Project Magazine Aug/Sept 2008

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APPROACH Experts from some of the UK’s leading Chartered associations and leading-edge companies gathered in London to give their views on what professionalism means to them. This provided APM with an invaluable insight in its drive for Royal Charter status. Colin Bryer reports on a fascinating dialogue.

WHAT does professionalism really mean? How is it applied in today’s complex and ever-changing industrial environment? And how will a greater focus on professionalism affect the project managers of tomorrow? A debate between eight experts in their professional fields, held at the head office of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in London, provided a set of illuminating and thought-provoking views on a subject that is vital to every professional body. Chaired by Mike Nichols, chairman of APM, the debate featured representatives from Chartered organisations including the ACCA, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and the Law Society, and from the Ministry of Defence, KPMG and Transport for London (TfL). The other participants with Mike Nichols were Tony Osude, Nicole Ziman, Joseph Alba, Martin Hagen, John Rowley, Jennifer Shaw and Mark Stobbs.

Ethics and the public interest

Mike Nichols (MN): Project management is a relatively new profession. Forty years ago it was hardly being referred to at all. The idea of a focused, professional approach to the management of projects as a specialised activity is a very recent development. The definition of professionalism given by the British Computer Society is interesting. Following a study they announced that: ‘A professional is a practitioner who has special skills routed in a broad base, has appropriate qualifications from a recognised body, undergoes continuous development and operates to a code of conduct.’
Mark Stobbs (MS): The one thing missing from that description is ‘public interest above self interest’. I suspect that several membership organisations have a code of conduct, but are they anything more than a trade body as opposed to a professional body? The whole concept of putting the public interest above your own self interest is important to professionalism.
MN: Some professions are more focused on the public than others. I think there can sometimes be a conflict between serving your profession, serving the public and serving your employer.
Jennifer Shaw (JS): One would have to declare that conflict and be sure who you have a duty of care to. In many cases declaration would be with the employer, and it would then be up to the employer whether to accept accountability and responsibility and proceed in an ethical manner. The public must never be misled about a situation.
Tony Osude (TO): You have described a triangle (employee, employer, public), and there is a huge amount of tension within it, what with the contract of employment and certain other obligations and demands. The employer should understand a code of ethics and what they ought to be doing. However, evidence shows that whistle blowers in an organisation are not well treated. While we have an idealistic notion of professionalism and what we would like people to do, this issue can be very complex. As professional
bodies we have a constant challenge to look at the wider environment. MN: Several professional organisations including the APM are registered charities. These are required by law to serve the public good and the requirements surrounding this are being tightened significantly. The balance between a profession’s loyalty to its members and to the public in general can be a challenging one.
Martin Hagen (MH): When one person sits on a company board and is the only qualified professional, then if they are challenged to do things that are beyond the limit of what they feel is acceptable professional practice, who do they turn to? In these circumstances, a large support network has to be available for advice and assistance. The individual will have privilege so can talk to the support member about ethical issues without fear of reprisal.
MS: Care needs to be taken over the contents of a Code. It is quite possible for professionals to demonstrate that the public interest is very close to their own. This is one of the reasons why the Law Society has set up independently appointed regulatory boards with lay people. However, one must be careful to ensure that lay people do not become ‘captured’ and more professional than the profession.
Nicole Ziman (NZ): Feedback from our disciplinary committee shows that the accountants on the committee are harder on their fellow members than the lay people, including lawyers, who are in the majority.
MN: So perhaps the challenge is how to articulate the public good through enhancing the performance of our members. This needs to be presented in a way that is equally beneficial to members and the public.

Monitoring, measuring and CPD

Joseph Alba (JA): Measuring how well an organisation promotes and maintains its continuing professional development scheme is a key issue.
MN: There are many examples where a profession has encouraged CPD but done very little to penalise members who did not follow it.
MH: In the ICAEW we have had a CPD scheme for members in practice for many years, but there were no CPD requirements for non-practicing members. A mandated system was developed two years ago. It does not rely on hours or number of courses attended, but more an assessment of what your development needs are at the beginning of the year and identifying the activities required to meet those needs. This is monitored by our quality assurance department.
John Rowley (JR): CPD is very important to the sustaining of any profession. But equally important is the behaviour of the profession and the integrity it displays. In other words, the immeasurables.
MN: There appears to be a process of maturity for a profession whereby it moves away from a body of knowledge, through a competence framework that tends to focus initially on technical and professional skills. This brings in behaviour and even contextual issues such as environmental and operational matters.
TO: One of the challenges we face as professionals is the ‘commoditisation’ of knowledge. Years ago, professional organisations were elitist groups, well educated and highly protectionist associations. These days everyone is generally better educated and, by using information technology, tends to question a profession and its professionalism, some even offering solutions and suggestions.
JA: If you were feeling ill, would you consult a professional doctor or do you make a self diagnosis? The public goes to a professional because they want that service for assurance, backed by a code of practice, conduct and ethics.

Influencing the outside world

MN: APM has calculated that there are up to 250,000 people engaged full time in project management in the UK, which is similar in number to several of the longest established professions. Only a small percentage are members of a professional body focused on project management. How far should a professional organisation go to reach out to those others that may never be qualified or seek the benefits of membership, in order to influence their behaviours and competencies?
JR: For me, the big issue for Chartered membership of the project management profession is that users of project management professionals must be able to identify standards, demand that they are met and measure the results.
MH: That’s all about protection of the public. My institute was founded in 1880 when a group of practitioners got together because they realised the public were being ripped off by liquidators and wanted to put a stop to it. In my profession anyone can call himself or herself an accountant, so we have to concentrate on differentiating in the marketplace. We need to remind people why they are better off using the services of a Chartered or certified accountant. We must demonstrate that adherence to a code of ethics, amassing skills, being appropriately qualified and keeping continually up to date ensures that they will get far better service from members of those bodies.
MS: Professional services will frequently mean it costing more than others, for exactly those reasons.
TO: But there are sections of the business community who are motivated by cost and are happy to use the services of perhaps even unqualified people.
JA: It’s all about people’s perceptions of a professional and what added value they might provide when you do business with them.
MN: Some institutions try to influence government. I know one, the Institution of Civil Engineers, which produces an annual report is directly aimed at persuading government to take more interest in improving the national infrastructure.
MS: The Law Society has always seen itself as having a learned society role. Our members are able to advise government if, for example, some statutes aren’t going to work technically. We would always try to avoid party politics and keep out of the major debates, but are available to offer expert advice. Parliamentarians value it when we take on this public interest role.
MH: There are many instances where failure to consult a profession has resulted in inelegant solutions to some governmental issues. The capital gains tax affair is a typical example. Any profession has a clear role to use its accumulated expertise to give counsel and advice.
MN: APM is then on the right track in aiming to help the government benefit from project management development, implementation and policy.
JR: There is a wider aspect to this when you consider the number of very substantial infrastructure projects that have not gone as well as they might in recent years. The spokesperson is usually from a partisan body – perhaps the construction company with the bank that funded it. If there were a Chartered project manager who could opine on something like that, it would serve the public good. They would provide a trusted opinion.
MH: The professional body will usually be able to speak with more authority than its individual members. This would avoid any accusation of self interest.
MN: APM has already set up a policy unit to give advice on key principles and a balanced view to government.

Specialisation – good or bad?

MN: What is the view on how you maintain professionalism in a world of increasing ‘specialisation’?
MS: We have a system where people are asked to provide evidence that they are expert in a particular area. Once this is done they are invited to become a member of a specialist panel. It is a way of encouraging high standards. However, we do not believe that you should compartmentalise too much.
JS: If the individual pursues a specialist line, and then is asked to work on a project on the fringe of, or outside this field, they must declare their limited competence. Otherwise the standards we expect from professionals may be compromised.
MS: We have rules that state categorically that you must not take on work that you are not competent to do.
TO: Sometimes people are forced down the road of specialisation, but this can help to enhance the image of a profession. The challenge is not the differing specialisations, but the assurance that people are operating within a common set of values and sharing common interests.
MN: Should not a core body of knowledge and key competencies be common across the whole spectrum of a profession?
JR: That’s a real challenge. As time goes on, I’m not sure that any body of knowledge could be sustainable, given that priorities change in a profession. With specialists you get deeply competent people, but their particular skillset may not be representative of the profession as a whole.
JS: Some newly qualified project managers are keen to start specialising straight away, but I advise caution. They will start to narrow down their options too soon.

Education and experience

MN: The Privy Council – which can be described as the ‘entry gate’ to Chartered status – strongly emphasises the need for a high proportion of graduates. Yet there are some professions that have not had a reliance on graduate entry in their bid to be professionally successful. Is it vital that we maintain a focus on graduates, or are experiential entry routes as valuable, provided they are supported by the right standards?
MH: I don’t think entirely experiential routes are sufficient. A professional body should be available to anybody to join, providing they meet an appropriate threshold. This should deal with the issue of people’s prior experience.
JR: If you graduate you get certain credits and exemptions, but my professional body also allows for people coming through a ‘mature student’ entry route which recognises experience. There are dangers of exclusively going down the qualification route or the experience route.
MH: What makes a professional is the blend of experience, the skills required and the knowledge gained.
MN: To what extent is coaching and mentoring institutionalised within your professions?
MS: In the legal profession you have your graduate entry, vocational training for two years under supervision, then must practice for a further three years in the office of a more senior solicitor before you can set up on your own.
NZ: In ACCA you can’t be in practice on your own without five years’ experience under your belt.
MH: It’s similar for us. The requirement to become a Chartered accountant includes studying exams and three years, supervised experience in specific areas.
TO: ACCA launched a new qualification last year, which follows a workplace mentor model, so people have a closer integral relationship with someone at work, giving a more rounded, symbiotic relationship with CPD.

Collaboration: the way forward?

MN: Everybody in business is a ‘sometime’ project manager. A lot of project managers today are specialists who were once something else – perhaps a mechanical engineer, accountant or lawyer. There is a full complement of overlapping professions in my profession. APM is collaborating with other professions, including sitting on their management boards and inviting them on to ours. We also conduct joint research. Everything is greatly enriched as a result. This has nothing to do with poaching members – people value each of their professions. To what extent does a professional organisation require a collaborative dimension with other professional institutions? And how far are we moving to a world where hardly anyone is in a single profession?
TO: There is a need for individuals to collaborate in terms of convenience and best practice. This can be an aid to developing a professional body.
MN: There is a common thread here – that regardless of the profession, from a management perspective we all have the same challenges. Is there an opportunity to have a shared vision of the future in developing ideal behaviours?
MH: For the accounting bodies in the UK there is an umbrella organisation called the CCAB. This identifies the common ground where there are issues facing the profession where we are better off collaborating.
NZ: The accountancy bodies share the same broad over-arching behaviours. Experienced professions could give assistance to new professions and there might also be a sharing of professional regulation best practice procedures.

The future of professionalism

MN: What should professional bodies be doing in the next 10 to 20 years to respond to the challenges of the accelerating pace of change and globalisation? Do we need to adapt and develop some new approaches?
JR: The challenge is huge – for the professions it is to react swiftly and appropriately before the legislators do something themselves.
TO: Consumers and clients are struggling to understand what is good information and what is not so good information. So much information is available! The role of the professions is going to be about helping them sort the wheat from the chaff. The concept of professional judgement is absolutely key to everything we do, especially on the training side. We will need professionals to bring even more trust and stability into our ever more complex world.
JA: What is needed is clarity – and one needs professionals to clarify matters in a complex world. Project management is bringing things together in a timely fashion, partly by using this ability.
JS: Change can be driven by being proactive, using accumulated knowledge. This can influence business, as opposed to being reactive to change. Increasing globalisation means greater employment movement across nations and we have a duty to be proactive here.
MH: It’s a lot to do with maintaining the brand. You have to provide something that is of real value to members but also provide something that the public actually wants.
MN: The essential competence of the professional project manager is to take a very complicated situation and break it down so that it becomes intelligible and manageable.
MS: The APM needs to get a clear view of what the public wants from project managers and how it can facilitate people getting into that market. JS: We are talking about a product that will be far superior to what somebody could ‘buy off the shelf ’. And people need to know that they will benefit by buying in to the knowledge that is generated.

The challenges for project management

TO: I am always hearing about the huge amounts of loss suffered in organisations such as the NHS and huge failures in project management that cost taxpayers enormous sums.
JS: Poor project management results in all kinds of overspending, rotational loss, high risks and lots of other problems.
JR: Yet there are a multitude of projects that go right that never get published.
MN: That goes back to our responsibility as an institution. We have a major communications challenge – to demonstrate that effective project management really works.
TO: What’s needed is promotion of the high standards in the profession, and this can be done through Chartership.
MS: I suspect that many of the older Chartered bodies became so because the public realised that they stood for high standards, reliability and professionalism, and there were very few experts outside that profession. APM needs to establish itself as the place where expert project managers automatically go. If you want to get a project through, you only go there.
MH: A profession is only as good as its members and one of the things APM must determine is who gets in and who stays.
MS: How far do you control a member’s activities? For example, at one time solicitors were not allowed to advertise their businesses and barristers were not allowed to have business cards. How far do you regulate price? How far do you regulate what information you give to clients? I would urge against being prescriptive on these matters.
JS: It would be good to explore how we attract more members and how we interact with other professional bodies. Also, I would like to understand more about how professional bodies discipline individuals for breaching their code.
TO: How do you make a profession attractive enough for people to want to join it? We are all fishing from the same pool of talent and this is getting smaller as competition from elsewhere increases. Also, is the Chartered professional body model, which was created in the Victorian era, now the right one? And how does it rate internationally? Finally, how do you persuade people that project management is a sufficiently specialised need to merit the enhanced reputation that Chartered status would give?
JR: To what extent does the project management profession need to reach out to government bodies to help to establish itself as a Chartered profession? APM has benefited hugely by its relationship with the Office of Government and Commerce (OGC) sponsorship of standards. Some of the largest procurement in the UK is for projects and projects need project managers. Therefore to what extent is government prepared to mandate that it uses Chartered project managers? This would greatly aid project management to have currency in the marketplace.
MN: We’re keen to understand what is beyond Chartered status for APM. We are partnering with the OGC in trying to drive up the level of professionalism in project management across government. This is just a beginning, but where this policy has been applied it has demonstrably improved performance.
MH: The biggest challenge facing my institute is the impact of global regulation. Regulators have popped up on a global basis, they are getting their act together and we need to make sure we have the resources to engage on a global scale in order to represent the views of members. I imagine this would also apply to project management. APM might also want to look at some form of arbitration or dispute resolution process because that can be seen as beneficial by customers as well.
NZ: How will you monitor your professional project managers after they have passed their entry qualifications? You can ask for evidence of CPD, but how do you go about monitoring the work someone does on a project? Without appropriate assessment of quality of work, a grey area can develop where you may not know if someone is fully up to standard.
MN: It is important that we model ourselves on the other professions in this area, as this challenge is something that must be common to all. It is vital that there are ‘teeth’ behind the standards required, especially in a profession like project management that is witnessing rapid growth.
NZ: Our department has doubled in three years, so I recognise the challenge of rapid growth. In the modern age there are increasingly stringent requirements for the quality of investigations and the manner in which decisions are reached.
MN: We need ‘project heroes’ – people that children will aspire to emulate. It’s a well kept secret that project management is an extraordinarily enjoyable thing to do. It’s the perfect job for me, but how do we make that known?
It’s been a really interesting discussion. Thank you all very much indeed for your very valuable input. Let’s hope we can maintain contact in the future.

John Rowley is a former Inspector of Taxes and a qualified project management professional and Prince2 Practitioner. John can be contacted on; Tel: 07711 217839 Email: