Knowledge? What do you mean, knowledge?

What does it mean to possess knowledge about Project Management? How does our understanding of the term knowledge affect our decisions?

Consider the issues that emerge from the following cameo:

An imaginary tale

“It looks like Fifi doesn’t have the knowledge required to develop an actual Project Management Plan, or to maintain a Risk Register, or to track progress against a baseline and create reports! I also don’t think she has the knowledge needed to deal with these stakeholders.”

“That’s crazy. Her certificate says, ‘This is to certify that Fifi de Poodle has been formally evaluated for demonstrated experience, knowledge and performance in achieving an organizational objective through defining and overseeing projects and resources and is hereby bestowed the global credential Project Management Professional.’ How can she not have the basic knowledge needed to manage a project?”

“Maybe she does have some basic knowledge, but no actual experience? Oh, wait, no, her certificate says she demonstrated experience. Seems strange.”

“I’m starting to wonder what kind of knowledge they actually test before they issue these certificates!”

When words matter

Sometimes it isn’t important to understand the precise meaning of a word. When someone casually says, “I like my grandmother. She’s very nice. I look forward to seeing her soon,” we don’t need to analyse and cross-question the speaker’s definitions of likenice or look forward. But, as we explained in an earlier article, there are times that we should define a term a lot more clearly, because our decisions about a matter depend on our understanding.

In Project Management, our understanding of the term knowledge is important. For example, if we’re going to appoint people based on their knowledge, or take on a role based on our own knowledge, then we’d better be clear about what we mean by knowledge.

A true story

In the late 1990s, Tania Melnyczuk naïvely accepted the role of project manager for a software development project. Along with the homework team which she’d put together, Tania had just received the highest marks ever in the history of a well-known university course on Project Management. The advertisement for the course had promised that those who passed would have the knowledge needed to “manage a project of any size in any industry”.

Tania’s project was a huge failure. With hindsight, she said, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

Since then, Tania has wisened up a bit about Project Management (and advertisements!). She now has a much more sober understanding of the kind of knowledge needed to manage projects of different sizes in different industries. Today, she is the Director of Programme Design at

Knowledge and the PMCDF

In a 2008 article at the PMI® Web site, Chris Cartwright says, “The PMCDF [Project Manager Competency Development Framework] makes the assumption that knowledge competence can be assessed with a suitable certification process, such as PMI’s PMP® certification. The framework then provides the detail to assess performance and personal competencies.”

The imaginary tale at the beginning of this article is based on a typical situation. It illustrates why this assumption about knowledge competence is problematic. The project manager in the story has a certificate that’s pretty difficult to obtain. Candidates are only considered for the PMP® exam if they have certain work experience and formal training. Yet this project manager doesn’t seem to have the knowledge needed for the job!

It’s no secret that many people obtain their PMP® or PRINCE2® certificate by cramming. So the question is really, does cramming result in meaningful knowledge? Does it provide the knowledge competence needed to manage a project?

It’s also no secret that many study programmes provide mnemonic tricks to help you recall information. But is it fair to say that you have knowledge about a subject if you don’t really understand what you’re memorising?

Does this certificate really attest to an individual’s ‘demonstrated experience, knowledge and performance in achieving an organizational objective through defining and overseeing projects and resources’?

Towards meaningful knowledge

Learning without critically thinking about what you’re learning, isn’t meaningful. A project manager’s brain isn’t there to just serve as a data store.

The Third Edition of the PMCDF is due for release soon, and we look forward to the new insights which its authors have gained about the interdependence of the three dimensions of competence. In the meanwhile, we need to be clear about this: If we want the knowledge of how to manage projects accountably, or the knowledge needed to implement Project Management in an organisation, then we need a different definition of knowledge: one that doesn’t allow us to put cramming and mnemonic tricks in the place of understanding!

We recommend the definition of knowledge from the Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms. This definition provides a departure point for understanding how to develop knowledge naturally, in conjunction with the other two dimensions of the PMCDF. It reminds us to seek and create opportunities for deep, critical thinking as we study and teach Project Management. It challenges us to focus more on formative assessment than on passing a final exam.


PMP, CAPM and PMBOK are registered trademarks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.
PRINCE2® is a registered Trade Mark of AXELOS Limited. The Swirl Logo™ is a Trade Mark of AXELOS Limited.
All PRINCE2® courses on this site are offered by Accredited Courses Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.


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