When Eric Bramwell first arrived in Ottawa in 1986 as a Lieutenant Commander and a naval architect, his initial exposure to project management was on the TRUMP program to update and modernize the Royal Canadian Navy’s 1970s-era Tribal-class destroyers.
Training, he recalls, was informal to say the least. “I learned terminology on the job. There was training at the time, but it was as-available, and it would depend very much on your project team and leader, how much time they focused on the training and how much time they focused on running the project. No one talked about various complexities with projects.”
Today, Bramwell leads the implementation of a Department of National Defence-wide initiative to establish and grow project management competencies as the Canadian Armed Forces moves ahead on its largest recapitalization in recent history.
Last summer, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff (VCDS) signed off on a departmental initiative known as the Project Management Competency Development initiative (PMCD) that will provide a structure for the necessary training project managers require to align their knowledge and skills with the risks and complexities of procurement programs.
Project management has at least a 50-year history in DND, with a number of challenging courses available, including the highly regarded Defence Resource Management course run by the VCDS staff, but as Bramwell experienced firsthand, much of the onus to complete courses has been left up to individual managers or project leaders.
Though many in defence project management have been discussing the need for a competency framework for some time, Treasury Board Secretariat provided the impetus in 2008 with changes to its policy on project management, specifically the introduction of the Project Complexity and Risk Assessment, or PCRA, a four-level evaluation of a project, from basic to very complex. With a clear need to better measure DND project managers against the PCRA, Dan Ross, then the Assistant Deputy Minister of Materiel, pushed forward an action plan to align training with the level of knowledge and experience required to successfully manage projects; it also incorporated areas of training not previously required for project managers.
“[We wanted] to have a system in place so that we could demonstrate to Treasury Board that we had project managers with the skill sets to handle projects at the various levels of complexity and risk,” explained Bramwell, who serves as director of the Project Management Support Organization in ADM (MAT). “It wasn’t like we were not doing training, but it was not in a framework as we have now.”
Building behavioural skills
Drawing on the work of international organizations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI), the International Project Management Association (IPMA), the Association of Project Managers in the United Kingdom, the Australian Defence Material Organization (DMO) and the American Defense Acquisition University, in 2008 the PMCD team began developing the standards and evaluation methodology for competencies related to three areas: technical knowledge; management and leadership skills (also known as the behavioural domain); and contextual understanding of the procurement and project management processes in DND and across government.
They then conducted two sequential pilot programs, the latter of which concluded in 2012, to validate the competencies. The first pilot allowed existing project managers to measure themselves against the draft standards with a self-evaluation tool, providing feedback that resulted in changes to the framework; the second trialed simulation exercises developed in collaboration with the Public Service Commission’s Personnel Psychology Centre to gauge behavioural skills and the ability to think on one’s feet.
Though technical competencies feature prominently in many of the PM Level 1 courses, and understanding activities such as how to do a Treasury Board submission, a statement of work or a work breakdown structure are all important, much of the program in the second and third levels is aimed at developing behaviour and contextual skills and knowledge.
“More than 50 percent of the coursing is actually outside pure project management, it is what you need to move up in the public service as a manager,” Bramwell said. “You would need those behavioural and contextual skill sets even if you weren’t going to be a project manager.”
Members of the military usually arrive in project management with well-honed leadership capabilities, while civilians often enter with strong technical backgrounds. Both need grounding in government minutia of project approvals and the inner workings of various departments, especially DND. Sometimes, they also need training in the management of each other: the framework includes courses on managing civilians for a military supervisor and managing military for civilian supervisors.
While many of the courses are delivered by outside agencies such as the Canada School of Public Service, the three PMCD levels of project manager qualification correspond approximately with Treasury Board Secretariat’s PCRA levels of project complexity and risk.
Bramwell said the framework is also looking to add training on very complex project management by adapting courses offered as part of the executive masters program in complex project management at the University of Queensland in Australia: “One on systems thinking, how to deal with a continuously changing environment; relational contracting, because when you get into very complex contracts, it is really as much about the organization you are dealing with and the people involved as it is about the terms and conditions in the black and white; and business acumen, making sure that we as public servants and military have a better insight into industry, because we are often accused of being in our ivory tower and [writing] statements of work that don’t make sense to industry.”
PMCD leaders are also interested in other opportunities to learn from industry. Some courses, in fact, feature guest speakers and a recent pilot, in which one company hosted instructors from Queensland University and invited DND project management staff to attend, proved very successful.
A nine-year road
Though the timelines are not fixed in stone, each PM level requires approximately three years to complete. “We are trying not to be too hard and fast,” Bramwell explained. “We need to be flexible to adapt to different people’s career patterns. We also recognize that if you are working outside of Ottawa, in a project milieu, even if it isn’t a formal capital project, you can be getting relevant experience and we want to make sure people are aware of that.”
To assist with that, the PMCD team is exploring the possibility of offering some of its courses online. “We don’t own many of the courses so our ability to influence delivery is limited. But we are looking at where we can,” Bramwell said. He added that human resources managers responsible for posting military members are now aware of the framework and over time it is likely to be a consideration in posting decisions.
Flexibility, he reiterated, will be key to how the PMCD rolls out for both existing and new project managers. He equates the implementation phase to changing the wheels on a moving vehicle: since the entire capital program can’t be stopped “while we spend nine years training our PM3s from start to finish, we need to be able to insert training along the way; now we’ve got people whose job it is to look at how can we make some of that better.”
Though the initiative is less than a year into implementation, there are already some signs of success: PMCD qualification is starting to show up in job postings as a preferred asset. “People are not putting it as mandatory because it is too early, but it is validation and some publicity,” Bramwell said.
The DPS effect
As proof of that need for flexibility, in February the government announced a new Defence Procurement Strategy that, among other objectives, aims to streamline the procurement process and leverage the purchase of military equipment to generate jobs and economic growth. The strategy places a new emphasis on weighted and rated value propositions, key industrial capabilities, greater export opportunities, earlier industry engagement and identification of technological benefits to Canada. Just how that will affect project management remains to be seen.
“What I take away is that we will probably have to adjust some of our courses, particularly on the contextual side, because of how those relate to how the government does business,” Bramwell said. “There won’t be any changes in the PMCD structure, but it might require additional courses or revised courses, and perhaps some new skill sets.”
By the end of 2015, all current project managers should have designated PMCD levels and the initiative will be well underway incorporating the next cadre of managers to steer the Canadian Armed Forces’ procurement mission.
There is, however, one small wrinkle. With advanced project management in high demand across the public and private sectors, DND could become a victim of its own success. It’s a risk Bramwell is happy to take. “If we actually get to the stage where people are publicly saying they are trying to swipe our people because of PMCD, I will feel I have achieved something.”