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Project Manager Competency Assessment in Practice

Project Manager Competency Assessment in Practice

By Jacques Gouws, MSc PM (Liverpool), PMP

In the spirit of continuous improvement and life-long learning, coupled with a deeply seated passion for the young profession of project management, ProjectLink has, over the past four years, spent a considerable amount of time and effort on the matter of project manager competencies, and the accurate and practical assessment thereof.  Besides satisfying our curiosity, the underlying logic is that, for a project manager’s career path development roadmap to go beyond the generic, an accurate picture of the individuals’ current span and level of competencies – a current state or as-is “baseline” for those comfortable with project management speak – is required.  Our experience and research has been quite enlightening, and this article is intended to pique the interest of the discerning project management practitioner. 

As background consideration, the reader is reminded that several international bodies, e.g., PMI, IPMA, and APM, are custodians of their own project manager competency frameworks, usually coupled, in some way or another, to project management related certifications.  It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into a comparison, and the interested reader is therefore advised to visit the respective websites for more information (www.pmi.org; www.ipma.world; www.apm.org.uk).  Of specific importance to this article though is that, although the approaches towards certifications differ substantially, the basic, underlying project manager competencies as defined by each are very similar, especially if viewed, firstly, across the domains of project, programme, and portfolio management; and secondly, with regards to the behavioural dimension.  In other words: it appears that there is a comparable understanding of what a “competent project manager” is, at least among the entities that make such a concern their business.

However, our experience is that in practice one often does not see quite so clear a picture.  Industries and organisations differ in what they regard as the roles and responsibilities of a project manager.  Variables such as level of organisational project management maturity, project type, project complexity, organisational structure, and many more combine to make the matter a rather murky one.  We feel compelled to admit that instances of “the accidental project manager” still abound. There remains a substantial school of thought that argues that this is symptomatic of project management still being, at best, a fledgling profession.  It is, after all, much younger than, for instance, the legal and medical professions, and subsequently lacks historical substance and comprehensive patterns of learning.  Barrie Todhunter explains this persuasively in his article Future practitioners of project management: Are we disciples of Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott?.

Does this mean that practitioners of project management can therefore not aspire to being regarded as professionals?  No, it most certainly does not! In their book Choosing appropriate project managers: Matching their leadership style to the type of project, J. Rodney Turner and Ralph Müller draw a direct correlation between project manager competency and projectsuccess.  Similarly, in her article Project management as a profession: Are we there yet?, Chivonne Algeo argues that it is the merits of a person’s performance that determines professionalism; i.e. one can indeed be a professional project manager by virtue of one’s demonstrated competencies.

But how do we close the gap between the clear picture of “the competent project manager” as described in standards on the one hand, and the substantially dimmer one manifesting in practice on the other?  Is a generic approach the solution, or should we perhaps regard the matter pragmatically?  ProjectLink has recently developed a project manager competency model, which is adaptable for both the needs of a particular organisationand the individuals within. It involves clear, substantiated levels of competencies, i.e. a “competency dictionary”, underpinned by competency-based education (CBE) principles. For the interested reader, Seema Sanghi provides some valuable insights regarding competency dictionaries, among other competency-related aspects, in her book titled The handbook of competency mapping, while Richard and Alice Voorhees explain CBE eloquently in the book Instructional-design theories and models: The learner-centered paradigm of education.

ProjectLink’s competency model is primarily based on PMI’s Project Manager Competency Development Framework, but takes into consideration variables such as seniority level (e.g. junior project manager, senior project manager, etc.), specific role (e.g. project planner, cost engineer, project controls manager, etc.), and the current (demonstrated) set and level of competencies as well as the future (to be demonstrated) competencies. Included in the model are methods to assess (or alternatively, interpret or align the assessment results for) competencies at each of the levels of the competency dictionary.  It involves a structured, qualified qualifications and experience review, a self-assessment, and a set of practical competency assessments that can be performed in less than a day.

Ultimately, the model is intended to supplement an organisation’s human resource initiatives, while also blending in with the particular organisational culture, and to serve as a constructive, subtle change initiative contributor. A significant component is a competency baseline assessment tool, i.e. one that provides an overall impression of the current set and level of an individuals’ project management competencies, thereby providing a guideline for development initiatives.

ProjectLink was recently awarded a contract to provide career path development roadmaps for 40 project managers for a client in the mining industry.  Although it will not be our first exposure to such work, this poses an ideal opportunity, from an action research perspective, to further test the effectiveness of a pragmatic approach, refine the competency baseline assessment tool, and further contribute to the elevation of the overall project management maturity of the organisation.  If all goes according to plan, the lessons learned from this iteration should be available by the end of the first quarter of 2018.  Watch this space!

References

Algeo, C.T., 2008. Project Management as a Profession-are we there yet?. In Project Management conference. PMOZ.

International Project Management Association.,2015b. Individual Competence Baseline for Project, Programme & Portfolio Management. IPMA.

Project Management Institute., 2017. Project Manager Competency Development Framework. 3rd ed. Newtown Square: PMI.

Sanghi, S., 2016. The handbook of competency mapping: understanding, designing and implementing competency models in organizations. SAGE Publications India.

Todhunter, B., 2013. Future practitioners of project management–are we disciples of Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott?. Project Perspectives35, pp.50-55.

Turner, J.R. and Müller, R., 2006. Choosing appropriate project managers: Matching their leadership style to the type of project. Project Management Institute.

Voorhees, R.A., Bedard-Voorhees., 2017. ‘Principles for competency-based education’, in A.Reigeluth, C.M., Beatty, J.B., Myers, R.D. (ed.) Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Volume IV: The Learner-Centered Paradigm of Education.Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition, pp. 33-63.

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