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Addressing skills gaps in project management

20th Jan 2011
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Most projects still fail to meet expectations. Eddie Kilkelly examines the extent to which this failure may be due to a lack of individual competence and identifies potential strategies for bridging skills gaps.

Even the best planned and resourced projects can be knocked off track by constant technological change, new market entrants, and fluctuations in the global economy or regulatory environment. This uncertainty is inevitable and project management methodologies provide guidelines on how to deal with changing requirements or turnaround failing projects. Yet many projects still fail, despite the fact that most Project Managers have undertaken the relevant training and gained a project management qualification. Lack of project success is likely to be due to skills gaps within the project team, so what can HR and L&D professionals do to identify and address this problem?

Skills fit for purpose
There is a huge demand for experienced, trained Project Managers around the globe. Each will possess a core set of skills, irrespective of the sector in which they are employed or the type of project in question. Yet even a person with the right skills can be the wrong fit if their skills do not match the context of the current project environment. This holds true for all members of the project team, so it is essential for HR Managers and Project Managers to work together to consider each team member in relation to the requirements for each specific project and address any skills gaps in advance. 

Closing skills gaps
There are five key steps to help identify and address skills gaps:

  1. Define the skills required for each role in the project team
  2. Assess current skills levels and identify any gaps: project management capability  tests and assessment centres are readily available and can be used to assess knowledge and experience of project management
  3. Decide on the most appropriate means of addressing skills gaps: coaching, mentoring, e-learning, blended learning, mobile learning
  4. Ensure you’re making the best use of the learner’s time, or there may be a negative impact on project deadlines. Training should be available remotely, at a place and time of the learner’s convenience.  Content should be interactive to engage learning, including video and audio clips, and made available on devices such as iPhones or iPads
  5. Afterwards, reassess team members to ensure the skills gap is closed; repeat capability tests or assessment centres or enrol individuals for formal certification.

Three levels of support
It’s also important to remember that many issues arise because projects are often run with “dotted lines” of responsibility rather than direct reporting structures. Individuals have to learn to work within that model according to their level of seniority – as a project resource, a project manager or a project sponsor. Project sponsors need to be trained to support and guide the project team; while they may have subject matter expertise they will need appropriate skills in governance, leadership and ownership. They will also need to learn what level of involvement is appropriate; too much and the Project Manager will not be empowered to deliver success; too little and the project sponsor risks failing to support the Project Manager.
Project Managers need to understand how they can ensure a successful outcome when they don’t control the necessary resources. Therefore, interpersonal skills and recognising how to remove barriers to success are just as important as ensuring efficient, timely and logical work flows. For their part, members of the project team and other project resources need to understand the scope of the project and the terminology and practical techniques they will need to use. 

Adding value where it really matters

HR and L&D professionals can also help to identify potential project failure, when project team members are more likely to be in conflict, suffering from stress and experiencing a higher level of absenteeism. If an HR Manager spots a pattern with absenteeism or discipline within the project team, they can flag these warning signs to the Project Manager or Project Sponsor and help to address problems where skills or competences are an issue.

Ensuring that all employees have the same understanding of project management provides a consistency that can help the organisation achieve a greater degree of organisational effectiveness and business success. HR and L&D professionals can play an invaluable role in helping to communicate how projects work within the organisation by integrating generic and company-specific project management skills and competences into the organisation’s appraisal system. Including this training in the induction programme would also help to reduce the time to competence for new joiners. Every project team needs HR to be involved in ensuring the right people are available at the right time and with right skills, because ultimately it is the project team who deliver success. 

Eddie Kilkelly is Chief Operating Officer for the ILX Group plc.

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