Direct Learning from Home – the Half Way Story

Wow, that has been a busy 4 weeks! Alongside working I have been undertaking an online course in Advanced Strategic Project Management being offered by Villanova University in the USA. I am now half way through the 8 week course, and I have to say I am thoroughly enjoying myself – even though it has meant working in the evenings and weekends. I believe Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is essential to maintaining and progressing professional recognition as a project manager, and this is also recognised in the Association for Project Management (APM) Registered Project Professional (RPP) standard – there is a need to demonstrate significant CPD. However, I believe that CPD is more than just about learning new skills, techniques and ideas – it is about applying these theoretical concepts in real scenarios, in our everyday project management roles. CPD is more than learning, it is doing!

Ed Wallington is keeping score on the knowledge of his Villanova University instructors, and feels like he’s winning because of the tutelage options and know-how he’s gotten from it.

A previous post of mine outlined why I was interested in undertaking this course – furthering my strategic understanding, as well as assessing an innovative delivery mechanism. On both of these areas I am impressed. However I am also a little disappointed as well.

The course content is living up to expectations, and during the previous 4 weeks we have covered a wide ranging set of topic areas. The course began with lectures introducing strategic project management (PM) and the differences and benefits of PM to traditional management approaches. This was useful for setting the scene and covered areas such as ‘selling’ PM to the business. A significant element of the lectures was dedicated to strategic management, and aligning projects with the overall organisation’s vision and strategies, and how projects enable change. This was a useful reminder as to why we are undertaking projects – not just for the project’s sake, but for advancement towards a strategic aim. As project managers, I think we sometimes focus too heavily on delivering the project, and forget about why we are doing it. Sometimes, we may advise cancelling or postponing a project if it no longer fits with organisation strategy. Project selection and monitoring was covered, again helping to ensure projects are on track and still meet criteria to satisfy the strategy.

The next section covered optimising project results. This looked at critical chain project management, removing safety (or ‘padding’ in time estimates) and demonstrating how focusing on the project level estimation rather than individual task estimation. This approach, and including appropriate buffers, can re-engineer how a project is approached and planned, resulting with an appropriate level of safety and delivery of projects on time, or before due date. The differences between multiple projects and project portfolios was covered, as well as the different approaches in strategic management of these. Much time was spent on the issue of multi-tasking and resource overload, and how this added significant risk to projects and put pressure on delivery dates. Techniques and tools for planning, monitoring, assessing and restructuring plans were provided and discussed at both the individual project and at the strategic levels. The course also touched on human resources elements and motivation and team issues.

My current experience of the directed learning is proving to be excellent. I particularly like the blend of learning styles – lectures, reading, case studies, discussion, email, Q&A’s and assessments – there is something for everyone. One element I particularly like is the suggested reading in between lectures, this helps to reinforce the lecture topic and allows further digestion and consideration of the topics and concepts. An added bonus is that the lecturer’s post on the discussion forums provides additional reading material to supplement the course notes and book, along with their own views and responses to question we pose in the discussion forum. One element that I have not been able to participate in is the weekly ‘live chats’, unfortunately these occur about 2am UK time – something that I will have to put up with as this is a global course, although primarily focussed on participants based in the USA. These live chats are web conferences where the students can phone in to a live discussion between student and lecturers- just like being in a class. This ability to ask questions, clarify concepts and discuss in context of a wide selection of roles, organisations and experiences is invaluable. Luckily, the live sessions are recorded and archived so that I could listen back and still hear the debates. It is good to see that forethought has been given to the importance of live chats to supplement online learning, especially in a global course, as it allows one to refer back, ‘rewind’ and listen again or to recap at a later date – although this doesn’t fully accommodate not being able to participate.

As with all lecturing styles, be they online or face to face, there is a diverse range of presentation styles, this is to be expected, and I am sure we all have memories from school, university or various professional courses of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lecturers. I found it beneficial that subject experts present different sections of the course, and it is not the same person the entire time. The online media (also CD-based) allows one to view the presentation slides along with a view of the presenter; it is almost like a one-to-one lecture! I say almost, as the presenters appear ‘rigid’ on the whole and appear to be reading a script a little too much, some more than others. Some just read the slides – I personally do not like presentations where the slides are just read, I could read it myself – whereas others successfully use the slides as prompts and discuss around this in a more fluid and natural way. There are plenty of examples of real-life situations to reinforce the concepts being discussed.

So am I glad I am undertaking this course and continuing my own CPD? At this stage, yes – the course is living up to expectation, fulfilling my learning needs of furthering my strategic understanding, and the blended course delivery is working well and satisfies my individual learning style.

The next four weeks promises to be as action packed as the previous weeks, with the course covering dynamics of project management, best practices, maturity models, project portfolio management, ROI, PMOs, risk analysis, quality, teams, leadership and culture – I’m going to continue being busy.

Image courtesy bubbayates is re-used with permission.

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