From here to serendipity: gaining insights from project management research
I’ve been blogging for over three years, during which I’ve written a number of reviews and summaries of research papers in project management and related areas. Research papers aren’t exactly riveting reads; at times it seems they are written to impress academics rather than inform laypeople. Nevertheless, it is useful to read papers because it can lead to insights that are directly applicable to professional practice. The main difficulty in doing this lies in finding papers that are relevant to one’s professional interests. In this post I discuss how one can go about finding the “right” papers to read. Further, as an illustration of how such random reading can lead to unexpected insights, I list some of the things I’ve learnt in the course of my rambles through project management research.
Prospecting for papers
My primary source for research papers is Google Scholar, which I browse in a somewhat haphazard fashion. I usually start a search with a couple of key phrases denoting a broad area – for example “risk analysis” and “project management”. I then browse the resulting list, short-listing titles that catch my attention. I read the abstracts of these, and make an even shorter list of those that I feel I’d like to read in full. Google Scholar has a “Related Articles” link below each result. I often follow this link for articles that I find particularly interesting. This usually yields a few more papers of interest.
Once I’ve determined the articles I want to read, I attempt to locate and download copies of these. This isn’t always straightforward: many papers cannot be accessed in full because they are copyrighted by journal publishers and are available only through paid subscriptions. However, many are available on author and university websites. Google Scholar helpfully highlights those that are available for download. Journal archives, such as JSTOR, are also good sources for copies of papers, but full access is usually available only to subscribers (check with your local university or public library system for more).
I then browse through the articles I’ve downloaded, printing out only those that that I think are worth a careful read. Yes, this choice is based on my subjective judgement, but then life’s too short waste time reading what others find interesting. That said, if one wants a more objective assessment of a paper’s worth, one can use the citation count (number of times a paper has been cited). Google Scholar displays citation count for most of the articles it displays. However, it should be noted that citation counts aren’t necessarily an indicator of quality.
In essence I look for interesting papers using keywords that describe things I’m thinking about. Fortunately I’m not doing research for a living so I can afford to read what I want, when I want – providing, of course, it doesn’t get in the way of my regular day job!
When reading papers, I usually keep a highlighter and pencil handy for making notes in the margins (very useful for when I’m writing reviews). If I’m reading a pdf document, the commenting and highlighting features of Acrobat are very useful.
Finally, it should be clear that what turns up depends very much on the keywords and phrases one uses. This choice is dictated by ones interests. My professional interests tend towards foundational and philosophical aspects of project management, so my searches and many of my reviews reflect this.
Serendipity at work
I’ve used this technique for about as long as I have been blogging. Along the way I have come across some truly exceptional papers which have influenced the way I think about and do my job. Below are some posts that were inspired by such papers:
Project management in the post-bureaucratic organisation: A critique on the use of project management as a means to direct creative and innovative work. Based on: Hodgson, D.E. , Project Work: The Legacy of Bureaucratic Control in the Post-Bureaucratic Organization , Organization, Volume 11, pages 81-100 (2004).
A memetic view of project management: Wherein project management is viewed as a collection of ideas that self-propagate. Based on: Whitty, S. J., A memetic paradigm of project management, International Journal of Project Management, Volume 23, pages 575-583 (2005).
Cox’s risk matrix theorem and its implications for project risk management: Describes some logical flaws in the way risk matrices are commonly used. Based on: Cox, L. A., What’s wrong with risk matrices?, Risk Analysis, Volume 28, pages 497-512 (2008)
The user who wasn’t there: on the role of the imagined user in project discourse: Highlights the use of imagined (as opposed to real) users to justify specific design views and/or decisions in projects. Based on: Ivory, C. and Alderman, N., The imagined user in projects: Articulating competing discourses of space and knowledge work, Ephemera, Volume 9, pages 131-148 (2009).
The myth of the lonely project: Discusses why project managers need to be aware of the history, culture, strategic imperatives and social dynamics of the organisations within which they work. Based on: Engwall, M., No project is an island: linking projects to history and context, Research Policy,Volume 32, pages 789-808 (2003).
The papers referenced above are just a small selection of the interesting ones I have stumbled on in my random rambles through Google Scholar.
…and so, to conclude
Professional project managers rarely have the time (or inclination) to read research papers related to their field. If you don’t browse research papers often, I hope this piece has convinced you to give it a try. Although the time you invest may not get you that new job or promotion, I guarantee that it will give you fresh insights into your profession by leading you from here to serendipity.