The good (and bad) about Project Management School

I’m frequently asked what I think of certifications such as the Project Management Institute’s PMP, or its other programs. Generally I’ll say that programs such as these (including those offered by IPMA, and the UK’s PRINCE2) are valuable tools to know. They represent bodies of knowledge that any project manager should be aware of. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that any project manager that is serious about their career should be well versed in more than one body of knowledge, able to recite the encyclopedia of information offered, and above all, be aware that neither will teach you to be a good project manager.

There’s a host of information you won’t get in school (not even from a top tier management school, let alone a certification program you can cram for in less than two weeks). And that leads me to the value of the certification itself. Here I’ll generally weigh in saying “it’s up to you.” If you feel going through the certification process will be a helpful learning experience, then by all means do it. On the other hand, getting the certification will neither teach you to be a good project manager, nor will it have a great impact on your career.

It’s important to realize that the Project Management Institute (or PMI) is not a standards body. PMI is a for-profit company that sells several products, and those products are all essentially based in the PMBOK (for example, you can seek certification as a Project Management Professional, or PMP, through PMI’s certification process). This imposes a couple of limitations on the concept of the PMBOK being a robust standard:

  1. Successful standards bodies are international in nature, and the best of them are completely unbiased — something that usually requires forming a body that is not motivated by profit attached to its own products. PMI is, ultimately, concerned with corporate profitability, and this has led to some debate regarding whether the PMBOK has evolved first-and-foremost as a leading project management standard or as a product that PMI can easily sell.
  2. PMI tends to be very insular in its thinking. By this I mean that it does not extensively rely on third party standards — quite the opposite, in fact. The PMBOK is almost exclusively a self-contained work. It does not reference the 50 years of decision management theory that constitute strong risk management practices. Nor does it reference other standards, such as the ISO’s work on quality management. This, naturally, tends to keep people more involved in the PMI’s products, as opposed to moving into other standards.
  3. The PMBOK standard is unquestionably a solid reference volume with extensive project management knowledge — however, it also has startling weaknesses. For example, it’s coverage of risk management and quality management is largely negligent, and it’s strong focus on technical knowledge completely ignores the human factors addressed by methods such as Kanban.

The PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) represents a strong reference guide, and one that I turn to when appropriate as a process guide — but its very strength as a reference text also makes it a poor companion for someone looking for a comprehensive project management methodology. It lacks the practical, hands-on information needed to apply much of the knowledge it presents.

That tends to mean that novice project managers turn to the PMBOK far too often, hoping that it will solve management problems (it won’t). Experienced project managers recognize that it’s a process guide, and nothing more — which means it’s a provides a great checklist to make sure all the right pieces are being executed, but it does little to tell you how to execute those pieces. That comes from experience. The experience of managing people, learning how teams work together (and often don’t work together), how to motivate and communicate, and how to see problems coming before they hit you.

The bottom line is simply this: No school, and especially not one offering a short certification program, can teach you to be a good manager. That’s what project management is all about — it’s not the technical process, more often than not, but the personal factors and the management skills that make or break a project. So yes, get familiar with all the standards, bodies of knowledge, and process guides you can. Learn what you can from each, and use that knowledge as a reference when deciding how your project will be run. But don’t ever assume that this encyclopedia of knowledge has taught you how to manage successfully. That’s going to take management training and experience — more the latter than the former, in my opinion. A lot of it, most likely.

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