Do your project managers measure

Wanted: Seasoned managers to run complex government information technology projects. Many agencies are adding a new requirement to this classic job listing: Successful candidate must have project management certification.

As agency officials seek out the next generation of IT leaders, they are increasingly looking for that mix of experience and proven knowledge that can be a strong predictor of future on-the-job success. Project management certifications, such as those offered by groups like the Project Management Institute (PMI) and even by agencies, can provide some proof of project management proficiency.

"More and more people are looking to certification as an indicator of competency," said Ira Hobbs, co-chairman of the CIO Council Workforce and Human Capital for IT Subcommittee and the Agriculture Department's deputy chief information officer. "It says an individual has applied themselves and successfully attained something. It does give you some insights into the individual."

Office of Management and Budget officials have indicated a need for project managers and suggested that IT projects worth more than $5 million should have full-time managers.

Assigning certified managers to projects does not guarantee success, officials warned. In general, the certification can show which skills managers possess, but it can't make them use the skills, said Denny Smith, certification manager at PMI. Employers must still use other measures to hire managers.

Nevertheless, interest in project management certification continues to grow, experts said. As certified managers use a learned set of tools and concepts to run a project, colleagues often seek similar training so they can better participate in the effort. Certification of a few key employees can raise the bar, yielding benefits for individuals working on a project and for the entire organization.

A clear line of distinction

Much like advanced degrees and industry accolades, certification can set managers apart from the crowd, said Roger Beatty, senior league consultant for Information Management Consultants Inc. Beatty said he has already heard a top Homeland Security Department official ask specifically for certified managers to apply to lead a major project.

"There will be a clear line of distinction made between someone who calls themselves a project manager and a certified project management professional," said Beatty, who is a certified project management professional.

For example, PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP) certification requires candidates to have a certain amount of education and experience and to pass an exam.

"An individual must be able to demonstrate a certain amount of experience and/or training in the project management discipline," Hobbs said. "All of our folks in this program have some kind of project management experience."

USDA officials have emphasized for several years a strong training program by offering courses on capital planning and investment control, and requirements for process change set by OMB. The courses offer certification guidance so students can take the PMP exam after the course.

"We're making sure people get both the practical experience as well as the theory behind the projects," Hobbs said. "It does something for the individual, too. It gives them a skill that's very much in demand."

For managers, certification can open doors to certain jobs and possibly lead to higher pay, Beatty said. "Nobody would get certified if they didn't think it would help them with their career and their salary," he said. "It means that people with key positions will be able to perform better and achieve better results. We've already seen that on a number of top government projects."

Hobbs likened the process of certification to earning a college degree: Why complete the classes and not obtain the diploma? It's worth it for agencies and managers to take their training to the next step of accreditation, he said. Further, most certifications require a manager to maintain their certification through ongoing education.

"We generally ask for certified project managers," Hobbs said. "We are looking for every possible edge that says this individual is going to be successful. It's an indicator."

Besides a sense of accomplishment, the certification also creates standard terminology and a knowledge base within organizations and among their partners, Smith said. Managers share and understand concepts of project schedules and costs, for example.

"It sets a common language for folks around the world," he said. PMI has members in 125 countries hailing from management areas ranging from aerospace to financial services to IT.

"It levels the playing field," said Laurie Cooke, director of professional programs at PMI. "Are you comparing apples to apples?"

The benefits are becoming especially important to the federal government as it pushes to hire more project managers, Beatty said. What agencies can't find in-house, they seek out from the private sector, he said, which increases competition in the labor market and highlights the importance of certification.

Most officials agree, however, that certification won't guarantee a stellar manager or perfectly managed project.

"It's just one piece," Hobbs said. "Everybody who goes to college doesn't necessarily succeed in the workplace. There are other factors beyond that."

Although certification can verify the amount of experience and education, it can't ensure that the manager will use the skills. A strong track record with major projects and a demonstrated understanding of the concepts must accompany the certification, officials said.

"You can infer that someone is going to do the work," Smith said. "It doesn't guarantee the person is going to use the skills they've demonstrated."

A project manager needs the practical experience of working with a major project to be a capable manager, said Eric Gioia, executive vice president of Robbins-Gioia LLC, which provides management consulting services. The company would like to see the certification trend veer toward the practical end, ensuring that managers have hands-on experience.

"You have to bridge the gap between the academic into the practical," Gioia said. "You need lessons learned; you need to be burned a couple times."

One solution is a mentoring program in which managers work closely with more experienced managers on larger projects. A person who has earned a PMP but never managed a major project can learn more under an experienced manager than from reading from a textbook, he said.

Beyond the certification

A certified project manager changes the dynamics within an organization, creating a vacuum effect, Beatty said. The certification can create a gap in knowledge among the other employees. Those who are not certified will have a hard time communicating with those who are, generating a need for increased training across the board, he said.

"It raises the bar for other managers who see the benefits of certification," he said. "This doesn't mean the entire organization has to be certified, but they do need to agree on some baseline of training so they know the concepts and the language."

Organizations should have a strong core of certified managers, between 3 percent and 15 percent, Beatty said.

Smith said that organizations should not expect, however, a few people with certifications to teach the highlights to the rest of the organization. "It's not a train-the-trainer setup," he said. "The individual obtaining the certification would have demonstrated the knowledge. It's so unique to each person."

Each certification is based on an individual's experience and education level. Certified managers can act as mentors, guiding others through the process.

Will Brimberry, program manager for the General Services Administration's Strategic and Tactical Advocates for Results program, a management training course, characterized certification as an event in that developmental process. The key is real-world training and a person's experience, and certification is a mark along the way.

Before managing a major project, a manager must grasp agency nuances that are not necessarily included in the certification training, Cooke said. The PMP certification is global, she said, and government managers need to understand government terminology, procurement and the budget process, for example.

"You then have to realize there are subtleties between industries, between large and small projects," Cooke said. "It's not something that says you are able to walk in and be able to manage a large project."

One question is the scope of the project management certification, Brimberry said. For example, PMI's Project Management Body of Knowledge spans about nine areas of expertise, he said, but there may be other areas not included but still related to a specific project, such as systems engineering or product support, that managers must also grasp.

A maintenance project for the National Park Service requires different skills than building a sophisticated satellite system, Brimberry said. Although the two projects may rely on the same foundation of planning and cost scheduling, for example, the managers need contextual training in addition to certification.

There is a "debate as to what is the scope of the project management," Brimberry said. "Is it just those nine areas, or is it beyond that? And, if it's beyond that, how many management areas?"

He said PMI's certification is a "very comprehensive one and very generic. It gets somebody started, but they are still at a minimal level."

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