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Complex project management a strategic imperative

On May 6, 2014, the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa announced the launch for the first time in Canada of two Executive Master of Business degrees, one in Complex Program Leadership and the other in Strategic Procurement, with 80 percent common content. These programs will start in 2015. The response by government, industry and industry associations has been most positive.

Perhaps the most interesting questions are why this is needed, why partner with Australia and why Canada is one of the few jurisdictions among modern industrialized countries that does not have significant complex defence/aerospace acquisition education capability.

Before attempting to answer these three questions, a few words on the scope of the Telfer initiative. These new Master’s degrees for project and procurement professionals will be supported by industry and government engagement, short courses, research and international cooperation. The intent is to bring roughly equal numbers of government and industry executives together on a Canada-wide basis to build common understanding and to share best practices. The ultimate outcomes sought are sustainable competencies, collaboration and trust.

The programs will be offered in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) of Brisbane, Australia, which has delivered these proven post-graduate programs for six years. They meet the competency standard as defined by the world’s most expert project practitioners. Both Telfer and the QUT business school hold the triple crown of international accreditations, and the programs are subject to rigorous institutional quality assurance processes.

Delivery is designed to be compatible with a busy career anywhere in Canada. It uses a modern hybrid approach with just seven six-day residential sessions across three years combined with active web-based learning and interaction. The learning platform is entirely digitized. It features workplace projects, experiential learning, an international study trip and coaching by accomplished practitioners and academics.

Why is this approach needed? The prosperity of Canada depends inter alia on large and complex projects in the defence, marine, aerospace, infrastructure, technology and business transformation sectors. The scope and scale of this complex type of project present unique challenges in terms of cost, relationship, risk, technology, change, intellectual property, systems integration, supply chain and public expectations.

Federal government procurement in Canada has become increasingly contentious, with well-publicized project issues in the requirements definition, procurement, industrial policy, delivery timelines and in-service support domains. While some complex projects run smoothly and achieve their objectives, the ones that do not have garnered increasing attention. The effects are eroded public confidence, delayed deliveries, cost overruns, litigation and reduced corporate profitability. The result is a drag on prosperity, inhibited innovation and dissatisfaction among both clients and suppliers. The ultimate impact is on Canada’s reputation as a place to do complex projects.

Federal government initiatives based on the Jenkins and Emerson reports will assist in resolution of these issues. Until communication and trust is rebuilt, and until sophisticated project management skill-sets can be repeatedly regenerated, problems will persist. Therefore, as a vital enabler, there is a need for a Canadian educational center to engage, educate, research and network on the management of complex projects. Telfer aims to complement the recent federal Defence Procurement Strategy with focused functional education relevant to multiple sectors.

Why partner with Australia? Australia has a similar form of government, size and acquisition process. Australia faced a perfect storm of complex project and procurement challenges a decade ago, centred on complex submarine and early-warning aircraft projects. There was a comprehensive response that included definition of the competencies and attributes required by the leaders of these complex endeavours. Telfer’s partner university won the contract to develop and design the programs, and has systematically evolved the delivery model and content.

The critical differences between simple projects in controlled environments, and complex projects in turbulent times, are business acumen, systemic thinking and strategic relationships. Together they permit the navigation of complexity in an integrative and creative manner, thereby achieving the results sought by all stakeholders.

After searching through the educational programs of our major allies, it was clear that Australia had the best education practices for a Westminster-style democracy. Rather than re-invent the solution, it is more logical and much quicker to apply a proven product, adapted where needed to meet Canada’s unique circumstances.

Lastly, why is there a relative void in complex project education capacity in Canada? This is perhaps the most vexing question of them all. During the early Cold War era, Canada depended upon the acumen built up during the industrial mobilization of World War II and the Defence Production Sharing Agreement with the United States. The Avro Arrow decision in 1959 saw an immediate dispersal of aerospace talent and the loss of significant complex project capacity.

The Major Crown Projects of the 1980’s and 1990’s featured system integration of largely off-shore sub-systems, while the 2000’s saw a significant number of military-off-the-shelf procurements in support of operations in Afghanistan. This entire period saw a continuing draw-down on the number of government project-dedicated positions due to fiscal stringency. The limited throughput and mainly technical focus of the army technical staff officer course and the RCAF aerospace systems course were insufficient to sustain the expertise base. Only recently has there been any emphasis on professionalization for government civilians.

In the prime and sub-contractor companies involved across Canada, these large projects were often seen as episodic competitions, each with ramp-up and tear-down phases, with minimal long-term regard for building talent sets. The small number of new complex projects, combined with slow gestation and uncertainties, militated against industry investment in people. It often became easier to hire skilled practitioners from foreign jurisdictions as and when needed.

Together with military and public service demographics, the net effect was a loss of national capacity to manage complex projects and procurements, at a time when accountability standards were rising, technology was accelerating and business techniques were becoming ever more sophisticated. In 2007, the Auditor General reported “concerns about the problems caused by a lack of skilled, experienced staff assigned to manage many major acquisitions.”

The bottom line is that the effective management of large and complex projects is a strategic imperative for government at all levels, and for industry. For a country like Canada built on iconic complex projects such as the Canadian Pacific Railway and Vimy Ridge, the capacity to regenerate complex project, program and procurement leadership skills is fundamental to our security and prosperity.


Major-General (Ret’d) Doug Dempster is the executive director of the Centre for Executive Leadership at the Telfer School of Management. Previously, he served as NATO Assistant Secretary General for Executive Management in Brussels and as Deputy Commander of the Canadian Army and chief strategy officer for National Defence.

Author: Doug Dempster (from June/July 2014)

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