Putting talent management at the heart of organizational PPM development


Dr. Terry Cooke-Davies

Founder and Senior Consultant, Human Systems International (HSI) Visiting Fellow, Cranfield University

PMI's Pulse of the Profession© In-Depth report: The Competitive Advantage of Effective Talent Management identifies four ways in which organizations align talent management to organizational strategy; a variety of talent management offerings, career paths for PPPM employees, integrated talent management across the organization and measurement of talent management outcomes. But how can this be accomplished? What practical steps have to be taken to create an approach that is both integrated and aligned? Drawing on the practices of global leaders in the field, this presentation will describe the seven pillars that constitute a world-class talent management system that is both integrated into everyday operations, and aligned with organizational strategy


PMI's 2014 Thought Leadership Series was devoted to the topic of Talent Management for Project, Program and Portfolio Managers. In “Rally the Talent to Win: Transforming Strategy into Reality” (PMI 2014) The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reported that talent deficiencies significantly hamper 40% of strategy implementation efforts. The implication of this is that organizations need to improve their talent management efforts so as to prevent “talent deficiencies” from causing under-performance against their goals.

The report goes much further than this, however, pointing out the many benefits and performance advantages that are enjoyed by those organizations where managing talent at the strategy level is effective, (referred to as “Strategic Talent Leaders” in the report). There is logic to this. I have frequently asked groups of PMO leaders and heads of project management, “If you had to choose between outstanding people and superlative processes, which would you rather have?” The answer is inevitably that a majority would choose outstanding people, because people can always develop and improve processes, whereas the reverse is not true. Of course, it is a gross over-simplification to present such a stark dichotomy, but it does emphasize the importance of having people with the right competencies doing the right jobs with the necessary authority.

This paper takes that line of reasoning one step further towards its logical conclusion, by suggesting not only that organizations should ensure that they become strategic talent leaders, but that they should place the initiatives to develop talent strategically right at the heart of their efforts to improve the delivery of strategy through project, program and portfolio capabilities. Recruit, develop and retain talented people, and have them develop the processes, practices and tools they require to embed world-class capability.

A Central Unit to Direct and Control PPPM Talent

Of course, this is much easier to say than to do. It is made even more challenging thanks to the fact that three different organizational functions have important contributions to make to the development of a talented project, program and portfolio management (PPPM) cadre: PPPM itself, the business that PPPM serves, and the HR departments that serve the business and partner with PPPM. None of these can succeed without the other two, but each has its own professional discipline and way of thinking about the world that differs significantly from the others’. This makes co-operation challenging, especially if talent management is subdivided into component activities that are then made the responsibility of lower-level organizational units. Training departments, career families, internal and external certification, PM communities are all examples of components of talent management that can all-too-easily be dispersed around the PPPM department with only the loosest strategic linkage, possibly through a PM Council or some such body, composed of the heads of PM in different businesses.

One way that organizations such as Shell and NASA have overcome these shortcomings is to create a single organizational unit with strategic responsibility for talent management. NASA's APPEL (Academy of Program, Project and Engineering Leadership) and Shell's SPA (Shell Project Academy) are prominent examples of central units that direct talent management strategically across all businesses. Each is tailored to the needs of its own organization, and each occupies a position in the organizational structure that gives it the authority and credibility to drive talent management strategically.

A PPPM Talent Management “Mission” and “Vision”

Such units can prosper only if there is a clear strategic reason for them to exist that is shared by the organization's leadership and “bought into” by the leaders of the PPPM community. Typically, this will express itself in terms of not only a clearly articulated mission of why PPPM talent management is vital to the organization's performance of its strategic ambitions, but also a vision of what managing PPPM talent management can become in terms of its contribution to the strategy. Such a mission and vision provide the compass by which talent management is aligned with strategy, and the basis against which progress can be measured -- two of the four ways in which organizations align talent management to organizational strategy according to PMI's Pulse of the Profession© In-Depth report: The Competitive Advantage of Effective Talent Management (PMI 2013).

The other two ways - a variety of talent management offerings and career paths for PPPM employees - need unpacking in order to provide real guidance to organizations seeking to elevate their talent management activities to world-class.

The Scope of PPPM Talent Management

Three Complementary Sets of Capabilities

The experience of organizations such as Shell and NASA, as well as those that would emulate them in the field of talent management, is that the scope of talent management activities needs to cover a wide variety of project, program and portfolio management related roles, at three organizational levels: the organization-wide institutional level, the project “ownership” or governance level, and the project delivery level.

The rationale for these organizational levels has been outlined in my PhD thesis, and a subsequent, widely cited summary paper (Cooke-Davies, 2001), which makes the case that there are three groups of essential capabilities and not one if project, program and portfolio management is to become a reliable means of delivering strategy. They are distinct groups for three reasons:

  1. They are owned and carried out by distinct groups of people within an organization;
  2. They involve different kinds of processes and practices, and require different competencies from the people who own them and carry them out; and
  3. Their success is measured using different criteria.

This view has recently received strong support from Peter Morris, among others, although he talks about it slightly differently. He argues that capabilities can “be thought of in terms of three levels: a technical core; a strategic wrap, shaping and shielding the technical core; and an institutional level of action aimed at creating, as far as one is able to do, an environment within which the project, and other projects and programs, will prosper and flourish” (Morris and Geraldi, 2011).

This is not the same as the commonplace distinction between portfolio management, program management, and project management. The sets of capabilities being described here relate to different groups of people in the organization, not to different types of work. For example, senior management in the organization makes rules and sets the tone for all three kinds of project-related work: portfolios, programs, and projects. Similarly, individual senior executives may find themselves involved in different ways with all three: as CEO of a business unit, they may be responsible for a portfolio of programs and projects; as a senior executive, they may be the executive sponsor of a strategic initiative or a major program; and as an executive with functional expertise, they may be a member of the steering committee for a particular project. The better their “owner's” capabilities, the better they will fulfill each of these different responsibilities.

Organizational Capabilities

Since the focus is on OPM rather than on project management, it is appropriate to start at the highest level: the organization as a whole. As such, these capabilities should be understood and developed at the senior level of the organization. Responsibility should ideally lie with a C-level executive, such as a chief project officer, although in practice it will often fall to the head of the top-level project management office (PMO) (an enterprise PMO, strategic PMO, or the like).

This is the role that provides the “voice of strategy delivery” in the discussions and decisions that are taken in pursuit of the organization, whether these are “top down,” “bottom up,” or “middle outwards.” There is considerable evidence that the presence of such a voice has a significant impact on the effective delivery of strategy. Indeed, the PMI's Thought Leadership Series 2013 provided evidence to support this from a variety of viewpoints (Boston Consulting Group and PMI, 2013).

“Owner's” Capabilities

The second group of capabilities includes those that should be possessed by any senior executive or manager who is entrusted with the direction, oversight, or management of programs or projects that are important to the delivery of the chosen strategy. There are three of these: managing strategic initiatives, governing and directing programs and projects, and managing and realizing benefits.

Project Capabilities

This third area is the one that needs the least explanation here at a conference for project management practitioners. It includes all the traditional capabilities that are so well known from standards such as the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition:

  • Initiating projects and programs,
  • Planning projects and programs,
  • Monitoring and controlling projects and programs,
  • Executing projects and programs, and
  • Closing and handing over projects and programs.

Three Dimensions of the Talent Triangle™

As if equipping an organization with talent to master this extensive set of capabilities weren't enough, the range of personal skills and competencies to be included within scope is also significantly broader than might have been thought hitherto.

PMI's Pulse of the Profession In-depth Report referred to above (PMI 2013) reported that three critical project management skillsets are necessary for the successful management of projects: technical project management skills, leadership skills, and strategic and business management skills (Exhibit 1). It follows that a talent management framework for PPPM needs to include a focus on all three of these areas.


Exhibit 1. The Talent Triangle

The 7 Pillars of Talent Management

Described in this way, the scope of a world-class PPPM talent management program is mind-bogglingly extensive, especially in a large, diverse, geographically distributed organization. As always, it helps to decompose such an extensive scope into more manageable components. Experience in benchmarking such talent management frameworks for the past six years suggests that it is useful to consider seven such components: three that relate to the means by which people gain expertise and competence, three that relate to organizational frameworks that can help people to gain this expertise and competence, and the overarching and ubiquitous governance and assurance.

Three Modes of Learning

Another of the reports comprising PMI's Thought Leadership Series (PMI, 2014b) observes that, “many…top-performing organizations apply a “70-20-10” approach, which allocates 100% of all learning and development activities as follows: 70% workplace learning and performance support, 20% social learning (including informal mentoring and coaching) and 10% structured learning.” It is worth considering each of these in a little more detail.

Workplace Learning and Performance Support.

Since Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Ann Morrison published “The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job” (McCall Lombardo and Morrison 1988), extensive research has highlighted that by far the most significant factor influencing the development of expertise is personal experience, gained on the job through the process of mastering a succession of increasingly testing challenges. Given the differences between different people in aptitude, motivation and learning preferences, it is no simple matter to create a framework that allows each individual to develop their talent to the fullest extent, even in the most stable of contexts. And the context of projects, programs and portfolios is by its very nature continually changing. The unique nature of such workplace development on project-based organizations is referred to by Rodney Turner, Anne Keegan and Martina Huemann as a “spiral staircase” development model (Turner et al., 2008), with spells of increasing responsibility on projects interspersed with periods of increasing authority in line or functional roles.

Supporting such an emphasis requires effective methods of providing employees with interesting and challenging assignments that are suitable to their personal development, and also satisfy the organization's needs for resources that are competent to deliver projects and programs efficiently and effectively. It also requires the provision of attractive assignments in the first place, which makes the organization an attractive employer, and project management an attractive career choice.

Even more importantly, different organizational processes and systems, that are often independent of each other, need to operate as a single effective system. Assignments must be related to the organization's competency system, so that an employee's increasing range of competence is demonstrated by her performance on the assignments. To ensure that people are appointed to assignments that represent the optimum mix of the organization's need for competent performance on the assignment, the organization needs to develop adequate pools of talent, and the individual's need for personal development. The assignments undertaken, the competencies acquired by the individual, and their performance on the assignment need to be captured in the HR system, so that accurate information is available about the organization's talent pool.

To provide the evidence for high-quality decisions about this crucially important component of the talent management framework, it is important that the ‘People’ reports provided to senior management are as credible, comprehensive & strategic as financial reports, which has implications for performance management, for the HR system, and for resource management – three areas that are frequently capable of improvement.

Social Learning

The second component of a world-class talent management framework is the provision of social learning so that less experienced employees can absorb tacit knowledge and perspective from their more experienced colleagues and from skilled coaches. This implies that senior members of the PPPM community devote a percent of their time to mentoring junior colleagues, and that every member of the community has access to a supportive mentor. Additionally, imaginative use of social media, such as an in-house YouTube-type facility, allows access to senior managers and corporate role models for every employee and member of staff. Since imitating the behavior of those we admire is one way that humans learn, this provides members of the PPPM community with a wider range of examples from which to learn.

Since teams of people, rather than individuals working alone, deliver projects and programs, there is a growing tendency for progressive organizations to provide access to coaches for teams rather than just for individuals. Charlie Pellerin describes one method that has delivered proven results at NASA (Pellerin, 2009), and is increasingly being adopted and adapted by other organizations.

Structured Learning

The component of a talent management framework that receives perhaps the most attention is the curriculum of structured learning provided in the form of training events, either in the classroom or, increasingly, through electronic media (eLearning). More advanced organizations are increasingly using a mixture of face-to-face and remote learning (known as blended learning) to increase the effectiveness of structured learning. The growing number of MOOCs (Massive online open courses) testifies to the ability of new media and the growing availability of high-speed internet to reach hitherto unheard-of numbers of people cost-effectively.

One challenge faced by many organizations is the visibility of the total spend on structured learning. Only rarely is the entire spend contained within one central budget; more often there is a mixture of centrally born costs, and costs incurred within individual businesses and departments. This makes it difficult not only to control the total amount of money spent, but also to direct it to be spent on those areas of structured learning that are most critical to the organization's strategic talent requirements.

The more the scope of structured learning reflects the three different levels of organizational capabilities and the whole “talent triangle”, the more serious this challenge becomes.

It is also important to create an appropriate blend of different sources of learning: internally developed courses drawing on the hard-won experience within the organization of “what works” and what doesn't, externally provided courses by training providers that efficiently teaches standard practices, knowledge and skills, and education provided by academic institutions that can combine external research input with proven good practice.

Three Delivery Channels

Ensuring the desired balance between the three modes of learning calls for a variety of organizational mechanisms to deliver the learning. Leading organizations develop three such mechanisms: career path and accreditation, an effective PPPM community, and a learning organization that supports learning from experience.

Career Path and accreditation

The first of these mechanisms is the one that is central to the provision of workplace learning: the provision of a career path for members of the project management community. Where workplace learning provides people with a development path or varied and challenging experiences, an effective career path marks certain key landmarks in that development by promoting the staff member to the next level. Many organizations have between 4 and 6 levels of project and or program manager, with each increased level signaling that the employee is capable of being entrusted with a corresponding higher level of authority and responsibility.

If this is to be effective, of course, it must be matched with a corresponding means of grading the degree of challenge and complexity in the activities or projects for which the employee is being considered, so that the organization is able to assign people with the right level of competencies to the needs of the assignment. In many organizations, project managers can be appointed to their grades by line managers, or by acquiring a recognized accreditation such as the PMP®, but to reach the higher levels, most organizations require an assessment to be made on the basis of track record and experience. In leading organizations, appointment to the most senior levels is made only by a series of peer assessments, after the candidate has successfully passed demanding mandatory training or education programs and been through rigorous assessment activities.

PPPM Community

Ever since Etienne Wenger's groundbreaking work on “Communities of Practice” during the 1980s and 1990s, organizations have increasingly been recognizing the value of creating and supporting internal “communities” of professionals with particular skills and knowledge that are central to the organization's operations. (Wenger, 2002). Ideally, such communities make very clear who are, and who aren't members. This requires spelling out the different roles that constitute a PPPM community. Knowledge of the numbers and career grades of people in the different roles provides a valuable support to the career path described above, giving the organization clarity about the profile of the talent pool that is available.

Organizations that excel in the management of projects have typically developed a strong culture throughout the community, with the community's activities serving not only to share knowledge and promote a sense of identity, but also to expose its members to the shared culture. Indeed, a strong community has a strong emotional “ownership” of the organization's talent management framework, and its members are proud to be a part of it.

The community's involvement should not be restricted to activities such as “best practice sharing.” For example, both Shell and NASA have teams of subject matter experts drawn from the community intimately involved in the specification, preparation and delivery of key courses in the structured learning pillar.

Learning Organization

Many organizations have a nominal process for capturing “lessons learned” through some form of project review, such as a post implementation review, but a majority of them either simply “go through the motions” or, alternatively, write so-called “lessons learned reports” that are then filed away never to see the light of day again. All too seldom are the lessons actually learned, that is, become reflected in changed practice or in different decisions being made. However, the value of effective knowledge transfer, including an effective “lessons learned” process is vividly demonstrated in PMI's Pulse of the Profession® In-depth Report on Knowledge Transfer (PMI 2015).

In addition to embedding knowledge transfer into the PPPM community, so that lessons truly are learned and not simply “logged”, there are other aspects to becoming a true “learning organization.” For example, the structured learning activities described above can support this goal in two ways: by regularly reviewing the content and capacity of the curriculum in the light of current business needs and imperatives (say every six months), and by including learning interventions at short notice to deal with current “hot spots” that are hindering project performance.

Governance and Assurance

A talent management framework, along with project performance management, and the maintenance of a pool of skilled practitioners constitute the main operational responsibilities of the person in an organization who is responsible for project, program and portfolio management across a whole organization. Governance and assurance of the talent management framework are of fundamental importance, and together constitute the final and seventh pillar of talent management.

The point has already been made that the talent management framework involves the coordination of project management, business management and HR management, and although the head of the framework is likely to be a member of the project management function, s/he should always remember that the authority is on behalf of all three functions.

The actual operation of the function is likely to be different in different organizations, because of its history, geography, culture and operating model; but, it is important that it is integrated fully into the line of business rather than being seen as a staff function. Some leading organizations ensure that senior staff in the function are senior and respected project and program managers, who are “rotated in” on secondment for a fixed period of two or three years. This has the twin benefits of ensuring that the framework is in touch with current practice and needs, and of providing credibility for the function with members of the project management community. It is also an effective way of ensuring that practitioners are closely involved in the assurance of all six of the other pillars of the framework.

The Journey to “World Class”

Many organizations already have some of these seven “pillars” in place, at least partially, which means that every organization's journey not only sets out for a destination uniquely determined for it's “fit” to the organization's strategy and structure, but also starts from a different place. There are many alternative actions that could lead towards the goal of a world-class talent management program or framework.

Janice Thomas and her colleagues have provided us with extremely valuable research showing how different organizations of varied sizes and project management maturity have managed their “journeys of innovation” (Thomas, George and Cicmil 2013). Their work provides a timely reminder that whatever innovation in talent management is considered, it should “not only go through the process of innovation, but also seek alignment of the full implementation with their organizational and business strategy.” (Thomas, George and Cicmil 2013, page 160)

It is hard to imagine an organizational or business strategy that does not require talented people, and as we observed on the first page of this paper, becoming a strategic talent leader not only reduces the likelihood of strategy execution being hampered by a deficiency of talent, it also improves both the development and the execution of strategy itself.

Why wouldn't you get started on the journey?

Boston Consulting Group & Project Management Institute. (2013). Strategic initiative management: The PMO imperative. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Cooke-Davies, T. (2002). The “real” success factors on projects. International journal of project management, 20(3), 185-190.

McCall, M., Lombardo, M., & Morison, A. (1988) The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job. ??? Lexington Books.

Morris, P. W. G., & Geraldi, J. (2011). Managing the institutional context for projects. Project Management Journal, 42(6), 20–32.

Pellerin, C. J. (2009). How NASA Builds Teams. Mission Critical Soft Skills for Scientists, Engineers and Project Teams., Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley and Sons.

PMI (2013) The Competitive Advantage of Effective Talent Management. Pulse of the Profession© In-Depth report: Talent Management. Project Management Institute. Newtown Square, PA.

PMI (2014a) Rally the Talent to Win: Transforming Strategy into Reality. PMI Thought Leadership Series. Project Management Institute. Newtown Square, PA.

PMI (2014b) Rally the Talent to Win: Transforming Strategy into Reality. PMI Thought Leadership Series. Project Management Institute. Newtown Square, PA.

PMI (2015) Capturing the Value of Project Management through Knowledge Transfer. Pulse of the Profession© In-Depth report. Project Management Institute. Newtown Square, PA.

Thomas, J., George, S., Cicmil, S. (2013) Project Management Implementation as Management Innovation: a Closer Look. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Turner, J. R., Huemann, M. & Keegan, A. (2008). Human Resource Management in the Project-Oriented Organization, Newtown Square, PA, Project Management Institute.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice - A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.

© 2015, Terry Cooke-Davies
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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