Training and teaching project management with PTB, the project team builder simulator

Technion—Israel Institute of Technology

Abstract

The development and testing of Simulation-Based Training (SBT) tools for project management are ongoing efforts in universities and industry. This paper presents the work done in this area at Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, where the Project Team Builder (PTB) software was developed, tested, and initially used. In the last five years, versions of PTB have been used in several leading universities throughout the world.

Traditional project management teaching is based on textbooks, articles, and case studies. Many textbooks integrate some case studies with which the reader has an opportunity to implement the material learned. These case studies are valuable and widely used but suffer from an inherent shortcoming—they are static in nature.

A case study presents a snapshot of a real or imaginary situation at a specific time point. It is hard to understand the dynamic nature of a project by analyzing static case studies. Dealing with the dynamics of projects is important throughout the project life cycle, mostly during execution, monitoring and controlling.

During the planning phase of the project, managers must take into account the fact that changes are inherent parts of project management due to uncertainty and should factor them into the plans. During the monitoring and controlling stages, management must learn how to update plans and to take corrective actions due to the uncertainty that is typical in most projects. This uncertainty leads to project risks (and opportunities) and the need for proper risk management. The art and science of risk management are very difficult to teach and even more difficult to practice using only books, articles, and static case studies.

This paper and the Project Team Builder (PTB) present a unique approach to the teaching and training of project management—an approach based on a software tool that combines an interactive, dynamic case study and a simple yet effective project management system. This PTB tool applies recent developments in the area of simulation-based teaching. The original version of PTB won the Project Management Institute (PMI) 2008 Professional Development Product of the Year Award. The current version is designed to support training in project management via the web and to provide an environment for practicing the management of dynamic stochastic multiple projects.

This paper is based on the new book, Project Management and Simulation-Based Training—Research and Practice by Avraham Shtub (2011). The book introduces the reader to the principles of SBT and it comes with a license to use the web-based version of PTB. This version is based on studies of the use of SBT for project management training. The main conclusions of these studies are summarized in this paper and used as design principles for the web-based version of PTB.

Introduction: Simulation-Based Training (SBT)

Experiential learning tools that integrate the case study approach with simulation games are based on the centuries-old observation that learning by doing is an efficient way of gaining, assimilating, and retaining new knowledge. The relatively new term Simulation-Based Training (SBT) is used frequently in the literature (in a recent search of the web, this term yielded 3,500,000 results). Numerous reports on the application of SBT in different areas are published monthly.

Simulation-based training is defined by Salas, Wildman, & Piccolo (2009) as follows:

Simulation-based training is a “synthetic practice environment that is created in order to impart those competencies (i.e., attitudes, concepts, knowledge, rules, or skills) that will improve a trainee’s performance.”

In their paper, Salas, Wildman, & Piccolo (2009) list the advantages of SBT for management education:

  1. SBT is superior to other training strategies in imparting complex applied competencies.
  2. SBT can lead to learning in a reduced timeframe.
  3. SBT provides a more complex and realistic learning environment than other training strategies.
  4. SBT more rapidly allows for reality to be simplified and manageable.
  5. SBT provides a (relatively) risk-free environment for learning and experimentation.
  6. SBT is an ideal method for training infrequently engaged but critical skills.
  7. SBT can be quite affordable.
  8. SBT is (usually) simple to learn and operate.
  9. SBT is a form of learner-controlled training.
  10. SBT is inherently more engaging than other training methods.

Many articles describe the use of SBT in engineering and managerial applications. The guest editors (Shtub, Parush & Hewett) of a special issue on “Simulators for Engineering Education and for Professional Development,” published by the International Journal of Engineering Education (IJEE) 2009 state that “further testing of the educational and training value of simulations should be motivated in equal part by a concern with assessing the cognitive impact on learning and motivation.”

SBT in Project Management: The Project Team Builder (PTB)

The need for experienced, well-trained project managers is growing fast. The numbers of new PMI members and new PMPs are indications that project management is a fast-growing discipline. The traditional approach to training new project managers is to teach the appropriate body of knowledge and to train new managers on the job. For example, the PMP accreditation requires passing an exam and accumulating enough on-the-job experience in project management. Since on-the-job training is expensive and time consuming, it is important to reduce the time and cost of the on-the-job training. In some fields, in order to minimize on-the-job training, sophisticated simulators are used for training in a lab-like setting. This is common, for example, in training new pilots who spend many hours on advanced simulators to save the high cost and risks of actual flights. A new approach to training in project management is presented—an approach aimed at training new project managers and project teams by a simulator that simulates the dynamic stochastic nature of the modern project environment.

This paper presents an approach to teaching and training in project management, based on a software tool that combines an interactive, dynamic case study and a simple yet effective project management system. The PTB tool applies recent developments in the area of learning histories in simulation-based training. The PTB is designed to support training and to provide an environment for practicing the management of dynamic stochastic multiple projects.

The PTB won the 2008 Product of the Year Award by PMI.

The PTB has a simple yet effective interface with commercial project management software. The user can use commercial project management software to plan the project to monitor and control it by transferring information from the PTB and analyzing it on the commercial project management software.

The Project Team Builder (PTB) Principles

The Project Team Builder (PTB) is a training aid designed to facilitate the training of project management in a dynamic, stochastic environment and is based on the following principles:

  • A simulation approach—the PTB simulates one or more projects. The simulation is controlled by a simple user interface, and no knowledge of simulation or simulation languages is required.
  • A case study approach—the PTB is based on a simulation of case studies. Each case study is a project or a collection of projects performed under schedule, budget, and resource constraints in a dynamic stochastic environment. The details of these case studies are built into the simulation and all the data required for analysis and decision making are easily accessed by the user interface. A user-friendly case study generator facilitates the development of new case studies as required.
  • A dynamic approach—the case studies built into the PTB are dynamic in the sense that the situation changes over time. A random effect is introduced to simulate the uncertainty in the environment, and decisions made by the user cause changes in the state of the system simulated.
  • A model-based approach—a decision support system is built into the PTB. This system is based on project management concepts. The model base contains well-known models for scheduling, budgeting, resource management, and monitoring and controlling. These models can be consulted at any time.
  • To further support decision making, a database is built into the PTB. Data on the current state of the simulated system are readily available to the users. Furthermore, it is possible to use the data as input to the models in the model base to support decision making.
  • An integrated approach—several projects can be managed simultaneously on the PTB. These projects share the same resources and a common cash flow.
  • User friendliness and GUI—the PTB is designed as a teaching and training tool. As such, its Graphic User Interface (GUI) is friendly and easy to learn. Although quite complicated scenarios are simulated and the decision support tools are sophisticated, a typical user can learn how to use the PTB in less than an hour.
  • Integration with commercial project management tools—the PTB is integrated with commercial project management software so that the user can analyze the scenario on the commercial project management software and support decisions with tools that are actually used in his or her organization.
  • Scenario flexibility approach—unlike most SBT tools used for training in project management, the PTB approach is to separate the simulation engine from the scenario library. The result is an unlimited flexibility provided by a scenario building program with which the trainer or teacher can build project scenarios based on real or imaginary projects. Each scenario can be designed to focus on one or more aspects of project management (scheduling, resource management, budgeting, risk management, monitoring and controlling, and so forth). Although the PTB version that comes with the book contains a library of scenarios, the teacher or trainer who adopts this tool has access to the scenario builder and can build any number of scenarios based on the training objectives and the required learning outcomes.

The PTB provides a supportive setting for training in project management and for developing, evaluating, and testing the managerial processes adequate for today’s competitive environment.

A new concept of a simulation-based training environment with a built-in learning history recording and inquiry mechanism is employed in the PTB. Based on this concept, the user has access to past situations and decisions in the simulation and to the consequences of these decisions. The effectiveness and efficiency of the history recording and inquiry mechanism were tested in a controlled experiment. The findings show that with learning history recording and inquiry available to the users of a simulator, there was a significantly better learning process.

The PTB can be used as a stand-alone system because it contains models for scheduling, budgeting, resource management, cash management, and monitoring and controlling. The PTB can be used with commercial project management software, like Microsoft Project, if training in the use of such software is part of the desired learning outcome.

In addition to the Technion, the PTB simulator has been used to support teaching in several leading universities throughout the world, including:

  • The University of Pennsylvania, USA
  • Pennsylvania State University, USA
  • Oregon State University, USA
  • The Australian National University (ANU), Australia
  • University of Otego, New Zealand
  • Korean Advanced Institute of Technology (KAIST), South Korea
  • Technische Universität München, Germany
  • Bilkent University, Turkey

The PTB has also been used for training by several non-academic users, mainly in Israel.

Feedback from the Users of PTB

“The Project Team Builder (PTB) meets the need for an effective teaching and training tool of project management. The software introduces the user to the full dynamics of project planning, monitoring and controlling, moving scenario-wise from the easy, fundamental issues to the more involved, complex ones. Based on a sound conceptual foundation, it provides the ideal individual and team training support for bringing projects to completion effectively and efficiently in a dynamic stochastic environment. Highly recommended!” Willy Herroelen, Professor Emeritus of Operations Management, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

“The Engineering Project Management School of the Israel Electric Company (IEC) used the Project Team Builder simulator developed at the Technion. Using PTB, it was possible to practice risk management when uncertainty is presented in resources availability, duration of activities, and cash flow. The challenges presented to the students increased motivation. The quality of the learning process, as well as the end results, was excellent.” Sergio Klik, Director, Engineering Project Management School, the Israel Electric Company.

“PTB takes an important step in the right direction. It employs simulation in order to put the student in the real situation, where he has to plan and execute projects by handling all issues at once. In particular, it puts the student in a situation in which his project is exposed to risk. By this, the student has to combine the isolated and simplified views on projects, and he learns that risk can materialize and that he has to plan and execute the project accordingly. This is a very important aspect of project management, which is learned by doing (and failing) and which has not been delivered this way before.” Rainer Kolisch, Professor of Operations Management, TUM School of Management, Technische Universität München.

Based on the users’ feedback the new web-based version of PTB was developed. This is the version that accompanies the book Project Management and Simulation-Based Training—Research and Practice.

Research on the Application of SBT for Project Management

Research aimed at the development of a better understanding of the design and use of SBT for project management has been the focus of research at the Technion’s Center for Project Management and other universities. The results of some of these studies have been published in the scientific literature and are reprinted by permission of the journals in the new book. The following studies are still in progress:

  1. Davidovitch, Parush, & Shtub (2006) tested the impact of history mechanisms on the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process and their main findings were:
    1. The history mechanism gives the user a strong tool to enhance his or her learning process.
    2. History mechanism should be implemented with undo abilities to run simulation scenarios from saved store points.
    3. Best history mechanism is manual, which allows the user to save the desired simulation states, based on his or her decisions.
    4. Best if the user is active in decision making, both for saving actions and for retrieving and reviewing actions.

     

  2. Davidovitch, Parush, & Shtub (2008) tested the impact of breaks on forgetting and learning using SBT and their main findings were:
    1. For a long break period, the forgetting phenomenon influenced the performances of both groups after the break, and the findings showed that there is no significant difference between them.
    2. For a short break period, the findings indicated that there is a significant difference between the groups. Furthermore, for the transfer scenario, this trend is kept.
    3. The major conclusion is that for the basic learning phase the manual mechanism is better than the automatic mechanism and this difference is reduced for a long break period, but remains significant for a short break period.

  3. Davidovitch, Parush , & Shtub (2009) tested the impact of fidelity on learning using SBT and their main findings were:
    1. Advanced resource management capabilities enhance the learning of the project manager.
    2. History mechanism enhances the learning process for both the advanced resource management capabilities as well as for basic project management capabilities.

     

  4. Nembhard, Yip & Shtub (2009) compared competitive and cooperative strategies for learning project management by SBT and their research found that:
    1. The results in this study indicate that cooperation is a favorable strategy in learning.
    2. Competition overall showed marginally greater improvement (learning).
    3. The cooperative strategy was actually only significantly better than the other strategies for the lower performing of the pair.
    4. Overall, it is perhaps most helpful for the lower-performing students to be paired with the higher-performing students in a cooperative setting.

Summary

The use of SBT can overcome the difficulty of training and teaching the dynamic stochastic nature of project management. By separating the simulation generator from the simulation engine, PTB enables the tailoring of simulation scenarios to the specific needs of students and to the desired outcome of the training program.

A series of controlled experiments with PTB proved its value in academic training as well as in the training of practitioners in the area of project management.

References

Davidovitch, L., Parush, A., & Shtub, A. (2006). Simulation-based learning in engineering education: Performance and transfer in learning project management. Journal of Engineering Education, 289–299.

Davidovitch, L., Parush, A., & Shtub, A. (2008). Simulation-based learning: The learning-forgetting-relearning process and impact of learning history. Computers & Education, 50(3), 866–880.

Davidovitch, L., Parush, A., & Shtub, A. (2009). The impact of functional fidelity in simulator based learning of project management. International Journal of Engineering Education, 25(2), 333–340(8).

Davidovitch, L., Parush, A., & Shtub, A. (2010). Simulator-based team training to share resources in a matrix structure organization. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 57(2), 288–300.

Nembhard, D., Yip, K., & Shtub, A. (2009, April 1). Comparing competitive and cooperative strategies for learning project management. Journal of Engineering Education, 181–192.

Salas, E., Wildman, J. I., & Piccolo, R. F. (2009). Using simulation-based training (SBT) to enhance management education. The Academy of Management Learning and Education, 8(4), 559–573.

Shtub, A. (1999, March). Enterprise resource planning (ERP): The dynamics of operations management. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Shtub, A. (Ed.). (2011). Project management simulation with ptb project team builder / edition 1. New York: Springer-Verlag LLC.

Shtub, A., Parush, A., & Hewett, T. (2009, March). Guest editorial: The use of simulation in learning and teaching. International Journal of Engineering Education, 25(2), 206–209.

Vanhoucke, M., & Shtub, A. (2011, January). Adding value to earned value analysis. PM World Today, XIII (I) (featured paper).

Acknowledgement: This research was supported by the Bernard M. Gordon Center for Systems Engineering at the Israel Institute of Technology.

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

©2011, Avraham Shtub
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX

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