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Professionalization of Project Management | Project Research Institute

Professionalization of Project Management

What? When?

Title: Professionalization of Project Management
Date From: Spring 2001
Date To: Fall 2003

Summary in Brief:

This study of professionalization of project management considers the journey of traditional professions (medicine, pharmacy, accounting and engineering) and pseudo -professions (knowledge based occupations such as  nursing, teaching and social work), comparing and contrasting strategies used to gain and maintain professional status. The lessons that project management can learn and strategies it could take on its own journey toward professionalization are clearly described in the short readable monograph. The upshot of this research project is that although project management has come a long way toward being a profession it still has a long way to go.

Who? Where?

Lead Researchers

Affiliations at time of study.

Professor Bill Zwerman

Affiliation: University of Calgary, Canada

Department of Sociology

University of Calgary, AB, Canada


Dr Janice Thomas

Affiliation: Athabasca University, Canada

Program Director, MBA in Project Management

Centre for Innovative Management

Athabasca University, AB, Canada



Susan Haydt

Role: Research Assistance

Professor Terry A Williams

Role: Data Analysis and Editorial input


PMI Research Grant

Athabasca University

University of Calgary






The research objective of this project was to present a framework within which professionalization of PM could be considered.


A number of questions led the research, i.e.,

  • “What is a profession and how does an occupation become one?”;
  • “How did traditional professions arise?”;
  • “What can project management learn from the recent attempts of knowledge occupations to attain professional status?”;
  • “What characteristics of professional status traditional and emerging professions share?”;
  • “What are the challenges facing traditional and emerging professions in attaining or retaining the status of professions? “; and ultimately
  • “What paths are available to project managers, should they wish to attain professional status?”



By comparing the route a range of professions and neo-professions have taken toward professionalization the cause of professionalization for project management can be furthered.



Theoretical Basis

Sociological research of professions falls into two approaches: the (now outdated) trait approach which describes the characteristics of accepted professions (Greenwood 1957; Carr_Saunders and Wilson 1933) and; the process approach for attaining professional status (Ritzer and Walczak 1986). More recently the control theory has been employed, the role of power in the emergence of a profession (Johnson; Friedson, Margolis, and Abbot; Aldrige 1996, Hugman 1991) and the alternative forms of professions, including semi-professions or employer-employee professions(Hugman 1996, Roach Anleu 1992 ) and knowledge organizations, has also been researched.



Practical interest

PM as an occupation is becoming increasingly important and commonplace. In 2000 the PMI Executive director stated “project management is truly a global profession” (PMNetwork Jan 2000), and two-thirds of the 1999 membership supported the view of project management as a profession in a PMI survey. Although PMI is working towards professionalism in project management does project management qualify as a profession?




Data capture from professional organizations for Nursing, Social Work and Teaching.
Comparative data from an on-line survey.


Multi-method approach:

  • Qualitative Textural analysis of documentary evidence stored on professional organization web sites.
  • Quantitative analysis of on-line survey.


Project Organisation

The project was organized into three phases which ran simultaneously and recursively over the two year project period: the literature review; the qualitative  web  survey; and the email survey.

Phase One - Literature Review

Professionalization literature including  (1) the efforts of knowledge based occupations (e.g. teaching, social work, nursing) in gaining professional status and (2), ongoing efforts of traditional professions (e.g. law, medicine, accounting, engineering) was reviewed.

Phase Two - Qualitative Survey

Web sites supporting the professionalization of nursing, social work and teaching in Canada (where possible all provinces) and the United States of America (eight representative geographic states: California, Minnesota, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Washington and Massachusetts) were analyzed for strategies used to promote their professionalization during March - October 2002. A final update was created in september 2003.

This methodology employed a textual analysis of the web site data and was carried out using the qualitative WinMAX tool. Open emergent coding and a priori analysis was performed. The coded texts were analyzed in light of  research questions: How does each occupation address professional status?; How is professional status used?; How is it sought?; How is it maintained?; What threats are present?; and How are key components of professional status addressed? Analysis was carried out on three levels: (1) basic facts (2) viewpoints and justifications; and (3) strategic approaches.

Phase Three - Email Survey

An email survey derived from the findings of phase one - literature review and  phase two - web site analysis was implemented with leaders of professional organizations for (1) traditional professions, (2) neo-professions and (3) project management in Australia, Canada and the United States of America in  March 2003 and August 2003.

So What?

Each profession is idiosyncratic however, it is possible to gain insights from other occupations that can be translated for project management.

Practice Outcomes

The professionalization process of project management should involve:

  • Project management can be a part time or full time occupation.
  • Claim and control an exclusive body of knowledge with standardized terminology - this may be the very first step.
  • Clearly establish the scope of what is done and not done under the designated role.
  • Educational programs require connection to the major professional associations.
  • Corporations to cede professional control to professional organizations
  • Increased public awareness of project management and the activities of project managers
  • Control over the designation "project manager' is required, maintenance of its rights and policing of its use.
  • Project management is internationally relevant and licensing would most like involve international agreements. Local licensing would be counter-productive. National licensing may be a suitable first step.
  • Governmental support of a licensing structure is required at national levels to standardize certification and licensing requirements
  • Voluntary, followed by mandatory, certification and licensing.

This requires a changed role for professional associations. professional associations become centre of control for the profession and represent the practitioners to the outside world:

  • Police: designation, ethics, certification and licensing.
  • Manage innovatively the scope of the profession, its terminology and consensus of its scope.
  • Lobby government.

Research Outcomes

Questions to be pursued from this study are:

  • what would a global profession look like, and how would one be created?
  • the role of power in the workplace over licensing project management
  • governmental view on, and its role in, licensing of professions
  • the scope of what is done and not done under the designated role
  • the body of knowledge of the project management profession; in particular the boundary of shared  knowledge with other professions and common knowledge; and terminology.
  • how project management will become a recognized academic discipline
  • for whom is project management professionalization needed?

From a practical perspective, as a source of data, web sites were found to be cost effective, the published material is: thought to be important (possibly reviewed) and on topic;  textual and required no transcription.


Comparing the traditional professions with knowledge occupations the most common strategies for strengthening the case for professionalization were found to be:

  • Promoting the unique nature of the knowledge
  • Establishing a clear scope of practice
  • Setting own educational standards
  • Linking theory and practice
  • Obtaining legal protection of the title
  • Establishing licensing
  • Increasing research

There is much that the professional associations (both international, PMI and IPMA, and national) can and will need to do to further professionalization for project management.

"The key to success will be in developing a defensible definition of project management that can be advanced as a profession, while developing a well-defined and complex body of knowledge that can be claimed by the profession, working to protect the occupational name, and elaborating a significant independent educational program with an associated set of research programs."

(Zwerman, W., Thomas, J., Haydt, S. & Williams, T. (2004)  Professionalization of Project Management:  Exploring the Past to Map the Future.  Newtown, Pennsylvania: PMI Publishing.)

In addition, the challenge of establishing whether professional associations will support voluntarily certificated individuals or the rights of the professional group must fundamentally be resolved.

There are also substantial barriers outside of the profession that will need to be overcome in the longer term: Corporations too may have some short term persepctives that resist a movement towards professionalization of project management;  Governmental involvement is most likely to form a very long term action set.

This research project highlights challenges and strategies and provides much thought for debate.



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