I am frequently asked the question “should I take a PRINCE2 exam or an APM exam?”
This question reflects the situation that for many people there is a choice to make that is more than which one should I do first.
The question also suggests that people don’t understand the absolute difference between the two. If they did there wouldn’t actually be an either/or choice to make.
It seems to be the case that many people (and unfortunately many organisations as well) do not understand that when considering PRINCE2 or an APM examination they are actually talking about two different things; like comparing apples and oranges rather than apples and apples.
To understand the differences we need to know what each qualification represents. PRINCE® is an acronym and stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments.
PRINCE2 is a structured method which has its roots in a project management methodology developed in 1975 called PROMPTII.
The UK’s Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), now part of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), adopted PROMPTII in 1979 replacing it with PRINCE in 1989. In 1996 PRINCE2 was launched as a generic best practice approach to project management that can be used across all industries and business sectors.
It is now the standard method used in UK Government and in many areas of the public and private sectors.
The PRINCE2 method is described in the publication “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2” and is therefore available for anyone or any organisation to use.
PRINCE2 examinations at Foundation and Practitioner levels test respectively, knowledge and application of the PRINCE2 method. The certification body for these exams is the APM Group Limited (or APMG), not to be confused with APM – see below.
The Association for Project Management or APM is a professional body that represents all those working in the field of project management.
Formed in 1972, APM has members in a wide variety of industries and business sectors. The APM promotes a generic approach to project management encapsulated in its Body of Knowledge; a book containing seven sections and 52 individual topics relating to project management.
APM has a number of its own qualifications based on its Body of Knowledge two of which are relevant to this article; the APM Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ) and APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ).
One of the 52 topics in the Body of Knowledge is entitled Methods and Procedures – PRINCE2 is an example of a structured method quoted in the description of this topic.
So what are the differences?
PRINCE2 is a method supported by eight project management topic areas known as components; the examinations test knowledge and application of the method and NOT a generic understanding of project management.
APM through its PFQ examination tests knowledge of 27 of the Body of Knowledge topics. PMQ tests knowledge and basic application of techniques across 37 topics.
APM tests generic/general project management and NOT the application of structured method.
If this explanation still doesn’t answer the question then the following three examples might help:
- One of the key tenets of the PRINCE2 method is the use of tolerances and reporting by exception; in the APM examinations this is just one of many ways of reporting.
- APM examinations emphasise the need for strong people or interpersonal skills as laid out in section 7 of the Body of Knowledge; PRINCE2 being a method does not address people skills at all.
- PRINCE2 requires that a schedule is prepared for a project but does not give detailed information about how to prepare a schedule or the principles of scheduling; APM require that candidates can prepare and interpret a schedule that reflects the scope of the project and the required resources.
Another simple analogy might be comparing the situation to owning a car.
PRINCE2 would say that the car needs servicing every 10,000 miles, that you need to check the tyre pressures and water before you leave on a journey and that fuel should be replenished when the warning light comes on. PRINCE2 would not tell you how to do all of these activities, but APM would. Knowing what to do and how to do it are equally important.
Why is there confusion and does it matter?
You could say there is confusion because people just don’t understand the differences and therefore make random choices as to which qualification route they take. However we think it is actually more complicated than that.
PRINCE2 qualifications are very popular with thousands of people taking examinations each month, not only in the UK but also in places such as Holland, Australia and New Zealand.
Many organisations, particularly in the UK, will only employ Project Managers and project staff who have passed one or both of the PRINCE2 examinations.
In some sectors a PRINCE2 qualification is no longer a nice to have but a must-have; it seems if you have passed PRINCE2 you are considerably more employable. But PRINCE2 is about applying a method not understanding the full range of project management topics and therefore many people can become PRINCE2 Practitioners with little or no knowledge of some of fundamental project management principles, tools and techniques that fall outside of the scope of PRINCE2.
APM qualifications are not as popular as PRINCE2 qualifications although hundreds of people do take examinations each month.
Few employers demand that new employees have passed one of these and strictly adhering to the rules the qualifications can only be taken in the UK, although PMQ has equivalence to the International Project Management Association’s (IPMA) Level D qualification. However, APM qualifications are qualifications in general project management and are therefore universally applicable.
So what we have are two hugely popular qualifications that examine a method and two less popular qualifications that examine general project management.
They are clearly different but actually not in any way mutually exclusive. Knowing PRINCE2 without a general understanding of project management is as daft as having a general understanding but being unable to apply it in a consistent manner.
Similarly, knowing PRINCE2 but working in an organisation that doesn’t embrace its principles (such as exception reporting or the use of product-based planning) is equally daft.
What is needed as a starting block for effective project management is a general understanding of the subject (APM) and a method and governance structure to follow (of which PRINCE2 is a great example).
We strongly recommend that individuals (or organisations) new to project management study a combination of general project management and the structured method or in examination terms APM PFQ and PRINCE2 Foundation; perhaps in one integrated learning event. Once they have experience in the application of the basic techniques they could then move to PMQ and PRINCE2 Practitioner.
This way people will be qualified as knowledgeable project staff who also understand how to put that general knowledge of the subject into practice in a structured and consistent manner.
Of course, there is much more to being an effective project manager than securing this foundational knowledge, but it’s an essential start and the sooner the question in the title stops being asked, the better for all concerned.