Project Management Institute

The threefold path

decisions and opportunities in project management education

Jeannette Cabanis

When we last left Sam, The Olde Curmudgeon's erstwhile student of PM 101, she—or he (the Curmudgeon never said whether his student's full name is Samuel or Samantha)—was engaged in earning a project manager's degree from the School of Hard Knocks. Sam keeps finding out about project management techniques in bits and pieces. Those mountaintop “gurus” parcel out knowledge in fragments that resemble Zen koans: You become a project manager one zero at a time …

“Enough already!” Sam howls in frustration. “No more of this one-hand-clapping stuff! I wanna see the Big Picture!”

And lo, the curtain rose to reveal a Very Big Screen TV on which Sam saw a Threefold Path leading to a glowing city called Success. The first path was labeled “Degree in Project Management”; the second read “Continuing Education Courses”; the third, “PMP Certification Classes.”

“But which path do I take? Can I do it all? Should I? In what order?”

Poor Sam! Like many prospective students of project management, Sam had to be a project manager before figuring out what a project manager was supposed to know. Busy professionals who, like Sam, are handed a project with the sole instruction of “DO IT,” are usually elated to learn about a body of knowledge and a set of skills that can keep them from going crazy at work. But how to acquire that knowledge, those skills?

“The biggest questions facing the student today are What is available? How do I access it? and How do I evaluate it?” says Dr. John Adams, director of project management activities at Western Carolina University.

The short answer to the first question is simple: A lot. A glance at the educational programs survey in this issue shows the explosion of opportunities that has occurred in project management education. And the programs listed are only the tip of the iceberg, since they do not include corporate in-house education initiatives.

If you've been reading Fortune lately, you know that project management, once an esoteric specialty of the construction and defense industries, is fast becoming an integral factor in the changing world of business—all kinds of business. “As a way of managing complexity, project management is spreading like wildfire,” says Curtis Cook, vice-president of project management programs for Educational Services Institute (ESI). “It's part of the evolution of the workplace—when you blow away bureaucracy, you're forced to utilize project management principles.”

This broadening of the audience for project management education means that the profile of the project manager is changing; as it changes, the type of education the manager will need must also change.

Pre-education Education

Nearly every project management educator agrees that experiencing the project environment first-hand is the required initiation to the discipline. In the words of George Washington University's Dr. Davidson Frame (PMI's director of certification), the neophyte project manager has to “get a couple of teeth knocked out first.” In most cases this trial by fire takes place on the job, resulting in “just-in-time” learning—learning that makes sense of perplexities already experienced and teaches skills in context, allowing them to be put to immediate use. This initiation process means that even the beginning student in a project management program is expected to already know something about project management: a kind of Catch-22. For this reason, project management degree programs have traditionally found a home in graduate departments, as master's degrees or certificates.

One thing these battle-hardened manager/students have traditionally had in common was an undergraduate background in a technical field. While many, including Western Carolina's John Adams, still maintain that this is a necessity, some educators in the field disagree.

They question what ESI's Cook calls “the logical progression”: an undergraduate degree in your field of specialty, work that brings you in contact with the practice of project management, continuing education, a master's degree or certificate, the PMP certification and, if you plan to teach, a Ph.D. In a paper presented at the 1994 PMI Seminar/Symposium, Michael Katagiri wrote that work experience is “too random to be efficient as a learning tool … [and] there are significant risks in learning on the job, many of which are expensive, dangerous, or both.” These risks would seem to suggest that just-in-time learning actually comes a bit too late.

Some educators, like PMI's director of educational programs, Elvin Isgrig of North Dakota State University, contend that project management can be successfully taught during the undergraduate years—and even before. “The ideal path in my mind would be to introduce project management concepts in the secondary education system,” Isgrig says. “Kids are natural project managers.” As evidence that early exposure to project management techniques works, Isgrig cites North Dakota's undergraduate program, which organizes students into “consulting firms” and puts them to work doing actual projects for industrial clients, providing a jump-start to their careers.

Even those who agree that the traditional path is best note that new paths are developing. For example, Dr. Pierre Menard, director of the master's in project management program at the University of Quebec, describes a new program based in Toulon, France, which reverses the traditional path by requiring work experience to get out of the degree program instead of to get into it. At the IIGPP (International Institute for the Management of Projects and Programs), students without work experience are accepted; then, after completing the classroom portion of their work, they must complete a term of work experience, writing a mini-thesis about their experiences. “Then and only then,” says Menard, “do they get a diploma.”

“Most organizations don't care if you have a degree in project management…they want experienced project managers in their field.”

The common ground between the two viewpoints seems to be that experiential learning, which combines education in the concepts and theory of project management with hands-on project experience, accelerates the process.

The Role of the Mentor. The work environment that brings a person into the project management fold plays a critical role in his or her future as a project manager. One key element in that environment is the mentor, the person who first exposes the student to the techniques and tools of the discipline. The mentorship of experienced project managers, says Elvin Isgrig, is still one of the most common paths into the field.

Joan Knutson, president of Project Management Mentors, Inc., calls a mentor part of the “serendipity” that brings people into project management. While this mentoring relationship frequently marks the beginning of a career, Knutson notes that it also is an aspect of the fully mature project manager. “In an environment where project management will be more crucial to more people, but only a small number of project personnel will actually be educated or trained, those who possess the knowledge base must take on the role of teacher. In fact,” she says, “once you have the skills, if you don't turn around and teach them to others, you haven't completely done your job.” “Nordy” Nordstrom of USWest's Center for Program Management agrees. The telecommunications company, which has developed its own in-house education program, considers the highest level of ex-pertise—“Mastery”—to be characterized by “the ability to transfer knowledge and skills to others.”

Hewlett-Packard's internal training program considers mentorship far too important to be left to serendipity. Says Tom Kendrick, a program manager in HP's project management initiative, “people need more than a random collision.” His company sets up opportunities for mentoring, networking and information-sharing as a critical resource to support the practice of newly learned skills.

In the Groves of Academe

Once exposed to the profession, the student who decides to obtain project management education at a college or university will be faced by a whole new set of questions and decisions. One of the first challenges will be to find a program that is relevant to the student's needs. Increasingly, project management techniques are taught—sometimes without being named as such—as an integral part of MBA or other master's programs. For example, at George Washington University, project management is offered as a track within both the engineering management and the technology management programs. And certain concepts, such as those related to the management of cross-functional teams, have “infiltrated” the curriculum of many MBA programs, according to Davidson Frame, chairman of George Washington's department of management science. “I frequently have students in project management classes tell me ‘We covered a lot of this stuff in mainstream business courses, but didn't know it was project management,’” says Frame.

This kind of “infiltration” paradoxically makes such education both more generally available and harder to find. PMI's director of standards, William Duncan of Duncan•Nevison, sees a danger in that. As a profession with a unique body of knowledge and set of skills, he argues, project management should be taught as a separate and distinct discipline. Allowing other disciplines to teach bits and pieces of the body of knowledge as part of their own curriculum, he says, “dilutes the professionalism” of the field.

Yet students who seek a degree specifically are hampered in other ways. For one thing, the institutions that offer such a degree are still few and literally far between. For the typical project management student, a working professional whose graduate education is accomplished mainly in night classes, this can present a huge logistical problem. Unless one's work is flexible enough to accommodate the demands of schooling, and located near one of the universities that offers the specialty, the sacrifices required can make a degree impractical. Pierre Menard notes that pursuing a degree program is very costly in terms of time, effort, and money and that local availablility has to be a key factor in a student's choice of educational path.

Not only that, but there is some controversy about the value of such a degree. “The corporate world does not want master's and Ph.D. degrees in project management,” says Dr. Harold Kerzner of Baldwin Wallace College. “They get more of a return on their investment from continuing education courses and PMP preparation.” Joan Knutson adds, “Most organizations don't care if you have a degree in project management. They want experienced project managers in a given field. So it's important to have education and experience that's industry-specific.”

Can that kind of education be had in an academic environment?

“Yes,” says Dr. Charles Teplitz, a professor of project and operations management at the University of San Diego. His institution's master's certificate program, for example, offers team teaching by university professors and practicing project managers in a hands-on environment. Another way to evaluate the relevance of a degree program, says Western Carolina's John Adams, is to check the credentials of the faculty. “A Ph.D. is an absolute necessity in today's academic environment,” he says. “But project management faculty must also have good, solid, practical experience … because project management aims to teach how to do, to provide a useful, deliverable skill.”

While he agrees with Adams’ views, Elvin Isgrig notes that there is a lack of significant Ph.D. programs in project management. This lack means that the discipline suffers because advanced degrees are essential to acceptance of curricula by academics, creating yet another Catch-22: Academia requires postgraduate study, yet programs that would provide it cannot develop because of a shortage of postgraduates …

The requirements of academia themselves are viewed by some as a hindrance to recruiting the teachers best qualified to deliver the practical education needed by project managers. “Colleges and universities are struggling to find qualified people to teach project management,” says Harold Kerzner, because the development of extensive practical experience and postgraduate credentials are almost mutually exclusive requirements. Most people tend to focus on one or the other. As a result, he says, “there are a lot of people teaching the subject who have never in their lives managed a project. When you question the practice, you get a response like, ‘Well, you know what campus politics are.’” Many universities are solving the problem by using adjunct professors who are practicing project managers with excellent work experience and a master's degree. These “teachers from the trenches” add a dose of realism to an education that might otherwise become overly theoretical.

Universities have also sought to disseminate professional education and practical training by becoming more involved in non-degree continuing education programs. Such programs are open to people who may have bachelor's degrees in a field unrelated to management—or no degree at all, but a long, rich work history. They open the door to bring many more kinds of people into the profession.

Continuing(ous) Education

For many people, an evening class, a three-day workshop, or a special seminar is their first experience with formal project management education. These sessions, created and presented by outside training consultants, by university continuing education departments, by community colleges, or by in-house training departments, provide the lion's share of just-in-time learning—that “knock upside the head” that brings a jumbled mass of hands-on experience into philosophical clarity. And each year, with business’ increasing focus on management-by-project, the prospective student is presented with a smorgasbord of new programs to choose from, ranging from courses that propose to teach the entire body of knowledge to one-shot seminars that focus on a single skill or concept.

Evaluating such programs for relevance to an individual's personal and professional goals can be a tricky process. “There's no measure of quality,” says John Adams. “A professional presenter can make a lousy package look good, and vice versa.”

ESI's Curtis Cook notes that there is a way to show whether or not a training program really works, but that many presenters don't use it. The four-phase evaluation process called the Kirk-patrick model encourages presenters to use class evaluations and post-tests to measure whether the classroom experience worked, then to visit the student's workplace some months after the training and determine, by asking supervisors, whether the training changed the student's behavior on the job. The final and fourth level—and the most often ignored—is to determine if the course, by changing behavior, has affected the company's bottom line.

“Basically, the question is ‘Did we make a difference?’” says Cook. Such a question is admittedly easier to answer for some segments of project management training than for others. Learning a new software package can be pretty accurately evaluated on all four levels. But what about what Knutson calls “the ations”: cooperation, integration, communication and other so-called soft skills?

In the last analysis, the best measure of whether a continuing education program is right for any given student may be not the corporate bottom line, but the student's personal bottom line. Identifying the learning objectives that are most critical both to the individual and to his or her company or industry has to be the first step in choosing an educational path, according to Bill Duncan. Once those learning objectives are identified, a program can be evaluated by asking whether it meets those needs.

Part of the identification process is an understanding of the needs and requirements of the student's company or industry. “It's better,” says Joan Knutson, “if the student and the company or industry share a commitment to a certain type of curriculum.” This kind of congruence guarantees both consistency of terminology and a shared sense of what is important for success.

A Fourth Path in the Making

Increasingly, large companies are carrying this search for congruence to its logical conclusion by creating in-house corporate project management training programs. “This is the biggest push now,” says Kerzner, although he notes that it is restricted to companies that can afford it, leaving small and mid-size companies to hammer together relevant education programs from the offerings available from academia and private trainers. Such corporate programs offer industry-specific and company-specific knowledge, and a tailoring of PMBOK skills to the needs and priorities of the student's employer.

“An in-house program,” says Hewlett-Packard's Tom Kendrick, “acts as a filter. Rather than having to wade through a 14-pound book to get the four or five relevant topics, a student in our program gets training and education in the context of the type of projects we do here at HP, which are mostly small-team-oriented and tightly focused.” Educating people in the skills that they are most in need of, for responsibilities they currently bear, says Kendrick, is effective because it's experiential—and because, from the company's point of view, it “moves the ball down the field,” ensuring that projects are done more efficiently.

The downside to that tailored approach, argues Pierre Menard, is that company programs often have a limited perspective. “They tend to reproduce the company mindset,” he says, noting that a closed system will eventually erode creativity. By contrast, the university environment brings together all kinds of people who blend their viewpoints and experiences, and then take that vigorous, hybrid perspective back to their own companies.

Another danger of the in-house setting is, as Knutson notes, that the “soft skills” so important to today's project manager are always the first thing a company will drop when money gets tight. By contrast, Menard says, the university environment is dedicated to “making a better person of the student, not just teaching techniques.”

Ironically, although the in-house educational path may have, in Harold Kerzner's view, developed because industry “lost faith in academic institutions,” viewing them as unable to provide the kind of practical, timely training that their employees most needed, it now seems to be leading back to and twining with the academic path.

Many universities now collaborate with corporations and commerical trainers to create continuing education and master's certificate programs that combine the best of both worlds. For example, George Washington University has contracted out all its professional continuing education to ESI. The trend of corporations and academic institutions working together to create and present professional education is a very positive and necessary development, according to USWest's Nordstrom. “It is imperative that we tie academic offerings to business requirements as a continuous process,” he says. USWest's alliance with the University of Denver's University College is an example of this kind of cooperation. Their internal program, created by USWest in collaboration with the university, is now available to the general public as a master's certificate in project-based management.

Companies that have instituted internal training are quick to point out that they do not discourage employees from augmenting it with education and training from outside sources. Generally, they encourage them to seek degrees or PMP certification if they are motivated to do so.

On the Trail of the PMP

One thing that almost every educator agrees on is that the PMP certification is an important milestone for the project manager. Whether it's sought as the capstone of an academic degree, as the culmination of many years of experience, or as the logical conclusion to a series of continuing education courses, the PMP functions, in the words of John Adams, as a “peer review”: the validation of an individual's knowledge by 15,000 other project managers, as represented by the Institute. Still, although PMI chapters across the country do a creditable job of presenting classes that help people prepare for the certification exam, Institute insiders caution that certification prep classes are no more than a review or refresher course. Adams concedes that such classes can help a student appreciate the breadth of the subject matter, especially if their experience has been limited to one certain type of project—but that student will have to have a strong fundamental grasp of project management concepts and techniques coming into the classes.

“It is my strongly-held opinion,” adds Bill Duncan, “that certification preparation is not a separate educational track, but just another category of continuing education.” Menard agrees. “PMP preparation classes are not really education,” he cautions. “They are too focused, with one objective—passing the exam. Therefore the content is restricted. They do not address the most important kind of education for project managers, which is skills development.”

This distinction between knowledge and skills is an important one for students to grasp, the experts say. Because it is tied to the PMBOK, certification measures not skills, but knowledge—in some cases, knowledge that the individual may not need in practice. In some industries, for example, the area of earned value may not have any application. Therefore, such preparation cannot substitute for the kind of skills-based training for which industry seems to be so hungry. Harold Kerzner concurs with Duncan: “The PMP certification should be a by-product of the education and training needed to perform effectively in the workplace,” he says.

The PMP certification is increasingly viewed as a marker of valuable knowledge by many industries, and as PMI revises and refines the PMBOK and the exam, it is destined to appeal to a wider spectrum of the corporate world. Those industries who do not yet accept the PMP as a measure of quality are held back, says HP's Kendrick, by its focus on a military model of project management, a model that “doesn't mesh well with our types of projects.” He sees a “serious need to back off from the vocabulary and repertoire of tools that is limited to a big-project, technical environment.” After all, he points out, only 10–15 percent of a project manager's time is spent in that kind of activity; the rest is all people-skill activities.

Sam Looks Into the Future

The elimination of bureaucracy … the demise of the “job” as we know it … a fully projectized universe … In a world where project management is not only studied by everybody, but practiced, what will project management education consist of?

Ours is the discipline for the 21st century, and those who will be its leaders tomorrow are educating themselves in its concepts today.

“The future lies in marketing project management to other disciplines,” says John Adams. That's true, says Curtis Cook, and the future is already here. Cook sees people with backgrounds in agriculture, retail marketing, human services, publishing, finance and many other fields in ESI's project management classes. “To be competitive, both degree programs and private commercial programs will need to utilize all the options available to reach a broad spectrum of students,” Cook says. Distance education. CD-ROM interactive self-paced trainings. Computer simulations. Given the visionary nature of the field, it's not surprising that these techniques are already being put into practice by many educators and trainers. And while private commercial trainers pride themselves on the ability to respond quickly to market demands, universities remain a proving ground for experimental teaching tools and techniques. At Australia's Queensland University of Technology, for example, they are experimenting with using adventure education—three days in the bush—to build cohesiveness in project teams. What next? “We're working in a field evolving as fast as our professionals can improve it,” says Nordstrom of USWest.

An increasing trend towards specialization—developing curricula tailored to technical specialties or industry specifications—is offset by the increasing general emphasis on the skills that can make a project manager into a high-level strategic manager, says Pierrre Menard. Those skills—interpersonal and personal skills, along with general business and financial skills—are in demand, and education is responding to that demand. Menard notes that a majority of the students in his university's program seek out the electives offering what he calls savoir-être—not “know-how” (savoir-faire) but the difficult-to-translate concept of knowing how to be, how to comport oneself gracefully in all the complex relationships that make up a career.

The variety of educational opportunities, the increasing integration of project management theory into other disciplines, even the controversies, all indicate a vibrant, growing field. While the experts may have some disagreements about exactly the best way to pursue an education in project management, the consensus is there: Ours is the discipline for the 21st century, and those who will be its leaders tomorrow are educating themselves in its techniques and concepts today. They are pursuing that education via any one of several educational paths that increasingly seem to intermingle, sharing strengths and responsibilities—much like a good cross-functional team.


Thanks to Dr. Francis Webster, a.k.a. The Olde Curmudgeon, for allowing us to “borrow” Sam for this article. ∎


Jeannette Cabanis is a PM Network staff writer and the editor of the Marketplace and Project Briefs features.

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.

PM Network • September 1995



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