Project Management – Is Education More Valuable Than Experience?

February 21, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

In my more than 20 years of experience managing technical projects, most project managers move directly from engineering into project management – do not pass go, do not collect $200. Does this count as the experience necessary to manage a complex technical or non-technical project? Does his or her ranking as a subject matter expert qualify her for the position of manager? Are the skills necessary for each so different? It’s often been said that the best way to lose both a good engineer and a good manager is to move the engineer into management.

Far too many projects fail to achieve their purpose, or scope, within the established schedule and budget. If we assume that the schedule and budget are achievable and reasonable, then what causes these projects to fail? The possible causes are too numerous to list and each project would require a root cause analysis, but every “tiger team review” that I’ve attended have determined that the seeds of failure were planted in the early stages of the project, especially during the initiation and planning phases. So, what roles do education and experience play in preventing these project failures?

Starting with education, managing a project is much like managing a small or medium sized business with the exception that a project is time limited, whereas a business is expected to continue operating indefinitely. I use “business” rather than “department” because a department is most often organizationally and functionally limited, as opposed to a project that has elements of management, human resources, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and even government relations responsibilities. There are also a number of specialized processes associated with a project, each of which includes a set of specialized tasks. These high level processes are initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing. Addressing just the initiating process, the project manager has to consider the initiator or sponsor of the project; the contract, if it’s an external project; the scope, or the final deliverables expected; organizational culture; project management tools available; standards, guidelines, defined processes; human resources availability; historical assets and lessons learned from previous similar projects. She must also identify all stakeholders, both positively and negatively affected individuals and organizations, to the project. Her experience as an engineer or subject matter expert is of minimal benefit as a manager of a project, but experience as an assistant project manager is of immeasurable value. Also, education in the form of an MBA or business degree, backed up by certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP®) from the Project Management Institute, provides an excellent background for the new project manager.

The question of whether experience or education is more important to the success of a project manager is that both education and experience are essential, but the experience must be in the field of project management as opposed to the field of the subject matter expert. Project management experience at some point will trump formal education, but that point is after many years of managing complex projects.

Owen Murphy has more than 20 years experience managing successful projects in Europe and Asia as well as domestic projects in the USA. He has both the education and the experience to manage projects of all sizes. He holds the PMP certification as well as the Certified Management Consultant certification from the Institute of Management Consultants. See http://www.transglobalconsulting.com.

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