Is Domain Knowledge Needed for Project Managers?

How to Prepare for the PMP Exam Day

Project management is supposed to be a transferable skill. The principles and practices laid down in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) should work in any application domain. So, anyone experienced in project management – especially someone with the Project Management Professional (PMP)® accreditation – should be able to apply for work wherever a Project Manager role comes available.

The Role of Domain Knowledge in Project Manager Vacancies

Unfortunately, a quick review of the Project Manager vacancies shows up another set of requirements Project Managers have to have. While the familiar knowledge areas may in listed – scope, time, cost, quality, resources, communications, risk, procurement and stakeholder management – you will also find a list of application domain requirements. In other words, you will not be considered for a Project Manager role unless you have experience in that particular industry. In the software world, the requirements are often much more demanding: Here you will be expected to have worked with whatever technology the company employs.

But why is this the case? Surely the management of a project does not require detailed knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the deliverables you will be tasked with providing? Will programming skills help you to determine an effective Work Breakdown Structure? Will civil engineering knowledge help your risk analysis? Although not directly relevant to project management per se, domain knowledge can be very useful for a Project Manager.

Benefits and Limitations of Domain Knowledge in Project Management

When searching for requirements and developing a Work Breakdown Structure, it helps to be aware of what should be included. When canvassing for estimates, how realistic are the ones that your team provides you with? Having worked in the area, you will be able to tell if the estimates feel right or not. However, familiarity with a particular domain can lead to the same mistakes being made over and over again. For instance, small but vital chunks of work can be forgotten if the Project Manager never had to deal with them before. For instance, a Project Manager who only ever developed software for new customers might never have dealt with the issue of porting existing databases from an old system to the new one. In other words, domain knowledge might help, but it is no guarantee that mistakes will not be made.

It could even be argued that a naïve Project Manager will tease things out by asking stupid questions. Getting the team to explain how a system is built up can lead to a myriad of questions, if the Project Manager has a logical mind. How do the pieces fit together? How does this piece come about? How are we going to get regulatory approval? In fact, the very act of explaining something at a fundamental level often leads to items being considered that were forgotten simply because they are so obvious. Similarly, using three-point estimation can guide the innocent Project Manager through the estimating process by forcing the team to identify the risks associated with the pessimistic estimates. The Delphi approach is also helpful – using the team as a whole to estimate provides a useful averaging effect.

Essentially the requirement for domain knowledge boils down to: cost and risk aversion. What employers are looking for is a Project Manager who has managed very similar projects in the past. They want to see a track record in this industry and they do not want to spend any money on training up a newcomer in the basics of their operation. Unfortunately, it is often the case that it is easier to learn something than to unlearn it and taking a Project Manager from a competitor could require intensive retraining just to get them into your particular way of doing things.

Broadening Your Appeal as a Project Manager

If you are currently managing projects in a particular industry, it is likely you will remain in that specific industry. A good idea is to pursue what Edgar Schein described as a “circumferential” career path, where you try to manage projects in different areas. This will broaden your appeal and demonstrate that you can deal with different domains. In the end, it is all about building up your track record.

Expand Your Project Management Skills with Velopi

Velopi’s project management training courses cover the entire Project Management Body of Knowledge.

If you would like to develop your skills in this area, our project management certification courses are held online in our virtual classroom for your convenience. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

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