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Are Project Management Qualifications Relevant?

Project management training and education is big business.  More than a few organisations publish and license their own standards and a whole industry is built around training project managers and staff but, are employers really getting value from their investment in this industry?


To answer this question, this article looks at the structure of project management qualifications followed by a brief analysis of their real value and “use” to an employing organisation.  The aim of this article is to give employers and project managers enough information to make their own decisions on the worth of such qualifications.


This is a longer article than normal for First Line Projects; I hope you appreciate that covering this subject properly requires more than a brief one page article.  External feedback on this subject is that senior employers, and many project managers, do not have enough independent information on project management qualifications to make assured decisions on whether to work with them.  This article aims to partially rectify that situation.


Qualifications

Even a brief look at the marketplace shows that there are countless project management qualifications for both a project manager and employer to consider.  Which is the most valuable to employers?  Which ones really show that a project manager is a safe pair of hands on a major project?


The UK’s Office of Government Commerce1 (OGC) has made a solid effort to “rank” the qualifications by assessing them against its proven Successful Delivery Skills Framework and also against the IPMA2 Validated Four-Level Certification Programme.


Essentially the OGC divided project management certifications and qualifications into these four ranks3:

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With that as a base, it’s worth spending a few paragraphs on what the qualifications really mean and the reasons for the OGC rankings.  The three I’ll concentrate on are the Open University’s M865 course, PRINCE2 Practitioner and the Project Management Institute’s PMP.


Open University, Project Management, M865

The Open University’s M8654 course is a six month distance learning course set at post-graduate level, requiring a substantial commitment to study, plus a few face-to-face tutorial sessions.  Completion of the course on its own would see you qualify for Level 2 on the OGC rankings.  This can be upgraded to a Level 3 qualification as it is certified as filling the educational component of the ISEB Certificate in IS Project Management5; the full Certificate can only be earned by demonstrating experience and aptitude at a further oral examination.  This is a clear example of how book knowledge can be combined with professional experience to create a higher level qualification.


The ISEB PM qualifications are less well known than some others in the marketplace but they do provide training on how to run a project, rather than training on a specific project methodology.


PRINCE2 Practitioner

Many recruiters who do not fully understand project management will discard CVs from otherwise excellent candidates who do not have a PRINCE2 qualification. A good number of project managers who hold this qualification will do so simply as a CV booster and not because they see it as a valuable tool to use in their projects.


PRINCE26 is a world-class methodology capable of versatility and resilience in running projects of all sizes and in all organisations; I personally have found great value in the methodology itself.  That said, the Practitioner qualification and training does not provide its holders with practical knowledge of how to run a project and does not require proof of experience or competency in running a project.  There are many individuals who have this qualification without having ever managed anything except the smallest of projects, if they have run any at all.


PMP (Project Management Professional)

The Project Management Institute’s PMP qualificationl7 is an internationally recognised project management qualification.  Holding this qualification is almost essential for senior project managers in the US; failure to attain the qualification in the US can mean that project managers are overlooked for many serious roles.  A PMI study showed that having the PMP qualification along with post-qualification experience in the US, significantly increased the salaries of project managers, compared to equivalent non-holders.


To attain the PMP qualification is different to many standards in that it requires proof of professional experience, before examination; this experience bar is set at 4500 non-overlapping project management hours with a Bachelor’s degree or 7500 hours without, plus 35 contact hours of training.  Once through this hurdle, a tough 200 question multiple choice exam stands between the candidate and qualification.  This qualification fails to meet the standards of the qualifications at Level 4 due to the lack of a qualitative experience benchmark to match the quantitative hours plus training standard.


In summary though, US employers seem to value this qualification, because it creates a benchmark standard, and forces project managers to maintain professional development.


Qualification Overview

Having briefly looked at three different types of qualifications on the long list, it is apparent that the qualifications available are so widely different that it is no wonder employers have no real concept of what project qualifications they should be looking for to represent quality.  I’ll try to leave this subject with a short guide for employers and project managers to get an understanding of how to place a qualification in their operational context:


1.  Is the qualification knowledge based with no experience requirements, e.g. PRINCE2 or PMI Certified Associate in PM?  If so, employers should look for other qualitative and quantitative indicators to show that the project manager is up to the standard required of the role; project managers should ensure that their experience is clearly highlighted to complement the qualification.


2.  Is the qualification experience-based but has minimal qualitative experience standards, e.g. PMP?  This is proof of externally verified past experience and training achievement but does not indicate the “quality” of the candidate.  Employers should assess the candidate’s wider skill set by asking specific, “how would you?” questions, among other established quality assurance recruitment techniques.  Project managers should be willing to show how they make a difference in their projects and why they should be considered “high quality”.


3.  Is the qualification both quantitative and qualitative, such as the APM Certified PM?  Employers should look at how old the qualification is and what the candidate has done since then: has the candidate stagnated or has gaining the qualification propelled them to greater heights?  Project managers should use the qualification to show the polish on their career and be willing to explain why this rare qualification is so valuable.


Value to Employers

With the basics of the qualifications covered, I’ll be devoting the remainder of the article to the “value” of project management qualifications and how they can be used to help companies.


Some organisations are qualification-driven with a drive to make all knowledge workers either professionally qualified or at least holding associate professional qualifications.  Others will not care about high percentages of staff with vocational qualifications, seeing them as a waste of money and time.  Neither is wrong, both can be correct approaches at this time, depending on the company’s style and industry.


Industry groups such as the PMI, APM or APMG would like all project managers to be certified and trained; in fact they have a vested interest in getting as many people with their qualifications as possible, but why should employers expend money in both cash and time in training project managers?


It is inconceivable that you’d hire an accountant or solicitor who was self-taught or had inappropriate qualifications yet many organisations will willingly recruit project managers based on experience alone and appoint them to multi-million pound projects.  My view is that this is down to the relative immaturity of project management as a discipline; it is fractured and has too many inconsistent variables to be a well-recognised profession standing in its own right.  I am a Chartered IT Professional8 and long-standing Member of the IEEE9, this gives those in those industries an indication of my externally verified minimum standards; if I mention project management qualifications it usually generates a blank stare except from other project managers.


Based on all the information above, many employers may be wondering if it is truly worth investing training, time and fees, year after year.  To answer the eternal question of today’s business world: “what’s in it for me?”


Firstly, if your company delivers projects to clients, being able to show your project managers’ qualifications adds instant credibility.  I have seen a few top quality suppliers rejected because they were not able to show credible external benchmarks for their staff.  Even if the qualifications have no internal perceived value, companies can use them to give their sales and marketing staff an additional tool to attract and retain clients.


Secondly, if all of your project managers and employees are trained to the same standard then it adds a layer of consistency in your projects.  For example, if all your project managers are trained on the same methodology or framework, they will have a similar benchmark of knowledge and will be able to communicate more effectively at that level.  This can only have long-term benefits in the provision of “right first time” projects, reducing re-work requirements and improving client satisfaction.


Having a patchwork of one project manager PRINCE2 trained, another PMP qualified and a third with ISEB qualifications will add no consistency and can be counterproductive as often the qualifications have their own jargon that is rarely directly portable between the qualifications.


Finally, it might seem counterproductive to support employees in gaining professional qualifications as it may see them take them to a higher-paying competitor.  Experience does tend to show that this will happen, but it is often heavily outweighed by the long-term benefits of increased loyalty from the rest of the staff, along with providing a recruitment bonus of a reputation as a company interested in development.


So, has this answered the question of “are project management qualifications worth it?”  Hopefully this article will have given you enough information to allow you to make your own decision on that question.


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Article Edited July 2010: Many of the links below have been updated to reflect changes to originating source

1, http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100503135839/http://www.ogc.gov.uk/programme_and_project_management_specialism_ppm_qualifications.asp (OGC PPM specialism site archived and no longer available on OGC site, all other links to the OGC below follow the same National Archives format)

2. http://www.ipma.ch/certification/pages/default.aspx

3. Descriptions from: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100503135839/http://www.ogc.gov.uk/documents/Skills_Framework_Document_v1.pdf (PDF)

4. http://www3.open.ac.uk/courses/bin/p12.dll?C01eM865

5. http://www.bcs.org/server.php?show=nav.6932

6. http://www.prince2.org.uk/

7. http://www.pmi.org/CareerDevelopment/Pages/Obtaining-Credential.aspx#pmp

8. http://www.bcs.org/server.php?show=nav.00100e00400f

9. http://www.ieee.org/web/membership/qualifications/qualifications.html


© First Line Projects LLP, 2008


 

The final result of mapped qualifications against the rankings does bring about an interesting list: