As one of the UK’s foremost project management consultancies, Roc Technologies are often asked to provide a project manager with experience within a certain type of project or area of technology.  Nothing wrong with that of course.  Finding a good PM who also has subject knowledge of a technical area or a delivery approach should improve early planning, identify likely risks earlier and, in general, make for a more efficient project with a higher chance of success.

In some cases it’s not even advisable, it’s almost essential.  High complexity ERP implementations or changes, high risk data centre relocations, large-scale development projects and heavily regulated construction projects are all examples of projects that require specialist knowledge from a project manager.  That’s not to say these projects can’t be delivered by capable project managers without prior experience. However, when that’s the case, the project manager needs to work closely with one or more subject matter experts to bridge the knowledge gap.

So all things being equal a project manager with specialist knowledge will deliver a project more successfully than a project manager without this knowledge.  The logic stands up so far.

However, all things are not equal.  As we all know, the term project manager can describe professionals with hugely differing ranges of skills and experience. Some are highly capable and have a wide breadth of experience, some are effective only in highly regulated environments and others are brilliant task managers but aren’t adept at management level comms and planning.

This poses the question – How important is the capability of the project manager versus having specialist knowledge?  As with all things, there’s no single answer. Instead we should weigh up the merits of capable project management v specialist project management.

Are these two requirements equal?  As mentioned above a capable project manager can work without specialist knowledge – can a specialist PM be effective without good project management skills?  I would argue not.  So, based on that logic, the project management capability is the dominant requirement.  This suggests a totally valid strategy for hiring managers with both specialist subject knowledge and good PM skills.  However, the focus should always be on the project capabilities.  If this initial search isn’t successful the next step would be to look for project capability only. Therefore, covering the knowledge gap in another way.  Sometimes we see the opposite when the portfolio managers feel compelled to pick from a small sub-set of specialist contractors, who don’t meet the client’s project management requirements.

So portfolio and hiring managers may want to determine the weighting of the two.  For instance the candidate should have good PM skills making up 70% of the (notional or otherwise) scoring and 30% for specialist knowledge.

One final point to consider, which doesn’t change the logic above but should be a consideration in the selection process. The term “specialist knowledge” is a loose one.  There are some project managers who are most definitely subject experts.  They may have had operational roles in the area or have worked continuously in the field for many years.    However, there are others with some subject knowledge – maybe having delivered two or three projects in the same area.  Whilst they might have picked up some good knowledge in the process, it would be fair to question the extent of this.  If it’s considered the candidate has “some” specialist knowledge (only) then that could influence the 70% / 30% ratio above.

If you would like to find out more about project manager roles at Roc Technologies, check out our careers page here.

Interested in more Project Management blogs? Read our last blog post about project reporting here.