The IPMA four-level certification programme is designed as an ongoing competence development process. Therefore, every step up the four-level competence stair incorporates adequate development in self-knowledge and verified competence.
John Atkinson is part of an elite community within IPMA that oversee the establishment of new national certification bodies across the globe and the subsequent validation of their certification system to ensure compliance with IPMA standards.
He has performed these duties in Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, France, and the USA. In addition, he is the lead assessor for the Irish certification body, and in this interview, he shares his experiences of promoting and developing IPMA certification around the world.
You have been actively involved, as a lead assessor, in the certification of Irish IPMA professionals for over 10 years now. Could you tell us how it has evolved, your observations on candidate calibre, and where you see it going?
"My first thought is that there has been a significant element of change. We initially dealt with a lot of companies and individuals from sectors such as Construction and ITC. However, the number of application sectors buying into project management has grown rapidly. I now meet certification candidates from a rich diversity of backgrounds ranging from social media to not-for-profit organisations. Across all sectors, “management by projects” as a theme has evolved and become embedded as a way of doing business."
In your capacity as the lead Irish IPMA assessor, you have been invited to establish certification bodies and conduct certification assessments in many countries all over the world. Could you tell us about these experiences?
"What we do mainly is a validation of the national bodies that give out IPMA awards and certification in their country. So it is like an audit in many ways, and for it, we have the IPMA 4 level certification standard.
For example, if we go to Scandinavia, the culture is different to the Middle East or America. The validation is slightly Germanic in its process and steps, but each country introduces and adapts the baseline standard to their local languages and culture. Finally, we validate that this has been done correctly. The aim is to assure all stakeholders that a person holding an IPMA Level A, B, C or D certification has the same knowledge, experience and competence in South America as in Northern Europe.
As the audit is carried out, we see a need to change how we interact with each of the nations, and while assembling documents for the audit, I find that different verbs and sentence structures yield better results. In Egypt, for example, we say “give me”, in Scandinavia “will you share this with me” and in North America “you have this, and I’m sure you want to show me this”. But the key thing is that the IPMA standard allows countries to adopt the standard to meet their means. My job is to make sure the process, paper flow, and certification align with the IPMA standard's philosophies and techniques. We must keep it as close to the model as possible; we have to accommodate National laws and cultures - but - the standard is sacrosanct."
You are a very active participant in IPMA Certification Validation Management Board events. How much influence does Ireland have on these?
"Ireland is fortunate in many ways in that we have three or four main things going for us that we probably don’t realise. The first thing is our mother tongue, English; a real benefit as that is the language many international businesses are run in. So, for example, the worldwide PM standard and all IPMA congresses and meetings are conducted in English. So we have a great depth of understanding of the nuances of the language.
We are brilliant at being optimistic, communicating and socialising with people, and talking to anyone and getting on with them. So we can have lots of influence.
We probably don’t always seem to get recognition, though. Mainly I think we are not very good at using our skills for consensus building, and also knowing when to make a push is something we have to learn more about.
I believe that the approach adopted by Enda Kenny to the international banking rescue with Europe is pretty good. He bides his time and waits until the door is open a crack, and then he makes a push when things are looking good, and he can achieve something. Brian O’Driscoll is quite the same in another arena. He can suddenly see a small gap and get through it to score: Timing, skill, patience, preparation.
With consensus building, we need to think about it a bit more: How can we use our optimism, language and social skills to build a consensus and get a strategy and path in place to achieve something?
IPMA is an association a bit like Europe. However, Europe is a community, a Union, the European Union, so like all unions, there is a need for mutual support, for mutual agreement and understanding, for good leadership and a clear vision of what we want from a Union."
You are Ireland’s representative on the IPMA standards committee to develop version 4 of the IPMA Competence Baseline. Could you describe your experiences on this project, particularly the cultural issues of working to acquire consensus among 57 countries?
"It is not as difficult as it sounds because everyone signs up to the consensus model, and they then have to make a genuine effort to understand other people’s point of view, and that works both ways. The only difficulty arises when someone decides to protect their own interests, doesn’t agree to consensus and tries to get something completely their own way.
Then a strong Chairman, coupled with a strong belief from participating countries that consensus is the only way to achieve success, will come into play sensitively so that all can continue to work together. Again, timing, word choice, optimism and clear understanding are vital ingredients there.
I recently met six or so people involved with the development body of the ISO standard for project management. I also have had the privilege of working and talking to people who have worked at very senior levels with the UN. These work for their countries in IPMA, and they are great people to have around you when you are developing a standard to be used in 55 countries. But there are ways of doing things, and it is not as difficult as you think: IPMA has a ‘way of working across all countries and sectors, and that makes it much easier."
Do you think project management and the Institute have helped to enhance/protect/develop the career prospects of our young and emerging professionals?
"Yes, the Institute is at the forefront of specialised training, continuing education, and internationally recognised accreditation. When I did my first degree in 1980, that was it. You could try to live off that for the next 40 years. Now, if you get six or seven years out of a primary degree, you’re doing well.
It would be best if you did new stuff and retraining. PM is a good way of retraining and opening a career. It’s great to bolt on to a career and make it part of your strategies, and then you bolt something else on in a few years.
Everyone has projects, events, etc., and they all need management. Happy Projects!!!"