Project Management Institute

Enhancing collaboration in project-based organizations with information technology

a multi-level strategy

Project Management Program, University of Maryland, College Park Institute of Theoretical and Applied Informatics, Polish Academy of Sciences, Gliwice, Poland

AGH University of Science and Technology, Krakow, Poland Institute of Theoretical and Applied Informatics, Polish Academy of Sciences, Gliwice, Poland


Project-based organizations refer to a variety of organizational forms that involve the creation of temporary systems for the performance of project tasks (Lundin & Söderholm, 1995; DeFillippi, 2002). In project-based organizations, the project is the primary unit for production organization, innovation, and competition. In recent years, the importance of project-based modes of organizing and controlling work in new industries, together with their increasing use in more established sectors, have been seen by some as heralding the development of a new “logic of organizing” in market economies (Powell, 1996; DeFillippi & Arthur, 1998; Whitley, 2006). The project-based organization has also been regarded as a form ideal for managing increasing product complexity, fast changing markets, cross-functional business expertise, customer-focused innovation and markets, and technological uncertainty (Hobday, 2000).

In contrast to traditionally hierarchical organizations, project-based organizations are flatter, speedier, and more flexible and horizontally-integrated (Child & McGrath, 2001; Child & Rodrigues, 2003). Figure 1 illustrates the transition of management structure from traditional hierarchical (pyramid) form to flexible network form, which is typically adopted in some project-based organizations. In the management structure formed as a loose network, the relationships between people are more goal-oriented and flexible, and can dynamically change over time according to the varying demands of performed tasks. While some studies argued that the flattening of organizational hierarchies and the weakening of firms’ boundaries could facilitate the networks of collaborations and the restructuring of competition between firms within and across industries (Powell, 2001; Whitley, 2006), many others in the literature, however, pointed out certain challenges of project-based organizations. First, the decentralized nature and time-constrained ways of working, combined with loose coupling between projects, usually creates highly distributed working practices in project-based organizations (Lindkvist, 2004; Bresnen, Goussevskaia, & Swan, 2004). In many industries where project basing is generally adopted, such as construction, consultancy, and professional services, project work is generally undertaken by virtual teams dispersed geographically. Second, conflict and abrasion frequently occur within a project and among different projects in a firm (Kodama, 2007). Third, research on project learning consistently highlights the problems involved in attempting to capture, share, and diffuse knowledge and learning across projects (DeFillippi, 2001; Grabher, 2002; Bresnen et al., 2004). These challenges, if not appropriately addressed, could create barriers to change and innovation and compromise the potential of project-based organizations to integrate intellectual resources and expertise. Therefore, collaboration, which could address the above challenges and problems, is very important in the success of project-based organizations.

Traditional and Network-Type Management

Figure 1. Traditional and Network-Type Management

Collaboration is a crucial success factor in any project, particularly when dealing with key relationships and partnerships (Vaaland, 2004). In project-based organizations, collaboration is critical in sharing information, knowledge, and expertise, and achieving organization-wide integration. Collaboration can also help organizations better align resources as needed, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and make the results more sustainable. According to Quinn, Baruch, and Zien (1997) and DeFillippi (2002), innovative enterprises that employ technology to facilitate independent, project-based collaborations are the hallmark of the new economy. However, achieving true and productive collaboration in project-based organizations is very challenging. It requires that organizations work outside of disciplinary and geographical boundaries; dedicate people, skills, and energy to the effort; deal with a diversity of priorities and culture; and think of their organizational operations and different projects as part of a system that needs to function seamlessly and harmoniously.

Fortunately, emerging and rapidly evolving information technologies (IT), such as the Internet, groupware, and communication technologies, offer the potential to dramatically improve the way people communicate and collaborate in the organizations of the 21st century. Due to ubiquitous Internet access and the advances in network support, information can now be transmitted, stored, retrieved, and shared in real time across the globe; and collaboration can take place virtually, regardless of time and location. Furthermore, IT-based collaboration makes possible the formation of virtual organizations. A virtual organization is a network of individuals and/or organizations geographically dispersed that share a common purpose or objective; it does not require the type of infrastructures and bureaucracies that have traditionally governed organization formation in the physical world (Fong, 2005). Overall, information technology that facilitates collaboration has brought an unprecedented way for organizations to share knowledge and expertise, and to better integrate business, work, or learning processes; it has also been a key element in supporting organizational transformation.

There are a number of studies on collaboration, especially on inter-organization collaboration in the supply chain and in the area of new product development (e.g., Horvath, 2001; Simatupang & Sridharan, 2005); there is also much research related to the application of emerging information technology in supporting collaboration and business integration (e.g., Nikas, Poulymenakou, & Kriaris, 2007; Sanders, 2007; Stewart, 2007). Besides, the management of project communication—the basis of collaboration—is identified as one of the nine project management knowledge areas in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI, 2004). However, there is much less research specifically on collaboration in project-based organizations, particularly among projects, programs, and portfolios. This paper reviews up-to-date collaborative technologies and their applications in supporting collaboration, and analyzes the characteristics of project-based organizations and the barriers and challenges to collaboration in this form of organization. Further, this paper proposes a conceptual framework to conduct collaboration and select collaborative information technologies, and presents a multi-level strategy to enhance collaboration in project-based organizations using the latest information technologies.

Collaboration in Project-based Organizations

Collaboration is a process by which individuals and/or groups work together toward a shared objective on a practical endeavor (Light, Bell, & Halpern, 2001). The need for collaboration arises when the limits of abilities, knowledge, or resources prevent the individuals and/or groups from completing a given task and meeting the requirements on their own, or when collaboration can help them complete the task more quickly and efficiently. A collaborative arrangement can help individuals and/or groups undertake larger and more complex tasks, gain a perspective on the shared enterprise they would not have been able to perceive on their own, and learn from others (Kalay, 2001). The shared objective of collaboration may be larger than that of the individuals/groups: it could be the objective of a project, a portfolio, a company, or a community (e.g., a company and its suppliers and customers) as a whole. Thus it is possible that sometimes the action of collaboration best suited for the needs and goals of a collaborator may not be best suited for the needs of another one, while overall the expected benefit of achieving the shared objective is larger than the sum of those attained separately.

Project-based organizations face unique problems and barriers to collaboration. First, projects typically comprise a mix of individuals with different job functions and highly specialized competences; they each have differentiated thought worlds (Dougherty, 1992) and large knowledge boundaries (Brown & Duguid, 2001), which make it difficult to establish a common knowledge base and shared understandings. Second, as a high degree of discretion is granted to “lower levels,” project teams composed to carry out the essential work of the organization are unusually independent and outwardly oriented. Since projects enjoy great autonomy, they easily become separated from each other, with the risk of turning the organization into little more than a series of disconnected projects (Lindkvist, 2004). Thus project-based organizations tend to suffer from certain weaknesses, such as lack of company-wide development and learning (Hobday, 2000) and difficulties in linking projects to firm-level business processes (Gann & Salter, 2000). Third, every project involves a variety of stakeholders, who have different expectations and requirements, which may lead to conflicts among project stakeholders. Conflicts also take place among different projects, programs and/or portfolios due to their difference in scheduling priorities and the scarcity of resources within the organization. Moreover, the existence of conflicts and the above mentioned lack of common knowledge and shared understandings, in addition to the practice of virtual team members being distributed across space, prevent the establishment of trust and commitment among collaborators, which are essential for the success of collaboration.

Because the project is the primary unit of organizing work in project-based organizations, they generally adopt a peer-to-peer topology, which has multiple relationships between all nodes that represent projects (see Figure 2). Besides, a project may have some stakeholders outside of the organization, such as suppliers, contractors, consultants, and so on; the relationship between a project (or a project-based organization as a whole) and external stakeholders can be illustrated as a hub-and-spoke topology or star topology (see Figure 2). Therefore, collaboration in project-based organizations consists of three different levels: within a project; among projects, programs and portfolios; and with external organizations. Accordingly, enhancing collaboration in project-based organizations can be undertaken in a multi-level manner.

Types of Organizational Topology in Project-Based Organizations

Figure 2. Types of Organizational Topology in Project-Based Organizations

Collaborative Information Technology

Although it is argued that the success of collaboration depends on a variety of business, people, and technical issues, and technology is not the determining factor (Susman, 2003; Mayrhofer & Back, 2003, 2005), emerging information and communication technology (ICT, or simply referred to as information technology, IT) is an important ingredient and enhancing force of collaboration. According to Sanders (2007), firm use of e-business technologies has a direct and positive impact on both intra-organizational and inter-organizational collaboration; it also has a direct and positive impact on organizational performance. For geographically distributed teams, information technology that facilitates communication provides the means to link members together and is absolutely critical (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002). Of all the information technologies, the Internet and the Web may have had the most profound impact on business integration and collaboration due to their interoperability and open-standard settings for the transfer of data within and among organizations (Bailey & Rabinovich, 2003; Sanders, 2007).

At present, there are many collaborative technologies that could be used to support collaboration and enhance organizational integration. Typical collaborative functionalities and tools could be classified as 1) basic functions, which include intranet, search, e-mail, file sharing, and document management; 2) fundamental collaborative functions, which include contact management, task lists, team calendar and meeting scheduling, awareness utilities, bulletin and discussion boards, chat, whiteboard, and so forth; 3) additional collaborative functions, which include surveying/polling, audio/video conferencing, and application sharing (Cheng & Tsai, 2008); and 4) add-on functions, which include workflow management (Bafoutsou & Mentzas, 2002; Mayrhofer & Back, 2005). Among these collaborative functionalities, awareness utilities represent an aggregation of several functionalities like e-mail notifications, online paging/messaging, and “status lists” in order to point to information and be informed about the current status/role/activity of members; application sharing means to concurrently work on the same application or view the same screen/file; surveys and polling are a way of supporting decision-making in a group by conducting either synchronous or asynchronous voting; workflow management is used to control, coordinate, assist, and execute activities that must be performed in a specific order (Mayrhofer & Back, 2005).

These functionalities could also be categorized into three basic supporting processes of collaboration according to the increased level of interaction: coordination, cooperation, and communication. Figure 3 illustrates a framework of Web-based collaborative functionalities according to their level of interaction and level of content management support, where Web-conferencing tools focus on synchronous communication and collaboration by providing an integrated set of functionalities to support meetings of geographically distributed people, and virtual teamroom tools focus on the coordination activities within a team (Mayrhofer & Back, 2005).

Functionalities of Web-based Collaborative Technologies

Figure 3. Functionalities of Web-based Collaborative Technologies

Collaborative functionalities and tools can also be organized as the groupware matrix based on time and space shown in Figure 4 (Patterson, Hill, Rohall, & Meeks, 1990; “Computer supported cooperative work”, 2007). In this groupware matrix, project management is in the quadrant of different time/same place; however, project management now can also be undertaken remotely, supported by a Web-based project management system. In addition, telephone and voicemail, which are not Web-based, are also among the most frequently used means of communication, which is the basis of any collaboration.

Groupware Matrix

Figure 4. Groupware Matrix

Many of the collaborative functionalities are offered by free Web services, such as email, online calendar, instant messaging, and so forth, as long as Internet access is available. However, free collaborative services are out of the control of the organization, and may bring concerns about security, privacy, and information confidentiality. Other functionalities, such as workflow management, real-time application sharing, group decision support systems, and other solutions, require the organization to invest in software applications and associated hardware, networking, and services. Therefore, project-based organizations need to incorporate availability and affordability when selecting and implementing collaborative technologies.

A Multi-Level Strategy

Process of Collaboration

The form of a collaborative working relationship through the electronic network is referred to in many studies as e-collaboration (Mayrhofer & Back, 2003; Fong, 2005). E-collaboration is defined as “the computer mediated process of two or more (dislocated) people working together on a common purpose or goal, where the participants are committed and interdependent and work in a common context using shared resources, supported by (Web-based) electronic tools” (Mayrhofer & Back, 2005). Based on the St. Galler Business Engineering Approach (Österle & Winter, 2000), a reference model (see Figure 5) for workplace e-collaboration was derived (Mayrhofer & Back, 2003, 2005). In this model, tools and functionalities on the level of systems and technologies have to be suited to enable and support application scenarios, which are developed and defined on the level of business processes, accompanied by suited methodologies for e-collaborating employees. While the term e-collaboration is not used in this paper, because both physically dislocated and co-located collaboration are considered, the reference model could provide a basic framework for collaboration in project-based organizations.

Workplace e-Collaboration Reference Model

Figure 5. Workplace e-Collaboration Reference Model

A general description of the collaboration process is illustrated in Figure 6. Collaboration is initiated when it is necessary and/or beneficial. Because collaboration entails the time and effort of the collaborating parties and certain investment in supporting technologies and resources, evaluating the benefits of collaboration against its opportunity cost would be necessary before defining the detailed objectives of a specific collaborative activity. Defining the scope and identifying the restricted areas based on the objectives of collaboration are also essential, due to the concern that collaborating parties usually have about system security and the confidentiality of important information. If different “thought worlds” or knowledge disciplines are involved, setting up a common data standard, terminology, and even a common knowledge base would be able to facilitate collaboration. While a single organization could develop its own data standard based on its needs or just adopt the data standard of implemented software solutions, there are few industry-recognized standards, definitions, rules, and solutions, which may give rise to islands of networks and discourage inter-organizational collaboration.

Process of Collaboration

Figure 6. Process of Collaboration

Although the objectives, scope, data standard, and knowledge base should remain consistent for a period of time until the fulfillment of collaboration objectives and the realization of corresponding benefits, collaborating parties could establish and adjust collaboration procedures and choose collaboration methods dynamically, based on the need of each joint task. Particularly, determining who takes the lead, how to reach a decision, and how to address possible conflict can have a direct impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of collaboration. Furthermore, the selection of collaborative information technology depends on a variety of factors, shown in Table 1. Among these factors, time and space of the collaboration (level of synchronization and geographical dispersion) can narrow the selection of collaborative information technology into one of the four quadrants of the groupware matrix. The nature of work could be used to define required functionalities other than those collaborative functionalities. For example, if the work is corroborative architectural design for a building by architects located in different countries, design software with remote collaboration features would be considered preferably together with other collaborative tools. Besides, trust is critical for the success of collaboration, especially in virtual teams (Bradley & Vozikis, 2004); the level of trust not only influences the willingness of people to begin collaborating with another party, but also determines the required functionalities of collaborative information technology in access control and information security management. Other factors, such as personal preference and limitation, required level of interaction, availability and affordability of the technology and so on, can also have an impact on the selection of collaborative technologies. Additionally, other types of technologies and tools than collaborative information technology, if applicable, should also be taken into consideration, although they are not studied in this paper. Equipped with suitable technologies and tools, different parties can work together toward the originally defined objectives through collaborative tasks. Finally, the review of collaboration could help lesson learning and knowledge sharing across the organization, and new initiatives may be proposed to extend the benefits of collaboration.

Physical factors Space: level of geographical dispersion
Time: level of synchronization
Human factors Trust
Personal limitations and preferences
Identity and group affiliation of collaborating parties
Work factors Nature of work
Required level of interaction
Requirement of record retention
Requirement of system security and information confidentiality
Technical factors Availability of collaborative technology
Availability of required IT infrastructure
Affordability of technology
Reliability of technology
Ease of use of technology

Table 1. Selection of Collaborative Information Technology – List of Factors

Intra-Project Collaboration

A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (PMI, 2004). The temporariness of a project results in collaboration within a project also being temporal in nature throughout a part or whole of the project life cycle. Intra-project collaboration involves parties in the project team; project stakeholders outside the project-based organization are not taken into account. Although the expectations and responsibilities of collaborating parties in a project team may differ, they share the same objectives of completing the project on time, under budget, and meeting the quality requirement; they also have common goals when involved in a specific collaborative task. Thus, it is relatively easy for these motivated parties to establish mutual trust and commitment in the process of collaboration. Moreover, collaboration in the practical endeavor of projects is generally task-oriented, focusing on solving emerging problems and delivering specific results, and involving a large amount of information transmission and sharing.

Due to the managerial perception that dispersed projects are costly and the strong managerial preference for local projects (Boh, Ren, Kiesler, & Bussjaeger, 2007), people in a single project team are more likely to work in a local context, and so have more chance to conduct face-to-face interactions, which are deemed more effective. Besides, intra-project collaboration requires frequent and prioritized interactions among collaborating parties. For example, the project management team may need to meet every week or even every day to review progress against the project base plan and make necessary adjustment. Such interactions could be either appropriately scheduled as face-to-face interactions or conducted by using telephone or teleconferencing. Therefore, those collaborative technologies in the remote interactions quadrant of the Time/Space Groupware Matrix, such as video conferencing, may not need to be used frequently in the localized project context. However, if the project team is more distantly geographically dispersed, technologies in the above mentioned quadrant should be used to replace face-to-face interactions.

Furthermore, intra-project collaboration generally involves asynchronous communication and coordination among collaborating parties; especially when multi-disciplinary joint effort is needed, workflow management and application sharing would be important to achieve the success of the collaboration. Overall, intra-project collaboration entails a wide variety of collaborative information technologies, whose variation is mainly determined by the level of geographic dispersion of the project team and the required functionalities of collaborative work.

Intra-Organization Collaboration

While one of the advantages of project-based organizations is the weakening of traditional functional boundaries, they create new boundaries between different projects, programs and portfolios due to their autonomy. By breaking the new boundaries while keeping project autonomy, intra-organizational collaboration—among projects, programs, and/or portfolios—therefore could support expertise sharing and align limited resources across the organization, thus serving to enhance organizational integration and realize coordinated benefits. It is documented that intra-organizational collaboration has a direct and positive impact on organizational performance (Sanders, 2007). Intra-organizational collaboration could be undertaken in the form of collective actions of projects/programs/portfolios toward a shared objective. For example, collaborating parties in two different projects can exchange information and negotiate together with a supplier or a contractor outside of the organization. Another form is that they exchange, transfer, or share resources, including intellectual resources and human capital. For example, a member of a project team could be asked to help another project team that is short of his specialized skills. Since projects may have different goals and scheduling priorities, conflict might take place during the process of collaboration, and the level of trust is lower than that within a single project.

In intra-organizational collaboration, interaction among collaborating parties is less frequent and more formal than in a project. Different projects, although in the same organization, are more likely to be physically dispersed; thus face-to-face interaction may not be feasible or efficient, and collaborators tend to rely on remote or asynchronous communication technologies. Intra-organizational collaboration also requires more record retention compared with the information involved and a higher standard of system security and information confidentiality. If the collaboration aims for dynamically optimizing the utilization of resources across the organization, which is usually decided by executives/managers, those collaborative technologies with communication and basic cooperation functions would be able to meet the needs. Specific tasks to implement the coordination of resources, if requiring people from different project teams to work together, may necessitate the use of collaborative technology with functionalities related to the tasks. For the purpose of facilitating organization-wide technical development and promoting organizational learning, file sharing and document management are fundamental; particularly the access to documentations should be carefully authorized, controlled, and monitored. Moreover, while face-to-face interaction may not be feasible or frequently available, functionalities such as bulletin and discussion board that are provided by many collaborative technologies can enable people working in different projects or departments to solicit solutions, exchange ideas, share experiences, and thus enrich the expertise of the whole organization.

Inter-Organizational Collaboration

Organizations nowadays increasingly collaborate to complement their core competencies. Since projects involve a variety of stakeholders outside the organization, project-based organizations tend to maintain collaboration with stakeholders of its projects, such as suppliers, customers, contractors, consultants, professional service providers, and so on. Inter-organizational collaboration can also be extended beyond traditional, arms-length contractual and transactional relationships. An example is collaboration along the supply chain to reduce cost, improve performance, and enhance operational flexibility to cope with high demand uncertainties. Overall, inter-organizational collaboration, which is mainly focused to share information, synchronize decisions, and especially align strategies, can help participating parties realize and expand their shared interest. However, it is very difficult to establish mutual trust among the collaborating parties from and working for different organizations, and the stake of inter-organizational collaboration is much higher than that of intra-project or intra-organizational collaboration.

People from different organizations are likely to be geographically dispersed; it is not unusual that they are even distributed globally. Thus their collaboration would heavily rely on remote communication technologies such as audio/video conferencing, emails, telephone, and so forth. While interactions among collaborating parties may be less frequent, they are supposed to be carried out formally, and the records of collaborative activities should be well kept so as to clarify the intention of each party and help avoid or solve possible conflicts. Besides, inter-organizational collaboration entails the capability of collaborative technology to ensure security and the confidentiality of sensitive information. Therefore, the selection of collaborative information technology in inter-organizational context is relatively limited.

Table 2 illustrates the differences of collaboration characteristics on different levels in the project-based organization. As the context of collaboration moves from intra-project to inter-projects/programs/portfolios (intra-organization) and to inter-organization, the collaborating parties and their relationship differ a lot, and the objectives, focuses, characteristics, and challenges of collaboration are also changed accordingly. Therefore, the selection and use of collaborative technologies should accommodate changing requirements and limitations of collaboration. In summary, in order to enhance collaboration and maximize its benefits, project-based organizations can adopt a multi-level strategy that dynamically adjusts the use of collaborative information technology based on the objectives, focuses, priorities, characteristics, and challenges of collaboration on different organizational levels.

Organizational level Intra-project Intra-organization (Inter-project/program/portfolio) Inter-organization
Purposes/goals Common project objectives/deliveries Coordinated benefits through organizational integration Overlapping interest
Focus Problem solving, information sharing, business integration Resource coordination, knowledge sharing, organizational learning Strategic alliance or alignment
Level of trust Highest High Limited
Level of interaction Frequent, regular (daily, weekly, etc.), prioritized; formal and informal Less frequent, as needed; formal Less frequent, as needed; very formal
Decision-making Shared decision making, perhaps with a leading collaborating party that takes control Consensus should be reached on all decisions
Level of requirement for record retention Fair Higher Highest
Level of requirement for system security and information confidentiality Depends on the project Higher Highest
Options of collaborative information technology suitable for use More Less Less

Table 2. Comparison of Collaboration Characteristics on Different Levels of a Project-Based Organization


Although project-based organizations draw increasing interest as an organizational form appropriate for managing complexity and innovation, in general, working practices in project-based organizations tend to be highly distributed and dispersed geographically. Project-based organizations also suffer from conflicts and abrasion that occur frequently, and encounters problems in knowledge accumulation and business integration. Hence collaboration, which can facilitate the sharing of information and expertise, coordinate the use of limited resources, and align strategies with external organizations, is critical for the success of project-based organizations.

Information technology is an important ingredient and enforcing force of collaboration. In project-based organizations, the objectives, focuses, and characteristics of collaboration evolve considerably along with the change of organizational level from intra-project, intra-organization to inter-organization; so are collaborating parties and their mutual relationships. Thus, collaborations on different levels bring about different requirements and challenges. Accordingly, the selection and use of collaborative information technology should also be dynamically adjusted. This paper proposes a conceptual process of collaboration, defines a framework of factors that determines or impacts the selection of collaborative information technology, and develops a multi-level strategy in which the use of collaborative information technology is linked with the objectives, focuses, and characteristics of collaboration on each level and thus is dynamically adjustable. This strategy can help enhance collaboration and maximize its benefits, and therefore improve the performance and competitive advantage of project-based organizations.


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