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Teaching project management: Linking theory to practice

Michael Baron
April 27, 2016

Project management has been recognised as an essential skill for university students to learn. Furthermore, almost all of IT and majority of business undergraduate and postgraduate degrees deliver project management as a separate subject. True ’fans’ of project management can take their formal education further by undertaking entire degrees such as the Master of Project Management degree offered by Monash University, which focus on project management essentials.

In the light of project management’s rise as an academic discipline and the consequent emergence of the army of university-qualified project managers who have little, if any, hands-on experience in managing people and systems, there is a growing concern about validity and relevance of these qualifications.

In other words, formal project management qualifications appear to have little recognition within the respective industries and employers tend to question the ability of the graduates to do the jobs they are trained for. Therefore, providers of project management courses are currently faced with the task of raising the bar to address the employers’ concerns.

The only way to address the current lack of faith in tertiary project management qualifications is to ensure that content of the courses incorporates not only study of the mainstream theories, tools and patterns but also practical aspects of project management issues in the workplace. Every project management course needs to link to real-life workplace activities and tasks. Below are some suggestions for getting this objective accomplished:

Use of real-life case studies

Use of real-life case studies as learning exercises will obviously increase difficulty levels of the courses as theses case studies are far more complex than the versions commonly used in assessments and review tasks. However, there is an equally obvious pay-off in doing so! The real-life case studies will be instrumental in getting students exposed to workplace challenges and developing their project management skills to a considerably higher level.

Practitioner teachers only

As someone who is proactive in academia, I have been observing staffing arrangements for higher degrees across many of the Australian and international universities. It is always great to have industry practitioners teaching students alongside with career academics they team-up with.

In the case of project management programs, contributions from the industry practitioners are particularly essential. If we want students to discuss real-time issues and replicate the professional project management environment, we will not be able to do so without project managers who have deep understanding of the processes and patterns involved.

As an added bonus, they could also provide graduating students with assistance in arranging internships and workplace visits and act as mentors as well as teachers.

Regular content updates

It is unfortunately common for content of university programs/subjects to be get updated rather irregularly. In the case of project management, this can result in students’ learning tools, patterns, applications and methodologies that are already outdated by the time they graduate. This is yet another reason to engage industry practitioners into delivery of the project management programs to a greater extent.

The learning content should be reviewed on regular basis and all of the emerging technologies should be immediately added to the learning suite. Likewise, outdated content should be replaced rather than cherished for years to come.

Integration with industry certifications

Many employers value industry certifications more than university qualifications. This trend has already been addressed by educators in some other fields. For example, several universities such as Swinburne, Charles Sturt and Monash to name a few, have been incorporating industry certifications into some of their IT Networking courses.

There is no reason why project management-centred degrees cannot adopt the same approach and start incorporating relevant certifications into the curriculum. For example, PMP and PMI certifications can easily be converted into university-style subjects and, on successful completion, graduates should be able to receive both qualifications (the degree and the industry certification chosen) at once.

Industry placements

Industry placements should be turned into compulsory elements of the project management courses. They will ensure that the graduating students can obtain both valuable workplace experience and sexy content for their resumes to make them more appealing for future employers. The very process of arranging the internships will help the universities to establish stronger links with the industrial bodies and practitioners.

To sum up, skilled and qualified project managers are always in demand but aspiring project-managers-to-be have a long way to go to achieve recognition as top-notch professionals. While universities are in no position to take them all the way to their career destinations, they can (and they should!) lead them in the right direction by providing project managers of the future with solid, relevant and up-to-date foundations.

Author avatar
Michael Baron
Dr Michael Baron is the founder and managing director of Baron Consulting, a business consulting, recruitment and training agency. These services are currently available in Australia (Melbourne and Sydney), China, Singapore and New Zealand. He also lectures MBA and MIS students at some of Australia's leading universities.
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