Education and Training: The Debate

Is there are big divide between project management academics and those offering training? And do project managers need both? These were some of the questions discussed at a recent BCS event where a panel debated the differences between project management education and training.

The evening started with a vote on the motion:  “Education and training are suitably aligned to meet the development needs of project managers.” There were:

  • 3 in favour (including me)
  • 13 against
  • 3 abstentions

Why do I agree? In my opinion, there is a sufficient blend of academic research and training on offer for project managers. PMI sends out the PM Journal, packed with research. Even PM Today includes articles based on academic research, properly footnoted. Books like my own Project Management in the Real World draw heavily on academic research to support and inform practice. The National Centre for Project Management at Middlesex University is headed up by Prof. Darren Dalcher, a very practical guy who is interested in real-life application of theory. So in the space of a few minutes, I came up with plenty to justify how project managers have access to education (i.e. academia) and training (i.e. work-based courses) and how one supports the other.

Bob Hughes from the University of Brighton and ISEB presented the portfolio of ISEB qualifications which offers a mix of the practical (Foundation and Practitioner qualifications) and the academic (Higher Education Diploma, which gets 400 candidates a year, mostly from overseas). “Although I come from an academic background, I’m very unusual for ISEB,” said Bob. “There’s an ethos of kicking the academics out and leaving it to the practitioners.” That’s something that could probably be said of other practitioner-led organisations as well, and doesn’t bode well for any alignment between academia and practitioners. Could this be a disconnect I have never seen before?

Bob spoke about SFIA, the model that tries to rate professional competence. “It’s very different to aligning that to the outcome of a training course,” he said. “We don’t believe at all that if you do a multiple choice exam you come out a competent project manager.” I agree with this, and I think it adds another level to the discussion about education and training – that of experience. I would argue that project managers develop through experience as well as through education and training opportunities.

Melanie Franklin, CEO of Maven Training, put the case that both education and training are required to equip project managers. She argued that education “builds the mind” and training “builds skills.” Understanding the business context is essential for project managers and this is a product of education: the ability to understand the world in which your skills and experience are being used and apply critical thinking. Capability is a product of training: a blend of competence and process. “If we specifically need to do x,” she said, “we will train in x.”

She presented a version of Kolb’s learning cycle, and explained that context, capability, motivation and performance equal capacity. And what businesses need is the capacity to deliver projects. Education and training, she said, are about valuing people. Developing people is a way to motivate them. “I don’t think we can have one without the other,” she explained. “But just because we have people with qualifications doesn’t mean we have greater capacity.”

“In this country there is a great resentment of book learning,” said Miles Shepherd. “If the academic is rejected, how can project management be a profession? It is simply a trade, like gas fitting.” He said that we still need education, and we still need training. “I’m not too sure how we’re aligned,” he added.

During the Q&A we discussed where some of these challenges come from, and the point was made that employers have a lot to answer for. Employers want ‘useful’ people, not those with an MSc, so there is a bias towards collecting training courses as proof of usefulness. The less the employer has to teach a new starter, the better.

At the end of the evening we had another vote – and guess what? The results were exactly the same. However, some people, including myself, had changed their position. I chose to abstain in the second vote. Each of the panelists had presented their own positions, but I didn’t feel that anyone had strongly argued for or against the debate topic, and some of the panelists had admitted to taking different interpretations of the question which I felt made it difficult to vote one way or the other based on what I had heard. I still believe that education and training are aligned in the project management arena. I still believe they both serve the development needs of project managers. What do you think?