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What should you study – Prince2, Agile, or ITIL?

Written by:
January 2015
Categories: For the IT Leader

Reading time estimate Reading time: 9 minutes

“As an IT Manager, with years of experience without certifications, I have been asking myself which qualification would be of most benefit to me – Prince2 or ITIL?”

I recently responded to this question which was posted on LinkedIn. This article expands upon the answer I gave on LinkedIn, providing analysis on current trends, and opinions to take into account when assessing your certification needs, and those of your team. Some of the answers may surprise you!

Declaration

Before we dive into the article I need to make a declaration: I am an avid believer in life-long learning.  In line with this belief I have a number of certifications including Prince2 Practitioner, Agile PM Practitioner, ITIL, Certificate in Management, and a number of other certs going back to NT4 MCSE, and even Network+. So it could be said that I have a bias towards certification.
But that’s ok, because in reading this article it is evident that you are looking to develop a high performing team, and so understand the importance and relevance of formal education for you and your team.

Why should you study?

It’s a common argument that hands-on experience beats certification hands-down. And to some extent in the real-world outside of the classroom it does. But that doesn’t represent a true understanding of the situation. In my experience there’s a 3-stage education journey that people go through. It goes something like this:

  1. First you believe hands-on experience is all that counts – you’re too smart to need to read the manual anyway
  2. You start to realise that perhaps you don’t know everything, and that you could benefit from rounding off your knowledge. This is when you read the manual and get some certifications to avoid the frantic RTFM calls when the proverbial hits the fan (Google RTFM if you don’t know what it means!)
  3. Finally, your combination of real-world experience and theoretical knowledge has you doing stuff that isn’t even in the manual (incidentally it was at this point that I gave up working ‘on the tools’ as I realised I’d simply become an expert Google surfer!)

Often people mistake those at level 3 with those at level 1, and therefore assume there’s no need for formal certification and training. If you or your team are to progress, formal training and certification is unavoidable – not that you should want to avoid it anyway.

What should you study?

If I look at the certifications I have, I chose to study each topic at a time when it was of most relevance to the work that I was doing. And that is the one piece of advice I would give above all else:

Study what is relevant to you right now.

This might sound obvious, but it’s not. For example, I was recently talking to an old colleague who was telling me about his interest in doing an MBA. His employers have kindly offered to fund a large proportion of the fee. My old colleague need only invest around £10k of his own money. £10k! When I pressed him on what return he would get on this investment it all started to unravel. He’d got himself into a position where he was considering doing the training and hard graft, after which the certification would miraculously propel him into a dream job somewhere. As to what that job might be, he didn’t know! That’s not so different to investing that £10k in lottery tickets!

Prince2 or ITIL?

The question above from LinkedIn feels very similar. Someone has heard about some common certifications and so is pursuing them because they might lead to something. As to what, that is being left to chance. Perhaps we’ve become more concerned with what we think recruitment agents want to see on a CV, than we are about developing the skills we need for the job at hand.

Going back to the original question posed on LinkedIn, Prince2 or ITIL? Let’s start with Prince2, a waterfall project management methodology, and the most common in the UK and Australia. If your organisation is using a waterfall approach, and you are actively engaged in project management work, then it would make sense to develop your skills in line with a waterfall methodology. Check first, though, that it is Prince2 that your organisation has adopted as its standard approach, as it could be an alternative such as PMI’s PMP.

My views on ITIL are perhaps a bit more radical. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend ITIL unless you’re in an existing, heavily ITIL adopted environment. In its current guise, the ITIL approach is becoming passé. The notion of the ‘business’ being the customer is being replaced by the view that the only ‘Customer’ is that which is external to the organisation. The IT function and the traditional ‘Business’ teams must work in collaboration. ITIL positions IT in a subservient customer/supplier relationship with the business, which is not where leading businesses are headed today.

ITIL also brings a lot of control and governance that can be difficult to integrate into an Agile working environment. The keen eyed amongst you will have noticed that I added Agile into the certifications listed in the title of this article. Why? Because the lean and agile movement is one of the most significant changes impacting business and IT today. The premise of an Agile project is that the features of the product being delivered are variable, whereas the time, cost and quality are fixed. This is the opposite to a typical waterfall project, where the features are fixed often resulting in the costs, time and quality becoming variable.

With the focus for IT to deliver business value, whether by reducing risk, improving business performance, or enabling business innovation, Agile project management is a great skill to have. The APMG provides certification in Agile project management, as well as the traditional Prince2 waterfall approach.

What Level to Study?

Let me be quite clear here:

There is no point in just doing the foundation levels

Why? Because I once had a member of staff who crammed an on-line course the night before his exam, and then rather foolishly boasted to me that he had passed the test! Foundation levels are simply memory tests. They might demonstrate a base level of understanding, but for how long? It is the Practitioner level exams that will both test and demonstrate your knowledge. As an employer I hold no value in Foundation level certifications.

Alternatives

Aside from the obvious certifications such as Prince2, Agile PM, and ITIL, there are some other little known but useful certifications worth considering. The British Computer Society offers certifications focused on business alignment, such as Business Analyst and Business Change. And there’s also management training to consider along the lines of entry level MBA courses such as the Open University’s Certificate in Management.

How should you study?

We all have our own preferences when it comes to learning. Most all of us learn on the job as that is simply unavoidable. The purpose of doing specific training courses is to fast track that learning, and to understand those elements that you might not regularly come into contact with, have responsibility for, or be authorised to do.

For me, I learn best by reading books. I’ve done some on-line learning courses, but when it comes to the need to develop very specific deep level knowledge, such as Prince2, ITIL and so on, I strongly believe that classroom training is the best approach. This is because you can benefit from working alongside peers, and with an expert tutor immediately on-hand. To find training courses I recommend The Knowledge Academy.

When should you study?

To understand when you should study, let’s look at a different certification example, something most of us have experienced – passing your driving test. If you were to complete a series of driving lessons, pass your test, but then not drive for a couple of years, the chances are you’d have forgotten much of what you’d learnt!

Just like passing your driving test, getting a certification is only the beginning of your knowledge development. The certification does not make you a master, it merely demonstrates a basic level of proficiency.

Taking Prince2 as an example, I’ve hired many IT staff and consultants over the years, and I’m yet to find anyone certified in Prince2 who could tell me what the ethos of Prince2 is! (if you don’t know, it’s management by exception).

So if you are to maximise your investment in technology, you must study something that you can immediately apply in your job, otherwise the knowledge you have gained will be slowly lost.

How to turn that knowledge into action

This brings us on to biggest challenge of them all – how do you turn your theoretical knowledge into real-world results.

One of the main problems with certifications like Prince2 is the way in which people apply their learning immediately after certification. In their desires to remember and exercise all that they’ve learnt, they attempt to use every single component of the methodology. They forget, or in some instances aren’t taught, that:

Methodologies should be seen as tool kits.

Just like each organisation must takes its own unique views to security needs and risk, each organisation should also determine which aspects of a methodology it adopts. An organisation should define those elements that are mandatory, those which are optional, and those which should not be used.

As a trainer once said to me, if you ask a plumber to come and fix your dripping tap, you don’t expect him to use every tool in his toolbox.This is the mistake many people make with Prince2 and other methodologies. They say they’re bureaucratic because they’re trying to use every component of them.

I’ve lost count of the number of organisations that have made this mistake and either abandoned a well established methodology, or even developed their own. I know of one UK charity that spent £80k on a consultancy to develop them their own unique project management methodology. Not a smart use of valuable funds!

If the methodologies and approaches your are adopting are new to your business, I strongly suggest that you train up multiple people to create a core of expertise. Seeking external assistance from experienced people, such as consultancies or interim contractors, will also help accelerate your organisation’s adoption ad the ability to drive business results.

In Conclusion

So in conclusion, your choice of training (whether it involves gaining a certification or not) should be based on either your immediate job needs, or your (very well defined) career aspirations, or ideally both! Through being able to apply new skills you will have great business results that you can reference. When it comes to updating your CV, these results will far outweigh a few listed certifications.

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