With growing concerns about the skills gap in PM, we explore whether accredited courses are the best response to this challenge, or if they may be missing key skills that project managers need to know.

As project management continues to grow in popularity as a profession, as well as complexity in terms of what it entails, there are an increasing number of routes into the field. But when it comes to choosing between an accredited route and a non-accredited one, which is the best option? Is one superior to the other? Or do they each have a place depending on the context of the situation and the needs of the learner? We discuss these issues and more as we aim to understand the role of accredited and non-accredited learning options in PM.

Welcome to the accreditation debate

The remit and complexity of project management is ever changing and expanding, and with demand for project managers in a growing number of industries, it’s more important than ever that those working in the profession are highly skilled and competent in their role. But in order to develop the necessary skills and competence, access to high quality training and professional development is essential, especially in the early stages of one’s career where the fundamentals still need to be learnt. Due to their prominence, accredited (e.g. PRINCE2, APM, agile) development routes are typically more common than non-accredited options. However, unlike many other professions, the challenge with project management is that there are no formal qualifications required in order to practice, meaning there is a wealth of choice for those looking to pursue training.

While this choice is good in terms of flexibility, it does make it more difficult for individuals to know what the best option is to develop their skills.

To go accredited or non-accredited, that is the question

The overarching purpose of an accredited course is to help ensure a standardised approach to project management across sectors, which is definitely an important element in achieving high levels of competence across the board. However, the difficulty is that there are actually a wide range of different, apparently contradictory, standard approaches and methodologies to choose from. as a result, even those individuals who elect to undertake accredited training will not necessarily be working in the same manner as their colleague who may have taken a different accredited course. One of the benefits of this diversity is a greater flexibility to develop project managers according to their environment; some organisations may be more suited to an agile approach, while others may benefit from more traditional methodologies being employed. But while there is diversity and a degree of flexibility in terms of different approaches, this is limited in the accredited arena.

If you choose to undertake an accredited training programme, you have to follow the syllabus as standard, which for some organisations will be the most appropriate solution, but for others may be too prescriptive to meet their needs. This is where non-accredited approaches can be of significant value to organisations and individuals, as while they will typically cover the same principles as accredited programmes, they aren’t limited in their approach, meaning content can be tailored to the specific needs of the business. This is becoming an increasingly important consideration as more and more industries and a more diverse range of companies are instituting project management offices, all of which will have slightly different objectives and needs, which can more easily be met by employing a flexible approach to professional development.

On a personal level it’s understandable as to why individuals opt for the accredited route as research shows that those with formal qualifications are paid, on average, significantly more than those without, and this is a global trend, not just a national one. In fact the only country where non-qualification holding professionals earn more than their accredited peers is Sweden. Within the UK the difference between salaries for those with accredited qualifications and those without is a 16% bump, suggesting an industry wide preference for accredited programmes. However, while salaries may grow in line with level of qualification, this does not necessarily imply effectiveness of the training. Simply because individuals are being paid more does not mean they have acquired all the skills they need to be an effective project management professional, and if the current rate of project failure is anything to go by, it would suggest there is still a significant skills gap between what is needed, and what is being taught. With the association for Project Management reporting in their Salary Trends Survey that 75% of project managers have undertaken accredited training in order to progress in their roles it raises the question: are accredited programmes targeting and training the right aspects of PM to enable effective project professionals to emerge?

Who decides what makes a ‘good’ project manager?

The larger question, therefore, needs to be: is accreditation necessary in order to be a successful project manager. Many assume the answer is yes; after all these programmes have been designed specifically by experts in the field, aligning to best practice as defined by the relevant professional bodies. But does this actually reflect competence? It seems that when it comes to current hiring practices the answer is yes; research by the APM shows that organisations tend to hire those with accredited qualifications more readily than those without.

It appears that accreditation is often viewed as ‘proof’ that an individual has the necessary competencies to work effectively as a project manager, yet in reality it only shows they had ability to pass the course. This is certainly not to say that those who have achieved accredited qualifications aren’t suitably qualified for a role, but it does suggest a bias towards ‘top level’ information to determine competence, when success in project management relies on many factors aside from technical knowledge or the ability to pass an exam. It also requires the right attitudes and behaviours, and this is not something that has traditionally been focussed on in accredited programmes. admittedly this is starting to shift, with professional bodies such as the APM coming to recognise the need for greater behavioural development, and accredited programmes in general moving towards a more balanced mix of behaviours and technical know-how, but it is still not a primary focus. Reports suggest that the most common reasons for project failure are poor leadership, lack of strategic planning, and ineffective stakeholder management, which lean more towards behavioural than technical skills. These findings demonstrate how important the behavioural elements of project management are, and highlight the need for more emphasis to be placed on developing these areas.

Furthermore, experts have found that the issues that currently impact projects, causing them to fail today, are the same issues that have been plaguing projects for the past 30 years. It therefore raises the question as to why professional development programmes are not updating to reflect this and help mitigate the problem. While non-accredited approaches are in no way guaranteed to address this problem, due to their flexibility in terms of content and the greater scope to tailor a programme to a company’s specific needs, it does present an opportunity to focus more heavily on behavioural attributes at a quicker pace, as content can be more readily updated in response to industry needs.

The challenge, as with any good debate is that both sides have their pros and cons; the structure and formalisation of learning that accredited programmes provide is extremely valuable to help ensure a standardised approach in all situations. This allows skills to be more easily transferred across industries and companies, which benefits both the company and the individual as less time is required to get new employees up to speed, allowing them to contribute to outcomes more quickly. Paradoxically, though, this formalised approach is also what holds accredited training back; because of the structured nature of this route, it means that the nuances of different industries and organisations is more difficult to account for, which reduces overall applicability of learning to the workplace. non-accredited approaches can be far more flexible and tailored to meet the needs of individuals and businesses in a much more specific way.

As highlighted frequently in the media, the UK is experiencing a significant skills gap in a number of areas, and project management is one of them. The need for effective training and development opportunities has never been more important, and while formal training cannot account for all the development needs of an individual, it has a vital role to play. In order to ensure the future success of the industry, and enable it to contribute to the wider economy there needs to be a collaborative approach from learning providers, individuals and companies. companies need to make it clear what skills are lacking in their industry, learning providers need to provide training that matches these gaps and individuals need to take the initiative to up-skill in these areas or other areas of negligence in their own knowledge.

However the truth is that neither accredited or non-accredited approaches alone can fully meet the needs of project professionals, regardless of the format or content, because many of the nuances of project management cannot be learnt in formal training environments. While formal training is excellent for topics such as the theory and methodologies used in project management, learning from on the job experience and having the opportunity to learn from peers and colleagues remains paramount to success and that’s not something either camp can directly provide.

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