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Strengthening the culture of professionalism within project management

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The recognition of project management as a profession has grown significantly over the past few years, spurred in large part by APM’s receipt of its royal charter in 2017. The days of project managers landing in the role by default are hopefully numbered, but there is still work to be done.

According to Teri Okoro ChPP, founder of Toca, a design and project management consultancy, the gradual professionalisation of project management has been driven partly by the growing demand for competent professionals to ensure successful delivery. Then there’s the growth of available courses and direct routes into the profession.

“We see less of the ‘accidental project manager’ now and more of a proactive selection by individuals who see project management as a career of first choice, particularly as the career path through to ChPP is now well-mapped,” Okoro says.

So, with project management becoming a graduate-to-retirement profession, how do project professionals ensure they continue to learn and evolve throughout their careers?

Constant evolution

For Okoro, co-chair of APM’s People SIG and a Women in Project Management (WiPM) mentor – a role that sees her supporting those preparing for the Chartered Project Professional qualification – the answer is lifelong learning.

In an environment with constantly changing technical and statutory requirements, project managers must keep up-to-date to ensure their work remains compliant. At the same time, best practice within the project profession doesn’t stand still either – project disciplines are continually evolving.

Okoro points to the APM Body of Knowledge, now in its 7th edition, as a key resource. It introduced several new concepts, and reframed the debate around existing cornerstones like stakeholder engagement and leadership. The revisions were discussed in detail by the book’s editors in an episode of the APM Podcast in September 2020.

“Going forward, lifelong learning will be a demonstration of maintaining competence in addition to assisting the quality of performance at work,” Okoro explains. “Not maintaining learning could lead to the delivery of non-compliant projects.”

Encouraging lifelong learning

To this end, APM’s Projecting the Future (PtF) summary paper, which sets out eight key ideas to help shape the future of the project profession, makes a case for a ‘creative approach’ in supporting a culture of professionalism, where skills and lifelong learning play an essential part.

Four out of five businesses expect to need more high-level skills in the years ahead, and the PtF report outlines three recommendations for companies to help improve skill sets and encourage lifelong learning: greater flexibility around skills funding, more support for those retraining and so-called ‘skills accounts’ that empower individuals to control their learning.

From a practical perspective, Okoro believes project professionals should take a proactive approach to their learning and development. “Ongoing assessment of knowledge gaps is essential. I recommend an annual review with a healthy dose of reflection to plan for the year ahead. Individuals should also sign up regularly for relevant courses and webinars or ‘stretch’ projects to expand their current knowledge or expertise, as well as taking opportunities to shadow someone for a few months.”

Reading, too, is critical, even though it is sometimes overlooked. Okoro suggests reading Project journal and a diverse range of industry-focused blogs and books. Still, individuals should also take the time to evaluate new learning after any completed course or book.

Skills which can’t be automated

Of course, there are broader implications around lifelong learning and updating skills. As automation and AI replace many of the ‘coordinator’ duties of the project professional, the need for newer skill sets, such as data analytics and interpersonal communication, will increase.

“This resonates with the focus of the APM People SIG: we’re raising awareness of the future importance of soft skills to the profession, such as leadership, stakeholder engagement and improved communication – skills which can’t be automated,” says Okoro. “Project managers must keep on top of these.”

In the context of a world characterised by volatility, with the COVID-19 pandemic a prime example, project professionals will need to develop resilience and agility to adapt and deliver projects even in times of crisis.

“I also believe that inclusivity will be a key thread running through the projects we deliver in the future,” Okoro says. “Project managers will need to be strategic in embedding this right at the start of projects and into programmes. It is relevant for collaboration, for co-designing and for authentic engagement with the individuals and communities that our projects impact.”

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