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Program management education – where are we now?

Doug Wheeler
March 24, 2011

Education in program management is currently provided through both vocational and postgraduate academic programs, leading to recognised qualifications. This is predominantly provided by organisations with courses and programs accredited by either or both of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) and Project Management Institute (PMI).

The relevant vocational qualification is an Advanced Diploma of Project Management (AQF6), which also provides a link to the AIPM’s Certified Practising Project Director (CPPD) certification. Relevant academic course work postgraduate qualifications are available at Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma and Masters (including Executive Masters) levels. These may be specific to project management or have a broader offering related to management of the business, the business environment, and people.

These programs are mature and all have a role in the marketplace because of the varying requirements by individual students and organisations. However, there are no qualifications titled ‘program management’, nor is the marketing directed just to program managers, because program management means different things to different organisations, and has different applications.

Sometimes it is also associated with a title that is unrelated to the role. Arguably, the skills and role of program management are applicable to: ‘pure’ programs where there is a group of projects with a common benefit; a large or complex project that is best managed as a suite of component projects; and a group of unrelated projects grouped under functional or regional managers, or for fiscal or budgeting purposes.

Understanding programs

The terms of program and portfolio management have gained some traction, but these can be difficult in application and understanding due to the close relationship between portfolio management and management of the business, including operations management. Rather than differentiating between program and portfolio it can be more palatable for smaller and flatter organisations to think of program management as that level of management that converts business strategy into projects.

A search on program management education will also identify courses on related proprietary methodologies, but these are specific to the processes and not necessarily the underpinning knowledge required by program managers.

‘Traditional’ project management is about a task-based approach to projects with an emphasis on the ‘science’. This has an emphasis on scope, cost, time, quality and procurement and can be very reliant on detailed methodologies and processes.

The competency standards and project management education for program management has evolved to have a stronger inclusion of the ‘art’ aspects of risk and opportunity management, leadership, and the relational demands of effective procurement. This is recognition of the leadership-based approach and skills needed to manage large or complex projects and programs.

However, the mix of these task and leadership based approaches depends upon the type of projects and programs, and the structure and culture of the organisation. A large number of projects undertaken by any organisation will be in the traditional domain where less experienced personnel can safely manage these with a task-based approach supported by methodologies and governance.

This means that education focused on a task-based approach with nice, neat, and detailed project management plans within strict methodologies may not be appropriate for those in a program management role. Program managers may need to be technically savvy to permit them to know what ‘dumb’ questions to ask, and to sense if information is unreliable, but their learning and development will focus on aspects such as strategy and tactics, leadership, negotiation, stakeholder management, risk and opportunity management, financial management, influence and communication.

Doug Wheeler
Doug Wheeler CPPD is an educator, facilitator, coach and assessor with more than 30 years' experience in project management. He is a Chartered Professional Engineer, Registered Professional Engineer Queensland, and in 2013 completed a Master of Applied Science (Research) focussing on project portfolio selection and strategic decision making. He is an endorsed assessor for the Australian Institute of Project Management and has been a consultant to UNE Partnerships for more than 14 years, currently filling the role of Academic Director. He is also a Sessional Academic for QUT in its Master of Project Management program.
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