Professionalism and Society

Recently, I wrote about a preliminary study that had been done attempting to compare the value of various project management qualifications. I pointed out that, at least in part, it seemed to comparing apples with oranges, in that one qualification considered (PRINCE2) doesn’t try to sell itself as a general project management qualification, but specifically as a qualification in implementing one particular methodology.

But there is a wider issue here. The explicit statement was made that those qualifications which require longer levels of experience before being awarded were inherently better than others. I think the important point to consider is: better for whom?

Some of the bodies involved with project management at the moment are perfectly clear that they are trying to professionalise the career. When I say this, I am trying to use the precise meaning of professionalisation. This is not a matter of taking pride in your work, of always trying to do the best you can. No, this is about defining a set of formal requirements that someone must meet before they can even become a project manager. It is, in effect, an attempt to raise the barriers for entry into the profession considerably.

On the one hand, this is fantastic news for project managers who meet these requirements. By raising barriers to entry, they naturally decrease the total amount of people considered project managers. By decreasing the supply of project managers, it is likely, almost inevitable in fact, that the average salary of project managers will rise. I make no bones about it, professionalisation of a career is very good news financially for people in that career.

But the flip-side of this is that there are costs to the rest of society for doing this. Traditionally, these costs have been tolerated and accepted because society also gains a benefit. Let’s consider some of the traditional professions. Medicine is highly professionalised, allowing doctors to charge more, but that is accepted because the cost of having amateur medics running around was very high. The law is professional, because there needs to be a defined set of rules, and people who can interpret these rules, to allow society to function effectively.

Over time, as society has become more complex, more and more careers have professionalised. Accountancy, architecture, engineering, dentistry, and so on, become professions. It is possible to point at all of these and see how the benefits to society have developed, meaning the higher financial costs are accepted. Importantly, it is also possible to see how there were few external factors, other than the drive from within those careers, for regulation, of which professionalisation is one. Often, in fact, there is a pressure against professionalisation, and regulation, because the upfront costs would be lower (as generally people are poor at taking into account the future costs of, for example, a poorly engineered bridge).

We can see, then, that professionalisation can be seen as a deal between a particular career and society – if society is willing to pay more, they will, overall get a better service, to the benefit of all.

But, importantly, in those cases there were no other clear and immediate external pressures to ensure quality. Yes, poor medicine will cause problems, but often only after a significant time has passed. The punishment for accepting poorer work came much later than the reward of getting a cheaper deal.

With project management, however, I am not sure whether this holds. Often, poor project management will lead to a relatively quick poor result, as the project fails, or costs rise dramatically. Organisations that use project management already have a significant incentive to ensure good project management, because the cost of poor project management is quickly felt.

What this means, then, is that there is already a significant pressure on project management to be good, and effective. Is, therefore, a move towards full professionalisation something that would be welcomed by the rest of society – if society is already paying for good project management, because it is in their interests, would they really want to pay even more as the career raises the barriers to entry through professionalisation?

I’m not saying here that the professionalisation of project management is a bad thing. I am saying it needs to be considered. Some of the best project managers I have met are people who never expected to start out on that career path, but instead, after a period of years or decades doing something else, they were able to enter the career, bringing fresh thinking, and new techniques, which ultimately end up enriching all of project management. Would they still have done that if there was a major barrier for entry later in their career? How many people do you know who train to become a doctor in their forties?

Professionalisation would have benefits to the project management career, but we’d be foolish to think there weren’t also costs. Excluding effective people from outside is a cost. Even the higher salaries could be a cost, if they simply turn some businesses away from innovating with new projects.

What we as project managers have to do is make sure we go into this with open eyes. And if professionalisation is a path the career wants to go down (and, frankly, once the process has begun, I don’t think it could be stopped even if a significant number wanted it to) we need to remember that this is a deal between us and society. That means we need to be better at showing what the benefits of project management, and of people experienced in it, are, not only to the business we are directly working for, but to wider society.

In essence, much as professions such as medicine and the law have a wider duty to the public good, project management would need to as well. That means a clear formulation of what that duty is would need to be distilled, and that, when asked to do something that goes against it, we would have to be willing to say no.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what that formulation would look like. I’m open to suggestions.

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