Directions in project management research
There’s a huge gap between research and practice in most disciplines. Project management is no exception – many practitioners feel that project management research is an academic exercise with little practical value.1 Yet, research is important because, among other things, it gives rise to new techniques and perspectives, and also confirms (or disproves!) the often assumed utility of existing practices. So, when a couple of well known academics with significant industry experience comment on directions in project management research, it behooves practitioners to read and understand their views. Hence this post in which I review a paper entitled, Project Management Research – The Challenge and Opportunity, published by Aaron Shenhar and Dov Dvir in the June 2007 issue of the Project Management Journal.
The authors begin by stating that project management is one of the fastest growing disciplines. Many initiatives in organisations are managed as projects, even if they aren’t labelled so. The authors observe that, “…in a paradoxical way, project failures, delays, and disappointments are much too common to be ignored…there seems to be an alarming gap between the needs of the discipline and what we know in order to fix them. From a research perspective there is a great opportunity to help close this gap…” Their stated aim is to record some observations on the challenges and opportunities in project management research, in order to stimulate discussion about the role of research in academics and industry.
As the authors point out, people have been engaged in creating things since antiquity. The creation of large monuments such as the pyramids would have required some degree of organisation, planning and coordination of the efforts of a large number of people, regardless of the specifics of how that might have been done. In other words, these efforts were all projects that had to be managed somehow. The authors define a project as, “a temporary organisation and process set up to achieve a specified goal under constraints of time, budget and other resources“2 and project management as, “the managerial activities needed to lead a project to a successful end.” They claim that modern project management, as a discipline, arose from the invention of the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) in the late 1950s,3 and take the position that the PMI’s project management standard is the premier standard of the day. Although I have no strong views on this, I have the feeling that some practitioners (and academics) may disagree.
The authors admit that the paper presents their subjective view of challenges and opportunities in project management research. Given this, it is perhaps unfair to read too much into what they say. Yet, it is instructive to look at an implicit assumption they make. It is clear from some of their remarks (and to a lesser extent the references at the end of the paper) that the authors use PMI standard as the basis for their discussion. This, quite naturally, affects their arguments and conclusions: i.e. everything discussed is viewed through the lens of that standard. Perhaps this is unavoidable: one has to make some assumptions to make any progress at all! In my opinion, though, authors of research papers should highlight their assumptions and limitations thereof, so that readers are fully aware of them.4
Anyway, to move on with the review, it is evident that despite all our methodologies and experience, project performance is alarmingly low. The authors quote statistics from the Standish Report and other studies to emphasise this. They concede that some failures can be ascribed to neglect or lack of planning, but highlight – through examples – that even well-managed and planned projects fail. Reasons for this are varied. For example, the original Iridium Project was deemed a failure because it did not take into account future business and technology trends. The construction of Denver International Airport is another example of high-profile failure. In that case, the reason for failure was that the automated baggage-handling system which was relatively unproven (and thus high risk) was treated as a standard well-proven system. On the other hand, the Sydney Opera House is now deemed a huge success despite being a classic example of project management failure – massively over time (by 16 years) and over budget ($100 million against an original budget of $ 7 million).
Citing these examples, the authors note that the problem is not with processes, rules or tools, as project management has plenty (perhaps too many!) of these. They suggest that the problem is at a conceptual level rather than process or practice, and that what’s required is a new understanding of what the discipline is about. This, they say, is the responsibility and challenge of future research.
After outlining the history of the development of project management as a discipline, the authors conclude that there is no central paradigm underlying research or practice of project management. They reckon that inspiration for new ideas may be found in other, allied areas such as: Technology and Innovation Management Research, New Product Development Research, Entrepreneurship Literature and Operations Management. Research in technology/innovation management and new product development is more mature than project management research, and hence may suggest fruitful directions for future work. This has already started to happen: many project management researchers are focusing on new product development. In fact, I have reviewed a couple of papers relating to this area in earlier posts.5 Operations management offers another complementary direction; Goldratt’s critical chain technique is the best known example of a project management technique that emerged from operations management.
The authors believe that project management researchers have largely ignored developments in the above fields – and hence there are significant research opportunities to be exploited. As mentioned earlier, I believe this process has already begun: researchers are indeed looking to other fields for inspiration and ideas, as evidenced by the growing number of cross-disciplinary research papers in project management journals. On the flip side, most of these papers are written by researchers in project management, very few by those working in other fields. The reason for this, as the authors rightly point out, is that project management still has a low profile in management research and business schools. They comment that very little project management research is published in “prestigious” journals. This is true enough, research published in a high-profile journal is more likely to be read widely. Finally they comment that there is a disconnect between project management research and practice. This is well recognised, and I’ve already commented on it in the first paragraph and in the footnotes. It should also be noted, though, that this problem is universal – the gap between academics and practice exists in all disciplines, not just project management.
Based on the current state of project management research and the issues listed above, the authors propose a “wider research agenda to address these challenges and bring project management research to the forefront of the academic world“. I outline their views below.
The authors suggest two perspectives for future research:
- The problem-driven perspective: This view focuses on solving specific project management problems such as scheduling / resource allocation and time overruns to name just two. Typically, solutions to such problems emerge from other fields. For example, solutions to scheduling and resource allocation problems have come from operations research and network theory; and solutions to time overruns have come from operations management (critical chain). The problem(!) with the problem-driven perspective is that there is no unifying theme. Which takes us to the next perspective…
- The central paradigm perspective: This refers to a central, unifying theme for the discipline – or as the authors put it, a view of what project management is about. The authors identify three views:
- Operational/process view: which views a project as a sequence of tasks to performed according to a plan.
- Team/leadership view: which considers a project as an organisational unit that has to be managed (and lead, motivated etc.).
- Strategic/business view: in which a project is considered to be a business-related activity, which (presumably) forms a part of the an organisation’s strategy.
Each of the above perspectives is based on different assumptions, metrics of success and also a different view of what it means to “manage a project.”
The authors correctly recognise that, “Although each direction is a world of its own, the real challenge is to combine them all into a unified view.” They go on to state that, “success in project management can only be achieved by an integrated, holistic view of the entire landscape of the project.” The three perspectives are, in fact, complementary; neglecting any of them will lead to project failure (italics mine). As the authors recognise, progress in these wide-ranging, diverse areas will require a multidisciplinary approach. Finally, the authors address the issue of publication of research in “leading” (aka “prestigious”) journals. They believe that raising the profile of project management in the broader world of management academia can be achieved by a) improving the acceptance rate of project management papers in highly-rated management journals and b) improving the standing of project management journals in academia.
In conclusion the authors make the following observations:
- Project management is still evolving as a discipline, and is yet to establish its position amongst traditional management disciplines.
- It lacks a strong theoretical framework and a coherent set of guiding principles
- It is perhaps too complex to have a single underlying theory, but the interdisciplinary nature of the field and the variety of research challenges may help attract established researchers from other fields as well as young researchers starting out on an academic career.
I think these observations are incontrovertible, and as such they point to significant new opportunities and a bright future for project management research.
1 I believe this is one of the reasons for the low general readership of project management research journals. Another reason is that journal papers are written in journalese – an obscure dialect, familiar only to professional researchers. I’m doing my small bit to address this issue by posting occasional (hopefully, accessible!) paper reviews.
2 This seems to be a hybrid of the PMI and PRINCE2 definitions, with some other bits thrown in.
3 This attribution by the authors is perhaps a good example of how the PERT myth is propagated.
4 See my post on a memetic view of project management for more on the insiduousness of tacit assumptions in project management.
5 See my posts on utility of project management techniques for new product development and the effect of organizational culture of new product development project success, for example.