The Art of Learning

April 3, 2010

I deliver a significant number of training sessions each year through Stakeholder Management and Mosaic Project Services; including both face-to-face classroom courses and using our Mentored Email™ distance learning methodology.

One of the interesting observations is how the rate of information absorption (ie, learning) varies from person to person. The rate of learning does not seem to be correlated to a person’s IQ, industry or role in the workforce. If anything, people who absorb the learning more slowly seem to retain the information longer.

It would appear the ability to learn is a skill that is exercised naturally by younger people, but as one grows older this natural ability seems to fade with only some adults maintaining their innate capability to learn, frequently linked to active practice via university courses, etc. When presented with a large volume of new information (eg, a PMP course) the rest of us need to learn how to learn!

Some of the easier ways to absorb, make sense of, and retain information include:

Using analogies and metaphors

You can learn abstract processes by creating metaphors for more common events. So whenever you learn a fact, ask yourself what the idea is similar to in the tangible world; eg, a data store in a software program may be a cupboard with different things on each shelf.

Build mental pictures

If you break apart a complex mathematical formula into components, you can try to imagine what it would like as a graph or how each component influences each other in a railway switchyard.

Build on the basics

Do a bit of extra research on your most difficult topics focusing on their foundations. You might not understand the more complex theories perfectly, but it makes understanding your testable material much easier.

Become the teacher

The act of explanation creates connections. Ask yourself how would you explain what you’re learning to someone else? Teaching forces you to simplify and break down complex ideas and then re-connect them to build the overall picture.

Stop writing transcripts

Try to free yourself from rigid note taking (the course handouts fulfil this need), instead write down ideas in branches and connections. Add your own thoughts, diagrams and arrows linking ideas so you have a web of information. ‘Mind mapping’ tools are great for this but pencil and paper work just as well.

Draw Diagrams

Most people think in pictures and maps. Research suggests drawing will increase your concentration and help develop the connections between ideas. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it can often illuminate the connections that lead to a greater understanding.

There are many more sophisticated memory techniques available in a range of books on the subject but certainly in our areas of teaching, the ability to link ideas and understand the flow of both ideas and information seem to be the key to real understanding.

This opens up a second strand of thought – making the best use of a training course. Some simple tips that will help you to get the most from your training course include.

Before the training course

  • Have a clear picture of what you hope to get from the training course expressed in terms of the benefits to you: a pay rise and promotion is more motivating than a PMP credential.
  • Do any pre-course reading and make a note of any questions to bring along and ask the trainer. You won’t pay extra if you make the trainer work hard……

At the training course

  • Arrive prepared
  • Be open to learning new concepts, even if these challenge your previous understanding
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the trainer to clarify points; remember that if you don’t understand something, it is likely that you are not the only one
  • Share experiences when they are relevant and learn from others in the group, they are likely to be from different industries and have different experiences; take advantage of the fact that you’re surrounded by people with diverse work backgrounds.
  • Dedicate time each evening to completing your homework activities, or reviewing the work covered during the day (our training courses cover a great deal of content in a condensed fashion – reviewing the material each day helps to cement the ideas in your mind).

After the training course

  • Use the resources provided during the training course to help you integrate the concepts into your every day work life (the first 24 hrs after the course are a critical period for reinforcing learning by practice).
  • Make the effort to change if you have discovered better ways of approaching your work, but remember you will need to explain the benefits of the change to people who did not attend your training sessions.
  • Recommend the training to any colleagues that you believe will benefit from it

Learning new things should be an enjoyable process at all stages of life and career, and is becoming increasingly important to stay competitive in a rapidly changing world. Learning how to learn effectively is the first step along the journey.


The Value of your PMP Qualification

January 29, 2010

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion on the value of credentials such as PMP; frequently triggered by the failure of a ‘qualified’ person to perform in the workplace.

There are essentially two ways to assess a person from a credentialing point of view. Testing what they know or assessing what they do. Competency based assessments (what they do) tend to assume knowledge based on performance. You cannot perform a complex task such as managing a project without knowledge. However, competency based assessments have two disadvantages:

  • Competency is demonstrated in a specific a time and location. There is no guarantee the competent person will perform as well in a different setting with different people, cultures and relationships.
  • The assessment of interpersonal competencies tends to be subjective and project management is very much focused on directing and leading people. Assessing behavioral competencies goes some way towards solving this dilemma but the assessment is still subjective.

Knowledge based assessments are empirical. The person had sufficient knowledge to pass a defined test at a defined point in time. However, the passing of a knowledge based assessment such as PMP or for that matter an MBA only shows the person has a predefined level of knowledge. The disadvantages of knowledge based assessments are:

  • There is no indication the person can apply the knowledge effectively in the workplace.
  • The knowledge tested in any exam is only a portion of the overall domain knowledge.

Given the problems with either assessment process, assessing the value of a qualification is complex and is differs depending on who is making the value judgment, an employer or an individual.

The value of a qualification to an individual can be measured in at least three areas:

  • The advantage it offers in the job market;
  • The recognition governments and other licensing authorities give to credential holders and
  • Its recognition by other entities offering higher qualifications through credits or advanced standing.

The value of a qualification to an employer is in part a function of the credentials reputation and in part, what this tells the employer about the credential holder. Whilst the PMP is a uniquely valuable industry based credential, no single assessment is ever going to provide a guarantee of a person’s suitability for employment in a particular organisation. Being a PMP provides one point of assessment; the PMP holder had the knowledge needed to pass a difficult, quality controlled exam. However, employers also need to look to other aspects of a person’s overall capabilities as well.

My feeling is the lack of undergraduate/baccalaureate degree courses in project management has given PMI’s PMP and other similar project management certifications a solid value in the job market. This is quite different to many other credentials issued by professional bodies. The UK based Chartered Institute of Building’s MCIOB credential requires a degree, several years experience, an examination and a professional interview; in most respects at least equal in its rigor to PMI’s PMP requirements. Both credentials should be assessed as being at a higher level than a degree but at least in the Asia Pacific region, the construction industry and governments focus on building managers holding a University construction degree, not MCIOB.

Similarly, higher degree courses in project management routinely offer some level of advanced standing for PMP holders. I am unaware of any advanced degree in construction or the built environment that offers similar advanced standing for MCIOB, although some other professional credentials do achieve a level of advanced standing in some higher degree courses.

This unusually valuable status of PMP as been built up over many years; however, the value also creates a number of challenges:

  • Employers may have expectations of PMP holders not supported by the credential.
  • But, credential holders need to live up to the reasonable expectations of their employers, and current credential holders also have the challenge of maintaining the worth of the credential for future generations of PMs.
  • PMI needs to ensure the examination process remains both credible and effective.
  • Training organizations such as ours need to ensure their PMP courses are relevant and interesting.

We have chosen to focus our training on the PMI range of credentials because they are a defined package, we know if we have done a good job as soon as a trainee passes their exam. The subjectivity of competence assessments lacks the clarity of pass/fail. However, look 5 to 10 years into the future and I expect the credentialing process will have change substantially to blend aspects of workplace assessment (competency) with the formal testing of knowledge. The Program Management Professional (PgMP) credential is a start along this route, my prediction is most other credentials will follow.