Where Project Managers Can Go to Develop Their Soft Skills

Having found that soft-skills is the only factor that is correlated with project success (Young et al 2021) my research group took the next step to find out where project managers can go to develop their soft-skills.

We tried a few of the courses on LinkedIn and concluded short courses are not effective. It would be great if you could do a 1 hour LinkedIn course or attend a 3-day workshop and then suddenly be good with people! It just doesn’t work that way. We decided to search for longer University level courses that develop soft-skills.

First, we had to solve a problem: we had to clarify what we is meant by soft skills? The academic literature lists at least 37 different soft-skills that have been identified by research to correlate with success. This “shopping list” is being added to all the time and is an impractical guide for project managers; who has time to master 37 or more competencies?

We believe the International Project Management Association (IPMA) Individual Competence Baseline (ICB4.0) is a good effort to summarise the academic literature (Young et al, 2021). However, we felt the ten competencies prescribed in the ICB4.0 are still too onerous for many to master so we reduced and summarized them into five broader competencies in a framework we shall refer to as ICB4.0+. The relationship between ICB4.0 and ICB4.0+ is shown in Table 1.

IPMA ICB 4.0ICB 4.0+
People Skills
Self-reflection and self-management
Personal integrity and reliability
Resourcefulness
Results orientation
Emotional Intelligence (EI)
Personal communication
Conflict and crisis
Negotiation
Communication
Relations and engagementRelationship Management
LeadershipLeadership
TeamworkTeamwork
Organisational Skills
StrategyStrategy
Governance, structure, processesGovernance, structure, processes
Compliance, standards and regulationCompliance, standards and regulation
Power & interestPower & interest
Culture& valuesCulture& values
 Change & change management
Project Skills
Change & change management 
Table 1: ICB4.0 and ICB4.0+

We then conducted online searches of the top graduate programs in China, Europe, and the US to find all the courses that taught the soft competencies in the ICB4.0+. Top universities such as Harvard University, Oxford University, and Tsinghua University were investigated in this study. In total, 21 US universities, 36 European universities, and 15 Chinese universities were selected as the sample institutions. The institution selection was based on the following criteria:

  • Top 10 universities in the region based on QS World University Rankings 2021
  • Top 10 universities in the region recognized by IPMA or Project Management Institute (PMI).

Results

The summary results are shown in Table 2. We differentiated between MBA courses other courses because MBA courses are usually not available to the general population.

Table 2: Number of strong matches of courses covering ICB4.0+ competencies

Overall we find:

  1. Project management practitioners have very limited options for soft skill training at a tertiary level. Except for leadership, it is almost impossible to find training courses in each region that are strongly focused on each core competency.
  2. There are many more competencies trained through MBA courses than through PM courses. Project management practitioners are therefore better to undertake an MBA than a degree in project management if they want to improve their soft-skills and be more successful with their projects.

From the perspective of each region:

  1. In China, except for leadership and communication, there are not enough ‘strongly related’ courses to provide practitioners with the training they need. Organizational skills are the most neglected soft skill category in China; and there are not enough training courses for any soft-skill competencies in the whole tertiary sector.
  2. In Europe, the situation is similar to that in China, where there are not enough training courses for all competencies in people skills except leadership. It is positive that the majority of organizational skills are offered in PM courses, although available courses are limited. The number of courses that teach strategy is the largest, but this competency is only offered in 44% of the researched institutions.
  3. The US results are the best, with a few competencies having a significant number of courses. However, not all of the competencies received sufficient attention. For example people skills: emotional intelligence (EI), relationship management, teamwork and organizational skills: power & interest and culture & value are all neglected.

So where can project managers go to develop their soft skills?

Our research set out to find where project managers can go to develop their soft skills. Table 3 presents the universities with strongly focussed soft skill training via courses available to project managers. It shows that no university alone offers adequate training for the soft-skills needed for project success. It also shows students need to be prepared to fly all around their region and sometimes the world to get the soft skills training needed to be consistently successful with their projects.

Table 3: Universities with strongly focussed soft-skill training via PM courses for project managers

Conclusion

We conclude that there are very few universities that offer courses that develop the soft-skills needed for project success. Our home institution (XJTLU) is one of them because we enhanced our project management programme in parallel with this research. In the rest of China, there is no other institution that provides adequate coverage of the soft-skills needed for project success.

In Europe, the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA) offers the most PM courses training for project success in soft skills.

Northeastern University is the best for soft skills training university in the US. Northeastern teaches six soft skills through its PM program and four soft skills through its MBA program.

The practical implications of this research are twofold:

  1. The findings will guide project management practitioners on where they can go to develop the soft skills that are critical to project success.
  2. The newly developed ICB4.0+ may guide future project management education and may lead to practitioners actually being taught what they need to succeed. As a result the project failure rate, an ongoing problem, may finally improve.

Further research is recommended to validate the new ICB4.0+ competency framework and validate the mapping of university courses against the ICB4.0+ competencies.