Project Management Competency Framework

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Developed by Sarah Groot Shapel



In literature, many things have been written about project management and the best practice hereof. Various standards exist with the aim of describing the field, and a long list of terms and processes are defined and described. All the standards aim to prepare a project manager to give him the highest chances of achieving success with his projects. It seems that even though each standard differ from the others, they tend to have a similar perspective on the best practice of the subject.

In this article is going to look at three standards, the PMI, ISO, and IPMA standard. The focus will be on what they suggest as good project management qualifications, but in particular what the standards suggest as necessary as area-specific knowledge.

Based on what the standards suggest as good project management methods, the two typical approaches to become a project manager is discussed. One approach is by having studied project management, and for example becoming certified project manager. The other way is by achieving a broad knowledge within a field, and then work the way into a position as a project manager. During this discussion, it will be look at whether or not there, typically, will be a gap in knowledge of project managers. The dual leadership model is briefly being introduced, in order to see if this model could cover the gap in a project manager's knowledge.

But before we get started, the difference between a manager and a leader is introduced as suggested by Capowski.[1] These are two terms that are being used a lot within this article, although the main focus will be on project management.

Manager: A manager has a degree of power from the position that he is in. He is structured, analytical, and rational, and he creates stability within a project.

Leader: A leader, on the other hand, has power because people let him have power. He is courageous, innovative, and visionary, and initiates changes.


For project management, there exist many standards. These standards aim to describe project management across different types of projects and across fields. They for example describe the best practice of the initiation, planning, implementation, controlling and closing of a project, and introduce a long list of tools in order to have the best chances of achieving success within a project. These standards also have a view of the best version of a project manager and the abilities that he should possess.

In the following, three standards are being introduced. In particular, their view on the best version of a project manager is at interest.

PMBOK: In the PMI standard (PMBOK),[2] it is mentioned that in addition to area-specific skills, project managers possess a set of characteristics, being within the area of knowledge, performance and personal.[2] These characteristics covers the project manager's knowledge, hes ability to perform and then personal relations.

ISO Standard: In the ISO Standard, "Competencies of project personnel" describes the competencies a project manager should have and the competencies that the project team as a unit should have.[3] Here it is stated that the project team should have a certain skill set, and that any gap between the required and available competencies could be a risk, and should be addressed. On the other hand there are listed three categories of competencies that a project manager should possess, that being technical competencies, behavioral competencies, and contextual competencies.[3]

The technical competencies describe processes, terminology and concepts, all within project management.

The behavioral competencies describe personal relationships.

The contextual competencies describe the context of the project, i.e., the project within the organization and environment.

IPMA: The International Project Management Association (IPMA) divides project management skills in the same three categories as the ISO standard in their "Competence baseline".[4] IPMA focuses on competence elements, whereof the majority of them are in the technical category. The two other categories, behavioral and contextual competencies, are also described in this standard though.

These are all well-known standards that are used across various fields and industries. They guide project managers to follow the best practice of management in a given project.

They all describe processes, techniques, and concepts, although the level of details within each standard varies a lot.


In the brief overview of what skills a project manager must possess, it might, at first glance, seem surprising that there is a lack of requirement of the field specific technical knowledge. There is a long list of requirement to the technical knowledge, in the sense of project management techniques, but the demand of area specific technical knowledge is limited.

It is noted that the organizations behind the standards all have an interest of being as broad as possible, so that as many project managers and leaders can use and apply their standards.

In the PMBOK there is a slight opening of a discussion about area specific skills, but the majority of the concept is treated in an appendix in the 4th edition,[5] and is referred to as "Application Area Extensions". Noticeably this section has been removed in the 5th edition.[2] This though is only an introduction to the extension material that PMI offers within each project type, e.g. software projects, construction projects, etc., and treats for example area specific practices.[6]

The ISO standard does not treat the subject at all, while the IPMA is the standard that goes the most in depth with the subject. The section on Contextual Competencies describes the link between the project and the organization. In the element description "Permanent Organization", it is mentioned that "If the project manager is experienced in the respective sector and industry, he will be in a better position to understand these factors. [The planning and management principles of the operations of the permanent organization, red.]"

This naturally raises the question: does a project manager need area specific knowledge of the projects that he manages? Does a manager need technical skills within an area to lead a team to meet predefined goals and objectives?

Looking into the mentioned standards, the answer seems to be no. According to appendix D in PMBOK, there can be some area specific processes that would be ideal to follow,[2] but there is not explicit requirements for concrete technical knowledge related to the working area.

The ISO standard does only describe to subject by noting that gaps in knowledge about a project can be a risk.

IPMA Competence Baseline describes area specific knowledge as being an advantage in managing the permanent organization, but doesn't describe the subject in relation to projects in the temporary sense.

Thinking of having a manager with very limited area-specific skills, one encounters problems.

Being a successful project manager means being successful at delegating work to other people, in order to meet a set of predefined goals and objectives.

This naturally means that the project manager needs to have some kind of respect about his person, so what he lacks in area-specific skills, he must make up for in other areas.

Estimating the time needed for specific sub-tasks becomes more difficult, but also a task as setting up a project team that covers a wide set of skills becomes more of a challenge. The project team is an important stakeholders. The team needs to be dynamical and have a good relation to each other, but the definition of the required skill set within the project team is of huge importance.

But what is the alternative then?

An obvious suggestion would be to have people working their way to a position as project managers. This is the concept of having academics that have been working a long time, and then being rewarded with responsibility. That could for example be for good work, loyalty, etc.

One does encounter various problems with this method of employing project managers in a company. First of all, the specialized knowledge and experience gained over a long time is taken away from a project team. Second of all, there are often organizational politics involved in the decision of hiring an employee in a new position within the organization. What should have been a decision based on qualifications can then easily become a political decision. Thirdly there could be a tendency of people working in the same field within the same company for years after years to be more narrow-minded. This will result in project managers to be less likely to think out of the box and to have a very set way of doing things.

Judging from Richardson et al.,[7] it seems that academics working their way up the ranks, is actually the career path that many project managers have taken.

As suggested in literature, the profession of being a project manager is often called the accidental profession (see for example Pinto et al.[8]) This covers the fact that there is a clear tendency of project managers being employed on behalf of their academic qualifications or the expectations for their future success as a project manager, rather than their experience as project managers.[7]

Figure 1: The evolution in number of members of PMI worldwide, from 1969 to 2008

But as discussed by Ranf,[9] time is changing. Figure 1[10] shows the evolution of number of members of PMI worldwide, and as seen on the curve the number of memberships is increasing almost exponentially. Although it refers to the number of members of PMI (and not all other project management organizations), it can be seen as a clear sign of the significance of projects, but in particular the increasing significance as project management as a profession.

Traditionally, project managers were valued for their technological knowledge that they could apply within a certain project. Having business knowledge was an advantage, but not a requirement. Now, on the other hand, project managers are valued for the business knowledge, and technological knowledge is an advantage.

This has to be seen in relation to the change of the working market. Projects are incorporated in work settings in a completely new way, and as discussed, the demand of project managers is increasing. Now the project manager's primarily job isn't necessarily to contribute with technological knowledge. According to Ranf,[9] the business aspect has an increasing importance, in order for the project manager to contribute to business decisions etc. Another aspect of the project management is political abilities. As the number of projects increases, the political environment increases, and the project manager has to move within a more complex organizational structure.

So it seems that the project manager very easily can be in a situation where there is a knowledge gap. Is it too much to require from a person that he is both a highly competent manager but also a very skilled worker? And can everybody become a project manager?

Say a person has been working his way up in the company, and finally is offered a management position. He will undergo up-qualifications of his management skills, and be certified project manager within one of the numerous project management standards. Not long ago many people didn't believe in this approach. The born leader is a term that most people have encountered, but it is also a term that was highly used not long ago.[11] Today most people acknowledge that being a leader (and in particular manager) requires a set of skills that most people can learn. This being in line with all other types of knowledge that we can acquire, if there is a need and a desire hereof.

A solution used in some bigger companies, is the dual leadership model. Duos of leaders are composed, in hopes of the duo to compliment each other. If the duo is working efficiently, a wider set of leadership skills is covered within a field. That can e.g. be technological knowledge on one hand, and more management oriented abilities on the other.

Among the companies that have tried this method, are Goldman Sachs, Unilever, and Motorola.[12]

This model brings challenges with it. There has to be a clear definition of roles, for the duo to work dynamically. There also has to be a very clear communication strategy, for information to flow efficiently within an organization. The duo needs to have a good chemistry and be able to challenge each other, but it is also suggested that a constellation like this can slow down the response to changes within an organization or project.[12]

But these examples are less dominant compared to the cost of a setup like this. One successful and money-making project after the other could very easily make the setup worth it, but it puts a very natural limitation of the types of companies and projects that could have use of this model. It simply has to be of a certain size in order to make sense, and have the acquired budget.


All in all it is difficult to give one single answer to what type of leader a project or company needs. In all situations it is necessary to take a look at the project surroundings. The qualifications need to be prioritized, in order to find the most suitable project manager within the framework of the company. In generally it does not seem like the dual leadership model is a solution to this problem. Both in terms of the limitations in the model itself, but also in the cost of a model like this.

A clear tendency is that more and more business knowledge is required, which tends to cut down on the required area-specific technological knowledge.

If one were to judge only on behalf of what the different standards on project management mention as necessary qualifications, then area-specific knowledge does not play an important role. But by taking this as a fact, one has to bear in mind that these standards have an agenda. At the end of the day, they make money the more people get certified within their framework. Thereby there is a natural interest in being as broad as possible, in order to approach as many future project managers as possible.

The lack of defined area-specific knowledge in the standards can either be seen as a part of the definition of the project manager's competencies. But it can also be seen as a limitation to the standards in general. It depends on what view one has on project management.

Throughout the whole article, there has not been made any distinctions on how close or far the project manager is to hes project team. A discussion on how the distance to the project team would affect the manager's ideal competencies would have been useful, although outside of the scope of this article.

It does seems inevitable though, to be prepared to spend time on further education of a project manager's qualifications. That can either be the project management skills or the area-specific skills, depending on what road that has been taken to get into the present position.

No matter what perspective one must have, it seems that it is a field within which there is room for more research to be done.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. Capowski, G., Anatomy of a Leader: Where Are the Leaders of Tomorrow?, (1994)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fifth Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc., Pennsylvania, USA, (2013) - Annotation: PMBOK is an American best practice standard on project management. It is highly influential, and among the most important project management standards in the world.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Dansk Standard, ISO 21500, Guidance on Project Management, First Edition, Dansk Standard, Copenhagen, Denmark, (2012) - Annotation: ISO Standard is an international standard on project management. Because of the broadness of the standard, it is very brief in nature.
  4. International Project Management Association, ICB - IPMA Competence Baseline, Third Edition, International Project Management Association, Nijkerk, The Netherlands, (2006) - Annotation: The IPMA Competence Baseline is the European version of PMBOK on project management. Although not as influential as PMBOK, it is still highly used in industries.
  5. Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fourth Edition, Project Management Institute, Inc., Pennsylvania, USA, (2008)
  6. Caupin, G., et al., Software Extension to the PMBOK® Guide Fifth Edition, review, Fifth Edition, [visited 25/09 - 2015] - Annotation: The review on the Software extension to PMBOK is used as an example of extensions of the general PMBOK.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Richardson, T. M. et al., Is Project Management Still an Accidental Profession? A Qualitative Study of Career Trajectory, (1995) - Annotation: This article is a follow up article on the highly influential article "Lessons for an Accidental Profession". It looks into the career paths on project managers, and concludes that project management still is an "accidental profession" to a high degree.
  8. Pinto, J. K., Kharbanda, O. P., Lessons for an Accidental Profession, (1995) - Annotation: This article has been a highly influential article for 15 years. It describes project management as an accidental profession, and introduces tools to become a better project manager.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ranf, D. E., Project management: Then and now, Annales Universitatis Apulensis: Series Oeconomica, 13, 596-603 (2011) - Annotation: Article discussing the change in project management from a technological specialization to a strategic business specialization.
  10. Lecture slides MEP 1.2 from the course 42429 Projektledelse Aug 15, DTU - Annotation: Slide with figure from
  11. Lecture slides MEP 5.1 from the course 42429 Projektledelse Aug 15, DTU - Annotation: Slide built on research made by Daft et al. (2008)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Palmer, M., Two chiefs not necessarily better than one, Financial Times, [visited 27/09 - 2015] - Annotation: Article published in Financial Times (which has more than 3.8 million followers on Google+). The view on Dual Leadership is here used as inspiration.
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