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Top to Bottom
by Simon Kent
Training isn't just for the new kids. Senior executives could stand to learn a thing or two—although they may need some convincing.
Most organizations appreciate the necessity of training newcomers in the basics of project management.
What they often fail to realize, though, is that those in the upper echelons could use some schooling as well. The accepted wisdom seems to be that experience at the cutting edge will suffice. However, the truth is that refresher courses can help keep the entire enterprise up on the latest trends and on the same page.
“If you change only one element of an organization-only one person—then that person will go back to the organization and behave as they did before,” says Luciano Garagna, PMP, managing principal of project management training company Into Consulting, Verona, Italy. “The system—the working culture—is too strong.”
A few years ago, he realized that although his training was always well-received, it was having very little effect on the way his participants actually worked. The answer for Mr. Garagna was to ensure training didn't simply address the needs of the individual but occurred across the enterprise. “If you have an organization where a manager believes skill problems exist only at a lower level, the success of any training will not be very high,” he says.
Project-led organizations should be delivering training at three levels, says Christoph Loch, Ph.D., professor of technology management and the dean of the Ph.D. program at INSEAD graduate business school in Fontainebleau, France.
First comes the basic process level, which covers the essential tools and techniques project managers need to manage tasks, coordinate multiple parallel streams of activities, and manage and motivate the people involved.
Next up is the senior project management level, where training tackles more holistic issues that concern entire projects, not just sub-projects. Topics can include risk management, customer requirement management, contracts and stakeholder communications. “You need to understand how to improvise around the basic plan—in complex projects, plans can never be complete,” Dr. Loch says. “A project is always embedded in its surrounding environment, and at this level you need to know how that affects the progress of a project.”
At the very top steering committee level, it's no longer necessary for individuals to understand all the details of the basic processes involved in a particular project, he says. The roles and functions of these individuals are not about tasks, but about project strategic positioning, accountability, setting up processes and structures, and leading people. “They need to understand strategy, the nature of risk and the nature of employee motivation,” he says. “They need to understand the need for modification and renegotiation across an ongoing project.”
Dr. Loch doesn't even refer to education at this level as project management training because he believes such a title is an instant turn-off for senior management— and practically guarantees they won't show up. Instead, these sessions should be billed as “strategy deployment” or “supervising innovation” workshops, emphasizing the executive's role in leading the project team.
“If you set this up correctly, then the positive messages about training and improving skills at the top of the organization will ripple down over every other employee,” Dr. Loch says. “If your senior managers simply spend their time disciplining people for missing deadlines, your organization is unlikely to learn anything.”
to a Classroom Near You
Here's a taste of what's emerging in project management training.
A Certifiable Trend
“Recognized [credentialing] is very popular among employees. And even if gaining such qualifications means an individual might leave your company, the fact that you offer these courses means you'll draw more good people into the company to replace them.”
-Denise Maxfield, ILX Group
Power to the People Skills
“The basic tools and methodologies are still popular, but increasingly people are aware that good methodology does not guarantee a good project. Good methodology delivered by skilled people who can interact with organizations, who have good interpersonal skills and [people] management skills increases the likelihood of a project being successful.” -Rick Firth, Parity
Make It Personal
“You should place your trainees in a laboratory situation where they can try out things and where cause and effect can be studied. Simply giving people on-the-job training isn't enough because there will always be the pressure to make things work now and because the situation is so complex that you don't know why something worked or didn't work. If something good happens in that context, you will never know why it happened because you cannot analyze the situation sufficiently.” -Christopher Loch, Ph.D., INSEAD
Relax, It's Just a Little Simulated Training
“After a while, participants forget they are playing a role. It can get quite involved—and sometimes the situation becomes so heated I have to step in to help manage the problem.” -Luciano Garagna, PMP, Into Consulting
This is not an easy audience, however.
“Not many organizations offer senior project management training,” says Greg Horine, PMP, the Indianapolis, Ind., USA-based author of Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management [Que, 2005]. “You get to a point where experience is king. That doesn't mean there isn't value in education—there is still a lot to learn. But people in senior-level organizational management positions are less likely to acknowledge the fact. If their project managers are already getting things done, why bother? Senior-level organizational management will generally only invest in project management training when they have suffered enough pain in failed project investments.”
That's not the only way organizational culture can act as a barrier to effective training. “You can have a manager with significant opportunities for improvement, and yet their projects are deemed a success,” he says. “Without any kind of analysis of that success or their behavior during the project, the organization will not realize what kind of management style it's rewarding, and thus the monster it is creating.”
And once people finally make their way to the upper strata, they're far less likely to see a need for devoting their precious time to training. Invite them to a seminar and they're likely to delegate attendance to someone else.
ILX Group, a training company in London, England, thinks it has discovered a way to pull in executives: Figure out what they want and deliver it quickly and efficiently.
“We tend to deliver half-day events for senior managers, and we deliver training on a need-to-know basis,” says ILX business development director Denise Maxfield. “We talk to the businesses and individuals, if possible, and assess exactly what they need.”
Business services company Parity approaches the training conundrum from a different angle. Acknowledging individuals have diverse knowledge and training requirements, the company is designing a project management curriculum that allows employees at all levels to select courses that suit their needs.
You get to a point where experience is king. That doesn't mean there isn't value in education– there is still a lot to learn.
—Greg Horine, PMP, Indianapolis, Ind., USA-based author, Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management
“One of the big agendas at the moment is the notion of personalized learning,” says Rick Firth, managing director of Parity's training division based in London. “And while this recognizes that everyone has a different level of ability, it often fails to recognize that professionals need a carefully balanced range of skills to be effective in their job roles. We can therefore set a fixed curriculum for training that enables employees to address their specialist skills, as well as essential complementary skills. It recognizes everyone learns at a different pace and in their own style across a range of subjects.”
Aiming to provide a more unified approach to its project management training, Bangalore, India-based Wipro Technologies recently unveiled its own Project Management Academy. Phase one—designed to boost the skills of existing project managers—was completed in October 2006. The second and final phase targeting future project managers is scheduled to be up and running soon.
The initiative grew from an acknowledgment of the contribution project managers were making to the multibillion dollar company. “First, we wanted to make sure our 1,300 project managers had the right skills to perform their work effectively,” says Selvan Dorairaj, senior vice president at Wipro. “Second, we wanted to be able to prepare employees who were taking on that role to get them ready for the job.”
Trainees spend a year attending the academy while performing their normal working duties. Studies center around four elements: requirements gathering, estimation methodologies, risk management and project scheduling.
The academy's activities are expected to evolve to reflect the organization's needs. Top of the list for future development are initiatives targeted to more experienced project managers. “We are developing an experiential program to give our managers international certification,” Mr. Dorairaj says. “The training will cover areas such as behavioral skills, customer service and teamwork.”
Although instructor-led training still dominates at the academy, students are tutored by Wipro employees throughout India. Learning happens in the on-site classrooms as well as on the job and through mentoring.
Again, the idea is to bring the learning full circle. And again, it can be difficult to execute.
“The most effective way of providing training is to have someone with more experience available to go over issues with you at the time when it's relevant to do so,” Mr. Horine says. “It's very challenging for organizations to offer that kind of help because the project management talent that could do this is usually busy working.”
It's up to the organization to convince employees at all levels to squeeze in some training time between all those projects. PM
Simon Kent is a U.K.-based freelance writer who specializes in human resources, IT and training.
PM NETWORK | AUGUST 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG