Project Management

Buyer beware: A consumer's guide to PM certification

While the PMP is a validation of knowledge and experience, it is not a demonstration of competency. This article explains why and looks at certification alternatives.


This article was originally published on gantthead on November 20, 2002.

By Mark E. Mullaly, PMP

In a North American context, the holy grail of project management certification is currently the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation administered by PMI. Whether the quest for the PMP is a noble pursuit or a quixotic fantasy has been the focus of three of my columns on gantthead.com, as well as generating a great deal of discussion online and in my e-mail inbox. The verdict so far: Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

While the PMP is a validation of knowledge and experience, it is not a demonstration of competency. While the premise of the PMP is that knowledge and experience will lead to competency, to assume this as a universal rule is a dangerous practice. The PMP designation itself is not an indication of how well someone manages projects but simply a demonstration that they have a standardized level of knowledge and have worked in the field of project management for a period of time.

This column sets forth to explore alternative certifications. What are our other choices as consumers? What value do these choices deliver, and do they in any way provide a better measure of the effectiveness and suitability of a project manager to perform their role?

What emerges from this exploration is a surprising array of certification options, some of which are desirable and recommended and others that represent a meandering detour to nowhere particularly valuable. There is a great deal of work being done in the broader world to create effective and meaningful tools for project manager certification, and as with the PMP itself, it is necessary to choose those options that offer the most value based upon our individual goals:

International Project Management Association (IPMA)
The IPMA, formerly known as the Internet (the reason for the name change being obvious to all), has—since 1987—worked to develop a truly international certification framework. As an international body, IPMA coordinates efforts across its 30 national member organizations, predominantly based in Europe. Each organization is responsible for establishing its own national standards in the context of the baseline standards defined by the IPMA (the IPMA Competency Baseline, or ICB) as well as its own certification program, which is verified by the IPMA.

What is unique about IPMA certification is that it has four discrete levels of certification. The entry certification, the Certificated Project Management Practitioner (Level D), is analogous to the PMP certification and certifies experience and knowledge. Prerequisites for writing the exam are the provision of a curriculum vitae and completion of a self-assessment. The three subsequent levels—Certificated Project Management Professional (C), Certificated Project Manager (B), and Certificated Project Director (A)—also require provision of project references for completed projects and an interview with a review panel. The two most senior levels also require the preparation of a project report. Certification at level D has no time limit, while renewals must be received for levels A, B, and C.

Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM)
The AIPM is the national project management organization within Australia and has adopted the PMBOK as the basis of their certification program. Like the IPMA, however, there are multiple levels of certification that are tied directly into the Australian government's Australian Qualifications Framework, a national program of qualification for all post-secondary vocational training and education.

While based upon the PMBOK, however, the AIPM designation is a demonstration of competency. Candidates go through an assessment process where they must demonstrate the successful application of the knowledge principles defined by each level to an Assessor who works individually with the candidate. A second stage of review has an independent Verifier validate that the assessment undertaken by the Assessor was complete, appropriate, and met the defined standards. The base level of certification is the Qualified Project Practitioner (QPP), which qualifies participants as team members or project specialists. Subsequent designations are the Registered Project Manager (RPM) and the Master Project Director (MPD).

CompTIA Project+
I hesitated on whether to include this in a survey of certifications and opted to do so more in the interest of thoroughness than for any other reason. CompTIA is the Computing Technology Industry Association, most commonly known for their A+ computer service certifications that the technicians at your neighborhood computer store have hanging on the wall. Introduced this year, the Project+ certification is supposed to offer demonstration of "critical knowledge of business practices, interpersonal skills and project management processes" (their words, not mine). The certification consists solely of successfully completing an examination. It is not based on any defined set of standards but simply four objectives that define a basic set of knowledge. At best an entry-level certification, there is no supporting experience requirement.

PMI's Certified Associate in Project Management
No survey of alternative certifications would be complete without at least mentioning the CAPM. Generally regarded as "PMP-Lite," the CAPM certification is designed for project team members who would typically rely on "experienced project management practitioners for guidance, direction and approval" (their words again). The certification process is similar, in that it requires demonstration of between 1,500 and 2,500 hours of "project management experience," as well as 23 hours of education and successful passing of an examination.

What is important to recognize, however, is that the PMP itself has the same requirement for "project management experience," not actual experience managing projects. The PMP simply requires demonstration of a significantly greater number of hours of experience. Given the similarity between the requirements of the PMP and the CAPM, it remains to be seen what role the CAPM will have in the marketplace.

Interestingly, each of these certifications is available to North American practitioners (although the logistics for the IPMA and AIPM certifications may be a little bit more challenging, neither organization rules out the possibility, however, and AIPM specifically allows for out-of-country certifications). The IPMA and AIPM certifications in particular distinguish themselves as evaluations of competency, rather than simply knowledge, and offer two very different models that PMI would be well advised to investigate as a framework to build on the PMP. My previous conclusion is still valid—let the buyer beware. It never hurts to be an informed buyer, however.

More on gantthead
Related content:
Project Management in Practice by Mark Mullaly
Studying for PMI Certification: Follow This Project Manager on the Path to Certification by Donna Boyette
Certifiably IT? by Amber Nelson
Related discussions:
Importance of PMP Certification to a Potential Employer in Today's Job Market
IT Project Management Certification in Project Management Central

Mark Mullaly is subject matter expert for the Project & Program Management department on gantthead.com and the author of gantthead's "Project Management in Practice" column.

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