Project Management Trainer of the Future: Guide on the Side?

It was almost three years ago that the Covid pandemic hit the project management trainers with a vengeance. Overnight, existing assignments were cancelled, new formats and ways of working had to be developed and tried out. Some colleagues said it would all pass quickly and they would just have to wait and see. Others saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and offer digital training without a long lead time and without the certainty that it would sustain their own professional base.
A tunnel.


Experts in their own field

As we know, Covid stayed for a long time, but we also know that many things in the "Digital Republic of Germany" did not turn out to be as bright as some had promised. The vast majority of fellow trainers have had to help themselves or have joined forces with others to make a virtue of necessity. Methodological knowledge about the right form of digitally based modern project management training could hardly be bought from outside, it was a time of self-help, of trial and error. Even the well-known project management associations and certification bodies, which until then had relied on face-to-face training, were empty-handed, training was not taking place because of the urgency of the situation, everyone was an expert in their own field - survival in times of "frantic standstill" [1].

New potential and creativity

Now the fog is lifting, and the connections are becoming clearer. Many have had experience with MS Teams, WebEx, BigBlueButton and other systems and know that digital training in project management is not an easy thing to do, because the social proximity, direct contacts and side conversations are missing, because nobody has found the appropriate niches for this in the digital space. On the other hand, many have found that participants are more accustomed to digital forms of delivery than in the past, and that technology, for all its importance, does not ultimately play the most important role. And many have discovered for themselves that the leap into the cold water has not endangered their own role as teachers, but has awakened new potential and creativity.

Inverted classroom as a concept for project management training and coaching

Now is the time for more theoretical foundations in project management training, whether it is to prepare for certification, i.e., to design a longer period of time in several sessions, or to advise project leaders in shorter coaching sessions, to coach managers or to teach the basics to project teams. In this context, the work of Marion Rink from Bielefeld, Germany, is recommended to anyone interested in the concept of the so-called "inverted classroom". She has published her work, accepted as a dissertation, under the title "Self-Regulated Learning in the Inverted Classroom. Motivational Effects Using the Example of Engineering Students" [2].
Behind this rather unwieldy title lies an extremely worthwhile read for project management trainers. Although this work was researched (as usual) in a university context, looking at young students and their motivation to learn, there are many good insights and suggestions for adult educators working in the workplace with professionals aged 30-45. Rink's research interest was to examine self-directed learning in the context of Ryan and Deci's self-determination theory. She analysed six engineering courses at a university of applied sciences in a very broad methodological framework using participant observation and guided interviews. Unfortunately, such a qualitative approach is still rather the exception in the field of empirical educational research; standardised quantitative methods predominate. However, Rink wanted to explore the motivational situations and justification patterns of self-directed learning, and this serves the study well. 
The concept of the inverted classroom is not entirely new and has already received some academic attention in the field of project management [3], but has received a significant boost from Covid. The core idea is to turn traditional teaching and learning behaviour on its head: unlike in schools or many universities, the "learners" come together for a face-to-face phase only after a preparatory phase in which they work on the basics themselves, mostly online, with the help of digital learning tools (videos, audio files, scripts, texts, etc.) and on their own responsibility. The "teachers" have to break new ground: they first provide suitable learning materials. Then, during the attendance phase, they act as facilitators of the learning process, helping learners to deepen their knowledge, solve problems, apply what they have learned and answer questions.
This is not fundamentally new to project management trainers; according to Peter Sloterdijk, a trainer "wants you to want", and participant activation has always been an issue. However, based on a wide range of empirical material, Rink shows how such an explicit role as a "guide on the side" is suitable for promoting the self-determination process in learners. Her findings support the concept of self-determination theory, which sees 'competence', 'autonomy' and 'social integration' as the pillars of individual motivation. Self-directed learning has a positive effect on all these factors. Anyone who wants to be successful in designing the project management training courses of the future is strongly advised to refer to these factors for success and is encouraged to set up inverted classroom concepts.

Shortcomings of a learner-centred approach

Fortunately, Rink also discusses the shortcomings of such a learner-centred approach and identifies four aspects. She shows that (1) the 'starting situations' already described by Karlheinz A. Geißler are difficult because it is often only gradually clear how much will depend on the learners.  For participants in project management seminars, this means that (2) in the sense of individualisation theory, they must move into the pole position of responsibility for success. Those who do not prepare themselves will not gain anything from "consolidation phases" in presence. In Rink's study, many students said that they had not experienced this kind of personal responsibility at school and that it had taken them a long time to internalise this new way of learning, to develop appropriate time management and to become independent. For professionals in the project economy this should not be completely different. Trainers are no longer responsible for learning outcomes in the traditional sense, even if some HR managers think that's what they're paid for. 
On the other hand, (3) there is a need for teachers to develop good learning materials before the seminar and also to be involved in the digital production of such materials. This is not easy for many, especially if their own digital skills are lower than those of the learners. According to Rink, it is particularly important to have (4) developed and continuous feedback, which teachers have to provide and which takes a lot of time. Many teachers need to rethink, to organise guidance instead of just 'demonstrating', and generally to get out of the frontal position of traditional teaching. According to Rink, the days of the "sage on the stage" are probably over for good.

Cross references for project management trainers

For project management trainers, there are many interesting cross-references and transfer possibilities in Rink's work. Her extensive documentation of the guideline discussions with students is a real treasure trove for training practice that is well worth reading, especially as Rink was hardly able to use this thesaurus herself. 
In the future, however, it will be particularly worthwhile to investigate training practice in the field of commercial adult education, in company training courses and open courses, which have traditionally tended to be averse to scientific research. Then it will be necessary to clarify how far self-determination really extends when there are strict examination requirements and high expectations of success on the part of the company for the learner. 
It is to be hoped that Marion Rink's work will help to build a bridge to new research, as she herself eventually became a certified project manager in the IT industry.

[1] Hartmut Rosa
[2] Bielefeld: WBV, 204 pages, 2021 = Sozialwissenschaften heute, Vol.7, ISBN 978-3-7639-6643-1*
[3] Ingason/Gudmundsson, 2018 or Abushammala, 2018

*The English version can be found at:

Project Management Trainer of the Future: Guide on the Side? - A picture of the author
Author: Prof. Dr. Christopher Hausmann
Professorship for Project Management Concepts
Constructor University Bremen (former Jacobs University)

To Dr. Marion Rink's ORCiD profile.
Keywords: Project management, Opinion

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