are only major contrasts in the ranks of reading and observing others; otherwise, the rankings of learning methods are the same or similar for both genders (see Figure 7). A possible explanation for such differences may be that more males may be learning-oriented learners who are avid readers, interested in reading to seek knowledge or skills for their personal development (Babcock & Miller, 1996). Females may often be stronger in observing something that occurs nearby. Consequently, more females may favor this as an informal means of acquiring job-related knowledge. Figure 7 shows that both males and females often seem to learn through “learning experience from boss / colleagues,” as they may realize that the boss’s / colleagues’ experience are essential for them to handle workplace problems more effectively and efficiently. On the whole, both males and females seldom learn through formal learning methods. This may imply that both genders prefer adopting informal learning methods first, followed by formal ones, as informal circumstances may be more conducive to the expression of their opinions or sharing of their learning experience with other colleagues. This may be consistent with Watkins (1990)’s and Carnevale and Carnevale (1994)’s point that most workplace learning is informal.

Different learning methods - by gender

Figure 7. Different learning methods - by gender

Different disciplines seem to use different learning methods with different frequency, except in the case of learning experience from boss / colleagues. This is demonstrated by the fact that architect, quantity surveyor, and engineer rankings of different learning methods are mostly different (see Figure 8). It is expected that all disciplines have the highest frequency on “learning experience from boss / colleagues,” as they may realize that these people’s valuable experience can broaden their knowledge related to the field of the construction industry, and may be helpful for them in dealing with workplace problems under similar situations. Architects seem to have better communication skills or inter-relationships within project teams, which may facilitate their learning through team discussion. Consequently, architects often learn through team discussion, but quantity surveyors and engineers seldom do. It is clear that more engineers are avid readers who prefer seeking new knowledge through reading, as more architects or quantity surveyors may think that reading, to some extent, is less beneficial to them for the purposes of learning.

Regarding listening to supervisor’s and colleagues’ feedback, quantity surveyors seem to adopt both learning methods most often, followed by engineers and architects. Moreover, the higher frequency of “listening to supervisor’s feedback” by quantity surveyors and engineers may indicate that they prefer listening to a supervisor first, but architects do not. This may be because more quantity surveyors and engineers believe that a supervisor’s feedback is more significant for them to understand / improve themselves, thus enhancing their career development. On the other hand, architects may have the opposite view. Figure 8 shows that both architects and quantity surveyors seldom learn through formal learning methods, as architects and quantity surveyors may have a higher tendency to adopt informal learning methods first, followed by formal ones.

Different learning methods - by discipline

Figure 8. Different learning methods - by discipline

Figure 9 shows that over half the respondents agreed that “updating knowledge and skills for the job,” “getting higher qualification,” “surviving in a competitive workplace,” and “their interests” can initiate their workplace learning. Most project professionals may consider the acquisition of new skills, such as computer knowledge, is important for keeping pace with changes in the workplace. These newly acquired skills may be helpful for them in fulfilling different job tasks. They may believe that, through getting higher qualifications, more respect and higher social status can be earned. They may understand that workplace learning can be a means of increasing their competitive power. With more competitive power, their chances of survival in the workplace may increase. They may have a lot of interesting questions in mind before a learning process begins: in order to solve them, they may need to continue learning. Interestingly, the majority of respondents claimed that “making new friends” and “satisfying family’s / spouse’s expectations” are not their objectives for learning, because they may think that learning is for their own personal development, rather than meeting expectations of family / spouse, or building up friendship. From the research findings, it can be concluded that, as a whole, respondents’ main aims for learning include updating their knowledge and skills for the job, getting higher qualifications, surviving in a competitive workplace, and learning just for their own interest, but not for making new friends and satisfying family’s / spouse’s expectations.

Reasons for Workplace Learning

Figure 9. Reasons for Workplace Learning

There are two major types of barriers to workplace learning: exterior barriers and interior barriers. Exterior barriers are those arising from outside that influence employees to learn from the workplace, such as home responsibilities or lack of guidance from someone in the workplace. Interior barriers are those related to attitudes and perceptions of oneself as a learner, such as being too lazy to learn.

Most employees’ learning tends to be hindered externally. This is demonstrated in Figure 10. The majority of respondents claimed that “home responsibilities,” “amount of time required to complete programs,” “inappropriate course schedules,” “not enough time,” and “lack of guidance from supervisor / colleagues” were the main exterior barriers. However, the majority disagreed that “low grades in the past,” “too old to begin,” “not knowing what to learn,” “lack of memory,” and “no interest in learning” may hinder their learning internally.

The following may explain why most project professionals are hindered externally but not internally:

  1. Regarding the exterior barriers, with home responsibilities such as family care and housework, learners may have insufficient time or effort to learn while they are employed. Together with “the amount of time required to complete program” and “inappropriate course schedules,” these may hinder workplace learning, especially for formal learning such as returning to any institution and attending seminars or training courses.
  2. “Not enough time” may be their excuse for not learning.
  3. They may sometimes be unable to overcome their barriers independently. Without sufficient help from supervisor / colleagues, their learning process may be affected.
  4. Concerning interior barriers, even if they have low grades in the past, this may not affect their current ability to learn.
  5. They may think that they are still young and have enough energy to continue learning, which may enhance their confidence in their learning ability. Consequently, they may not regard “lack of memory” as an interior barrier to learning.
  6. In the “reasons for workplace learning” section, Figure 9 reveals that more than 60% of respondents reported that “learning just for their own interest” is one of their reasons for workplace learning. The implication that emerges is that, apart from achieving some specific goals, most project professionals also learn because of their various interests in learning. Therefore, “no interest in learning” may not prevent them from learning from the workplace.
Barriers to workplace learning

Figure 10. Barriers to workplace learning

It is to be expected that the primary / main learning motives for the vast majority of respondents are “promotion,” “achieving goals as planned,” “self-improvement,” “transferring of acquired skills to the workplace,” and “selecting course based on own interests / needs” (see Figure 11). The reasons for such high percentages are as follows:

  1. Most professionals may think that promotion can result in more money or a rise in social status. The prospect of earning more money and respect may motivate them to learn more.
  2. With achieving goals as planned, they may have a feeling of success and thus become motivated intrinsically.
  3. With self-improvement, working ability such as problem-solving skills or computer knowledge may be upgraded. They become able to solve more problems from their current work, and thus self-improvement may be a major motivation for those who want to face more challenges.
  4. Most project professionals usually learn while employed usually because of changes in their workplace. The more they learn, the more they may want to apply themselves to the workplace. With the successful transfer of acquired skills to the workplace, they may feel more satisfied. Such feelings of satisfaction can be an intrinsic motivation for learners.
  5. If they choose courses based on interest, they will not find the courses boring and meaningless. This will increase their desire to continue attending courses, rather than escaping lessons.

To some extent, “formal leaves,” “tuition sponsorship,” “good time-management,” and “achieving their employer’s expectations” can be a secondary motivation for project professionals to continue workplace learning. This is proved by the fact that the majority of respondents agreed with these as their learning motives (see Figure 11). Possible explanations are presented as follows:

  1. With formal leave, they may still receive full pay when they attend courses or seminars during office hours, and tuition sponsorship may be helpful for someone who has financial problems. Formal leave and tuition sponsorship thus can act as material rewards to motivate them to learn extrinsically while employed.
  2. If they can manage the time well, they will have more time to acquire job-related skills, solve problems, or meet others’ expectations through informal learning methods such as discussion with team members or observing others’ performance. These may enhance learners’ feelings of satisfaction, thus acting as a positive intrinsic motive for employees to learn next time.
  3. Encouragement from family or friends may be helpful for most learners when they feel frustrated in workplace learning.

As a whole, the findings in Figure 11 show that more respondents agreed that intrinsic motivation has a more positive impact on their learning. It can be surmised that intrinsic motivation may have a greater effect on project professionals’ learning process, which may be consistent with Knowles (1985)’s and Rogers (1996)’s view that intrinsic motivation for adult learning is superior to extrinsic motivation.

Motivating factors for workplace learning

Figure 11. Motivating factors for workplace learning

Regarding informal learning methods, males and females use different learning methods with similar frequency, but there are more differences among different disciplines. In general, all respondents often learn through acquiring experience from bosses / colleagues and, except engineers, less frequently adopt formal learning methods such as attending seminars and professional training courses, despite favoring both formal and informal circumstances to learn. The main reasons for project professionals to learn are “updating knowledge and skills for the job”; “getting higher qualifications”; “surviving in a competitive workplace”; and “learning just for their own interests”, not for “making new friends” and “satisfying family / spouse’s expectations.” In general, the vast majority of project professionals cease learning when encountering barriers to learning, and more females and more engineers have a tendency to do so. External barriers seem to have a greater effect on learners, including “home responsibilities,” “amount of time required to complete programs,” “inappropriate course schedules,” “not enough time,” and “lack of guidance from supervisors / colleagues.” Generally, most learners are motivated extrinsically or intrinsically, but intrinsic motivation seems to have more effect on their learning process, which includes “self-improvement,” “achieving goals as planned,” “successful transfer of acquired skills to the workplace,” and “selecting courses based on own interests / needs.” This is in line with previous research findings that intrinsic motivation for adult learning is superior to extrinsic motivation.


In view of the need to raise employees’ contribution to society and companies through workplace learning, there are several recommendations for employers and employees, as shown below:


Being a helpful mentor. Although the majority of subjects prefer “supervisors” as mentors, they claimed that “lack of guidance from supervisors” was one of their barriers to learning. Supervisors should act as mentors, giving enough guidance / positive advice for learners to successfully transfer acquired skills to the workplace, or to self-improve. However, mentors should allow learners enough capacity to develop in order to avoid them becoming overdependent.

Arranging time for employees to learn. In view of the fact that project professionals more frequently use informal methods than formal ones, they believe that they can learn more from informal sessions or that there are external barriers to formal learning such as “amount of time required to complete programs” and “inappropriate course schedules.” Therefore, employers should consider arranging more time for them to learn through informal sessions such as team discussion. Moreover, they can carry out questionnaire surveys to ask learners’ opinions on the arrangement of course schedules, the optimal duration for programs, etc.


Being positive towards mentoring. Because the majority of the respondents had a negative attitude about mentoring, based on Baskett (1994)’s view, it is recommended that they should articulate what they are having difficulties with, so that their potential mentors can help them. Furthermore, they should appreciate their mentors’ time and willingness to help them, which will increase the likelihood that their mentors will help them again.

Establishing trust among colleagues. In view of the fact that more employees seem to prefer adopting informal learning methods first, it is recommended that they should share information, develop mutual trust, or even build up long-term friendship among colleagues / peers / supervisors, as this trust can facilitate informal workplace learning such as collaborative learning, feedback from peers / colleagues / supervisors, and team learning, which can also help to overcome barriers to learning or lead to self-analyzing the learning performance. Besides, workmates or supervisors are usually the most important source of workplace learning.

Increasing learning capacity. They should strengthen their capacity to learn by finding ways to challenge their mind and stretch their mental ability, such as taking on new projects and job assignments, or trying new approaches to familiar tasks. Such optimal challenges may arouse their curiosity, giving them intrinsic motivation to learn.

Setting learning goals. Because few learners set a learning goal each time, it is better for them to make time for planning their learning development or learning goals. Clear learning goals may help them to learn what they want to or motivate them to learn more.

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Biggs, J. B., & Moore, P. J. (1993). The process of learning. New York: Prentice Hall.

Billet, S. (1992). Towards a theory of workplace learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 14(2), 143-155

Carnevale, A. P. (1989). The learning enterprise. Training & Development, 43(2), 26-33.

Carnevale, A. P., & Carnevale, E. S. (1994). Growth patterns in workplace training. Training & Development, 48(5), 22-28.Cross, K. P. (1981). Adults as learners: Increasing participation and facilitating learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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©2006 Project Management Institute



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