The Commodifacation of Skills – Is the “War on Talent” just an inability to see the wood for the trees?


The epidemic of recruiting and sourcing firms filtering out experienced and capable people through the commodification of skills is leading to poorer outcomes and a loss of productivity.

Abstract;

Many of us in the project management and ICT industry continue to be dismayed and occasionally a little incredulous when we hear the continual mantra repeated about the so called ‘skills shortage’, the so called “war on talent”, when so many  extremely experienced project and program managers with many successful projects behind them struggle to get work.  Why is this and why are so many people continually overlooked by recruiters while at the same time high profile projects continue to fail on their objectives?

Increasingly, what recruiters and employers mean by skills shortage in the ICT & business project management area is really an inability to locate individuals with common cookie cutter skills, or what I call ‘skills as commodities’.  These are the type of skills that you could read off a project management training brochure, the ones that urge you to ‘sign up’, take the course to become a project manager and equip yourself with skills that are ‘in demand’ by employers and are career enhancing.

The marketing blurb for these courses support a shopping list of project management skills but this doesn’t always translate to project management capability.

 “Become MSP®, PRINCE2® and P3M3®,FPMS Accredited and get results through our value adding application of internationally recognised management principles”

 “Get Agile qualified”, “learn ITIL”, “obtain your PMP”, or get a “Masters in Project Management

Many of the courses give you separate certifications, in separate accreditations so that you know what the different processes and methodologies entail, so you have the theory of project management.  However, do you learn how to apply the right ones, in the right order at the right time?  Experience tells you when to use ‘Service Management’ instead of ‘ITIL’ and when to use a combination of Prince2 and [i]PmBok or when to just simplify everything down to complete basics and not use project management terms at all.

They all look good on your CV but the problem is that many of the CV’s that can be sourced  demonstrating these ‘skills’ don’t actually make for a good project manager.  That is; we have spent so much time over ‘processizing’ everything, ‘methodologizing’ things within an inch of their lives and putting so much focus on buzz-word accreditations plus very narrow technology domain ‘specialisations’ it has lead, in my opinion, to skills being seen as commodity sets.  Now all the recruiter has to do is do a quick perusal of a candidate’s CV as if checking off features and inclusions when buying a new car –if they don’t match 100% then they are out of the running.  In effect, many times the recruiter is not only narrowing the field using this method but they are also narrowing the available skills actually required because they fail to think outside the square and instead blindly focus on matching the job specification to get the ‘placement fee’.

It’s not just the recruiters fault.  We just can’t help categorising, defining and cataloguing things, and our cataloguing includes people.  When we see someone new for the first time, we automatically put him or her into a category.  It may be that we think, “Smartly dressed, business person, successful, confident” and if the person actually doesn’t fit the category that you have put them into, its takes them some time to prove to you that you need to change your cataloguing system.

Project and program management has increasingly become a mere a set of processes and, what is in reality a management skill, is increasingly undervalued by large corporate and government senior executives who are under enormous pressure to cut costs by offshoring almost everything.  An oversupply in the market of people calling themselves Project Managers forces a reduction in salaries to genuinely skilled people who don’t need to rely on buzzwords and fancy process terms to deliver.  So in effect, the commodification of project and program management leads to a reduction in our ability to understand the capability of the individual, which in turn leads to poorer business initiative outcomes, highly stressful workplaces and the inevitable collapse of the time, cost and quality triangle.

Many recruiters and their client organisations bunch the skill-sets of ‘project management’ together like they are taking a shopping list to the supermarket; for example wanting a “[ii]PMP qualified, [iii]Six Sigma black-belt, top-gun BI Project Manager who specialises in version 4.7 of (name a mainstream vendor’s product)” when that is not what is required at all.  What is generally required for a large and complex program is an experienced program manager with a diverse skill set who demonstrates they have a range of successful projects under their belt.  More importantly, it needs a manager with program skills who understands how business works, how to speak to senior executives, how to identify stakeholders, how to successfully plan a program and how to inspire and motivate a program team to achieve a programs outcomes.  None of these things are commodities, but too often these vital skills are undervalued in favour of commodity terms like, ‘be [iv]Prince2 certified’, ‘have SAP experience’, ‘ERP preferred’, ‘Senior Project Manager with minimum 5 years experience’, and my favourite, ‘degree qualified’.  Alternatively, something like this bunch of shopping item certifications that I recently saw advertised for one role;

“PMI,  MoP® ? Management of Portfolios, MSP® ? Managing Successful Programs, P3O®,  Portfolio, Program, Project Office or PRINCE2® ? Projects IN a Controlled Environment

The push to ‘standardise’ project management by creating repeatable processes through named methodologies and frameworks in a bid to increase successful outcomes has just facilitated a tick and flick mentality of resume assessment.  It has created a perception that project management is indeed a commodity play, a process, and I would argue, this hasn’t been helped by all those Project Management organisations out there who have jumped on the bandwagon to ‘standardise’, ‘methodise’ and ‘certify’ anyone who can read and do an exam.  In reality, it is a process.  It is a bunch of processes, templates, tools and techniques all put together in a way that achieves an outcome – not just any outcome, but the outcomes that are the stated deliverables.  It is up to the project manager to understand the desired outcomes, work out if the deliverables are the right ones, and determine if they are achievable.  They then need to work out HOW to achieve them and this is where the skill comes in.  No tools, processes and gantt charts you can muster will give you this ability by themselves.  No certifications, MBA’s and degrees also will give you this ability on their own.  You need someone who can visualise the pathway, who can plan the approach, understand which methodology they need to use to achieve the plan and then that someone needs to put together a team with stakeholders and sponsors that can make it happen.

Recently I was astounded when one of my program team members obtained an extremely high mark in the Prince2 certification, completing the Practitioner course in record time.  All well and good, except that this person had never managed a project before and here she was a ‘certified’ Prince2 practitioner.  Not only had she never managed a project, she  was on the first program of her life as my Program Coordinator charged with overseeing the budget, where everything project like had to be explained to her in detail before she would commence work on it.  Even after doing her certification, she didn’t see the point of a Traceability Requirements Matrix for this large Business Transformation Program with an enormous amount of business processes and software applications to be tested!  Yet to look at her CV, she would be a great choice for Project Manager.  Financial experience – on a large program, a previous job title as Program Co-ordinator and, Prince2 certified “project manager”.  No wonder so many projects fail!

Another example was a first year Computer Science graduate working in a Tier 1 consulting company with a newly completed PMP certification.  Were they a Project Manager?  I think not.  They were good at study and doing exams and like the previous example, they passed the exams with flying colours because they can learn, process information and regurgitate it at will to pass an exam.

Or this example of an experienced accountant who went on to do a Masters of Project Management, become [v]AIPM certified, and MBA qualified but who couldn’t actually manage his way out of a paper bag because he had failed to understand the management component of project management.  He knew all the buzzwords, could regurgitate any project methodology with ease, but could not plan a project and manage it to a conclusion.  He was merely an academic project manager, good at theorising how to and what not to do, identifying what went wrong and when, but didn’t understand the basics of people management.  He didn’t understand the drivers of stakeholders, the politics of some decisions by senior stakeholders that put projects into perilous circumstances and worst of all, could not write a document to save himself!  He had the theory and the certifications but he didn’t have the technique to apply project management in a way that motivated and inspired people to make the journey through a project environment.

It takes much more than this to be a successful project manager.  It takes guts, tenacity, excellent communication skills, the ability to stay calm in a crisis, the ability to lead a team and keep them motivated through thick and thin to get to the end game, it takes a leader with finely honed management skills, it takes someone who knows how to plan, how to scope and how to cost a body of work and lastly, it takes someone who knows which project management technique needs to be applied when, how, and how much.

Unfortunately, many project management accreditations and buzzwords are bandied about by recruiters like the very ability of the planet to continue turning depends on the number of times these terms are used within a single conversation!  Most really, have little understanding of what it actually takes to deliver a complex project or program.  What it takes in reality is the ability to use a combination of process, methodology, communication skill and management technique all imparted and delivered by a unique individual with a diverse range of experience behind them.  It is this experience that gives them the very qualities that enable them to effectively apply the right processes at the right time, in the right order with the right senior management buy-in to get the right outcome every time.

Much modern management thinking around function and execution is “If it can be made into a set of processes it can be outsourced”, and this is seen as the epitome of management success, yet large projects continue to fail and Australia suffers from one of the worst productivity rates in the OECD. The enormous talent pool of experienced ‘war horse’ project managers who don’t fit the shopping list are disregarded and the true potential to achieve far greater returns on the investment is left untapped and our vision to execute on a higher efficiency future potentially wasted.

Over the last 15 years or so, the profile of project management within ICT has increased substantially.  It is now regarded as a core skill set for many leaders as a way of managing complex environments and achieving outcomes that in the past would have been put down to good luck or good management.  As a fellow Program Management colleague of mine recently said, “Everything is a bloody program!”, and it seems true that everywhere you look program’s are underway and program managers are the hottest property in the war on talent.  Yet there is still a problem sourcing the right people and my thinking is that project management has fallen foul of marketers and promoters, training organisations and certifiers and the actual ‘art’ of management has been pushed aside in favour of the glamour of a certification.

The work done by many of us in the project management industry to standardise and professionalise project management to ensure repeatable success has in fact lead to a standardised view of project management.  Once you can standardise something and make it into a repeatable process that anyone can do, you turn it into a product, a process methodology, or a commodity.  Once you have a commodity, the market can dictate terms, drive down market rates and outsource the skill sets to cheaper markets.

WANT TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THIS TOPIC?  BOOK ME AS A SPEAKER AT YOUR NEXT CONFERENCE

What are the real qualities and attributes we need to help our senior executives articulate their needs and how do we get recruiters and sourcing experts to respond by tapping into the enormous resource right here, right now effectively at their finger-tips?  My talk will help to reframe the notions around the skills shortage and identify some key strategies you could use to ‘see all the wood on offer right there amongst the trees!”

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MOORE, Susanne (2012), The Commodifacation of Skills – Is the “War on Talent” just an inability to see the wood for the trees?, White paper, susannemoore.com via wordpress https://susannemoore.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/the-commodifacation-of-skills-is-the-war-on-talent-just-an-inability-to-see-the-wood-for-the-trees/ [downloaded]

REFERENCES


[i] PmBok is the Project Management Book of Knowledge developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI)

[ii] Project Management Institute (PMI) Project Management Professional Certification http://www.pmi.org/

[iii] Six Sigma originated as a set of practices designed to improve manufacturing processes and eliminate defects, but its application was subsequently extended to other types of business processes as well.[5] In Six Sigma, a defect is defined as any process output that does not meet customer specifications, or that could lead to creating an output that does not meet customer specifications.[4]

[iv] Prince2 PRINCE2 is derived from an earlier method called PROMPTII and from PRINCE project management method, which was initially developed in 1989 by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) as a UK Government standard for information systems (IT) project management; however, it soon became regularly applied outside the purely IT environment.[1] PRINCE2 was released in 1996 as a generic project management method.[2] PRINCE2 has become increasingly popular and is now a de facto standard for project management in the UK.[3]

[v] Australian Institute of Project Managers (AIPM) https://www.aipm.com.au/html/default.cfm

15 thoughts on “The Commodifacation of Skills – Is the “War on Talent” just an inability to see the wood for the trees?

  1. Great to read the article Susanne, after 20 years of line and program mgmt I couldnt agree more with your analysis. I think at the very least it offers up a great opportunity for the ICT community to discuss the topic and perhaps lead to revisiting what the measures of success are. I think you have really hit the nail on the head with the hammer of common sense. Well done.

  2. Employers see you as a human doing – not a human being.
    If they would bother to take the time to get to know you and explain from the heart their corporate goals they would get the best performance out of you

    1. Hi Brunodeshayes, thanks for your comment. I think that there is not enough trust and faith that people are capable and that everyone, given the right motivation, just wants to do their best.

  3. Susanne, this article is spot on! As you say we have commodified and functionalized and formalised the selection process to the point where we not only do not hire the right person with the right experience for the role but also the right fit for a team. I am delighted to see this issue being raised as until now I had felt alone in my analysis. It is great to see a like minded point of view. Thank-you. Rebecca

    1. Thanks Rebecca, I am so glad that you agree and I am not the only one that has this point of view. Not only, as you say, we have “commodified and functionalized and formalised the selection process”, we have also done the same to project management. The same is happening to organisational change – previously a ‘black art’, now with multiple methodologies. But can anyone implement them? I don’t think so. It still takes someone with EQ, an understanding of business and management ability.

  4. Hi Suzanne, Just read your article and it is ‘spot on’. The lastest craze I’ve been seeing is “Cloud computing experience”; “relocation experience” etc. as though these are somehow special projects that need some sort of special skills. To anyone who has managed a wide range of projects throughout their career, they are after all just another project – aren’t they. And of course what about the job spec. that looks like someone has gone to the PMBOK and extracted it into the job spec. I could go on and on, but I’m sure others have experienced similar

  5. Good article Susanne. In saying that, I have little sympathy for employers that go about employing such crucial roles through a recruiter with questionable understanding of the field. At the same time, some capable project and programme managers do not do themselves any good by not taking industry certifications. If you want a graduate role, get a graduate degree. It is the same in all other knowledge based professions – medicine, engineering, law, teaching …

    1. Thank you for your comment Shoaib. I do agree with you that many employers leave the recruitment tasks up to people that don’t really know what it takes to be a truly effective program or project management professional. I worry that the ‘profession’ is becoming over academic and the focus on being a ‘professional’ has been misconstrued to mean = lots of qualifications without the associated experience. AIPM (Australian Institute of Project Management) has tried to combat this by having a competency based certification process, but in my experience this is also flawed because the focus is still on the certification rather than the actual skill required to do the job. That being said, as you say, we do need to have some standards so degree and other qualifications are relevant as long as it doesn’t get in the way of recognizing experience.

  6. Hi Susanne. Recruiters (like anyone struggling to cope with vast amounts of information) will need to filter the ~70 CVs they receive for each PM position based on some key words that the Employer has given them. So to get into the Recruiters top ~5 list and then stand a chance of getting an interview (where you can use those Communication skills and shine) we all need to first ensure the relevant (dreaded) buzz words are in each of the tailored CVs … which is very time consuming. The more CVs out there, the more competitive the market, the more pressure there is to find those differentiators just to get a Recruiters ‘screening’ interview.

    1. Unfortunately though to have the buzzwords would mean that you also have to have the skills and the substantial increase in buzzwords that often describe the same skills is the problem. An experienced project manager does not always have to have all the commodity skills that an employer may ask for in order to successfully deliver a project. That is; I don’t need to have every type of technical skill of a technical person in order to deliver a project but often a recruiter will look for the technical descriptors to filter. Filtering for industry group is one thing, but now project management has so many acronyms to represent qualifications it is impossible to keep up particularly when you have been busy actually managing the successful delivery of a program which often leaves little time for additional study. It is the “packaging up” of skills that I have an issue with and what I think has resulted in the commodification of project managers. Thanks for you comment. I do understand the issues that recruiters must have and that clients often dictate unreasonable terms, but isn’t it up to someone to bring a bit of common sense to the situation instead of just going along with the flow. Ultimately the whole system of recruitment, client interaction and certification needs a shake up. I will make sure I put something controversial like that into my talk.

    2. Thanks for your comment Andrew, I think you have hit one of the nails on the head when you say to “get through the recruiters screening process” because this is where I think one of the major problems lies. I understand the filtering system, but it means that your CV need to have the buzzwords contained in it to get through but this is both unrealistic and shortsighted. For many of us very experienced Program Managers the buzzwords just don’t cut it, they don’t represent what you do and the real qualifications that you need to successfully deliver a large program or project. The female in the example that I gave who had passed her Prince 2 practitioner course with flying colours is a classic example. She would more likely get through the screening process with a buzzword and no real experience than someone with real life experience. I must say though, that most senior people will know Prince even if they haven’t done the course. I guess the short sighted ness comes down, in part to the mindset behind the screening process. Lets really break it down. Whose life is made easier by it? The client? The candidate? No the recruiters. I don’t mean to be rude but in my experience, many recruiters don’t really understand the requirements of a position, and many don’t really understand how buzzword technical and managerial skills should be applied for success, so whilst they can ‘evaluate’ you against a criteria this doesn’t mean that they can evaluate and assess your real ability to ‘apply’ your knowledge. But recruiters are not the only ones that are commodifying skills, it is those well meaning practitioner organisations that respond to non performance and unprofessional behaviour by setting up even more certifications instead of addressing the underlying cause of the problem.

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