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Apprenticeships Instill Learning

Apprenticeships Instill Learning

Mark Molesworth

IT training programs are often scrutinized closely for their return on investment. Everyone has participated in some form of training, and many of us are sometimes skeptical of its value in relation to increased competency on the job. Why do we think sending someone to a conference, or getting them certified in something, makes them competent to actually do it?

IT training programs are often scrutinized closely for their return on investment. Everyone has participated in some form of training, and many of us are sometimes skeptical of its value in relation to increased competency on the job. Why do we think sending someone to a conference, or getting them certified in something, makes them competent to actually do it?

In IT project management, we have a term called the accidental project manager. This is the person who is competent in another skill set (for example, software development, networking or system administration), a great communicator and very organized. So, unsuspecting executives decide this is the person they want to be the guardian of their prized projects. The employee attends a few classes, or maybe even a conference, and is off and running. Unfortunately, too many times this scenario sets up a very competent employee to feel like a failure. Project management is complex and has a lot of moving parts. It is not something you master on the first try.

I submit that you don’t teach a Boy Scout to build a campfire using a PowerPoint presentation. There may be a classroom component in which you teach him safety, first aid and the like. But after that, you would take him into the field and show him how to safely build a fire. Later, while watching closely, you allow him to demonstrate his fire-building skills. Finally, when he is competent, you feel comfortable turning over the matches. Many fires later, that Boy Scout is able to act as a mentor to younger Scouts and teach them the same skills.

In North Dakota, we made a conscious decision not to abandon conventional IT training and certification efforts, but to cement the knowledge and develop measurable competencies in our project managers. First, we needed to document what “competent” looked like. Next, we had to build the road map to take an IT project manager from inexperienced to competent.

While we were preparing to develop this program on our own, CompTIA was working with the U.S. Department of Labor on a program known as the National Information Technology Apprenticeship System (NITAS). This program combines classroom training, on-the-job learning, competency validation and certification into three measurable levels.

CompTIA was looking for a pilot organization, and North Dakota was happy to avoid the difficult and tedious process of developing our own program. We embarked on a two-year venture to increase project manager competencies. During this time, 140 state employees received classroom training, 28 earned the CompTIA Project+ certification and 10 obtained the Project Management Professional credential; we’ve also issued 31 NITAS apprenticeship certificates.

This approach has worked well for North Dakota. IT collected subjective and objective data pertaining to project performance and participant involvement. We commissioned John Aaron of Milestone Planning to analyze data pertaining to project budget and schedule performance. He identified a statistically significant downward trend in both budget and schedule variance and found classroom training plus mentoring (i.e., apprenticeship) is the most powerful predictor of percentage cost variance reduction.

Subsequently, North Dakota recently won recognition from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) for the project (see www.nascio.org/awards).

Over time, we expect the apprenticeship program to spur even greater success for IT projects here in North Dakota.

Sparking a Successful Project Management Program

  • Establish and standardize methodology, including forms and templates.
  • Set the governance structure and obtain buy-in from all levels of government.
  • Form a pool of experienced project managers to act as mentors.
  • Establish a career path for project managers. Ensure competencies support the skill sets required in the job descriptions.
  • Use specific, measurable goals and objectives.
Jan 14 2008

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