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Head for the Hills

I have a teenage daughter. This means, among other things, that I get to watch MTV’s “The Hills” evening soap opera “reality” TV from time to time. (I put reality in quotes, since how much reality is involved in the show is quite suspect.)

As I was watching an episode a few weeks back, a pretty young lady on the show found out to her feigned surprise that, despite having been employed for only a short time and having been with the organization only a short time, she had just been named as the project manager for a large Las Vegas casino/resort complex refurbishing project.

“There is my life challenge in a nutshell,” I said out loud.

Who knows how real “The Hills” is, but it’s a certainty that this kind of scenario plays out in corporate circles every day.

‘How could this terrible calamity come to pass?’ you ask.

The answer is very simple: We’ve helped make it this way.

It’s taken many years of dedicated effort, but it is fair to say that those of us in the project management industry can now claim success in attempting to commoditize the industry. Many of us have been evangelizing the concepts of project management for years, hoping to get more stature and more corporate awareness of project management. Well, you know what they say, “Be careful what you wish for…”

There are some good outcomes due to how popular and common project management has become, but there are also some negatives. Let’s take a look for a moment at what we have wrought:

First of all, we’ve made ‘project management’ a household term. If I can hear the term on MTV and on The Apprentice on network television, then you can be sure it’s understood almost everywhere in western culture. Ok, we may not all mean the same thing, but the term itself is quote common now.

Next, we’ve generated an expectation that being a project manager is something attainable by anyone. At one time we were a pretty exclusive club. Project management experts were people in white lab coats (literally) who worked in computer labs. A project manager on a huge construction project was like the CEO and not reachable at all. Now, there is an expectation that any intern could be named as a project manager.

We’ve also created a much larger industry, and an even larger audience, and that means there are more people creating more resources like books, magazines, websites and tools. I remember putting our own company, HMS onto Yahoo years ago. We were approximately the 8,000th entry on the index page. That may not sound so impressive until you take a quick online search today for some project management terms. Amazon reports 24,407 books with the term “Project Management”.

Google reports 2,180,000 hits for the term “Project Management Software”.

Speaking of project management software tools, we’ve gone a step further. To support the huge numbers of people now interested in project management, we’ve generated the notion that project management is a “solution” and that technology makes it “easy”. It’s not hard to see this by looking at some online tools. Basecamp for example ( delivers web-based project management online for free. “…smarter, easier, more elegant way to collaborate on your internal and client projects.” it says on its home page. Ace Project ( also has a web-based product which gives limited functionality away for free. “…a feature-rich web-based project manager software that remains simple and easy-to-use,” they say.

For those purists who were sure that project management should be a “serious” endeavor, there is a level of upset in these developments. “We weren’t trying to dumb-down project management,” they say. “We were trying to get people to invest their knowledge of it like we have.”

Some of those efforts though have resulted in very divergent scenarios. If we look at the PMI (Project Management Institute) and other associations, certification was one of the paths to helping people to get some return on their training and career investment. However, the bar for attaining the PMP certification is set in such a way that it’s impossible to determine by the certification alone if the holder can manage projects at all. That’s not to discount the PMP certification (I know many of you have worked very hard at getting yours) but an indication that just passing the exam and fulfilling the points required doesn’t indicate to management your skill level, but rather your level of knowledge of common terms and practices.

If we look at the higher education front, there are some encouraging Masters in Project Management programs that I have a fairly high degree of respect for, but there is also a wide range of “Certificate” programs that have varying levels of study required and tests to pass. With such a wide range of certification options, it’s perhaps not a surprise that there is an inconsistent understanding of the values of these programs in the marketplace.

Wondering where this is all heading?

So am I.

It seems that the notion of project management has enough critical mass now that it has become part of the business lexicon. For those of us interested in the industry as a whole, that’s a very good thing. But, we’re getting to the point where we’re going to need a more detailed vocabulary. What terms should we use so we don’t confuse a career project manager with an ‘instant’ project manager? We have to be able to distinguish the capabilities of someone who has actually managed a project from someone whose experience is limited to reciting lists of acronyms and formulas and their definitions.

As I was cruising on holidays this year, I discovered that in the maritime shipping business, there’s a big difference between a “Captain” and a “Master”. The person with responsibility for everything aboard our ship was the “Ship’s Master”, I was told. “There are several Captains on board. After a further investigation, I found that to become a “Ship’s Master” is not a weekend course and a multiple choice test. The training that was described to me was more like secondary and post-secondary education lasting over a dozen years. It’s reassuring of course, to know that the person keeping your ship afloat actually has a clue and has already served an extensive internship doing almost every possible job on board a luxury liner before being allowed to run one.

It seems to me like that’s not a bad analogy for our challenges in the project management world.

Chris Vandersluis is the founder and president of HMS Software based in Montreal, Canada. He has an economics degree from Montreal’s McGill University and over 22 years experience in the automation of project control systems. He is a long-standing member of both the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the American Association of Cost Engineers (AACE) and is the founder of the Montreal Chapter of the Microsoft Project Association. Mr. Vandersluis has been published in numerous publications including Fortune Magazine, Heavy Construction News, the Ivey Business Journal, PMI’s PMNetwork and Computing Canada. Mr. Vandersluis has been part of the Microsoft Enterprise Project Management Partner Advisory Council since 2003. He teaches Advanced Project Management at McGill University’s Executive Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

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