Projecting Expertise

The Australian Institute of Project Management

The Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) is the peak body for project management in Australia. Formed in 1976, it has been instrumental in progressing the profession of project management in Australia over the past 30 to 35 years.

The construction industry accounts for around a third of the institute’s 10,000 members; this total is an indication of the level of endorsement by the construction industry, according to President David Hudson. He told us that the equivalent body in the UK, for example, has some 18,000 members for a population three times the size, while in Germany the numbers are considerably lower.

So does this mean Australians are better organised – if that is what project managers do – or does every Australian simply call him or herself a project manager? Certainly in the construction industry it is rare these days not to hear a company, large or small, claim to offer project management as one of its core activities. David says the term can be misused, but in general, all of industry (and construction too) has been learning the meaning of the words and the AIPM’s certification process gives project managers a means of measuring their real capabilities in the profession.

As of next year, the institute will additionally offer an elite grade, a ‘senior project manager’ category, for suitably certified experts who demonstrate their ability to handle major capital expenditure projects successfully. This will be of serious interest to major buyers of construction services, who will be able to see at a glance whether their contracted company passes muster. This should also interest individual managers too, who will want to measure themselves and their expertise. “People are naturally curious and want to find out how they stand up,” David says.

David firmly rejects the notion that this is just a piece of paper and a way to make money for the AIPM – the initiative will raise pennies if anything for the organisation. Rather, it formalises a title that has been in common use across industry for a decade or so. Although qualified managers would always have their own track record to use as a kind of CV, this new category will help in identifying those at ease with “projects of hard dollars, technical complexity, multi-disciplinary applications and often geographical dispersion,” he explains.

“There is huge demand for this. When we launch next year, I expect the construction sector in particular will seek it because it’s one thing to identify the people who claim to be project managers but we are going to provide the opportunity to identify the person to whom you would give that really difficult project. It’s more of a professional assessment than a matter of competence. It will concern maybe the top 10 to 15 per cent of the profession. It will be a big help to the construction and infrastructure sectors.” He adds that he is receiving feedback from major client companies who “are just waiting for us to get this up and running.”

The AIPM has always been a “community of practice” for project management throughout its 35 year history, beginning as the Project Management Forum and changing its name in the 1990s to reflect its desire to be known as the centre of excellence for the profession. It reflects what is required to sustain ‘best practice’ in the discipline. David is halfway through a two-year term as AIPM’s elected president, a task he undertakes in addition to his day job; a project manager himself following a military career. “The first project I took on was a $300 million capex (capital expenditure) procurement.” From next January, he takes over as Vice President of the international body, the IPMA, and for two years, he says, “I forgot how not to volunteer.”

To qualify as a full member of AIPM, one needs to have a diploma in project management (or equivalent), or to demonstrate experience that would equate. “We want people to reflect current practice and they have to show application of that practice to projects over a period of around five years. In addition there is the AIPM’s own optional extra qualification, held by around a third of its members. In addition to the active alumni, AIPM has a much broader engagement with practitioners who have taken certification at some stage in the past and, we respect that broader alumni relationship.”

The construction sector, including infrastructure (but David says the resource sector, though accounting for a considerable amount of the construction industry, behaves rather differently), “is going through an interesting phase at the moment. In Australia, it has always been heavily dependent on government funding and the state of the economy. At the moment I would say it is mid-cycle between peak and trough.” The public has “wised up” to government under-funding and under-investment and is beginning to hold governments to their promises on infrastructure development. “There is a public perception that AIPM is heavily weighted towards construction but it’s not true – I think we have a good balance.”

Industry “is maturing very rapidly,” says David. Organisations are developing competence and are more aware that they need competent individual project managers to work with them. Indeed, “demand for certification is higher than it has ever been.” Not for its own sake, but “because you get confidence that the consulting engineers you put out on site can do the job, return a profit to you and deliver customer satisfaction – and they will get you repeat business.” Otherwise, how do you know whether you have chosen a ‘competent’ project manager? First time out, it’s little better than sticking a pin in a list.

Increasingly, certification is a process that helps validate company procedures and quality assurance. David points out that in Australia’s defence sector, it’s now virtually impossible to get anywhere without AIPM certification – and other industries are not far behind. From the construction perspective, those working for state governments are also increasingly required to use this certification because the conventional public-sector standard is not to the required methodology.

David acknowledges there are still many people who call themselves ‘project managers’ but who have little claim to the title beyond downloading a piece of proprietary software. He says he spends half his life in airport lounges and daily hears other people’s phone conversations; half of them are about projects and they all seem to be going wrong. “As a purist, I keep wanting to shout at them that they are NOT running a project. If they were, they wouldn’t be in the sort of trouble the phone call is indicating! There are a lot of people making claims. It’s the ‘Barramundi Principle’ – the number of barramundi that people claim to catch in Australia nowhere near matches the amount of barramundi sold. That’s why the certification is important.” As far as the building industry is concerned, David speculates that it would be useful to run awareness programmes with small builders’ associations to raise awareness of what project management actually means and entails, and then perhaps run a programme of introductory certification for small construction companies.

Interestingly, when times in a particular industrial sector are tough, the popularity of certification increases – and construction is no exception. “There is a higher rate of individual people applying for certification during periods of downturn. People identify the fact that they need to get their act together, and another driver for them is to do so while their evidence is current.” Likewise on the client side, clients are able to pick and choose more and demand higher standards of expertise. As the construction industry emerges in the next year or so from its prolonged depression, it will not only be leaner and meaner but also better qualified. For clients, that is good news, but for builders with certified expertise in project management, it can mean more jobs completed with fewer screw-ups, lower costs and better customer satisfaction.

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June 24, 2017, 1:35 AM AEST