PM graduate degree goes online

Project management is a key discipline in the 21st century, and the IT industry is one of the areas where it comes in most handy, according to Shauneen Furlong.

As an executive director in Government On-Line, a federal initiative aiming at putting key services and programs online for citizens and businesses by 2005, Furlong was familiar with the daunting task of managing large projects that span several government departments.

“Just about everything we do requires project management techniques, whether it’s negotiating a fiscal transfer agreement, putting in a new information system, or advancing on public service reform. All services require managing projects, which have teams of multidisciplinary players, unspecified outcomes and unclear expectations or deliverables,” she said.

The IT industry in particular is “pretty infamous” for complex and challenging projects, costs overruns and scheduled delays, she added.

It was these challenges that made Furlong want to upgrade her project management skills. She was initially attracted to Athabasca’s new MBA Project Management (MBA PM) program because of its flexibility and the opportunity to enhance her education. Except for a few required residential courses, the degree can be earned entirely online.

“It’s more flexible than going to classes two nights a week,” she said. “My jobs have not made it easy for me to always be at classes twice a week. Athabasca University allows us to study on the weekends, at night, from the computer when I travel, and still advance on the courses.”

According to Janice Thomas, Athabasca’s MBA PM program director, the idea to launch a project management-focused online MBA degree came about when the university’s Centre for Innovation Management (CIM) conducted a study where it asked MBA students — all middle managers with 10 years or more of management experience — what they would pick as their number one or two business topic of preference. Project management emerged as one of the first choices.

Thomas said what sets Athabasca’s program apart from other PM programs is its higher-level approach to project management.

“(With) most of the well-established masters programs in project management…you get a lot of training in terms of fundamentals, the tools and techniques of project management. That’s what you need to understand to get things done, but to understand what situation you’re in, the kind of project you’ve got and what tools and techniques are appropriate for that particular project, when it’s working or not and how to change things on the fly — that’s more of a master’s level of understanding that needs to be developed.”

Approximately one-third of the students have an IT background, said Thomas. Another third are engineers and the rest are from varying backgrounds including theatre, fundraising and social work.

“The reason there is this kind of split is so that the IT folks learn from the engineering folks and vice-versa. There might be something engineers do that hasn’t been tried in IT, or other things in the IT world that engineers and finance people can learn from. They all learn about the common kinds of things they face.” Working with people from different industries also fosters discussion and forces people to explain things they might take for granted, she added.

For Furlong, it wasn’t difficult to adapt to the online learning environment. “Yes, you do all the work on your own, but the exchange of communication is so rich that it really makes up for it,” she said, adding that she liked the flexibility of studying from home. “It can be late at night when everyone is in bed. You’re at home in your housecoat and slippers with a cup of tea most of the time. You don’t have to drive in a winter storm.” At the same time she said she met a lot of friends. “It’s fun to meet people at your graduation that for years you communicated with online.”

Furlong took two and a half years to graduate — she is among the first 203 program graduates — and earned an 87 per cent average in the project management specialization. But the workload was heavy and the program intensive; she said she dedicated 30 to 40 hours to her studies per week.

“Between maintaining jobs and families, we all put in a lot of time. At graduation there were a lot of people making jokes about being reintroduced to their families.”

Nevertheless, she said the experience was worthwhile. “I think irrespective of the number of projects delivered on time, on budget and on schedule, it is important for executives to (acquire) a high level of formal education and certification. We see the IT industry as delivering in business requirements and we need all the skills at hand to do that within the industry.”

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