What is the professional certifications impact on professional project management? (5/6 PM challenges)

This is fifth of six project management challenges that are impacting the practice of project management and as a domain.

The last challenge that we discussed, dealt with the need for specialized project management, rather than generic practice across all types of projects and domains. Building on this last challenge, this one is probably the most difficult challenge to write about and the most controversial yet we believe it is quite essential to discuss. We have already written a few articles on certifications, particularly the Project Management Professional (PMP), but we address here from a different angle – the impact of certification on the domain and practices of project management.


In order not to violate copyrights of others we start by listing two references here:

  1. A Dilbert cartoon scene on 22 November 2011, shows Dilbert with his mother having lunch … their waiter shows up and says “how can I help you, I am your project manager”. This cartoon was all over the internet. For some, it reflected the degrading value of a project manager. Dilbert Cartoons are by Scott Adams. http://search.dilbert.com/search?day1=22&mth1=11&yr1=2011&day2=22&mth2=11&yr2=2011&x=62&y=10
  2. A 15 January 2013 article on CIO magazine starting with the following: “Just because someone has the title of “project manager” does not mean he knows how to effectively manage projects, as many CIO and other IT executives have learned the hard way.”

Project management certification contribution

A major contributor to the growth of project management in recent years is professional certifications, primarily the Project Management Professional (PMP®), but also other certification such as IPMA® certifications, PRINCE2™, and many others. There is no doubt about the value of certifications in enhancing a professional’s skills and in learning about project management. Yet success and popularity of a certification could be a double-edged sword.

We think that a major factor for certifications’ growth is individuals who want to improve their chance of getting a promotion or a better job. These professionals use certifications as a catalyst to change a career from a technical domain to project management.

This scenario is a good situation and should not be a concern, correct? Professionals need to grow and they do so by learning new things. Here lays the challenge, ‘learning new things’.

Certification as a challenge or even a threat

Certifications, like the PMP, require project management experience, close to three years. What is happening is that some professionals are becoming PMP without enough project management experience, if any at all. In other words, the challenge is not certification – it is the manner in which some professional associations, particularly PMI, market and award various certifications, along with the perception that the holders of these certifications must be expert project managers. We realize these are controversial statements but we have written enough about this topic and no need to repeat here.

The popularity of a certificate like the PMP, led to situations where it is common to hear people confuse project management with the name of a certification, thinking that the certification and project management are the same (PM = PMP). In other words, they think PMP is equal to PM (Project Management); to emphasize, they are equating a credential to an extensive field of study. For example, we recently had a request for a “Master Degree in PMP”.

To avoid misunderstandings, certifications are beneficial and have value, but we cannot rely on certification alone as an indicator of ‘expert’ level performance and we must treat common certifications as stepping-stones and a milestone not an ultimate destination!

Another example, recently we read a blog post that was presenting project management certification as “the holy grail of project management”. The post gave six factors why people should pursue a certification … learning was the last factor on the list, even below (meaning: less important than) “adding three letters to your business card”.


We strongly believe that project management is of strategic importance to organizations of all sizes and types. If project management becomes a commodity, then its value is lost, and we must watch out for the consequences. If executives hire certificate holders, mistakenly thinking they are expert project managers, and realize, later, that was not the case, they could lose trust in the certification and project management.