Tao of the Zentropist

February 21, 2009

Project Management Comes of Age

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon as of late, a development which is especially noticeable over the course of the past year. The designation “PMP” appended after people’s names on business cards and social networking sites, particularly those oriented towards professional networking. So what is this “PMP” exactly and what does it signify?

Project Management Professional (PMP) is a certification offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI), which until relatively recent times was not that frequently encountered. However, thanks to an aggressive push by the PMI, in an effort to legitimize project management as a career field in of itself and not merely a skill set or collateral duty responsibility of a manager or executive, not to mention the lucrative revenues reaped from administering the exam and publishing study materials, we now have yet another certification process to proudly display our competence. But does it really?

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet sat for the PMP exam, although I have the educational background and hours to qualify. This is largely a factor of time and opportunity costs, and perhaps due to the fact that in the operation of my consulting practice to date, the issue of the PMP designation has never come up. Yet I’ve still found the time and cultivated sufficient expertise to put together some useful advice and tips on project management practices despite this potential handicap.

Now as the originator and chief proponent of this Zentropist state of thinking, it would be hypocritical of me to unduly criticize formal education and the attainment of knowledge in any form. And surely it is a positive development that an attempt is being made to codify and perhaps standardize project management practices and theory… but that being said, I also think there is a false dichotomy at play. You see, there are any of a number of highly skilled and competent people with years of project management experience that lack the PMP certification, and as a result, are probably finding themselves discriminated against by corporate HR types that have an unfortunate tendency as a whole to glom onto “certifications” as a prerequisite for hiring no matter what the source.

I want to be clear that I am not condemning or questioning PMI’s efforts to promote the PMP designation, as I myself am formally trained in PMI practices and have read various editions of the Project Management Book of Knowledge, or PMBOK as it’s affectionately acronymed. Although I have held job titles in the past which include “project manager,” because of my multi-disciplinary approach to work and fear of being narrowly type-cast, I have always seen “project management” as a skill set, much the same as writing, or strategic planning or even financial analysis.

However, perhaps due to the economic crisis which has cast a malignant shadow over the global economy, project management is now a very hot topic. Businesses are jumping on the bandwagon and consequently, various brick and mortar as well as online institutions, some quite established and others clearly fly-by-night, are now offering certificate programs in project management. Give us X weeks and Y dollars and we’ll turn you into a “project manager” with a nifty piece of paper to prove it.

Folks, it doesn’t work like that.

Project management is a skill learned over time. And although it can be found in probably every industry vertical under the sun, it can differ widely across the spectrum. Some industries and occupations require those in the project management seat to be highly credentialed and/or to possess advanced degrees involving highly technical and/or scientific knowledge. Some PM’s have no choice but to be subject matter experts in their fields.

The PMP exam certainly requires memorization of a lot of theory and commonly defined terms, which probably is useful to some degree. At the end of the day it’s a multiple choice exam which may prove awareness of the theory behind project management, but hardly can be argued as proof of mastery. In of itself, possessing the credential is not a detriment to one’s career, but even with the “time spent in practice” requirement (PM’s are supposed to document their hours to prove eligibility for the exam, yet this is by no means fool-proof or subject to intense verification and if you search the Internet, you’ll find people promoting ways to doctor experience to meet the criteria), I think it foolish on the part of HR departments to penalize those with demonstrable accomplishments that lack such certification.

After all, many of the accompanying project management certification programs being hawked to those seeking to change careers or hang onto the one they currently enjoy have little if any educational requirement; it matters not if one has an undergraduate degree at all, much less a post-graduate one.

All this being said, a Zentropist also must be sensitive to the winds of change and it may be time for me to bite the bullet and seek out this PMI promoted stamp of approval, even if this does not fundamentally change my innate capabilities as a project manager. After all, as a society we tend to relish “certifications” and other notions of regulation and licensing for some fields and vocations without necessarily looking past the surface to see what really lies underneath.

And that’s a damn shame when you think about it…

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