PMI Webinar: The Merits and Limitations of Certifications

The PMI Agile Community of Practice sponsored a webinar discussion today between Alistair Cockburn and James Shore on “The merits and limitations of certifications.”  Both are well-established Agile teachers and thought leaders, and I thought their arguments reflected the dialogs we’ve been having here in the blogosphere.  A recording of the webinar is available here.  It runs 58 minutes, safe for work.  Highly recommended.

James raised a point that I felt was not sufficiently rebutted: that certification contributes to “stagnation” in the field.  I will disagree, and point to the ever-increasing number of PMI standards, publications, and other resources that have accompanied the dramatic increase in the number of PMP credential holders over the last few years.  PMI sponsors conferences, publishes papers, provides scholarships, and promotes publications by various experts in their bookstore. And they continuously improve the quality of both their publications and their credential exams; witness the coming updates to the PMP and PgMP exams, and the coming fifth edition of the PMBOK.  Far from being stagnant, I would argue that the field of project management has benefited tremendously from the alignment of interests brought about by the PMP credential program.  It has been the nucleus for development of a market of practitioners and their employers, resulting in new software, knowledge, and consulting products of every kind.

I hope you’ll add your thoughts on the webinar and on the value of professional credentials and certifications  in your comments to this post.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.

6 thoughts on “PMI Webinar: The Merits and Limitations of Certifications

  1. Dave,

    I agree with you this one. I think that creating a community around a subject does encourage the on-going need to keep it fresh and relevant.

    I liked the webinar but felt for a second that those two had some on-going ‘beef’ and I think that Alistar Cockburn even used the word ‘violent’ to describe their interaction. Could be because James Shore came out of the pike stridently against Agile certification.

    I don’t think I’m convinced on the Agile certification, though I’m hugely in favor of Project Management certification. I think that having the PMP does represent a level of knowledge maturity in the field, though it should not represent how ‘good’ someone is in any of the process areas. And I feel that there are break outs to the BOK where folks can focus in on what they are good at; like the RMP.

    I don’t believe PMI ever intended that the PMP would say to employers ‘hey this is a great project manager.’ I think they meant the PMP to say ‘hey, this person has been trained and understands project management concepts’. And that’s it.

    Which is fine by me!

    I don’t see the Agile Cert as equal to the PMP in it’s broad approach to method. I see the Agile Cert as equal the RMP, a elaboration of a control method, if you will, that spans the process areas. That’s because I view PMBOK as a collection of centuries old wisdom aggregated into one book (yes centuries -there are methodological truths in the PMBOK that were used to build cathedrals, no doubt).

    Agile methods are are one way to accomplish the PMBOK process areas.

    Agile philosophy on the other hand – that everything can and does change often – I think is harder to pin down. And this is where I see the contradiction. If methods should be adjusted constantly, is certification the same as trying to pin jello to a tree?

    And by certifying, are we changing the philosophy of change inherent in the early Agile tenants?


  2. Yup, we’re “in violent agreement,” as Alastair said. Sorry I didn’t make it to the on-line, I had to listen to the recording. But I think it was interesting to follow the results of the various survey questions as they spoke.

    As you said, ACP looks like it will be similar to PMI-RMP or PMI-SP. All three require 30 specialty (as opposed to “general project management”) PDU’s in order to renew, as opposed to 60 for the PMP or PgMP. And I think that’s appropriate – it’s a specialty.

    Most project managers won’t use Agile techniques. Would you want to drive across a suspension bridge built using Scrum? But those who do use Scrum (or XP, or whatever) in one part of a larger project need to know how to integrate those activities, team members, risks, and deliverables into a stream managed using critical path methods. And that’s where having a PM who knows Agile methods is valuable.

    Of course, the techniques associated with Agile will evolve, as have the processes associated with project management. I earned my PMP designation with the second edition of the PMBOK; now I’m waiting to see the draft of the fifth edition. Both the PMP and PgMP exams are being updated, based on role delineation studies conducted by PMI. As project managers, we’re change agents – we do this stuff for a living.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. As one of the organizers of the webinar, I’m really happy to see so much critical thought around the topic. My take on this is that there is no static solution here. For purposes of this discussion, let me refer to the two schools of thought as standardization and craftsmanship. Standardization being the collection, organization and dissemination of a set of information and skills around some domain, in our case project management. Craftsmanship would be the personal journey of experience, discovery and innovation a professional goes through as they apply their craft and grow their own skills.

    To better explore this, let me offer the field of physics. On one hand, we have standardized knowledge. Most all of us have experiences going through high school physics where you need to apply numerous formulas to determine the correct velocity, force, mass or some other characteristic of whatever it is you’re studying. We acquired hard skills in a domain in which there is a right and a wrong answer. Overall, we were consuming a lot of standardized knowledge.

    Now there are two specific benefits to this approach. First of all, the standardization of knowledge allowed the massive dissemination of skills and insights that took lifetimes to learn. A high school graduate today stands upon the shoulders of numerous geniuses with more knowledge than could have been discovered by one person in several lifetimes. But of course they are not scientists.

    No, eventually they must put his craft into practice and begin to see what happens. They must conduct their own experiments and develop their own theories to test. Indeed, this is where our standardized training can become a liability. For example, Einstein had to challenge Newton’s three laws of motion when he developed his own theory of relativity. The more establishment knowledge we have, the harder it can be at times to discard it when we find something new.

    Thus, in a healthy field we need people who are building up standardized knowledge to capitalize on insights discovered by a few, as well as individuals to question that very knowledge, tear it down, and establish new ideas to be standardized by others.

    Neither alone will work sufficiently. Without standardization – on some level – we can not get the scale or dissemination for an idea to become widely adopted. Without craftmanship, we won’t be able to purge the body of knowledge of incorrect ideas or those that have outlived their usefulness.

    The day we stop having this discussion and embrace either position wholly will be when we get in serious trouble

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  5. I appreciate anytime the conversation truly extends beyond the initial presentation. Dave, thanks for bringing this forum for discussion. This I’m sure will become a difficult discussion for some.

    My struggle with most of these types of conversations are the definitive statements. I like Brian’s reference to Physics to understand the applications of the known because it points out one of my concerns. This perception that project management is a “known good” is completely false and a topic of many experts in workflow, cognitive theory, and psychology.

    With that said, I also agree that no one can learn in one lifetime all of the information on a subject and must rely on their predecessors and focus on their contributions to the school of thought for their successors. It’s the true believers and the true naysayers I listen to the least.

    The majority of project management isn’t about software development and the massive software movement of the 21st century has left many Project Managers confused about the natural evolution of Project Management into the agile space. Here’s a couple of thoughts I would offer for discussion some of these topics.

    1. Things don’t work, hence the revisions.
    2. Formulas, equations, and algorithms are only as good as their inputs
    3. Agile Software Development is about Software Development
    4. Agile is not Software Development in and of itself
    5. Scrum is a framework, not a methodology
    6. Practitioners with experience are not coaches
    7. Market confusion and it’s role in evolution

    The notion that agile is a specialty makes me think it’s simply not understood by the person making the statement. I agree the market is confusing, but I don’t believe PMI intends to make a comparison between PMI-ACP℠ and PMP®, so neither will I.

    I agree the hype is overwhelming in software implementations and I agree ‘traditional project management’ is just understanding how agile mind-sets fit into the skill-sets that are project management. Agile 2011 will shed some light on “what went wrong” from the individuals that started it in software 10 years ago. IMHO it was implementation of a subjective perspective about a very powerful message that is agile. Too often we see an emotional response to agile as if it were a replacement or a disqualifying statement for a project managers. I say it’s not.

    I hope to see an embrace between the two methods and a coming together of IT Project Management with traditional project management. I have heard before that “Agile will evolve…..” I say so will we as people, and that is agile.

    I’d like to share this thought for the day:
    -We will not limit ourselves with foregone conclusions when we don’t fully understand something, after all, as project managers, we’re change agents – we do this stuff for a living (the part i agree with in David’s response, although I felt a resistance to change in reading this post.)

    This is a fantastic conversation. Thank you all.

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