Projecting Project Management’s Future Within the Academic Landscape

U.S. universities have had century-long success in absorbing existing professions into their curricula—by making academe their gatekeeper. These professions often started with apprenticeships and short training courses leading to a certification examination—and were then elevated and “academized” into a comprehensive body of knowledge, fueled by evidence-based scholarship, led by university faculty, and offered to students as advanced academic degrees. The nation’s best research universities often paved the way—and once an academic pathway was established, there would be no retreat back to on-the-job shortcuts.

Project Management is currently on the cusp of this transformation from professional designation to academic credential. But unlike emerging disciplines in the past, Project Management is at risk of deviating from this traditional path. Project Management is testing the agility and openness of mainstream academe, which may be leaving a gaping hole to be filled by the ever-present competitive threat to 21st century academics: the for-profit institutions that fill the voids research universities and others relinquish to them.

The growth of Project Management is truly one of the major phenomena in professional development in recent years. In little more than a generation, the Project Management Institute (PMI) has grown worldwide to a half-million members who subscribe to its principles of how to organize and execute major projects, lead teams, monitor and control costs. PMI has successfully promulgated the idea that its certification examination qualifies test-takers to receive its much-coveted designation to manage major projects in every sector—construction, research and development, information systems and elsewhere. Many job postings (especially for federal, state and local government projects) now require this certification in this burgeoning field.

If, however, you possess a master’s or even a doctoral degree in Project Management, there is a good chance you obtained this online and perhaps via a for-profit school. A disturbing trend is the likelihood that you were not taught by full-time faculty, with research-based doctorates, actively engaged in scholarship. Perhaps your corporation automatically paid your tuition bills, regardless of the credibility of the program or institution, simply based on your employee benefits.

The Project Management Institute estimates 1.2 million new positions annually on a global scale over the next decade. Given these vast job opportunities, it is far easier to explain the exploding demand side of this phenomenon than the more lethargic supply side: Why has traditional academe stayed on the sidelines and ceded this growing need to proprietary programs? I would argue the very insularity, entrenchment and rigidity of mainstream universities render them oblivious to this important opportunity.

The growth of general management education over less than a half-century has been astronomical, initially in the U.S. (in the ‘70s and ‘80s) and now worldwide at more than 13,000 institutions. Within the U.S., first-generation college goers, women, minorities, and international students fueled this growth. The accrediting bodies and national and transnational efforts like Europe’s Bologna Accord standardized management education across the globe so that prospective students can better understand their options and opportunities. Professional associations like the AACSB have been victorious in bringing management education into the Western academic mainstream by ensuring the critical mass of full-time, doctorally qualified, research active faculty. Emerging countries are encouraging the growth of very entrepreneurial academic enterprises based largely on teaching business skills to a new generation. (On the outskirts of Bangalore, I drove past the “Adam Smith School of Business” where the first letter in “Smith” was replaced with a dollar sign.)

But this is still mainly a one-MBA-fits-all approach to learning general management and organizational leadership—that ignores the quietly emerging undercurrent of other possibilities. There is growing interest both from students and corporations for alternatives to the conventional MBA pathway. The corporate call is now for greater focus and more immediately relevant and practical skills. With the MBA at risk of becoming a commodity, alternative graduate management programs and credentials become appealing differentiators. The question is how elite institutions will respond to this disruptive influence—and where Project Management, in particular, will reside within higher education. This is an opportunity for these highly regarded schools to assert their historic leadership in professional education.

First the barriers: Conventional academe often gets stuck within its own structure, focusing inward on what faculty wish to teach rather than outward on what the world around them needs. Project Management is an excellent example, which, despite tremendous corporate demand, finds itself homeless—without an obvious department or cluster of faculty champions. Project Management crosses many conventional colleges—business and engineering schools, computer science departments and even biomedical fields. Unless there is someone to lead the charge to argue that Project Management is more than a passing fad and has deep, lasting and legitimate academic value, or unless a university has a designated locus for innovative and interdisciplinary initiatives, this field simply cannot surface to compete with more agile for-profits.

Now the opportunity: Project Management should emerge as a bona fide academic discipline, but needs to be captured by the historic caretakers of academic quality and integrity. A corps of faculty is essential to run a quality academic program, especially at the graduate level. They bring credibility and commitment—and can create the gravitas that will legitimize and sustain Project Management. True academic faculty serve on editorial boards, connect academic research and industry needs, and generate and disseminate knowledge. Their success distinguishes a world-class program from a merely competent one, a passing training fad from an enduring academic field of study.

The prevalence of online degrees adds a unique dimension and criticality to the need for academic commitment to Project Management. Quality distance learning demands far more faculty time and institutional resources. But we have a chicken-and-egg challenge where faculty talent does not pre-exist and must be cultivated, in parallel to growing graduate enrollments. This requires a strategic vision for building a quality academic program and generating research-trained doctorates in the field, well beyond an ad hoc collection of courses taught by adjunct faculty.

What began as test preparation toward certification is growing into a more robust body of knowledge. But only truly academic faculty can generate the empirical research and conceptual frameworks, academic standards and program integrity to allow Project Management to establish its rightful place among the professions. Until then, the content of Project Management will belong to professional societies and more responsive for-profits.

It is possible, albeit difficult, to meet this challenge and address this opportunity. Boston University has discovered that Project Management can attract hundreds of mid-career students, that research-oriented faculty can be recruited to work together on building a curriculum of depth and quality, and that the distance learning platform is uniquely suited to the skills inherent in Project Management. In fact, the online medium is the message: Because project teams have become so dispersed, virtual learning simulates the emerging global workplace. Distance learning in first-class universities needs to be first-class in itself—indistinguishable in quality, expectations, requirements, and outcomes from the on-campus classroom—and, ideally, even better. The Socratic Method has its place online, as do group projects and active learning, which are all beneficial and integral to Project Management.

Creating an academic home for Project Management can then lead to academic depth and breadth far beyond the imagination of a professional organization—specialized tracks, new concepts, student research projects and pedagogical tools that enhance the learning experience. The path to professionalism in this century is at risk of becoming markedly different from that of the last century. Project Management is the litmus test for where academic authority and responsibility will now reside.

Jay A. Halfond is dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University. He thanks BU Professors Roger Warburton and Vijay Kanabar for their thoughts.


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