To Develop Project Managers, You Have to Understand How Adults Learn

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By Peter Tarhanidis

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Many organizations rely on traditional curriculum-based learning to develop project leaders. However, such approaches are deeply rooted in pedagogy—the teaching of children.

Even though top managers at many organizations invest in traditional project management curricula, these courses have limited utility for adult project managers, slowing down the organization from reaching goals. In my experience, organizations tend to employ disparate training methodologies while teams dive into execution with little planning. With scattered approaches to talent management and knowledge transfer, they miss project goals.

All this creates an opportunity for an enterprise-wide approach that integrates contemporary adult learning and development practices.

Leveraging this approach allows the organization to motivate and sustain increased individual and project performance to achieve the organization’s strategic plan.

In coming up with such an approach, organizations should consider several adult learning and development theories. For example, consider Malcolm Knowles’ six aspects of successful adult learning: self-directed learning, building experiences, developing social networks, the practicability of using new knowledge, the internal drive to want to understand why, and how to use new knowledge.

And they must also keep in mind how the aging project management workforce of project managers drives organizational performance. Other considerations include:

  1. Employee learning is necessary due to fast-paced changes in demographics, technology and globalization. But those employees are already busy staffing the growing demands of strategic initiatives.
  2. Adult learning models should be the foundation of your training programs.
  3. Traditional adult development theories must expand to include integrative learning models.
  4. Self-directed learning must integrate new transformational approaches that provide for content delivery and experiential learning.
  5. The impact of cognitive development processes on intelligence and aging can yield new and useful approaches to teaching and learning.

Try these eight steps to build a more flexible and integrated adult learning framework. 

  1. Identify self-directed approaches for employees to acquire knowledge, information and skills, and readily apply them to meet organizational outcomes.
  2. Create a learning environment that helps make sense of practitioner situations and allows for reflective dialogues to create solutions to problems and new knowledge.
  3. Sponsor internal networks, social media and gaming/simulation technology to distribute information.
  4. Define clear levels of learning that can be achieved by moving across boundaries. Examples of such boundaries can be small, medium, large projects or local, national, global projects.
  5. Leverage experts to instruct groups. If the organization is seen to value the role of teacher, others will want to teach as well, reinforcing a continuous cycle of development.
  6. Encourage learning on the job, so that an employee’s learning is based on understanding the effects of his or her actions in an environment.
  7. Launch communities of practice that are based on the influence of the community to develop the group expertise.
  8. Engage quick feedback through co-participation or co-emergence of learning based on everyday interactions through peers, leaders or certain situations.

New integrative learning approaches are required to increase project managers’ competence while motivating and sustaining older adult learners.

By applying these practices to critical needed competencies, organizations can create new capabilities to meet their strategic plans.

Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: August 04, 2015 09:58 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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It is very important to know what opportunity costs are in order understand the implications of our decisions. Project management is all about decision-making. Great post, Cornelius. Thanks for sharing.

Sorry Peter, I don't know why the comment I posted to Cornelius' Blog (Certification Insider) appeared here. By the way, I liked you post a lot. I've been teaching MBA students for the last 5 years. Adult learning is, for sure, very different from "traditional pedagogy". Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I think I have more understanding on this topic now.

No worries and thank you for the unintended comment on pedagogy!


Integrated and self directed learning is key for all career development / team development. The fast paced world today requires us to learn on the go

Great article Peter. Thanks.
Eight steps that you have described is really the way out. I believe, the second step; creating a knowledge environment plays the pivotal role.

Key to all learning is connecting the WIIFM for the Associate & the Organization. All too often I see "day to day" operations leaving no time for self-development. (or so I hear - of course we can find many examples of continuous learning in those same organization).

I call out both the individual and organization WIIFM's because setting expectations for continuous learning may need to come from the Resource Manager or other Managers.

Promoting and fostering self directed learning with appropriate organisational acknowledgement system/incentives (could be intrinsic or extrinsic) would be the most effective way.

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