It is no longer enough for teachers in tertiary institutions to lecture on project management theory and methodology. Training organisations already know that the era of running sessions of ‘chalk and talk’ is dead. But in asking how an undergraduate degree could offer the more practical elements of project management in a risk-free environment, senior lecturer at New Zealand’s Manukau Institute of Technology Linda Weterman combined three elements she thought would start students on a path to understanding and applying project management: competition, simulation and mentorship.
While the individual strands in isolation had been done before, Weterman found that the powerful synergy of all three could transform students with two years’ study under their belts to project-ready graduates.
“Competition is not new, mentoring is not new, nor is simulation but in combination, at an undergraduate level with pressure, it’s new,” Weterman explains. “What this is about is giving students a ‘near world’ experience.”
Born from her own background as a ‘pracademic’ (an academic with substantial industry experience), this triangulation attempted to recreate as closely as possible various situations encountered during a project.
“I came from industry into an academic world and I was watching these students learn theoretically through case studies and assessment, but I wanted them to be under pressure in a team,” says Weterman. “I can’t give them real world experience, no matter what we do, whether it’s a case study, whether it’s working with a project manager, whether it’s giving them a little event to project manage.”
The ‘near world’ elements extended to some of the rules of engagement, which included having fixed teams: students were not able to change teams due to internal differences but were instead encouraged to “negotiate what they needed to do to succeed,” says Weterman.
“Even though they had done group work before, the difference with this was it was run across the whole semester so the team had to learn their strengths and weaknesses and work with them.”
Competition and simulation
Weterman chose to run a product development project via SimProject over a semester. The teams had rankings—which all the other teams could see—based on what happened in the project. The rankings took into account project constraints: time, scope, cost and functionality.
“The risk free environment was really important. They had a $380,000 budget for each project. Nobody is going to give that kind of money for a project to a student, so the simulation gave them money, gave them staff and gave them consequences for their actions,” she explains.
“They had to live with the consequences of their decisions and that was very much in evidence in this particular simulation. They ran 12 rounds so there were 12 rounds of milestones. We could see the consequences all the way along and they could see the results of each interaction.”
The decision-making aspect was a crucial one as it demonstrated actions and consequences in a project context. Indecision was also punished. “If they missed a decision, the simulation played it out for them. One group missed a decision and the simulation played their round—they didn’t miss another one,” notes Weterman.
“I wanted the students to feel some of the pain, especially with their ‘staff’. They had a pool of 90 staff: some were more experienced, some were less and they could choose to train their staff and there were consequences of that. If somebody was not working hard, that showed in the metrics of the game.”
The simulation also allowed teams to view the return on investment of their decisions. For example, some of the teams chose to have a pizza party for staff motivation because it was cheap “until they realised that what motivation you get from a pizza party is almost nothing,” she says. “So they realised there are all these wider decisions that you have to make.”