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Getting the balance right

What does it take to develop the next generation of project manager? In the last decade or so, have we placed too much emphasis on academia, as opposed to good old-fashioned on-the-job work experience?

I recently interviewed Sir John Armitt, the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), who argued just that. He said: The technical training of people is something I consider very important, increasingly so. I think we had the balance wrong for a long time, by placing too much emphasis on those with academic training and qualifications, as opposed to the technical training provided by organisations such as City & Guilds.

Incidentally, Sir John Armitt is set to become the chairman of the aforementioned organisation after his tenure at the ODA comes to an end. But does he have a point?

Budding practitioners that graduate from the many university courses around the UK are fighting hard for any available job roles. Where as those already embedded in organisations, and that have come through internal project management academies, have the right skills, strengths and training that firms are looking for.

For employers, recruitment is an expensive business, even more so if the candidate isnt right. For these organisations, training engineers and young project managers in house can be a more efficient way of ensuring that staff meet the individual needs of the company.

Of course, it isnt the fault of students wishing to better themselves far from it. From a young age a generation was told... If you want to do well, go to university get a degree.

Has the UK Government and media in general put too much emphasis on academic qualifications, and not shone an adequately bright light on the route of, say, apprenticeships?

I am of the belief that qualifications are vital to ones success, and that how you develop these skills should depend on your individual learning style. That being said, the future of the profession is reliant on practitioners seeing first hand how they can deliver successful projects. I wonder if this is a skill best achieved in the field or in the classroom.

Have we got the balance right? Answers on a postcard please.

7 comments

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  1. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 21 July 2012, 07:33 AM

    I think for the future the forthcoming APM Competence Framework document mapped against the APM BoK 6th edition shall prove beneficial for all. From an international perspective it's rational to map out roles and responsibilities for all entities. The role of the Construction Manager being different to the role of the Project Manager.What may prove helpful are generic job descriptions to be held within APM's database for:Step 1- APM Competence Levels: D, C and B.- APM Comptence Level A. Step 2Thereon for each industry corporate members be asked within their organizations if they would be willing to provide existing job descriptions for PM's. Such I hope shall then provide a  range. Step 3Request of another association if they would be prepared to map say job descriptions of Construction Managers by industry at the equivalence levels of APM's: D, C and B. Step 4Similar to step 3 but another discipline / profession. It's just an idea, hope it appeals. Kind regards RichardKnowledge Economic City, MadinahKSA

  2. Stuart Howie
    Stuart Howie 18 July 2012, 02:12 PM

    I have long said that a successful Construction Project Manager just swans around, wearing a tie and looking important. If the job runs like clockwork, then he is doing it right!Now that is just short-hand for saying he, or she, must have the senior management soft skills of approachability and accessibility, intuition and leadership, coupled with broad technical knowledge that knows when to call in the experts, which, itself, argues for intellectual humility. Then these experts have to have their own professional vested interests slapped down so that they become members of the team. Sorry, but these skills just dont come with an academic qualification!There is another twist to this which I learnt as a law student: mind set. A professional Project Manager has to have an obsession with making everything happen now. Delay costs money!

  3. Grace Heppleston
    Grace Heppleston 18 July 2012, 12:04 PM

    Hi, I'm a firm believer in evolution of skills in both academics and experience. As I work in software development I see first-hand how damaging it can be to products and solutions if a developer to limit themselves to one coding language and never update their knowledge (they dont last long).  Subscribing to one school of PM academics is as limiting as thinking that experience is the only requirement. I really believe that requirements should dictate approach. For this to be effective it takes an active interest in those approaches available on courses and lessons learned in application. Acquiring a recognised qualification gives an employer an ability to be certain of your capabilities; working through an apprenticeship gives an employer the ability to train you in their systems.Its up to the individual to manage their skills and worth from there - be that in a company or within a wider market place. From my experience its an ability to demonstrate academic understanding, have practical evidence of application and an on-going desire to learn. 

  4. Antony Smith
    Antony Smith 10 July 2012, 02:20 PM

    An interesting debate and I am particularly struck by the reference to the legal profession. There is some debate going on in the legal profession at the moment about the extent to which lawyers need project management skills. (Full disclosure: I am a former practising solicitor and I run a legal project management consultancy). The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) is reviewing the effectiveness of the professional stage of lawyer training. The LETR has already identified project management as being one of the skills lawyers are now expected to have but is missing from the professional training stage of training see: http://letr.org.uk/"Legal Project Management" (LPM) is better known in the USA than in the UK at the moment, but this is changing - several large UK based law firms are now well known for applying project management techniques to assist with the delivery of legal services. For the avoidance of doubt: LPM is concerned with finding the best means of delivering legal advice to clients, not simply focussing on back-office functions.  If you would like to find out more, I blog about LPM eg, LETR and LPM or in defence of 'legal' project management and there is further information on my website.The legal services market is changing rapidly, and it is no longer sufficient (assuming it ever was) for lawyers to be seen as simply good technical lawyers. But how best to train lawyers re project management? In fact, I wonder whether there is a role for the APM to play here?

  5. Brendan D'Cruz
    Brendan D'Cruz 09 July 2012, 05:22 PM

    I think we are getting the balance better. There is no such thing as 'right'. In your original article you seem to discount the hard work of universities and education providers in facilitating the next generation of project managers, and your argument is that it is hard for specialised PM students to find PM jobs, employers are selective, in-house academies do a better job, etc. How many of those academies have 'graduates' as a starting point, the raw materials in place so to speak? Sir John Armitt is entitled to his views, but they have their limitations. Apprenticeships have a role to play in bringing forward ANOTHER route into PPPM that has to date not existed in our profession, although in allied professions it has existed (construction for example). I bet you there are a myriad of project professionals out there who started out as something else and moved into projects, and acquired the requisite skills/knowledge AND experience they needed en route. They became certified as they became 'qualified' to prove they had the skills, and in some cases that capability was enhanced through universities (and I admit to having a vested interest here as a member of the Education Network Advisory Group). In other cases it was with APM certifications, Prince2, or certifications from other bodies. Increasingly it is both. To cite Andrew Bragg, the age of amateurism in our profession is ending, but what is wrong with having multiple routes into that profession? The tough part is benchmarking certifications for comparison and career mobility purposes. Having entry level job opportunities available also helps.I agree with you that 'real' experience is important, and universities are increasingly working with project-based employers to make this happen. Live projects, internships, mentors, applied dissertations, guest speakers, employer-driven curriculum development, etc. APM has a key role to play in this, including the accreditation of courses. It is not a case of in the field or in the classroom, it's BOTH. Lifelong learning and professional development therefore needs a synergy between education/training providers and employers, which probably explains why so many employers are establishing their own academies/universities, or linking with universities. Other professions have had to learn the hard way that one restrictive route does not necessarily suit all, but that does not diminish the importance of 'graduateness' and 'employability' in the bigger scheme of things.

  6. Andrew Hubbard
    Andrew Hubbard 09 July 2012, 03:26 PM

    Indeed. This is something evident in my own profession. I have encountered many journalists that have passed a degree course who automatically assume they have the knowledge required to sit on a news desk. The truth is, the best journalists are those that have gone the extra mile to gain invaluable work experience out in the field during their education. It can't all be attained in a classroom or lecture theatre, although it is important. Success is the result of a mix of knowledge and skill. 

  7. Ed Burney-Cumming
    Ed Burney-Cumming 09 July 2012, 12:44 PM

    The answer is obviously that we need a balance between qualification and experience and it has long been recognised in other professions where awarding of professional membership reflects a base, common level of technical knowledge and some proven life experience. Clearly this has been formalised in areas such as the legal profession and areas such as accountancy. To achieve success requires both sets of attributes and recognises that whilst technically it is possible to deliver life saving first aid by just reading how to do it, there is much greater chance of success by applying the knowledge in the real world. Projects require us to interact with and motivate people and their success or failure is dependent on more than just technical know how.