Project management: a core competency in managerial accounting education: educators at Villanova University develop, introduce, and assess a new graduate-level module in project management
David E. Stout
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Accounting programs have been challenged to create innovative, cross-disciplinary courses/ curricula and to tie such offerings/programs to institutional strategic plans. This article details the development and delivery of a module on project management (PM) for a graduate-level management accounting course.
At a strategic level, we discuss the linkages between the educational objectives of the PM module and both internal (i.e., business school) and external (i.e., practitioner and professional) imperatives. At an operational level, we provide details about the content of the project management module–a module believed to be unique among courses in management accounting. Also included is a discussion of the resources needed to support delivery of the module, as well as a brief discussion of assessment methods associated with the module.
Steve Albrecht and Bob Sack challenged accounting faculty to develop and deliver innovative, cross-disciplinary courses and course curricula. (1) Further, faculty are being asked to assume a stakeholder-based approach to new course and new program development. (2)
In this article, we will discuss the course-development process and course content of an innovative, cross-disciplinary module on project management (PM) for a graduate-level management accounting course. (3) The process we used consists of three stages: planning, implementation, and assessment. The planning stage involves the specification of stakeholder imperatives from which specific educational objectives for the module were derived. The implementation stage relates to the course content and operational issues we faced in delivering the PM module. Finally, the assessment stage of the course-development process gathers information to motivate continuous course improvement and ensure that the course meets stakeholder expectations.
The master of accounting and professional consultancy (MAC) program at Villanova University consists of 10 courses (30 credit hours) with a single track: assurance services. The program assumes students have an undergraduate major or minor in accounting and includes courses in finance, information systems, tax planning, negotiation/conflict management, business law, advanced topics in financial reporting/disclosure, assurance and risk management, and advanced topics in management accounting (MAC 8240). MAC 8240 is intended to extend student knowledge of managerial accounting through coverage of three modules: (1) strategic cost management, (2) planning (i.e., project management), and (3) performance assessment.
Module I is designed to expose students to some real-world challenges of implementing activity-based costing (ABC) systems and to enhance their understanding of strategic activity-based management (ABM), that is, how companies can use ABC information to manage their total value chain more effectively. Module II–the PM module–has a twofold objective: to introduce accounting students to the application of PM within an accounting/consultancy context and to expose students to PM software within the context of completing a project plan for a consulting engagement. Module III consists of three components: traditional measures of financial performance (transfer pricing, ROI, limitations of ROI, etc.), the balanced scorecard (BSC), and economic value added (EVA[R]). In all three modules, students complete one major group case/project as well as other lesser requirements. For the PM module, a case analysis and article represent 20% of a student’s course grade. The following sections discuss the three-stage development process for the PM module of MAC 8240. (4)
PM MODULE DEVELOPMENT: STAGE I–PLANNING
College of Business Strategic Plan
The strategic plan of the business school at Villanova University specifies the elements of a “learning environment,” the overall purpose of which is the creation of “adaptive problem solvers.” These elements include: (1) mutual expectations for both internal and external stakeholders of the business school and (2) a set of broad educational goals associated with all programs offered by the business school. Specified stakeholders include alumni, the business community, the university of which the business school is a part, and the business advisory councils. The following broad educational goals are embodied in the business school’s strategic plan: technological proficiency, ethics and social responsibility, experiential learning, global awareness, curriculum integration, and communication skills. Any new programs and new courses, such as MAC 8240, are required to embrace this set of educational goals. (5)
The educational goals embodied in the business school’s strategic plan provide only broad guidance for course and module development. The next step in the process is to translate these broad educational goals into more specific operational strategies. Therefore, the development of the PM module evolved from stakeholder considerations, the broad educational goals embodied in the business school’s strategic plan, and an analysis of selected educational objectives specified in the AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants) Core Competency Framework for Entry into the Accounting Profession. (6)
Stakeholder Considerations in the Course Development Process
The design of the PM module of MAC 8240 was affected by the following stakeholder-related inputs and imperatives:
Alumni. An alumnus of our college who was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers consulting group made a presentation to students regarding the application of PM to accounting practice. He used specific examples regarding ABC and ABM client engagements to illustrate the pervasiveness and importance of PM in modern accounting work.
Business Community/University Community. The original motivation for the PM module came from requests from some of the partners of firms that were hiring our students. That is, we received strong input from our regional business community that PM skills are highly valued. PM coverage in most undergraduate curricula is cursory, however, and the material that is covered is not geared specifically toward PM in an accounting/consulting setting. Thus, we listened to our stakeholders and included an entire module on project management in MAC 8240.
A business practictioner from the then Business Consulting practice of Arthur Andersen co-developed the PM module along with an accounting professor and a professor from management science, the co-authors of this article. In addition to developing the in-class lectures for the module, this cross-disciplinary team developed a special PM case called “XYZ Investment Co.” for students to complete. (7)
Prior to covering the PM module, we had the students read selected chapters of a text by two Arthur Andersen partners called Activity-Based Management: Arthur Andersen’s Lessons from the ABM Battlefield to make sure we were covering PM within an “accounting context.” (8) This text covers 30 “pitfalls” in implementing ABC/ABM projects. Most of these pitfalls are PM related and, therefore, help to motivate study of project management in an accounting class.
Business Advisory Council. Prior to teaching the new course, we presented a dry run before a subcommittee of the business school’s advisory council. With respect to the PM module, we wanted assurance that it was worth covering. In fact, council members uniformly and enthusiastically endorsed the inclusion of this material in the course, citing both the practical appeal of the subject matter and the innovativeness of including it in a managerial accounting course.
Operational Strategies Related to Broad Educational Goals
The design of the PM module was affected by the following broad educational goals specified in the business school’s strategic plan:
Cross-Disciplinary Approaches to Business Education. The PM module, including the XYZ Investment Co. case, was developed and presented in class by a cross-disciplinary team consisting of an accounting professor, a professor from management science, and a business practitioner.
Experiential Learning. Starting in the Summer 2002 semester, we began using the text, Core Concepts of Consulting for Accountants (9) as a supplement to the course. This text exposes accounting students to a number of real-world, experienced-based applications of PM. Further, the XYZ Investment Co. case developed for and used in the course was based on an actual client engagement supervised by our business practitioner colleague. By using the case, students are able to explore both technical and managerial aspects of the PM process in a realistic (i.e., experienced-based) context.
Technological Proficiency. Students in the module are introduced to MS Project 2000 in conjunction with completing a project plan for the “XYZ Investment Co.” case.
Communication Skills Development. Student groups are required to prepare and submit to the accounting faculty member a formal solution to the PM case. The case is graded for both writing quality and technical content.
Operational Strategies Related to the AICPA Core Competency Framework
PM is one of the items included in the “personal competencies” category of the AICPA Core Competency Framework for Entry into the Accounting Profession. With respect to PM, the Framework states:
Accounting professionals must successfully manage a diversity of projects throughout their career. Individuals entering the accounting profession should demonstrate the ability to effectively control the course of a multi-dimensional, multi-step undertaking. This includes managing project assets, including human, financial, property, and technical resources.
The Framework also identifies the following elements of the PM competency:
… determines project goals; prioritizes and delegates as needed; allocates project resources to maximize results; effectively manages human resources that are committed to the project; effectively facilitates and controls the project process; measures project progress; takes corrective action as needed; sees projects through to completion or orderly transition; realistically estimates time and resource requirements; recognizes situations where prompt and determined actions are needed and responds accordingly.
The AICPA Framework influenced the form and content of the in-class lecture material we developed, as well as the “XYZ Investment Co.” case.
PM MODULE DEVELOPMENT: STAGE II–IMPLEMENTATION
Stage II of the development process involved implementation issues, which we viewed as determining course content (such as lectures and associated case material), and operational issues we dealt with (including resource requirements and the logistics of delivery of a new module). The following sections describe the implementation issues associated with the PM module, a module that included three two-and-a half-hour class sessions plus a hands-on MS Project session.
PM Lecture Material
The PM lecture material consumes the first two of the three in-class meetings. The introductory class in the PM module considers the nature of PM and human resource issues relating to the project manager and the project team. The second class covers the project planning and control process.
Nature of Project Management
In the first class session, we begin with a discussion of what project management is. Then we discuss the objectives of PM, including performance of tasks, schedule adherence, and cost control, as well as customer satisfaction. We discuss with students the differences between project and conventional management and the challenges of managing across the project lifecycle.
This discussion leads to an overview of the four primary phases of the PM process: initiation, planning, execution/control, and closing. In the initiation phase, students learn to identify the business purpose for the project and the context in which the project will be performed. We then cover issues of organizational sponsorship, direction, and commitment in this phase of PM. The planning phase consists of a determination of what the project will deliver to the client, when this delivery is to be made, what resources are needed for the project, and how to respond to project change. The execution/ control phase consists of doing the work involved in the project, along with keeping the project on track. In the closing phase, students are taught how to bring the project to an orderly conclusion and how to learn from the experience. Guided by these four phases, the lecture material presented over the remainder of the module covers most of the PM elements set forth in the AICPA Framework.
Human Resource Issues
The second segment of the first class focuses on the project manager’s environment and staffing issues. PM is described by some as being an “accidental profession” in which individuals are thrust into the role of project manager while not understanding that the tasks required and skills needed to manage projects effectively are quite different from those needed to manage a business function, such as accounting. (10) In class discussions, students gain an understanding of the differences between serving as a project manager and serving as a functional manager. Specifically, project managers need to be generalists rather than specialists, need to take a systems versus analytical approach, and need to serve as facilitators rather than technical advisors. Project managers operate in an environment without full authority, especially concerning team members, but bear significant responsibility for completion of project work. Conflict can occur because of the project manager’s general lack of authority and the functional manager’s loss of power and status under project management. Project managers are evaluated according to project success, while functional managers are evaluated according to the quality of work completed.
We then cover characteristics of successful project managers, including skills related to communication, organization, team building, leadership, coping, and technology. (11) Students learn that support for a project can be gained by expertise, authority, and work challenge. They also learn the importance of interfacing with top management to maintain project support.
A brief discussion of project staffing issues is offered. It includes key issues in personnel performance and policy issues, such as the selection of team members, the presence of dual reporting relationships, the value of creating a project office, maintaining effective communication channels, and leading and motivating team members. The business practitioner member of our teaching team provides numerous real-world examples to underscore the importance of these items. Because projects are staffed by groups of individuals, we present to our students a four-stage model of team development (12) and how this model applies to PM.
Project Planning and Control
The second class focuses on the project planning and control processes. The topics addressed include:
* Defining project objectives (these should be achievable, understandable, specific, tangible, measurable, consistent with policies, and assignable).
* Scoping project activities (approaches for mapping out project activities).
* Developing work breakdown structures.
* Assessing project responsibility.
* Estimating, allocating, and integrating resources.
* Identifying milestones (use as target events, checkpoints, upper management reporting items).
* Developing the project network using tasks and precedence relationships.
* Interpreting the results of the critical path analysis.
* Using Gantt Charts for schedule management.
* Incorporating resources into the project plan.
* Using resource loading charts and understanding the purpose of resource leveling.
* Developing the baseline plan.
* Understanding the elements of the control process, including change orders.
We illustrate these tasks using two different cases. (13) Again, the business practitioner member of our teaching team provides numerous real-world examples to illustrate the importance of the project planning and control process.
MS Project Lab
The third class is organized as a workshop so that students learn how to use Microsoft Project to create a baseline project plan. Using the Singer Hospital Products case that was analyzed during the previous session, students set up this project, enter task information, create work breakdown structures, set milestones, obtain project schedule information, add resources, and obtain resource loading charts. (14) In today’s business environment, most professional project managers use software for planning and control, with MS Project the most widely used package. (15)
PM Instructional Case
The “XYZ Investment Co.” case is a group project that represents 20% of each student’s course grade. Discussed in the final PM class, the case introduces students to PM issues and procedures within the context of a strategic cost management initiative undertaken by a large professional services firm. The case considers several important managerial issues, including: (1) the importance of identifying and interfacing with key stakeholders throughout the project, (2) the need to assess internal factors, such as organizational structure or culture during the initiation phase of the project, because these can influence decision making throughout the project, and (3) the benefits of using PM processes, such as status reports, change orders that modify project scope, and an updated project plan, to help resolve problems that may occur during the execution phase of the project.
Working in small groups, students are asked to apply the project planning skills covered earlier in the module, including the development of a statement of project objectives that focus on the project’s deliverables. They are then asked to create a project plan in MS Project based only on information supplied in the case, which focuses on the execution phase of the project. This exercise requires students to perform essentially the same tasks that were completed during the MS Project workshop. The students then reconsider the plan that they created and modify it to incorporate tasks from all four project phases. At the instructor’s discretion, resource-leveling issues may be considered to smooth out work that occurs throughout the case project. Student case presentations are evaluated jointly by members of our cross-disciplinary teaching team.
Required Resources–Time and Money
To develop the PM module, two accounting faculty members worked with two other individuals: a business practitioner (noted above) and a management science professor. While much of the development cost of the module can be viewed as “opportunity costs” of faculty members’ time and effort, some out-of-pocket costs were involved. As a one-time “start-up” cost to develop the module, the management science professor was paid a stipend of 20% of the total compensation rate for the course, while the business practitioner was given a small honorarium. It is important to note that members of the cross-functional team attended all in-class presentations of the PM material, including the discussion of the PM case study. In addition to the preceding costs, the accounting department purchased copies of the aforementioned text, Activity-Based Management: Arthur Andersen’s Lessons from the ABM Battlefield, to distribute to students in the course.
Computer software is needed both to support the in-class PM lectures developed by the team and to assist students in completing the “XYZ Investment Co.” case. During the first delivery of the course (Summer 2001), the management science professor provided 90-day trial copies of the MS Project software to students in the class. In the second iteration of the course (Summer 2002), we required students to buy Core Concepts of Consulting for Accountants, which includes a CD containing this software. (16)
One difficult-to-quantify (potential) cost associated with the development of innovative, cross-disciplinary modules (or entire courses for that matter) relates to what can be called “the legacy issue.” That is, there is a risk that such innovations might “die” when a developer of the course or module leaves the institution or is reassigned to other courses. To reduce this risk, two accounting instructors participated in the development of the new course. In addition, the new course was team-taught by these two accounting professors in the first iteration so one could teach the course in the future if needed.
PM MODULE DEVELOPMENT: STAGE III–ASSESSMENT
Phase III of the process relates to assessment. Our assessment plan for the PM module of MAC 8240 involves data obtained from two instruments: pre-course and post-course self-assessment completed by our students and a course-evaluation form administered to a small group of external stakeholders. (17) Assessment results from these two sources, obtained from our first two cohort groups, suggest that we are accomplishing the educational objectives associated with the PM module.
As part of the assessment plan for the course, the instructors created a 26-item self-assessment instrument that was administered to students at the beginning and end of the course. The goal was to obtain student perceptions regarding the value of the course vis-a-vis the set of educational objectives discussed above. Mean pre-course and post-course responses from the first two groups of students in the program for the PM-related items on the instrument are shown in Table 1.
Results indicate no statistical difference in mean assessments, pre-course versus post-course, regarding the perceived importance of PM to the work of accountants. That is, students at both the beginning and end of the course felt that PM was relatively important. Results also showed that students were positive about the impact of the course, specifically their level of understanding of PM principles and their level of familiarity with PM software.
External Stakeholder Assessment
In 2002, we distributed a questionnaire designed to obtain feedback and recommendations regarding MAC 8240 to representatives from each of several stakeholder groups–accountants in public practice, consultants working in accounting firms, corporate controllers, and academicians who teach managerial accounting. For this article, we focused on respondent perceptions regarding major components of the course, including the PM module. (18) We sent 100 questionnaires to each group and received 66 responses from CPA firms (auditors and consultants), 15 from the controllers, and 21 from the professors. Table 2 presents the summary results from this respondent sample.
Overall, “performance measurement” and “the balanced scorecard” received the highest ratings, while transfer pricing, WACC, and EVA[R] received relatively lower ratings. A subjective assessment, however, is that all of the course topics received positive (absolute) importance ratings. PM was rated very highly by consultants and auditors but not by professors. The relatively low rating for PM from academicians raises interesting questions and provides an opportunity for greater dialogue across stakeholder groups regarding the role of PM in the accounting curriculum. (19)
We’ve provided throughout this article a description of a three-stage strategic process (planning, implementation, and assessment) used to develop a module on project management for a graduate-level managerial accounting course. A critical aspect of the development process was the cross-disciplinary composition of the module-development team. We discussed how the educational objectives for this module were influenced by (internal and external) stakeholder imperatives and how stakeholder-based assessment data were used to gauge the success of our efforts. Also included was a discussion of the content of the PM module and the resource requirements needed to support the development and delivery of this innovative module.
Table 1: Pre-Course and Post-Course Student Self-Assessment
Results: Project-Management Items (Paired-Sample T-Tests)
Panel A: Summer 2001 (n=17)
ITEM PRE-COURSE POST-COURSE MEAN TWO-TAILED
MEANS MEANS DIFFERENCE T P-VALUE
1 3.93 2.67 1.27 5.104 < 0.001
2 4.60 3.53 1.07 5.172 < 0.001
3 4.07 3.80 0.27 1.170 0.535
Panel B: Summer 2002 (n=19)
ITEM PRE-COURSE POST-COURSE MEAN TWO-TAILED
MEANS MEANS DIFFERENCE T P-VALUE
1 4.07 2.33 1.74 8.40 <0.000
2 4.00 2.14 1.86 5.47 0.002
3 4.10 4.50 -0.40 -1.18 0.269
1. “Your level of understanding of the principles of
‘project management’ (PM) is best described as …”
2. “Your level of familiarity with PM software is …”
3. “PM has important managerial uses for future
For items 1 and 2, 1 = excellent, 2 = very good,
3 = good, 4 = fair, 5 = poor.
For item 3, 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree,
3 = neutral, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree.
Table 2: External Stakeholder Survey Results (2002)
Mean Topical Importance Ratings by External Stakeholder Group *
COURSE TOPIC AUDITORS CONSULTANTS CONTROLLERS
ABC 4.7 5.5 5.7
ABM (for pricing, etc.) 5.0 5.1 5.7
Project Management 5.6 6.0 5.1
Performance Measurement 5.8 5.4 5.7
Transfer Pricing 4.7 4.7 4.7
Balanced Scorecard 5.5 5.1 5.5
EVA[R] 5.0 4.9 5.1
WACC 5.1 5.1 5.1
COURSE TOPIC PROFESSORS TOTAL
ABC 6.0 5.3
ABM (for pricing, etc.) 6.0 5.3
Project Management 4.0 5.2
Performance Measurement 5.9 5.7
Transfer Pricing 5.0 4.8
Balanced Scorecard 5.9 5.5
EVA[R] 4.6 4.9
WACC 4.0 4.9
* Accountants in public practice, consultants working in
accounting firms, corporate controllers, and academicians
who teach managerial accounting.
Legend: 1 = not important/not relevant, … ,
7 = very important/very relevant
ABC = activity-based costing; ABM = activity-based management;
EVA[R] = economic value added; WACC = weighted-average cost of
capital (e.g., for EVA[R] estimation purposes)
(1) William S. Albrecht and Robert J. Sack, Accounting Education: Charting the Course Through a Perilous Future, Accounting Education Series, Volume No. 16, American Accounting Association, Sarasota, Fla., 2000.
(2) Irvin T. Nelson, James A. Bailey, and A. Tom Nelson, “Changing Accounting Education with Purpose: Market-Based Strategic Planning for Departments of Accounting,” Issues in Accounting Education, May 1998, pp. 301-326.
(3) MAC 8240: Strategic Cost Management, Planning, and Performance Measurement, is one of 10 courses in Villanova University’s graduate accounting program. The PM module represents the “planning” portion of the course.
(4) The performance measurement and ABC topics are discussed in more depth in: David E. Stout and Robert N. West, “Using a Stakeholder-Based Process to Develop and Implement an Innovative Graduate-Level Course in Management Accounting,” Journal of Accounting Education, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2004), pp. 95-118.
(5) Note that these educational goals relate to each program as a whole. Thus, they apply to a greater or lesser extent to individual courses, such as MAC 8240.
(6) American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), AICPA Core Competency Framework for Entry into the Accounting Profession, New York, N.Y., 1999.
(7) Matthew J. Liberatore, David E. Stout, and Jay Robbins, “The XYZ Investment Company: A Project Management Case Study,” Professor/Practitioner Cases 2002, Case No. 2002-01, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), pp. 1-25.
(8) Steve Player and David E. Keys (eds.), Activity-Based Management: Arthur Andersen’s Lessons from the ABM Battlefield, 2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1999.
(9) Nancy A. Bagranoff, Stephanie M. Bryant, and James E. Hunton, Core Concepts of Consulting for Accountants, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, N.Y., 2002.
(10) Jeffrey. K. Pinto and O. P. Kharbanda, “Lessons for an Accidental Profession,” Business Horizons, March-April, 1995, pp. 41-50.
(11) Barry Z. Posner, “What It Takes to Be a Good Project Manager,” Project Management Journal, March 1987, pp. 51-54.
(12) Robert. J. Graham, Project Management As If People Really Mattered, Primavera Press, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., 1989.
(13) Herbert F. Spirer, “D. U. Singer Hospital Products Corp.,” 1980, reprinted by permission in: Jack. R. Meredith and Samuel. J. Mantel Jr., Project Management: A Managerial Approach, 5th edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York, N.Y., 2003. Edward D. Walker II, “Introducing Project Management Concepts Using a Jewelry Store Robbery,” Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, Spring 2004, pp. 65-69.
(14) Meredith and Mantel, 2003.
(15) Bruce Pollack-Johnson and Matthew J. Liberatore, “Project Management Software Usage Patterns and Suggested Research Directions for Future Developments,” Project Management Journal, June 1998, pp. 19-28.
(16) Bagranoff, Bryant, and Hunton, 2002.
(17) The assessment plan for the entire course is more comprehensive. Given the focus of this article, however, we discuss only those parts of the assessment plan related directly to the PM module.
(18) Other items, not reported here, include an assessment of the overall value of the course and recommendations for improving the course. Such data are not pertinent to the present article, which is more limited in scope.
(19) It is possible, for example, that academics think that PM should be taught in a management science course by an individual with appropriate expertise. Our position, however, is that the module we developed, including the case, was geared to auditors, consultants, and accountants. The management science professor was an integral part of our design team. Our subjective assessment is that, working alone, it would have been virtually impossible for the management science professor to deliver to our accounting students the contextual richness associated with the module we developed.
David E. Stout, Ph.D., who previously was the John M. Cooney Professor of Accounting at Villanova University, is now the Andrews Chair in Accounting at the Williamson College of Business Administration, Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. He can be reached at (330) 941-3509 or email@example.com.
Robert N. West, Ph.D., CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting at the College of Commerce & Finance at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa. He can be reached at (610) 519-4359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew J. Liberatore, Ph.D., is the John F. Connelly Chair in Management and professor of decision and information technologies at the College of Commerce & Finance at Villanova University. He can be reached at (610) 519-4390 or email@example.com.
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