Reengineering project management certification


J. Davidson Frame, PMP, Director of Certification

1995 will stand out as a landmark year for PMI‘s certification program. It witnessed a major increase in the number of people sitting for the certification exam (an estimated 3,000 people). It also experienced an effort to reengineer the certification processes, with the hiring of a full-time Certification Manager and the dramatic restructuring of its operations.

This and the accompanying two articles describe the new directions the certification program is taking. Dr. David Frame, PMI’s Director of Certification, details the achievements of the program since he took over the director position in 1990. PMI’s new Certification Manager, Wendy Myers, lays out her vision of what steps she will take to strengthen the certification examination, and identifies the new direction in which she sees exam development and maintenance moving. Jim Klanke, co-chair of the Certification Integrated Project Team (IPT), discusses the organizational implications associated with reengineering the certification program to respond effectively to the exponential growth of demand for project management certification.

It has been nearly six years since I took over as director of PMI’s certification program. When I assumed the directorship in January 1990, a total of 355 people had achieved PMP (Project Management Professional) certification since the initiation of the program in 1984. That averages out to about 59 PMPs per year. I estimate that as of January 1, 1996, some 4,700 people will have become PMPs. This reflects more than a 1,300 percent increase in PMPs in a six-year period. The chart illustrates that project management certification has been growing according to a classical exponential growth pattern.


As I have stated elsewhere, this growth appears to be driven by three factors:

  • A growth of corporate commitment to project management certification. The past six years have seen a major increase in corporate interest in project management. Organizations in the process of incorporating project management certification into the career development paths of their employees include AT&T, IBM, Citibank, EDS, Asea Brown Boveri, Korea Electric Power Corporation, Bell Core, Bell South, US West, Nynex, TASC, CRS Sirrine, EG&G, GTE, Kaiser Engineering, Allied Signal, Lower Colorado River Authority, Defense Systems Management College, Niagara Mohawk, Rust International, PECo Energy, and the Canadian Department of National Defense.
  • A growth of project management professional development efforts in PMI chapters. Beginning in 1991, local PMI chapters began actively promoting project management certification. Key early players included the Southwest Ohio, Northern California, Mile Hi, Savannah River, and Houston chapters. These chapters developed courses and study material to help their members prepare for the certification exam. They shared this material with other chapters. Soon, dozens of PMI chapters were in the business of promoting project management certification at the grassroots level, and this contributed measurably to the growth of certification.
  • A realization among individuals that project management certification will enhance their career development opportunities. Savvy workers who are in tune with current management trends recognize that project management is occupying a central position in their organizations. The sense of the centrality of project management is reinforced when management gurus like Tom Peters (in his Liberation Management) and prominent periodicals like Fortune magazine (March 10, 1995) announce that project management is a linchpin of organizational success. As a consequence of the increased visibility of project management, many individuals have taken the initiative in strengthening their project management capabilities by opting to become certified PMPs.

Achievements Since January 1990

The following listing identifies some of the key accomplishments of the certification program over the past six years:

  • Corporate buy-in of key project management players, including Allied Signal, AT&T, Citibank, EDS, GTE, IBM, Kaiser Engineering, Korea Electric Power Corporation, Lower Colorado River Authority, Nynex, TASC.
  • Increase in PMPs of 1,300 percent, from 355 as of January 1990 (first six years of the program) to 4,700 expected as of January 1996 (second six years of the program).
  • Continuous improvement of administrative procedures, under the direction of Barbara Pattinson.
  • Validation in 1991 of exam contents in conjunction with an experiment conducted with the Defense Systems Management College.
  • Developing a sample exam in 1991.
  • Publication in 1993 of a Study Guide to help people prepare for the certification examination.
  • Editing in 1993 of the CCP Guide to Preparing for the Certification Examination.
  • Computerization of exam scoring.
  • An entire rewrite of the exam in the summer of 1994 (with major inputs from PMI’s Director of Standards, Bill Duncan).
  • Global certification initiatives in China, Russia, France, UK, Holland, Germany, Ukraine, Korea, Taiwan, Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Mexico, and Australia.
  • Conversion in 1995 of exam questions to conform with the new Guide to the PMBOK (with major inputs from PMI’s Vice President of Technology, Bill Ruggles).
  • Initiatives to translate the exam into Korean, Russian, and Spanish.
  • Hiring in June 1995 of a full-time Certification Manager (Wendy Myers).
  • Reengineering of certification processes following the recommendations of an Integrated Project Team, headed by Jim Klanke, Page Carter, and Rushton Williamson.

What the Management of a Professional Certification Program Entails

I suspect that nine out of ten people who have given any thought to what it takes to develop and run a professional certification program assume that nearly all the effort is directed at developing and maintaining an examination and qualification process (e.g., preparing and validating test questions). In reality, the management of an effective certification effort requires paying equal attention to five streams of activity: obtaining corporate support; dealing with the public; developing study material; establishing effective administrative procedures; and creating a valid and reliable testing and qualifications process.

Obtaining Corporate Support. A project management certification program that is not recognized as having value by the corporate world (including government and non-profits) is not a very worthwhile undertaking. Why should anyone spend many hours preparing for an examination that is not recognized by the organizations that carry out projects? Perhaps the greatest success of PMI’s certification program over the past few years has been its ability to get major project players to accept it as the standard vehicle to measure the knowledge-based competencies of project professionals.

Dealing With the Public. The largest chunk of time that both Barbara Pattinson (who administers the examination) and I spend on certification activities is dedicated to dealing with the public. Over the past few years, I have consistently received five to 20 phone calls a day on certification matters (and I am a volunteer!). Barbara typically receives five times that many phone calls per day. The calls I receive can be divided into several categories: basic inquiries about the certification effort; pleas to reconsider a failing grade on the exam; calls from vendors trying to sell certification-related products and training; calls from the education directors of PMI chapters asking for guidance on how to establish local certification training programs; and calls from PMI administrative and elected officials. Failure to deal effectively with the public leads to communications breakdowns, misunderstandings and general disaffection with the certification process.

Developing Study Material. In my opinion, the greatest failing of our certification process at PMI is the lack of decent study material to help people prepare for the exam. The majority of complaints I receive—no fooling, over half!—focus on this issue. The source of this problem is that PMI has not resolved a number of key questions: Who should have final responsibility for developing study material—the Director of Education? the Director of Standards? the Certification Director? What form should the study material take—handbooks? sample exams? tutorials? Who should actually develop the material— volunteers? outsourced professionals? PMI has been wrestling with these questions for a decade, yet they remain unanswered. Clearly, the offering of an excellent certification program requires the development of good study material.

Establishing Effective Administrative Procedures. The administrative aspect of managing a certification program is non-trivial. Some common administrative chores that we deal with at PMI include mailing out brochures in response to inquiries, processing applications, reviewing applicants’ qualifications statements, scheduling exams, identifying exam sites, printing and shipping exams to exam sites, collecting filled-out exams, scoring exams, tracking examinees’ performance on exams, notifying applicants of their certification status, initiating re-certification procedures, and reviewing applications for recertification. The biggest problem we have faced in this area is tied to the explosive growth of people sitting for the exam. Seven years ago, perhaps 200 people would take the exam in an entire year. In the June 1995 offering of the exam, nearly 1,000 people sat for it! We have a number of initiatives under way to deal with many of these administrative issues (including offering computerized versions of the exam) and I would hope that the more egregious administrative difficulties we face today will be gone by the summer of 1996.

Creating a Valid and Reliable Testing and Qualifications Process. Clearly, the certification effort has little value if the examination and qualifications review processes are neither valid nor reliable. The PMI exam has undergone dramatic upgrading in this respect since its fairly primitive origins in 1984. The most dramatic change occurred in the summer of 1994, when the exam was totally rewritten. A major contribution to the rewrite came from Bill Duncan. Exit interviews with 20 exam-takers at the October 1994 inaugural offering of the exam in Vancouver suggest that exam-takers find the exam questions to be clear and fair (only one out of the 20 complained that some questions were poorly phrased). The recent hiring of a Certification Manager with doctoral work in examination development will enable us to be more scientific in our attempts to maintain examination validity and reliability.

Future Directions

Whatever gains the certification effort has made to this point have been the result of outstanding volunteer efforts. While literally hundreds of volunteers enable the certification program to work (think of the scores of PMP proctors who administer the exam throughout the world), the superlative efforts of a handful of people need to be highlighted: Dr. Page Carter, Dr. Yanping Chen, Bill Duncan, Paul Garvey, Dr. Lew Ireland, Eric Jenett, Jim Klanke, Lee Lambert, Clayman Myers, Dan Ono, Bill Ruggles, Jenny Strbiak, Rushton Williamson, and Dr. Heeseung Yang. Exceptional support for certification at the PMI chapter level came from a number of former chapter presidents such as Kent Crawford, Bill Derrick, Jerry Ostrander, Ahmet Taspinar, and Julie Wilson. Finally, acknowledgment should be made of the volunteer efforts of the man who got the certification ball rolling back in 1984, the late Dr. Dean Martin, PMI’s first Director of Certification.

The great success of our volunteer efforts has put us into an interesting situation: if we are to use our momentum to carry project management certification forward, we must shift from a volunteer-focused effort to one that employs professionals. As volunteers, we did a credible job of running a certification program so long as a few hundred people were being certified each year. But the scale of certification today far exceeds the abilities of volunteers to manage the added complexity inherent in an undertaking that involves thousands of exam-takers. This is the conclusion of the Certification Integrated Project Team that reviewed certification processes over the past year. They recommend that the certification program increasingly use full-time professionals (in-house as well as through out-sourcing) to conduct certification activities. In response to their suggestion, PMI hired a full-time Certification Manager in 1995.

The IPT also recommends that the certification program be reengineered, making full use of guidance from a number of volunteer-based committees designed to reflect a broad array of interests bearing upon certification. I fully concur with and support the IPT's conclusions. ∎

PM Network • October 1995



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