Does project management affect business productivity?

evidence from Australian small to medium enterprises

PAPERS

Daniel Adler, School of Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney, Australia

ABSTRACT img

A fundamental assumption of project management practice and research is that using project management to achieve organizational objectives improves organizational performance. However, there is little published research that directly questions this assumption. This paper tests the hypothesis that using project management increases the productivity of small to medium enterprises, using data from two longitudinal surveys of Australian businesses with less than 200 staff members. These data were used to create models of the relationship between productivity and business skills using binary logistic regression. The models demonstrate that project management has a significant impact on small to medium enterprise productivity.

KEYWORDS: productivity; small to medium enterprises; longitudinal study; business skills; project management

INTRODUCTION img

A fundamental assumption of project management practice and research is that using project management to achieve organizational objectives improves organizational performance. This assumption is so ingrained that it appears to be self-evident; if it were otherwise, there would be little reason to justify the considerable expense that many organizations go to in developing and maintaining project management systems and certifying staff in external standards. There would also be little reason to justify the not inconsiderable intellectual effort applied by academics and researchers around the world to develop and refine project management theory and practice.

A wide variety of authors comment that project management has a positive effect on aspects of an organization’s success. Whether this is broadly expressed in terms of the impact on overall productivity (Cleland, 1984; McHugh & Hogan, 2011), performance (Abbasi & Al-Mharmah, 2000), efficiency (Stimpson, 2008), or effectiveness (Shenhar, Dvir, Levy, & Maltz, 2001), the underlying assumption is that it is good business to use project management to achieve organizational objectives. However, this assumption typically remains unexamined.

With the exception of research by Thomas and Mullaly (2008) and Lappe and Sprang (2014), there is little research in the literature that directly questions whether project management leads to increased organizational performance. Responding to Hällgren’s (2012) call for research, which challenges the fundamental assumptions on which project management research is based, the research presented in this paper questions whether the use of project management as a core business skill actually has an impact on an organization’s productivity.

In addition, and in contrast to some of the prevailing tendencies in project management research to focus on large scale projects (e.g., Flyvbjerg, 2014; Brady & Davies, 2014), this paper focuses on the use of project management in small to medium enterprises. Small to medium enterprises account for a large proportion of the projects that are undertaken, and it has also been identified that project management is critical to the survival of small organizations (Sádaba, Pérez-Ezcurdia, Lazcano, & Villanueva, 2014); surprisingly, however, little research has focused on the ways in which project management is used in small to medium enterprises.

Literature Review

There is no shortage of research into ways in which project management can be improved (e.g., Hagen & Park, 2013; Kloppenborg, Tesch, & Manolis, 2014). Implicit in much of this research is the assumption that project management is good for business and that with improved project management come ancillary benefits to the greater organization. Ng, Skitmore, Lam, and Poon (2004) provide one example, which focuses on factors that affect productivity on projects, whereas Reyck et al. (2005) have examined the impact of a robust portfolio management system on project success. Research has also demonstrated that there is a link between the maturity of project management processes and project success (Mir & Pinnington, 2014), and that there are links between personality types and project success (Creasy & Anantatmula, 2013; Cohen, Ornoy, & Keren, 2013); however, these studies remain broadly at the project level, with any implication for impact at the organizational level left solely to implication.

Other authors have looked more broadly at the impact on the organization as a whole. For example, Ozcelik (2010) reported on the impact of one particular kind of project on overall business performance. Lappe and Sprang (2014) have also developed a model to determine whether investment in project management provides a significant return. Their research was based on 251 projects from a German life insurance company, which showed a clear relationship between the costs associated with project management and the resultant benefits.

Research by Thomas and Mullaly (2008) also endeavored to understand the return on investment from project management. This study was hampered by few of their 65 participant organizations actively collecting data on the return from their investment in project management capability. Their research was, however, able to demonstrate that more than half of their case study organizations derived tangible value from the implementation of project management.

Small to medium enterprises provide the context in which the question of the impact of project management on business productivity will be examined in this paper. A large proportion of project management research focuses on large projects (e.g., Eweje, Turner, & Müller, 2012; Chang, Chih, Chew, & Pisarski, 2013; Winch, 2013) and this is understandable. There is considerable glamour associated with the large amount of money spent on such projects, and the spectacular successes and failures of these endeavors make for entertaining reading. However, a disproportionately large focus on megaprojects can lead to overestimation of both their impact on the economy and their prevalence. Megaprojects may be more dramatic, but they remain the minority of projects executed compared with those undertaken by much smaller organizations.

The importance of small to medium enterprises to the social and economic health of economies around the globe has been widely recognized and researched for some time (Ayyagari, Beck, & Demirguc-Kunt, 2007; Beck, Demirguc-Kunt, & Levine, 2005; Schiffer & Weder, 2001). It was found recently that small to medium enterprises make up between 70% and 90% of all enterprises in the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and are important drivers of innovation and growth, accounting for between 40% and 70% of value added by the business sector, as well as being critical providers of goods and services to larger organizations (OECD, 2013a, 2013b).

Australia provides one example of the importance of small to medium enterprises in an OECD country, where at least one million small to medium enterprises were found to be actively operating in 2012. This comprised more than 90% of all active businesses and accounted for the majority of employed people, with the productivity of this sector critical to the welfare of the Australian economy (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012a; 2012c). Recent surveys of Australian small to medium enterprises by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) have found that one in eight of all small to medium enterprises, and one in five innovation active small to medium enterprises value project management as a core skill. Interestingly, project management was more valued than either engineering or scientific and research skills by respondents (ABS, 2013a).

Human capital is a key aspect influencing productivity, of which management skills are a core component (OECD, 2001). In a comprehensive review of the literature on the link between investment in human capital and productivity, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Commission found that investment in management and leadership skills are positively associated with better performing businesses (AWPC, 2013).

Most research into improving the performance of small to medium enterprises in relation to this, though, has tended to be focused on entrepreneurship and innovation with the management of project-related activities submerged in general business discussions around sales and marketing, accounts, human resource management, and information technology (Hudson, Smart, & Bourne, 2001; Turner, Ledwith, & Kelly, 2009, 2010). Nonetheless, project management has been identified as a valuable skill for small to medium enterprises (Turner, Ledwith, and Kelly, 2012) who, for example, have identified network and resource analysis as beneficial to strategic change programs (Lo & Humphreys, 2000).

Finally, project management as a competency, critical to business success, has been known for some time now with comprehensive frameworks for measuring this in individuals developed and administered by professional associations worldwide (Kerzner, 2013; Turner, 1999). The measurement of the impact of this on productivity, however, has been limited to evaluations of individual managers rather than the importance of project management on productivity at a business unit level (Crawford, 2005). This is where this research makes a unique contribution.

Method

The data for this research were sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Business Longitudinal Database (BLD). One of the focuses of the BLD is on increasing the understanding of characteristics and factors that affect business performance, which is why it was chosen. Each year, starting in the 2004–2005 Australian financial year, a panel of businesses was selected from the Australian small to medium-sized business population sectors. Panel members are requested to respond to a survey for five consecutive years, with no new panel members added after the survey has been initiated. The size of each panel has been determined based on the anticipated drop-off rate of survey respondents to ensure that there are a sufficient number of respondents remaining in each industry and business size classification at the end of the five-year period. At the time of writing this paper, three panels of the BLD had been released to the public, two of which are referred to in this paper. The survey covering the years 2004–2005 through 2009–2010 (panel 1) and 2006–2007 through 2010–2011 (panel 2) both included questions relating to project management as a core business skill (ABS, 2012b, 2012c), and are the focus of this research.

The BLD exclusively focuses on actively trading companies with fewer than 200 employees, and includes only those businesses with a simple structure and a single Australian Business Number. Other exclusion criteria also apply (ABS, 2013b); and the categories used in the survey have been based on the Oslo Manual survey guidelines (OECD/Eurostat, 2005) for measuring innovation in business. As the survey questions have changed between and within surveys, it is not possible to directly compare results between panels, although many significant questions have maintained a similar focus.

Due to the constraints of this external dataset, this research has broadly worked with the classification of a small to medium enterprise as a trading business with fewer than 200 employees. Previous research by other authors has also been based on the data from the ABS BLD (ABS, 2014), focusing on topics such as innovation (Gronum, Verreynne, & Kastelle, 2012; Huang & Rice, 2009; Bhattacharya & Bloch, 2004), family business (Dharmadasa, 2009), outsourcing (Bakhtiari, 2013), performance (Steffens, Davidsson, & Fitzsimmons, 2009), industrial relations (Farmakis-Gamboni & Prentice, 2011), and entrepreneurship (Fitzsimmons & Douglas, 2006).

Data Analysis

This analysis focuses on two groups of questions from each of the two databases referred to in this paper, both of which were minor variations on the following:

  • Compared with the previous year, did productivity decrease, stay the same, or increase?
  • During the previous year, were any of the following types of skills used by the business in undertaking its core business activities: engineering (ENG); scientific and research (SCI); IT professionals (ITP); IT support technicians (ITS); trades (TRA); transport; plant and machinery operation (MAC); marketing (MAR); project management (PM); business management (BUS); financial (FIN).

Responses to the questions on business skills were independent and could be treated as individual and separate questions for each business skill in both databases.

Is There a Relationship Between Project Management and Productivity?

Analysis was conducted to understand whether there was any correlation between responses regarding a change in productivity and respondents’ use of project management. In both databases, a significant correlation of (p < 0.01) was found between responses regarding businesses’ change in productivity and their use of project management.

The difference in response rates becomes clearer when graphed in Figure 1. In both of these cases, approximately 15% more of the sample business population who used project management reported an increase in productivity, compared with the sample of respondents who did not use project management. This was a promising result, however it was not sufficient to suggest that project management leads to greater productivity. In order to understand whether project management does have an impact on productivity, it was necessary to model the relationship between productivity and project management while controlling for other comparable variables.

Modeling the Datasets

Models of the relationship between small business productivity and a range of core business skills, including project management, were created using binary logistic regression, using backwards elimination to eliminate non-significant independent variables. The models describe the respondents’ tendency to identify that the productivity of their business increased, as opposed to staying the same.

The following hypotheses (Table 1) were created to determine the usefulness of this model and to understand the correlation between project management and the other business skills surveyed. Equivalent null and alternative hypotheses were created for each of the other business skills.

The final model for Panel 1 was:

Logit(increase) = (0.237 * PM)
+ (0.267 * SCI) + (0.427 * ITP)
+ (0.155 * TRA) + (0.243 * MAR)
+ (0.299 * FIN) − 1.108

The significance of the final Panel 1 model was 0.000 using the Omnibus Tests of Model Coefficients. The final model accounts for 68.9% of the variation in the dependent variable. Using the Hosmer and Lemeshow Test, the model has a significance of 0.634 and a Chi-square score of 3.433, suggesting an acceptable goodness of fit. On this basis, null hypothesis 1 can be rejected, the alternative hypothesis can be accepted, and the model can be considered to be useful for Panel 1.

Frequencies for use of project management and productivity change

Figure 1: Frequencies for use of project management and productivity change.

Null hypothesis 1 None of the coefficients in the model is significantly different from zero
Alternative hypothesis 1 At least one of the coefficients in the model is significantly different from zero and the model is useful
Null hypothesis 2 Project management skills have no significant effect on whether an organization reported an increase in productivity
Alternative hypothesis 2 Project management skills have a significant effect on whether an organization reported an increase in productivity
Table 1: Sample list of tested hypotheses.

The final model for Panel 2 was:

Logit(increase) = (0.313 * PM)
+ (0.278 * SCI) + (0.428 * ITP)
+ (0.408 * MAC) + (0.287 * MAR)
+ (0.403 * FIN) − 1.276

The significance of the final Panel 2 model was 0.000 using the Omnibus Tests of Model Coefficients. The final model accounts for 69.4% of the variation in the dependent variable. Using the Hosmer and Lemeshow Test, the model has a significance of 0.624 and a Chi-square score of 3.493, suggesting an acceptable goodness of fit. On this basis, Null hypothesis 1 can be rejected, the alternative hypothesis can be accepted, and the model can be considered to be useful for Panel 2.

Null hypotheses regarding the significance of engineering skills, scientific and research skills, IT support technicians, trades, transport, plant and machinery operation skills, and business management skills, were accepted for Panel 1. Null hypotheses regarding the significance of engineering skills, IT support technicians, trades, and business management skills, were accepted for Panel 2.

The evidence with respect to the impact of trade skills, transport, and plant and machinery operation skills on small to medium enterprise productivity was inconclusive when the Panels are contrasted. In both panels, however, engineering skills, IT support skills, and business management skills were not found to have a significant impact on small to medium-sized enterprise productivity. The contrast between the impact of business management and project management is particularly interesting. The evidence suggests that organizations wanting to improve their productivity should place less emphasis on hiring staff with MBA degrees than those with equivalent degrees in project management.

Along with project management, IT professional skills, marketing skills, scientific and research skills, and financial skills were found to have a significant impact on the tendency to report an increase in productivity, as opposed to productivity staying the same (Table 2). Of these, it is of note that marketing budgets average at approximately 10.9% of organizational budgets, and that firms with smaller revenues tend to spend a greater percentage of their revenue on marketing (World Market Watch, 2014), which the authors suspect is higher than many organizations spend on project management. In addition, the two models presented above demonstrate that project management has a higher impact on productivity than marketing skills. This evidence suggests that some balancing of organizational budgets between marketing and project management may also be a viable option for those organizations interested in improving their productivity.

Skill Sig. Increase in the odds of respondents reporting an increase in productivity compared to last year as opposed to their productivity staying the same
Panel 1
Project management 0.035 26.7%
IT professionals 0.000 53.2%
Marketing skills 0.007 27.5%
Financial skills 0.007 34.8%
Panel 2
Project management 0.004 36.8%
Scientific and research skills 0.028 32.1%
IT professionals 0.000 53.4%
Transport, plant and machinery operation skills 0.000 27.5%
Marketing skills 0.000 33.3%
Financial skills 0.000 49.7%
Table 2: Significance of core skills in increasing small to medium enterprise productivity.

Limitations and Future Research

This research has been limited to small to medium-sized enterprises with less than 200 staff members. Research that focuses on small to medium-sized enterprises makes a valuable contribution to an otherwise under-researched area of project management; however, future research should be undertaken to determine whether these findings can be extended to larger organizations. In addition, both datasets focus exclusively on businesses in Australia. Although the business context in Australia is comparable with that in other developed countries, future research may be useful in examining whether the results of this paper are valid for another context, a global population, or a different time period. Existing or planned surveys of business practice in other countries should be encouraged to include similar questions, so that the findings presented in this paper can be examined in the light of comparable data.

It should also be noted that responses to the dependent variable were dependent on respondents’ ability to accurately assess a change in productivity. Some variation is also likely in how respondents interpreted what it is to “use project management,” because this phrase was not accompanied by a definition in the survey instrument. However, given the size of the survey population it is anticipated that responses will have converged on some common interpretation. Future research may wish to more closely explore factors that influence a perceived change in productivity; the accuracy of perceived changes in productivity; what owners of small businesses mean when they say they are using project management; and whether this qualitatively differs from the use of project management in larger organizations.

Conclusion

This research has tested and confirmed the hypothesis that the use of project management to undertake core business activities has a significant impact on businesses’ productivity within two substantial datasets. In each dataset, approximately 15% more of the survey respondents who used project management reported an increase in productivity, compared with those who did not use project management.

In Panel 1 (the 2004–2005 through 2009–2010 dataset), the use of project management to undertake core business activities was found to increase the odds of respondents reporting an increase in their productivity compared with the previous year by 26.7%, as opposed to their productivity staying the same. In Panel 2 (the 2006–2007 through 2010–2011 dataset), the use of project management to undertake core business activities was found to increase the odds of respondents reporting an increase in their productivity compared with the previous year by 36.8%, as opposed to their productivity staying the same. As reflected in both Panels, IT professionals, marketing skills, scientific and research skills, and financial skills were also found to have significant impacts on the tendency to report an increase in productivity as opposed to productivity staying the same. Project management was found to have a greater impact on productivity than scientific and research skills, trades skills, engineering skills, and IT support skills. It was also consistently found that project management had a greater impact on productivity than marketing skills or business management skills, suggesting that organizations interested in increasing their productivity should increase their investment in project management skills over these other disciplines.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of Ms. Cecilia Eriksson to the statistical analysis and her assistance in this research. This paper is based on a paper submitted to the PMI® Research and Education Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, USA, in 2014. The authors also wish to acknowledge the contribution of the conference audience commentary in improving this paper.

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Dr. Julien Pollack is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. His PhD, which was completed in 2005, focused on practical ways to combine systems thinking techniques with project management. His research then moved to examine the application of complexity theory to project management practice, resulting in one book on this topic, Tools for Complex Projects, co-authored with Kaye Remington. More recently, he has focused on ways in which change management may inform the delivery of organizational change projects. He can be contacted at julien.pollack@uts.edu.au

Daniel Adler is a Research Assistant and Doctoral Candidate in the School of Built Environment at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. His research specializes in applying activity theory and social network analysis to explore the discipline of project management. He is also a Post-Graduate of the Master’s of Project Management degree at the University of Technology Sydney, and a graduate of Applied Science in Sport Management from the University of Western Sydney. He can be contacted at the University of Technology Sydney by email at daniel.adler@uts.edu.au

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

Project Management Journal, Vol. 45, No. 6, 17–24
© 2014 by the Project Management Institute
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com). DOI: 10.1002/pmj.21459

December 2014/January 2015 img Project Management Journal img DOI: 10.1002/pmj

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