The Times They Are A-Changin’–Should PMI Be a Project Management Authority?

Back from a pretty intense three weeks taking care of customers (yes–I have those) and attending professional meetings and conferences.  Some interesting developments regarding the latter that I will be writing about here, but while I was in transit I did have the opportunity to keep up with some interesting discussions within the project management community.

Central among those was an article by Anonymous on PM Hut that appeared a few weeks ago that posited the opinion that PMI Should No Longer Be an Authority on Project Management.  I don’t know why the author of the post decided that they had to remain anonymous.  I learned some time ago that one should not only state their opinion in as forceful terms as possible (backed up with facts), but to own that opinion and be open to the possibility that it could be wrong or require modification.  As stated previously in my posts, project management in any form is not received wisdom.

The author of the post makes several assertions summarized below:

a. That PMI, though ostensibly a not-for-profit organization, behaves as a for-profit organization, and aggressively so.

b.  The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) fails in its goal of being the definitive source for project management because it lacks continuity between versions, its prescriptions lack realism, and, particularly in regard to software project management, that this section has morphed into a hybrid of Waterfall and Agile methodology.

c.  The PMI certifications lack credibility and seem to be geared to what will sell, as opposed to what can be established as a bonafide discipline.

I would have preferred that the author had provided more concrete examples of these assertions, given their severity.  For example, going to the on-line financial statements of the organization, PMI does have a significant staff of paid personnel and directors, with total assets as of 2012 of over $300M.  Of this, about $267M is in investments.  It’s total revenue that year was $173M.  It spent only $115M from its cashflow on its programs and another $4M on governance and executive management compensation.  Thus, it would appear that the non-profit basis of the organization has significantly deviated from its origins at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Project management is indeed big business with vesting and compensation of over $1M going to the President & CEO of the organization in 2012 alone.  Thus there does seem to be more than a little justification for the first of the author’s criticisms.

I also share in the author’s other concerns, but a complete analysis is not available regarding either the true value of the PMBOK® and the value of a PMP certification.  I have met many colleagues who felt the need to obtain the latter, despite their significant practical achievements and academic credentials.  I have also met quite a few people with “PMP” after their names whose expertise is questionable, at best.  I am reminded of the certifications given by PMI and other PM organizations today to a very similar condition several years ago when the gold standard of credentials in certain parts of the IT profession were the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) certifications.  They still exist in some form.  What was apparent as I took the courses and the examinations was that the majority of my fellow students had never set up a network.  They were, to use the pejorative among the more experienced members among us, “Paper CNEs and MCSEs.”  In interviewing personnel with “PMP” after their name I find a wide variation in expertise, thus the quality of experience with supporting education tends to have more influence with me than some credential from one of the PM organizations.

Related to this larger issue of what constitutes a proper credential in our discipline, I came across an announcement by Dave Gordon at his The Practicing IT Project Manager blog of a Project Management Job Requirements study.  Dave references this study by Noel Radley of SoftwareAdvise.com that states that the PMP is preferred or specified by 79% of the 300 jobs used as the representative baseline for the industries studied.  Interestingly, the study showed that advanced education is rarely required or preferred.

I suspect that this correlates in a negative way with many of the results that we have seen in the project management community.  Basic economics dictates that people with advanced degrees (M.A. and M.B.A. grads) do come with a higher price than those who only have Baccalaureate degrees, their incomes rising much more than 4 year college grads.  It seems that businesses do not value that additional investment except by exception.

Additionally, I have seen the results of two studies presented in government forums over the past six months (but alas no links yet) where the biggest risk to the project was identified to be the project manager.  Combined with the consistent failure reported by widely disparate sources of the overwhelming majority of projects to perform within budget and be delivered on time raises the natural question as to whether those that we choose to be project managers have the essential background to perform the job.

There seems to be a widely held myth that formal education is somehow unnecessary to develop a project manager–relegating what at least masquerades as a “profession”–to the level of a technician or mechanic.  It is not that we do not need technicians or mechanics, it is that higher level skills are needed to be a successful project manager.

This myth seems to be spreading, and to have originated from the society as a whole, where the emphasis is on basic skills, constant testing, the elimination of higher level thinking, and a narrowing of the curriculum.  Furthermore, college education, which was widely available to post-World War II generations well into the 1980s, is quickly becoming unaffordable by a larger segment of the population.  Thus, what we are seeing is a significant skills gap in the project management discipline to add to one that already has had an adverse impact on the ability of both government and industry to succeed.  For example, a paper from Calleam Consulting Ltd in a paper entitled “The Story Behind the High Failure Rates in the IT Sector” found that “17 percent of large IT projects go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company.”

From my experiences over the last 30+ years, when looking for a good CTO or CIO I will look to practical and technical experience and expertise with the ability to work with a team.  For an outstanding coder I look for a commitment to achieve results and elegance in the final product.  But for a good PM give me someone with a good liberal arts education with some graduate level business or systems work combined with leadership.  Leadership includes all of the positive traits one demands of this ability: honesty, integrity, ethical behavior, effective personnel management, commitment, and vision.

The wave of the future in developing our expertise in project management will be the ability to look at all of the performance characteristics of the project and its place in the organization.  This is what I see as the real meaning of “Integrated Project Management.”  I have attended several events since the beginning of the year focused on the project management discipline in which assertions were made that “EVM is the basis for integrated project management” or “risk is the basis for integrated project management” or “schedule is the basis for integrated project management.”  The speakers did not seem to acknowledge that the specialty that they were addressing is but one aspect of measuring project performance, and even less of a factor in measuring program performance.

I believe that this is a symptom of excess specialization and lack of a truly professional standard in project management.  I believe that if we continue to hire technicians with expertise in one area, possessing a general certification that simply requires one to attend conferences and sit in courses that lack educational accreditation and claim credit for “working within” a project, we will find that making the transition to the next evolutionary step at the PM level will be increasingly difficult.  Finally, for the anonymous author critical of PMI it seems that project management is a good business for those who make up credentials but not such a good deal for those with a financial stake in project management.

Note:  This post has been modified to correct minor grammatical and spelling errors.

Full disclosure:  The author has been a member of PMI for almost 20 years, and is a current member and former board member of the College of Performance Management (CPM).

3 thoughts on “The Times They Are A-Changin’–Should PMI Be a Project Management Authority?

  1. Nick, I think the key to understanding “project management” is that you can’t manage Boston’s “Big Dig” the same way you’d manage the annual Austin City Limits festival or the development of a software-as-a-service product. The underlying principles are the same for all three, but applying them takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience in the problem domain. The PMBOK and the PMP don’t even contemplate the domain aspect, for excellent reasons.

    I’m willing to acknowledge that PMI has it’s flaws, but I haven’t seen a better organization working in this space. I’d like to see PMI do a better job of verifying the experience of their PMP test applicants, but no credential should relieve hiring managers of the responsibility to properly vet their hires. If anyone objects to the PMI management team running the foundation like a business, I can only reply that NOT running it like a business is a sure way to put the foundation at risk. I’m sure I annoyed our anonymous colleague; I tend to do that when replying to people who type with their arms crossed. C’est la vie.

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    • Dave, thanks for your comments–and for mentioning the post in your weekly summary. I agree that there are wide variations in the types of projects and that this correspondingly translates into variation in expertise. But this is the point. If “project management” encompasses anything from being able to use Microsoft Project to managing Boston’s “Big Dig” then the term loses meaning and significance. Perhaps there should be degrees of project management, or different types of credentials. But using the term as a catch-all obfuscates the different challenges that we face. Clarity is important.

      I also agree in the post that Anonymous should provide hard evidence and offer alternatives. But the latter part of this criticism isn’t necessary. The post certainly prompted me to think about criticisms that I have heard at every conference by more than one senior colleague in our profession. It also prompted me to delve into PMI’s financials, which are available to anyone who has an interest.

      Regarding this last point, the purpose of my initial investigation in this area isn’t that the organization should not keep sufficient reserves to perform its mission, nor is it to undermine its utility to the PM community, but to prompt two valid questions: what is considered to be the appropriate level of reserves for it to perform its mission (i.e., is it really $267M?) and at what point does such business-like behavior warrant it being treated as a for-profit organization? The rest of us pay our taxes. Other companies that publish books, give courses, and write software pay taxes. Is it reasonable to propose that a $300M corporation that aggressively competes to protect its position in the PM sector should pay taxes and not be treated as a non-profit? If PMI were established to provide food and medical assistance as other non-profits, say, under the United Way, would you still give your money to them looking at their financials?

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  2. I’m sure there are people in the profession who miss the old days, when Greg Balestrero wanted to focus on growing membership around the world. Mark Langley is taking a different approach, growing PMI’s product offerings through acquisitions. In September, they acquired Human Systems International, and in January they acquired ProjectManagement.com and ProjectsAtWork.com. Of course, they are also growing organically, with new credentials for portfolio managers and business analysts. They’ve been aggressively publishing on everything from complexity and requirements management to innovation and communications. There are a lot more tangible benefits to PMI membership, in the form of intellectual capital, than even five years ago. Now, you can see Langley’s growth strategy as a bad thing or a good thing, but in any case, it has nothing to do with their tax status.

    A 501(c) organization is subject to tax on its “unrelated business income”, whether or not the organization actually makes a profit. Langley and the PMI staff are subject to the same employment and income taxes as you and I. OTOH, General Electric is a well-established for-profit business that pays a dividend to it’s shareholders (including me), but they won’t pay corporate income taxes in this century, thanks to losses from their GE Capital division during the recent Bankster depression. Accountants and tax attorneys spend years learning how all of this stuff works, to maximize the benefit to their clients. Just like us.

    I realize that Anonymous resents PMI’s tight control over credential preparation courses, but let’s face it – the organization is already suffering criticism for having credentialed too many under-experienced PM’s. What would you or I do differently? Probably many things, but in the end: Is PMI doing more good than harm? I would argue that they are. And so I will continue my membership, and vote in every election. Just like I vote in every civil election, and every corporate election for the companies I’ve invested in.

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