Project managers worth their weight in gold

The debate rages whether project management is a profession in its own right, as Charles Orton-Jones reports

Is project management a profession? Ask a project manager and you’ll get a look of incredulity because – of course it is. After all, there are thousands of high-calibre professionals who do nothing other than use their specialist skills to manage projects.

But there are objectors. For several years, Association of Project Management (APM) has been applying for charter status. Progress has been hampered by the objections of other professional bodies. The allegation is that other professionals, such as marketers and accountants, routinely manage projects, so project management is not an activity in itself.

So who is correct? Is project management a unique skill-set? Or can anyone do it with a bit of tuition. And if it is easy-peasy, perhaps firms should be wary of hiring roving project management specialists and encourage their own staff to run projects.

“It’s a raging debate,” says Tony Marks, of project management training provider 20:20. “Some industries, such as oil and gas, are reluctant to bring in project managers from another sector because of their lack of industry knowledge. They prefer to take technical experts and put them through project management training.”

But Mr Marks emphatically disapproves of this. “The danger is that those people will not concentrate on their role. They get sucked into their comfort zone, which is dealing with the nitty-gritty and technical detail they understand and are fascinated by, when they should be managing the project. I’ve seen it time and again. In those situations a dedicated project manager is worth their weight in gold.”

To say that anyone can be a project manager is like saying anyone can be a brain surgeon

There’s another point in favour of the specialist: complexity. Project management may be something a part-timer can handle when the complexity level is low, but when budgets rise, manpower increases and projects interlock with others, then the skill-sets needed may overwhelm even the most talented novice.

“Take Crossrail,” says Ivor Bennett, capability director at project management training provider BMT Hi-Q Sigma, “You have immense scale in a construction work costing billions. But more than that is the uncertainty. Project managers need to manage funding across financial years and there are multiple interfaces with other parts of the project. You are going to need a dedicated, experienced project manager to handle all that.”

The cynicism by marketers and accountants towards project management might be dissipated if they understood the amount of time it takes to become a top-flight project manager. The idea that all one needs is a Prince2 or APM certification is preposterous.

Mike Savage of Thales Training & Consultancy, which provides training for the Thales defence conglomerate, points out that it takes years of on-the-job experience to build the necessary skills. “The International Project Management Association has four grades, D to A. At A there is a minimum of five years project management experience, five years of programme management and five years of portfolio management. You are talking 15 years of experience and training. So to say that anyone can be a project manager is like saying anyone can be a brain surgeon.”

So where does that leave non-specialists, who simply want to improve their capabilities by learning project management techniques. In fact, there is near universal encouragement from the project management (PM) industry for this. “Everyone should learn PM, absolutely,” says Ian Clarkson of training provider QA. “The skills, leadership, planning and stakeholder engagement techniques are vital to all disciplines.”

The view from industry ought to quell any debate. At BAE, AstraZeneca or the nation’s largest construction firms, you’ll find dedicated project managers. At Lloyd’s Register, the 250-year-old marine consultancy, specialist project managers are held in the highest esteem.

Lloyds Register energy programme director Roger Clutton says: “Projects which are run by engineers with project management training are less likely to be successful than the reverse. If there is a lack of technical expertise that will show up in the risk assessment. But a lack of project management skills is much less likely to be detected.”

Naturally, both specialists and non-specialists are needed: “An appropriate mix is the right solution for us,” says Mr Clutton and he’s keen to point out that demand for project management training among engineers and administrative staff is sky-high.

Conclusion? The debate is really only relevant to rival professions. For specialist project managers and the galaxy of firms which employ them, the verdict is obvious.