Alternatives to the PMP® Credential: A Comprehensive Guide

Depending on the industry and more specifically the area of the world you practice in, some type of certification may be essential.

As the world continues its decades-long path toward a project orientation in business efforts, perhaps it isn’t surprising that there is a growing number of certification options. It’s not unlike a typical aisle at a grocery store that features a bewildering array of flavors, sizes, containers, additives, lack of additives, etc.

Obtaining a project management credential is not a trivial endeavor. It requires a substantial investment in time and funds. The question you face is how you should invest your time and resources. It’s appropriate then, to examine the waterfront of possibilities. Indeed, in some cases, multiple certifications may make sense. In this article, we’ll consider the primary players in this space.

Keeping this information in mind can be invaluable in long-term career planning because various credentials are indeed complementary. Also, at various points in your career, certain credentials may be particularly appropriate to your current job function.

Approaches to Project Management Certification

What is a project? According to The Project Management Institute’s flagship definition from its PMBOK® Guide, it is ” … a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”

Under that definition, everything in life is a project, and even life itself. Everyone practices requirements management (“what will we do on our vacation?”) and risk management (“which vaccinations do we need for the country we’re visiting next?”). Everyone is, therefore, in some sense, a project manager. Of course, the project manager’s qualifications for building a nuclear plant are not the same as those for the project manager for this year’s benefit bazaar.

The typical “one size fits all” project management certification involves a combination of documented experience, knowledge of an applicable standards document, and an examination that in most cases measures not only your recall of the standards document’s contents, but more importantly your ability to apply the document effectively in realistic scenarios. Your actual performance, of course, may not always attain the quality of the prescribed response in all cases.

So “certifications” can certainly measure one’s knowledge of project management, and to a much smaller extent one’s personal skills in applying that knowledge. In skilled trades, apprenticeships are the norm, but no such process exists in general for project management.

And yet, certification is a near necessity for job consideration.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the prominent certification options from three organizations, the Project Management Institute, the International Project Management Association and the International Institute of Business Analysis.

What to Choose?

Keep in mind that currently, the vast preponderance of job requisitions in the United States and much of the world refer to PMI credentials. Jobs in Great Britain, Western Europe and United Nations often mention the Prince2® credential. That said, some of the credentials covered here have different aims and actually support each other, a topic addressed later in this article. Over the course of a career, you may wish to consider some combination of the available possibilities.

Project Management Institute Credentials

Even within the family of credentials that includes the PMP®, there are options.

The Newtown Square, Pa.-based Project Management Institute offers three project management credentials: the Certified Associate in Project Management® (CAPM®), the Project Management Professional® (PMP), and the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner® (PMI-ACP®).

Please note that PMI also offers other, more specialized credentials for risk and schedule skills as well as program (multiple project) management.

Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

This credential is ideal for those with less experience. From PMI’s website, the requirements are:

  • A secondary degree (high school diploma or the global equivalent) and at least 1,500 hours of project experience, or alternatively, 23 hours of project management education by the time you sit for the exam.
  • Passing the exam. This exam is oriented toward the administrative and terminology aspects of the PMBOK, as opposed to the decision-making aspects of the PMP exam.

Full details can be found in the CAPM Handbook.

Project Management Professional (PMP)

For the project manager, this is the ultimate project management credential in the PMI credential portfolio. The requirements are:

  • A secondary degree (high school diploma, associate degree or the global equivalent) with at least five years of project management experience, with 7,500 hours leading and directing projects and 35 hours of project management education. Alternatively, a four-year degree (bachelor’s degree or the global equivalent) and at least three years of project management experience, with 4,500 hours leading and directing projects and 35 hours of project management education, will suffice.
  • Passing a four-hour, highly situational exam of 200 questions based on the PMBOK Guide.

Full details can be found in the PMP Handbook.

PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)

Increasingly, agile methods of project management are finding favor. Originally developed in the software development realm, the agile approach is finding its way into all of project management. PMI’s agile alternative is worthy of consideration. The requirements are as follows.

  • In terms of general project experience, 2,000 working hours on project teams in the last five years are required. Active PMP or Program Management Professional (PgMP®) experience will satisfy this requirement.
  • As far as agile project experience, 1,500 additional hours of working on agile project teams or with agile methodologies within the last three years are necessary.
  • 21 hours of training in agile practices must be documented.
  • Finally, passing an examination covering agile fundamentals is required. On purpose and principle, there is no agile equivalent to the PMBOK Guide. Several books of recommended reading are very helpful in preparation for the examination.

Full details can be found in the PMI-ACP Handbook.

Prince2 Credentials

PRINCE2 is a process-driven project management method, unlike the reactive/adaptive approach espoused by the PMI-ACP approach. Similarly, there is some degree of contrast with the PMBOK Guide philosophy, in that Prince2 is far more prescriptive in its description of the desired actions of various project team roles. The PMBOK Guide is more of a framework than a set of prescriptions.

PRINCE2 (an acronym for PRojects IN Controlled Environments version 2) was initially developed by the government of the United Kingdom. It is most widely used in the United Kingdom, Western Europe and Australia and in projects related to the United Nations.

PRINCE2 Certification is considered the de facto standard of the UK government and is widely recognized both in the UK and internationally. It is administered by the APMG and soon achieved worldwide acceptance, beyond the U.K.

Accreditation is governed by the passing of two exams – the Foundation and the Practitioner – administered worldwide by the APM Group. The Foundation exam is a one-hour, single-choice exam. The Practitioner exam lasts for 2.5 hours and is a paper-based multiple-choice test. Unlike the PMP exam, which is entirely multiple choice, the Practitioner exam consists of multiple-choice as well as choose-two-from-five type questions, questions with multiple answers that must be placed in the correct sequence, and true-false questions.

Although a person usually pursues just one among the PMP and PRINCE2 credentials, the knowledge bases that form the underpinnings of the two are complementary. Each provides unique insight and value.

Prince2 Applicability in World Regions

PRINCE2 has been adopted in many countries worldwide, including the U.K., Western Europe and Australia. PMI’s PMP credential is popular in the U.K., U.S., and the rest of the world.

PRINCE2 Practitioners must retake the Practitioner exam every five years to remain accredited.

International Project Management Association

The Swiss-based International Project Management Association (IPMA) is somewhat unique among certifying bodies. First, it is a federation of approximately 50 national project management certification organizations. Second, more than others, it stresses demonstrated competency in project management. Finally, it is the oldest project management association, having started in 1965.

Of particular note within the IPMA federation is the Green Project Management (GPM) family of certifications.

Green Project Management

GPM certification is of particular interest given that job surveys are showing consistent interest in sustainability in project implementation and results. “Green” methods not only are beneficial for the environment, but also afford long-term cost savings to the sponsoring organization. Not surprisingly, the GPM certification suite is growing rapidly in acceptance.

GPM, espousing PRiSM™ (Projects integrating Sustainable Methods), promotes sustainability and responsibility in the management of projects. It is the accrediting body for the GPM, GPM-b and GPM Certifications.

GPM-b Certification

Applicants for the Green Project Manager Level B (GPM-b) certification must have 2,000 hours of documented experience in managing projects and knowledge of applied sustainability practices as described in the GPM Handbook on Sustainability and Project Management (available to GPM subscribers at no cost). A 150-question multiple-choice examination must be passed with a minimum score of 75 percent.

GPM® Certification

Applicants for the GPM certification with a four-year degree must have 6,000 hours of documented experience in managing projects. Alternatively, without a four-year degree, five years of project management experience and 8,000 hours of project management will suffice. Through their online application, they must describe their application of sustainable methods, the objectives met and the standards used. This submitted evidence is then examined by an accredited assessor for suitability of the nature of the work performed for the credential. Note that in this case no examination is required.

For more information, go here.

GPM-m Certification

Holders of the GPM Certification can go further with the GPM-m Certification. In this case, 15,000 hours over at least 10 years in a supervisory, management, consulting and/or general project management role is necessary. Beyond that, four complex case studies and a portfolio, three letters of recommendation and 160 hours of relevant classroom training are required. Subsequently, a peer review is conducted by two individuals, including all submitted evidence and either a white paper or presentation at an approved project management event.

For more information, go here.

Related Alternative Credentials

Although less prevalent than PMI’s credentials, the Canadian-based International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA®) offers two credentials that deserve mention. While the PMI credentials focus on management of projects to achieve desired objectives, the IIBA credentials are more oriented toward determining what those objectives are and optimizing an organization’s processes.

The IIBA credentials are quite complementary to the PMI credentials. What is right for your situation is determined by a combination of the direction you personally want to go in professionally, and, importantly, the esteem your organization (or hiring organization) places on each type of credential.

Like the PMI exams, IIBA exams are based on a body of knowledge, in this case entitled A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide).

While PMI’s project management document is extremely comprehensive, covering all areas important to a project manager, it provides more of a framework, as mentioned previously. IIBA’s document covers business analysis techniques in far greater detail and can be an excellent reference for any project manager.

It should be emphasized that while IIBA credentials offer excellent value in certain aspects that are relevant to project management, they are not at all project-oriented.

Certification of Competency in Business AnalysisTM (CCBA®)

This IIBA credential has been obtained by more than 420 individuals in more than 30 countries, according to IIBA. As the name implies, it is intended to represent competency in the following areas:

  • Business analysis
  • Systems analysis
  • Requirements analysis or management
  • Process improvement
  • Consulting

As shown on the IIBA website, the qualifications are:

  • Minimum 3,750 hours of business analysis work experience aligned with the BABOK Guide in the last seven years
  • Minimum 900 hours in two of the six knowledge areas, or 500 hours in four of the six knowledge areas
  • Minimum 21 hours of professional development in the past four years
  • Minimum high-school education or equivalent
  • Two references from a career manager, client or Certified Business Analysis ProfessionalTM (CBAP®) recipient
  • Signed Code of Conduct

Full details can be found in the CBAP Handbook.

Certified Business Analysis ProfessionalTM (CBAP)

This IIBA credential, obtained by over 1,000 individuals in more than 30 countries, is, as implied by its title, oriented toward the business processes within an organization. That means in substantial part that it is oriented toward business process improvement. CBAPs intersect with and complement the PMP practitioner in the following ways.

While the PMBOK addresses an extremely broad and comprehensive range of processes and techniques for project management, including requirements, the CBAP practitioner has the purpose of providing vital information to project managers and the corporate ladder.

Full details can be found in the CBAP Handbook, which lists the following requirements for the credential:

  • Minimum 7,500 hours of business analysis work experience aligned with A Guide to the Business Analysis Book of Knowledge (BABOK Guide) in the last 10 years
  • Minimum 900 hours in four of the six applicable BABOK Guide knowledge areas
  • Minimum 21 hours of professional development in the past four years
  • Two references from a career manager, client or Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) recipient
  • A signed Code of Conduct.

Long Term, What Should a Body Do?

Indeed, every credential and associated standard brings value to the table. Certain combinations stand out, however.

First, the PMI and IIBA credentials and knowledge bases are clearly complementary and mutually supportive. Plan an appropriate path with your current employer. If you must choose, for now bet on PMI.

Second, the IPMA credentials clearly can qualify you for jobs in targeted industries and could provide an advantage in selected countries. IPMA’s Green Project Management credential is applicable to a broad set of industries, some more than others – namely those that can affect conservation of resources.

If you have to bet on a worldwide credential now and are unsure how to proceed, choose the PMP credential as your starting point. As discussed, the Prince2 credential is appropriate in certain situations and regions.

Depending on the nature of your project management work, IIBA credentials may be desirable.

It may be tempting to think that the PMI-ACP credential obviates the need for the PMP credential. That is not the case, however. Agile organizations still need the depth of capabilities provided in the PMBOK Guide, if not within each agile team.

As for the future, stay tuned to events in your chosen profession of project management.