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Training grounds

Best-practice training programs have helped many companies improve their project management efforts.

June 2003

The project failures of the Internet boom cost companies a bundle, but they taught some organizations even more. In order for initiatives to succeed, companies need people skilled in project management. And if they don't have them, they need to train them. As pressure mounts to improve project success rates, many organizations are addressing project management deficiencies with a variety of training programs. They have decided that training is not an option; it is a necessity for competing in a challenging economy and increasingly complex business environment.

"A lot of organizations that went through dot-com growth didn't ask a lot of questions," says Mark Gould, director of management development programs at Boston University's Corporate Education Center in Tyngsboro, Mass. "Companies didn't worry about failed projects because they were in this big boom."

Today, the boom is a distant memory, and cautious executive boards shudder at the thought of failure. Every penny counts as companies try to reduce costs and justify expenses, demanding rapid payback and a healthy return on investment for all projects. To deliver, executives must continuously assess the competency of their project teams and address the gaps with appropriate training.

Companies that want to implement a strong training program often start with a competency model. The Project Management Institute (PMI), the Association for Project Management and the International Project Management Association offer standards, as do independent consultancies such as PM Solutions in Havertown, Pa. Project-mature business partners willing to share their best practices can be good sources, too, says George Pitagorsky, executive vice president of program development at the International Institute for Learning (IIL), a New York-based training consultancy focused on project management.

These competency models are used to assess the company's project management knowledge and maturity. They can be used at annual or quarterly performance appraisals, project milestones and post-mortems, or combined with more formalized skill-testing tools offered by training companies (see PM Training Guide below). Some tools, including one developed by IIL senior executive director Harold Kerzner, Ph.D., give companies a sense of how their project management capabilities stack up against other corporations in similar industries.

The benchmarking and performance evaluations supply the data companies need to develop employee-learning plans. Needs vary widely. Some companies find their project managers are strong technically, for example, but lack communication, conflict resolution, supervision or negotiation skills, says PMI's John Roecker, manager of professional development programs. Some businesses discover workers need help with project management fundamentals such as cost, time and scope management; others find project managers lack the business experience needed to understand how their projects affect the overall operations.

"The gaps have a big bottom-line impact," says Mike Musial, vice president of operations for the Atlantic Canada Region of CGI Group, an IT services provider based in Montreal with offices throughout North America. Musial sees firsthand the fallout of poor project management when his consultants are called in to rescue projects. "For the most part, our clients' project managers are delivering overbudget and late," he says.

But when it comes time to instruct project managers, companies don't forget the bottom line. Training costs can be minimized by reducing classroom time and retraining through the use of mentors and reference materials, and reducing travel expenses through online distance-training.

To take a closer look at corporate PM training, Projects@Work spoke with four leading professional services companies recognized for best-practice training programs: Booz Allen Hamilton, CGI Group, Microsoft Services and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

360-Degree Review

Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va., is one of the Top 100 companies in the area of "human capital development," according to Training magazine. One reason: Booz Allen creates professional development plans for every employee, and backs them up with mentoring and training—no small undertaking, considering the company has 4,000 consultants (as well as 30 project managers who support the company's internal IT workings).

To improve learning, both internal and client projects culminate with project reviews, says Booz Allen vice president and CIO George Tillmann, who runs the internal services group. "You can't learn by doing if you don't see what you're doing," he says. Without a feedback loop, project managers are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, Tillmann says. The company conducts an annual 360-degree review process that includes input from managers, peers, clients, and teammates. This leads to a personal development plan for each project manager or consultant.

Believing it can better impart desired business practices and culture than external trainers, Booz Allen launched its own corporate university, the Center for Performance Excellence, in 1999. The center offers 30 project management modules from training provider SkillSoft in Nashua, N.H. Each module is based on PMI's "A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge" (PMBOK). There are also six instructor-led courses on topics such as project fundamentals and financial projections. Employees can take courses taught by Johns Hopkins University professors in the evening and on weekends at Booz Allen's corporate headquarters and even earn an MBA or a Master's of Science in Information Systems and Telecommunication. The company spends an average of $6,200 annually on classroom instruction for each employee, including a tuition reimbursement program.

Outside of the classroom, project managers apprentice under a mentor for three to five years, learning the company's project development methodology. "In-class training plays a role, but the most important thing for us is the apprenticeship model," Tillmann says. "The best way to learn to be a good project manager is to work for one." With such confidence in its internal training process, Booz Allen doesn't require certification of its project managers. However, many government contracts require a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, and Booz Allen has nearly 1,000 PMP-certified employees to meet those needs.

Mentors and Milestones

Like Booz Allen, CGI Group's Atlantic Canada Region—with offices in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland—evaluates and trains its project managers in-house. The 40 technical project managers under the charge of Musial have an average of 17 years' project management experience, but they don't rest on it. Every project manager undergoes three types of routine evaluation, which can lead to additional training.

To connect project work to the big picture, CGI uses weekly and monthly metrics to show how project managers contribute to the bottom line. Performance feedback from customers, other managers and project teammates is gathered at project milestones. Each quarter, a director or manager reviews the feedback with each project manager. With the performance evaluations in hand, the company can then design individual training plans.

The training includes a coaching program that pairs junior project managers with senior staff and a formal study group that meets monthly on a specific, revolving agenda. For example, a CGI project manager recently shared experiences about risk management on a financial project at a local government agency.

Across CGI's international operations, project managers are not generally required to earn project management certifications. But Musial has the freedom to set a direction for his own project management staff, so he encourages them to earn credentials. The company created a PMP-study program, which includes self-study and a professional development program in which employees meet weekly for three hours after work for nine weeks. "They see it as an investment in their own career, so they don't mind," Musial says. And it doesn't hurt that employees who earn the PMP receive a five percent to eight percent increase to their base salaries.

On the Certification Road

Project managers are new at Microsoft Services, the consulting arm of Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash. Previously, product managers were charged with managing projects. But clients increasingly expect more formal project expertise, so Microsoft launched a new career training track under the direction of Christian Jensen, group manager for the Worldwide PMO at Microsoft Services.

PMP prospects begin the journey to certification by reading a 46-page white paper and viewing an eight-minute video. They proceed with tests and interviews that measure current skills and knowledge gaps.

Microsoft has adopted 18 key proficiencies for project managers, including internally defined areas such as adeptness with Microsoft Project software and understanding of the company policies on customers, communication, planning and organization. The remaining nine proficiencies come directly from the PMBOK.

At the end of the evaluation process, Microsoft has a clearer idea of whether the candidate has a good chance to qualify for one of two PMI certifications: the PMP or the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), a junior version of the PMP that requires fewer hours of demonstrated project management experience.

The evaluation also helps build a professional development plan that includes extensive training. With the exception of one computer fundamentals class created in-house, Microsoft outsources its project management training needs to various training providers, including ESI International in Arlington, Va., IIL and Novations Project Management (formerly Provant Project Management) in Boston. Delivery methods include e-learning, self-paced lessons, instructor-led classes and workshops, and satellite broadcasts. The variety makes it easier to train a globally distributed workforce, Jensen says. Hosting its training providers at Microsoft facilities further trims costs.

Jensen says the company will allow employees up to 20 days each year to develop new skills. By December, he expects to have 300 new PMP- and CAPM-certified project managers worldwide. More than two dozen people have been accredited to date.

Simulated Training, Real Savings

Nothing speaks louder to the success of project management training than a positive effect on the bottom line. After a year in development, PricewaterhouseCooper's Global Risk Management Solutions (GRMS) Learning Lab team rolled out a computer-based training program for security projects that cut eight weeks off the prior course. What once took 12 weeks—six weeks of computer-based training followed by six weeks of shadowing another project manager—is now completed in four weeks thanks to computer simulation techniques. Following an initial pilot involving 50 project managers, about 200 project managers have been through the training in a year, for an additional savings of $14 million in billable hours. The new program closely mimics the experience of running a typical security project, starting with a set of technical modules and the client interview. Along the way, the team encounters "gremlins" that can derail the project. Project managers are given "multiple opportunities to fail and multiple opportunities to get it back on track," says Rayellen Smith, director of audit and business advisory services learning solutions.

To further immerse the students in the simulated project, instructors play the role of client—right down to fake business cards and client logos emblazoned on their shirts.

The simulation is so convincing that it's become the topic of conversation around the company. "I get teased because we've made it so real that people are expecting our fictitious company to be on the New York Stock Exchange," Smith says. "I'm not sure an external vendor would have come up with the concept because it is only working through our practice that we got the understanding to be able to build something like this."

The security project simulation is only one part of GRMS's educational support for project managers. Other training programs are developed based in part on focus groups and individual interviews designed to identify the most important competencies missing for the division's 1,800-plus project managers.

More immediate staff evaluations occur at the project level through annual reviews and self-appraisals that identify individual goals for the coming year, which may include earning a project management certification. For those interested, the company supports an e-learning option to prepare for the PMP, but it doesn't require it. Smith says that simulated project management training is proving to be a great real-world test.

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david southgate
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