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Knowledge doesn’t have borders says Ricardo Vargas

Project management is everywhere and there’s nowhere it’s more needed at the current time than in humanitarian projects.

As director of the project management practice group for UNOPS – United Nations Office for Project Services – Ricardo Vargas is responsible for providing a range of high quality, cost effective project management and infrastructure and procurement services in peace building, humanitarian and development environments.

With 18 years experience as a project manager, Ricardo has a lot of wisdom to share.

How did you get into the humanitarian sector of project management?

“Originally I was working in the corporate sector – particularly mining, infrastructure, construction and finance.

“Then one day I was contacted by UNOPS about a director position, which I decided to take.

“Working in the humanitarian sector is a new experience but is very rewarding despite being a challenge.

“For the first time in my life I am not just working for a client, I am helping society to develop.”

How does project management differ across different countries?

“It’s very important to understand the control side of a project manager because people in a professional environment anywhere behave differently in terms of communication and human resource.

“I always look to the ten knowledge areas of the PMBOK because any project in every country has these key concepts in common – like stakeholder management for example.

“Here at the UN we work across many countries, but the route of project management is always the same – it’s about how you can get the most out of limited resources in a temporary and unique undertaking.

“The way we communicate varies from country to country but also different villages in the same country so it’s important to understand that not all stakeholders work the same or behave the same.”

Do you have to approach projects differently when they’re humanitarian based?

“Absolutely. We use the same methodology with the same intent but the outcome is very different.

“Sometimes we need to do more with less.

“For example if we want to build up a community, we’re not aiming to build houses for people in need in the fastest way, we’d do this slowly because we’d be employing local people.

What sort of projects do you work on?

“The UN is active in a wide range of projects.

“In Afghanistan we’re building roads and shelters, in Haiti we build public buildings, and in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia we’re providing support towards the Ebola crisis.

“UNOPS is an operational arm of the United Nations, supporting governments and sister agencies to deliver better projects.

“The UN has 8,000 people on the team so we put a lot of people on the ground to support the 1,200 projects we’re involved with in more than 80 countries.

“It’s very global and open, and we work in the most challenging places so they’re post conflict or post disaster.”

“This not only gives them a home but it provides them with a way of living – a much longer term investment.”

Image - Haiti earthquake in 2010

Haiti earthquake, 2012

You hold several certifications, ranging from the PMP, MSP, MCTS and PRINCE2 – what motivated you to gain these certifications?

“For me it’s about knowledge – knowledge is everything and I believe it’s the biggest asset you’ll have in your life, and you’ll have it forever.

“Knowledge doesn’t have borders and because of this you can transport it from one place to another and make a difference in the world as you go.

“I chose to undertake these certifications so I had a challenge and more opportunities to learn.

“I now have 16 credentials and would advise anyone that having a certification is a good thing because if you can say you have the PMP for example, you have a competitive advantage – you’re stating that you have the basic knowledge prescribed on the PMBOK guide and that you have relevant experience in the field – this would be recognised around the world.”

Do you work to a particular methodology?

“No, we work with every methodology so we’ll use PRINCE2 for the governance work, and we use the PMBOK to frame the scope of a project and stakeholder management.

“We’ll try different approaches to get the communication side correct too.

“There is no best methodology for the work we do, I suppose the best one is the one that results in the best delivery of the project.”

As a reviewer of the PMBOK guide, how do you perceive this guide to project management changing in the coming years?

“It’s already changing.

“The last version included the tenth project area of stakeholder management which proves that project management is not only hard skills, it requires a lot of soft skills.

“Change is here so I think the PMBOK has to be adapted for the future and everyone at PMI is keen for this to happen too.”

What advice would you offer your 16 year old self?

“Firstly I’d say to study, study a lot and invest your time into it.

“Secondly I’d advise commitment – you need to be engaged and committed to something to see results.

“I’d also say you need to be adaptable so you can respond to the different environments you’ll find yourself in.

“Lastly, don’t focus your career on money, try to learn and develop rather than aim for higher wage packets.

“If you’re happy in what you’re doing you’ll achieve longer term sustainability rather making the wrong choices at an early stage because of monetary gain.”