“Project Management Education” with Martin Butler

Episode 83: “Project Management Education” with Martin Butler


I am an electronic engineer by trade. I studied engineering and then working in the IT industry. I stumbled from there into project management. I did an MBA and specialized in project management. For the last ten years, I’ve been linked to academia, lecturing in project management both to undergraduate and graduate students on short courses in South Africa, Europe, India, and the African continent in an open format for classrooms and organizations specifically.


What specifically attracted you to prints over the others?

Firstly, I dived in depth through the PMBOK(?) and I knew what was in the PMBOK. I knew that if I forced myself to do prints(?) too that it would be a new perspective. At that stage as the technology industry was really formalizing project management in IT in the 1990s, the tailoring of the methodology for the particular projects was overbearing. I was very attracted to the fact that you could tailor the application, principles, and themes in prints to the particular project.


How does the education piece match up with the requirements out in the field for project managers?

I think if I can take a step back, we first have to ask ourselves where these things come from. Why do we have prints to practitioner certification, CIMP certification, and PMP certification. There’s a period specifically more in the business world, not necessarily military and aerospace, where a lot of people were managing projects, but they truly didn’t have a solid background or sufficient formal qualifications. That was the emergence of many of these things. Fast forward to 2017; it has changed significantly. It’s fairly common for financial services, organizations, and the like for when they advertise for a project manager position they would request what we would recognize today as a standard for project management qualifications.

From that perspective, the qualifications formalize the career path for project management. I find increasingly that the world of 2017 is fluid. It’s very fast moving. We deal a lot with ambiguity. We deal with incomplete sets of information. As project managers, you need to compromise pragmatically on a daily basis. I think if I think about the classrooms, the challenging things that I’ve experienced from practicing project managers and working on a project team with people filing to be project managers that had me scratch my head the last few years, it was not the in-depth application of the well-established tools and techniques. It wasn’t about earned value, management, a line of balance, or risk ranking. It was truly about these softer issues and how to deal with difficult cycles, really digging deep into my experience of actively managing projects and not necessarily what I picked up in the books. I think there’s always value in the formal training. I would always recommend that especially if you are embarking upon a career and want to be more employable, but I do think some of the challenges that we find ourselves in today in a volatile, fast-moving world is not necessarily deal with in the standard curriculum that we find with project management qualifications.


Do you think companies are realizing its experience over qualifications?

I think companies realize it’s a balance. They realize that you sometimes have a person that tells you ‘I have 20 years of project management experience,’ but they only have two years of experience ten times over. There could be an emphasis on experience as well, but I think they are striking the balance. They know the value they have in credentials, but they wouldn’t just blindly hire based on credentials.

I think what you find increasingly is that having certification may open the door to an interview or to throw your hat in the pool, but it will not necessarily be sufficient during interviews or sessions where the final calls are being made. The focus would not be what’s on the textbooks and what you learned during qualifications, but it would be about the applied knowledge, what you’ve learned, and how you’ve applied it. Also, what is different from what you’ve seen, heard, how you’ve dealt with it, and what you bring to the table beyond what you’ve been taught.


Do you still need the certification to get into the interview?

Yes, I think so.

Regarding those softer skills that are acquired in dealing with difficult stakeholders, is it beginning to feed into the material within the certifications, and are you feeding it into the education that you’re delivering?

Very much so. Practice always beats theory. There’s a couple of phrases I don’t particularly enjoy, and one of those phrases is ‘it’s so theoretical.’ We would sometimes use this phrase to dismiss something of not having particular practice value, but a theory is purely observed practice and documented. Reality is that practice will always lead to theory. We would apply certain things, observe and document it, then formulate certain theories and knowledge.

I think the answer to your question is yes, it is starting to feed into many of the project management development courses you have. Less so in your formal certifications, which normally have a high label of regulation and slower cycles regarding updating it. You don’t have a new version of the PMBOK every year or whatever body of knowledge you’re using, but in your executive education courses, and the business environment, there’s a real requirement for the students we’re dealing with to bring this into the curriculum, and we’re most definitely doing that. I’ve seen a significant change in the last five years of updating our content specifically with relevant skills. To be fair to my colleagues at the business school, when we call these things soft skills, they often have a fit because they say it’s not soft skills it's hard skills. By soft we mean it’s not that quantifiable. We know that it’s tough to execute.


Does project management require these softer skills?

One of my favorite questions that I like asking my students in the classroom is ‘If you’re trained as an accountant in any firm. You can be an accountant in university, government, financial services, manufacturing or agricultural firm. If you’re a marketing person, head of IT/HR, that primary school of yours is easy to transfer to any industry because that’s what you do. I normally ask them, ‘What about a project manager?’ I am an electronic engineer. I have managed technology projects. I know project management. I’ve done what I need to do to be recognized in the field, but should I be managing projects to extend the cougar national park or to develop a vehicle or vaccine for HIV?

That becomes an interesting conversation because we say well, there’s a lot to be said about this, and the textbooks have a lot to say, but it’s not that simple to apply from what I’ve learned about project technology regarding projects for the last 20 years to these different scenarios mentioned above. I think the answer to your question is: absolutely. When that million dollar project is against the wall, and the chips are down it's that combination from the cool, level head has been there before to having experience knowing how to deal with humans, tight deadlines, and stress. It's also about being supported by the rigor in your processes and how well you’ve defined the scope, covered and communicated, and all of those things. Even then, I would say you don’t have the experience you probably have a serious problem, but if you have the experience and you don’t have rigor within your execution methodologies that you can fall back on, then you’ve probably had a problem as well.


Do your students go out on a work placement as part of the curriculum?

Not in our MBA program. I know that many of our other business schools or ones we collaborate with, it’s standard practice, but not in our school. Our environment is slightly different in that most of our students are full-time employed and studying part-time. It’s a stimulating environment. You truly learn from the students as well. As an academic, if you lecture to the students that are practicing project managers, you have to be comfortable when they disagree with you and explain how it works in their own work environment. It’s a fantastic environment. It makes you think. I would sometimes walk out of a class and make new notes to update a course and materials to use that in the future.


Thoughts are on what Lee was addressing in Episode 56? Paper PMP or Real PMP.

I think Lee was on the money. Sometimes you have to be slightly controversial, and the talk was balanced in raising some concerns. This is not that uncommon when you professionalize a particular industry. The thing about the pendlelum(?) again. It was a dire need for a level of standardization and certification, which me and a couple of colleagues brought. Now you have to protect yourself again the other extreme of chasing the paper PMP and not having the skills that apply to the world of work we have now. I think to the extent that’s why the working hour's criteria and the things specified by the project management institute is still an excellent idea. It’s not always that easy to enforce, but I do share his concerns in turning out paper PMPs.

If I can be so bold, I’m the head of the MBA program, and I think an MBA qualification has gone through the same thing. There was a period when an MBA was an alluring qualification and opened many doors. Today, an MBA from a reputable institution will get your hat in the ring, but it’s about how you apply those skills. So is there still value in PMP or any of the other project management certifications? Absolutely, but the value is not the certificate on the wall, and I think Lee was accurate in that.


Any major changes? Or what would you like to see happen?

That’s a loaded question. What I would like to happen is not to have rigidity within any structured qualification. There’s always the argument made if we update this then what does that mean for someone who was certified a couple of years ago and that’s why we have these cycles of certification. I think that I would like to see less rigor and more flexibility. Taking cognizance off some techniques that are slowly slipping away as being very industry specific and not necessarily applicable to project management per say as these certifications move to cover all industries.

I think the conversation we had earlier regarding focusing on the soft skills. Today, in many qualifications there’s a fair amount of work done on EQ and leadership skills, intercultural diversity, and dealing with complexity, the world of systems thinking which of course has a powerful leg in into project management. Also the soft system sciences and dealing with the complexity. I think project management would benefit from exploring more of our base of systems thinking regarding some of the more modern branches of the systems.

Next event

More events


Sign up here to receive the quarterly Cora Newsletter. Receive tips on project and portfolio management and be first to find out about upcoming events and product enhancements.