Improving and embedding project management practices in organisations

Stephen Ward, University of Southampton

Madalena Araujo, University of Minho

Abstract

This paper describes the initial results of a study to develop a framework to help organisations improve and embed project management practices in an effective way. While the literature on project management provides some advice, organisations need guidance on which project management improvement initiatives they should concentrate their efforts. A related issue is how to facilitate the embedment of these project management improvement initiatives in an effective manner. The research involved a literature review, followed by a programme of interviews with project management professionals in Portugal and a global survey. Implementation of project management improvement initiatives can be usefully regarded as innovations. Based on a review of the innovation literature, a preliminary set of potentially relevant factors was identified. The interviews then explored the salience of these factors and led to a modified set of pertinent improving and embedding factors. The paper concludes with some preliminary results from the global survey.

Introduction

In the past thirty years project management has developed substantially as a discipline and significantly increased in visibility (Thomas & Mengel, 2008). The discipline of project management offers great potential to improve project management performance, minimise the likelihood of failure, and overall organisational performance (Martinsuo et al., 2006). Therefore, in order to manage business objectives, organisations are increasingly utilising the discipline of project management (Kwak & Anbari, 2009; Demir & Kocabas 2010). Business is becoming increasingly ‘projectised’ or project oriented (Hobday, 2000; Sydow et al., 2004; Martinsuo et al., 2006), and ‘management by projects’ has become a powerful way to integrate organisational functions and motivate groups to achieve higher levels of performance and productivity (Morris, 1997). As Jugdev and Thomas (2002, p. 4) have observed: “Firms are turning to project management as part of their competitive advantage strategies. This is evident in the exponential increase of membership in project management associations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI)”. However, there seems to be little empirical evidence of systematic paths to improve and embed project management practices successfully. While the literature on project management provides some advice, organisations need guidance on which project management improvement initiatives they should concentrate their efforts (Thomas & Mullaly, 2008; Shi, 2011). A related issue is how to facilitate the embedment of these project management improvement initiatives in a sustained manner, for which there is limited understanding (Cranefield & Yoong, 2009).

Organisations tend to focus their attention on the selection and implementation of project management improvements and give less attention to the embedment process of improvements in the organisation. In particular, there is little evidence in the project management literature of the factors contributing to the successful embedment of project management practices. The research described in this paper aims to make some contribution in this field by developing a framework to help organisations improve and embed project management practices in an effective way and, more specifically, the objectives of this research were to:

  • identify the priorities of organisations when they chose to invest in project management practice improvements;
  • identify the key factors that influence the embedding of project management improvement initiatives into organisations;
  • identify the main inter-relationships between the key factors to improve and embed project management practices; and
  • determine if these factors are dependent on the organisational contexts (industry, size, geographic location, and project type).

In this research, improving project management practices in organisations is assumed to be made through project management improvement initiatives, which include the implementation in the organisation of specific project management practices, and the development of activities that would help to improve project management practices. Therefore, project management improvement initiatives are defined here as not just specific tools, but a novel set of behaviours, routines, and ways of working that are directed at improving project management performance and that are implemented by planned and coordinated actions.

The research was undertaken in three phases, a literature review followed by a programme of interviews with a range of project management practitioners. In the first phase, an initial framework of factors that can improve project management practice and facilitate embedment of improvements in project management practices was identified, based on an extensive literature review and on the researchers’ professional experience. In the second phase, interviews with some thirty professionals from seven Portuguese companies were undertaken to explore the salience of factors identified from the literature review. The third phase involved a worldwide online questionnaire. To date, responses have been obtained through personal contacts, project management associations advertising through their members, and snowballing technique.

The ‘initial framework’ of salient factors was identified following an extensive literature review. However, most factors identified are drawn from three main theoretical foundations: (1) the framework Value Adding Path Map (VAPM) from Shi (2011); (2) the conceptual model for the spread and sustainability of innovation in service delivery and organisation from Greenhalgh et al. (2004); and (3) the technology acceptance model3 (TAM3) from Venkatesh and Bala (2008).

Their selection relied on several reasons, namely similitude of objectives, robustness (VAPM framework), empirical evidence obtained, multidisciplinary teams and multitude of organisational contexts (Greenhalgh model), but also on the relevancy of the variables being used, namely, perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use (TAM3).

The VAPM framework was constructed based on the research findings of Thomas and Mullaly (2008) and 30 semi-structured interviews of project management practitioners from a variety of industrial sectors. The conceptual model from Greenhalgh et al. (2004) is the result of extensive literature review to address the question posed by the UK Department of Health: How can we spread and sustain innovations in health service delivery and organisation? TAM is the most widely applied model of user acceptance and usage. TAM suggests that two specific beliefs—perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness determine one's behavioural intention to use a technology (Venkatesh, 2000). TAM3 is a development of TAM, which presents a complete nomological network of the determinants of individuals’ IT adoption and use (Venkatesh & Bala, 2008).

In identifying pertinent factors it was necessary to make some judgements about how far to distinguish different factors and the range of project management improvement initiatives that are possible. In this initial study we adopt a reasonably high level of factor description: for example, key factor identified, ‘Implement standardised/ customised project management processes,’ rather than distinguishing different kinds of processes. This is a general problem in most research of this kind and can arise in most areas of management analysis, including for example, analysis of project uncertainty and risk. For example, Chapman and Ward (2011) argue that “… even the most decomposed structures which are viable still involve low level composites. Further decomposition to clarify a source may be possible, but in practice the limits to decomposition will be defined by what is useful. Further, the most effective and efficient decomposition structure is a matter of choice which is necessarily dependent upon the process objectives.”

Useful Project Management Improvement Initiatives

The literature review first sought to identify a number of project management improvement initiatives, beyond the implementation of specific tools and techniques that have the greatest impact on project performance. Those identified from the literature are summarised in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1 — Useful project management improvement initiatives

Useful project management improvement initiatives

Embedding Project Management Practices

The process of embedding a project management improvement initiative (an innovation) into organisations implies the diffusion, dissemination, implementation, and sustainability of the project management improvement initiative. ‘Diffusion’ tends to imply the passive spread of innovations, whereas ‘dissemination’ implies active and planned efforts to convince target groups to adopt an innovation. '‘Implementation’ includes active and planned efforts to incorporate the innovation within an organisation. An innovation is ‘sustained’ if it is institutionalised and subsequently routinely used within an organisation (Greenhalgh, Robert et al., 2004; Carayon, 2010). ‘Embedment’ implies a project management practice that is strongly contextualised (customised), integrated with other contextualised management practices in the organisation, and where there is a sense of ownership facilitated by staff involvement at all levels. Through literature review, the researcher identified several factors, listed in Exhibit 2, which might have greatest impact on embedding project management practices.

Exhibit 2 – Factors facilitating embedment

Factors facilitating embedment

The Interview Phase

In the second phase of the research, semi-structured interviews and qualitative data analysis were conducted in order: (1) to confirm the key factors to improve and embed project management practices and the most useful project management practices in the initial framework, (2) to identify new factors, and (3) to remove less important factors. As a result a ‘revised framework’ was constructed.

A total of thirty semi-structured interviews were conducted in seven Portuguese companies in different industries briefly categorised in Exhibit 3. The subjects had different roles in the organisation — managers (20%), portfolio, programme managers (27%), project managers (57%), and team members (7%).

Exhibit 3 – Interviewed organisation characterisation

Interviewed organisation characterisation

The interviews were conducted between July and September 2012. Each interview lasted between one and three hours, the average was one hour and half. The interview protocol consisted of the following requests to interviewees:

  • Outline your experience in project management to date
  • Characterise your organisation in terms of business strategy and types of projects
  • Tell stories of your organisation's initiatives to improve project management
  • Identify the most useful project management practices that you use or have used
  • Identify the most useful project management improvements initiatives, in terms of improving project management performance
  • Identify the factors that might make it easier or more difficult to achieve the diffusion, dissemination, implementation and sustainability (i.e., the embedment), of project management improvement initiatives in your organisation
  • Where appropriate, supplementary questions were used to prompt more detailed responses to the above questions.

Interview data were analysed through thematic analysis and application of Nvivo software. The coding process used as a basis the themes/ factors identified in the initial framework; however, new themes/factors for both improving and embedding project management practices emerged and others achieved more significance. The coding process was revisited several times, to ensure that themes identified from the literature and not identified in the interviewee responses were effectively not implicit in the responses.

Most Useful Project Management Practices

Exhibit 4 presents, in descending order, the project management practices most frequently identified by the interviewees as the most useful.

Exhibit 4 – Most useful project management practices

Most useful project management practices

Key Improving Factors — Most Useful Project Management Improvement Initiatives

When faced with the question about the most useful project management improvement initiatives, a large number of factors were identified by interviewees. This is not surprising, as there can be several different types of project management investments made by organisations, depending, for example, on the types of projects undertaken, industry, size, or strategic orientation (Thomas & Mullaly, 2008; Cooke-Davies al., 2009). The most frequent answers are listed in Exhibit 5, by descending order.

Exhibit 5 – Interviewee responses to the most useful project management improvement initiatives (key improving factors)

Interviewee responses to the most useful project management improvement initiatives (key improving factors)

Key Embedding Factors

The invitation to identify the factors that might make it easier or more difficult to achieve the diffusion, dissemination, implementation, and sustainability (i.e., the embedment) of project management improvement initiatives in their organisations (key embedding factors) also prompted interviewees to mention a large number of factors, even more than the factors for improving performance. Exhibit 6 summarises the most frequently identified in descending order of frequency.

Exhibit 6 – Interviewee responses to the key embedding factors

Interviewee responses to the key embedding factors

Modifying the Framework for Improving Project Management Practices

After analysing the responses about the most useful project management improvement initiatives, the initiatives identified (see Exhibit 5) were compared with those initially identified from the literature review (see Exhibit 1). The set of initiatives in Exhibit 1 were then modified to reflect: (1) identified new factors/ themes that emerged and others that achieved more significance; and (2) discredited or merged some factors in other factors, as interviewees put slight emphasis on them.

1. New improving factors

  • ‘Implement corporate/ standardised/customised and tailored project management information system (PMIS)'. A mechanism for storage, retrieval, dissemination, and reporting of project management information. The strong emphasis put by almost all interviewees led to the separation of this factor from the general factor ‘Implement corporate/ standardised/customised and tailored project management tools and techniques.’
  • ‘Provide project management training’ was the second most stated factor (90% of the interviewees). Similarly it was separated from the more general factor of ‘Manage project management competences.’
  • ‘PMprofessionalisation.’ 33% of the interviewees affirmed the relevance of the professionalisation of the project manager's role (i.e., the project manager dedicates almost 100% of his or her work to project management activities).

2. Discredited or merged improving factors

None of the factors identified from literature was discredited; however, some have been merged in other factors:

  • ‘Develop project management categorisation’ was merged with the factors ‘Implement corporate/ standardised/customised and tailored: (i) project management processes, (ii) tools and techniques, and (iii) the project management information system (PMIS). ‘During the interview analysis, the researcher realised that the interviewees’ concern was not the projects’ categorisation per se, but with the tailoring to different projects that categorisation may facilitate.
  • ‘Project management performance assessment’ was mentioned by only four interviewees, and where mentioned, past project management performance was cited in order to encourage project managers to improve their project management competences. Therefore, this factor was merged in the more general factor ‘Manage project management competences.’
  • ‘Empowerment of project managers’ was merged into ‘Develop a project sympathetic organisation structure,’ because this factor was highlighted by few interviewees and with minor emphasis. When empowerment was mentioned by the interviewer, some interviewees responded that this is important, but not one of the most important factors.

All the other improving factors identified from the literature review were confirmed, although in some cases prompting some slight rephrasing.

Modifying the Framework for Embedding Project Management Practices

After analysing the responses about key embedding factors, the factors identified (see Exhibit 6) were compared with those initially identified from the literature review (see Exhibit 2). The set of initiatives in Exhibit 2 were then modified to reflect: (1) identified new factors/themes that emerged and others that achieved more significance; (2) removal of some factors because interviewees put slight emphasis on them; and (3) merging of some factors into other factors because interviewees did not distinguish between them.

New Embedding Factors

  • ‘Piloting’ is closely related to the factor 'trialability’ identified in the initial framework. However, interviewees were not worried if the project management practice has the ‘trialability’ attribute (i.e., could be trial or not), but if the organisation made part of the implementation process, the piloting of the project management improvement initiatives.
  • ‘Sponsorship’ was a factor emphasised by almost half of the interviewees so it was separated from the more general ‘receptive context for change.’
  • ‘Gradual implementation’ was mentioned by a third of interviewees who recognised that making change takes time and needs the ‘right time.’ For example, one interviewee observed: “Gradual implementation [is necessary] in order to better manage the expectations and benefits of implementation. ” (interviewee 27)
  • ‘Predisposition for change’ was mentioned by a third of interviewees. Two interviewees strongly emphasised it, stressing the importance of people's attitude to change, that unfortunately, there are many professionals who are simply averse to change.
  • ‘Project management quality assurance process’ was mentioned by 27% of interviewees. As one interviewee affirmed: “It is essential to support the use of project management practices, through coaching and also quality assurance, to guarantee that people are using the standardised practices. ”
  • ‘Adopter accountability’. A number of interviewees emphasised that if the project team does not use the standardised project management practices, they should suffer some penalty.
  • ‘Project maturity’ was strongly emphasised by some interviewees and so it was separated from the more general factor ‘structure and resources to support change.’ The adoption of the new project management practice is more likely if the organisation already has a high level of project management maturity.
  • ‘Integration with the existent practices’ is closely related to the factor ‘compatibility,’ an improvement initiative attribute previously identified from the literature. Interviewees were not worried if the practice has the ‘compatibility’ characteristic, but if in fact the organisation makes the integration of the project management improvement initiative with the existent practices. This embedding factor is closely related to the improving theme ‘integrate the project management system with the general management system,’ showings how close are the concepts of improving and embedding.
  • ‘Environmental culture.’ During the literature review environmental variables did not stand out as important factors. Nevertheless, 10% of the interviewees emphasised if the organisation is inserted in an external environment, where there is a project management culture, for example, as one interviewee observed “in Portugal we do not have a culture of planning, time management, and this is something that we should impress upon during childhood.”
  • ‘Unstable economic environment.’ Although ‘unstable economic environment’ was not identified as a key factor from the literature review, 10% of the interviewees mentioned this. An unstable economic environment provokes a tension for change, in order to make the organisation more competitive. As such, an ‘unstable economic environment’ increases the likelihood of adoption of the new project management practice.

Discredited Embedding Factors

Discredited does not mean that the factor does not have influence on the embedding process, but just that the influence might be relatively minor. The interview analysis led to the understanding that the following factors, described by several characteristics, have lower relevance than one of their explanatory characteristics. As such, the original key factor was removed from the framework and replaced by the relevant characteristic.

  • ‘Structure of the organisation.’ This factor includes several characteristics, but only ‘project management maturity’ was strongly emphasised from the interviewees. Therefore, as referred above, this factor was highlighted and ‘structure of the organisation’ was removed.
  • ‘Receptive context for change.’ This broad factor includes several characteristics which defined a receptive context for change, as sponsorship, clear strategic vision, good managerial relations, etc. Only ‘sponsorship’ context for change and was strongly emphasised from the interviewees. Therefore, this factor was highlighted and ‘receptive context for change’ was eliminated.

Despite careful scrutiny of responses from the interviewees, no explicit or implicit responses were found connecting, with the following factors identified from literature:

  • ‘Beliefs of similarity or difference from others industries’
  • ‘Rhetorical theory use’
  • ‘Source of the knowledge and adopter relationship’
  • ‘Source of the knowledge motivation’
  • ‘Causal ambiguity or uncertainty’
  • ‘Unproven knowledge’
  • ‘Retentive capacity for new knowledge’

Consequently, these factors were removed from the revised framework of key factors.
Additionally, factors just briefly mentioned, even when supplementary questions were asked, and which were identified by less than 10%, were removed:

  • ‘Source of the knowledge credibility’
  • ‘Gender and age differences’
  • ‘Homophily’
  • ‘Interpersonal channels’

Merged Embedding Factors

The six factors below, related to the attributes of a project management improvement initiative were merged into other factors in the modified framework. ‘Relative advantage’ merged in the factor ‘perceived usefulness.’

  • ‘Observability’ merged in the factor ‘demonstrating the project management improvement initiative value’
  • ‘Compatibility’ merged in the factor ‘integration with the existent practices’
  • ‘Trialability’ merged in the factor ‘piloting’
  • ‘Complexity’ merged in a more general factor ‘perceived ease of use’
  • ‘Re-invention’ merged in the factor ‘adaptation/re-invention’
  • ‘Quick use’ is a new factor identified from 20% of the interviewees. However, ‘quick use ' might be seen as also an explicative variable for the factor ‘perceived ease of use’

The above changes in distinguished factors result in the initially distinguished theme of ‘project management improvement initiative attributes to be redundant. Consequently, in the revised framework the whole category/ theme ‘project management improvement initiative attributes’ is eliminated as it was just composed by these six factors and two more, not prompted by any interview, ‘causal ambiguity or uncertainty’ and ‘unproven knowledge. All the other embedding factors identified from literature were confirmed although some warranted slight rephrasing.

The Survey Phase

The survey phase involves a lengthy web-based questionnaire. Potential respondents were individually invited to complete the questionnaire sent out by email. This resulted in over 600 participations from a wide range of project management practitioners from around the world. The questionnaire was divided into four parts: part A -key factors for improving project management practices; part B - key factors for embedding project management practices; part C - project management practices; part D - some characteristics of the respondent and respondent's organisation

In each of the parts: A, B, and C the respondents were asked to rate the perceived importance of a list of improving and embedding factors and project management practices.

A preliminary analysis was conducted using SPSS of responses on the survey. The set of the most useful project management practices identified from the survey were largely similar to the set identified from the interviewees (see Exhibit 4). However, other project management practices get also high significance as: project issue log; Gantt chart; client acceptance form; activity list; project statement of work; qualitative risk analysis; and M Software to task scheduling. A principle component analysis was conducted separately on the sets of improving and embedding factors. All the factors in the revised framework have a significant contribution to improve and embed project management practices. However, the factor analysis indicated slight differences from the pre-survey categorisation of the factors into themes. For example, ‘develop project management career path’ was categorised under the theme ‘people and organisational learning’ but is also highly correlated with the theme ‘general management system.’ A correlation analysis at the level of the improving and embedding themes showed a high correlation between improving and embedding, in particular between the theme ‘people and organisational learning’ and all embedding themes. This suggests the improving factors might have a direct influence on embedding. Finally, the perceived importance of some themes was found to vary significantly between sectors of activity, types of projects, and geographic locations.

Conclusion

Exhibit 7 presents a framework of pertinent factors, which is divided into ‘key themes and factors for improving’ and ‘key themes and factors for embedding’. This framework incorporates the initial factors listed in Exhibits 1 and 2, suitably modified to reflect the alterations suggested from the programme of interviews. For clarity, factors are categorised into themes based on the literature and on the researcher's expertise during the interviewee responses analysis.

The initial framework of factors to improve and embed project management practices in an effective way, derived from the literature and the researcher professional experience, identified fifteen factors for improving and thirty-two factors for embedding. The ‘revised framework’ constructed following the data interview analysis: (1) confirmed twelve improving factors and sixteen embedding factors; (2) identified three new factors for improving and ten for embedding; (3) merged in other factors three improving factors, five embedding factors, and discredited eleven embedding factors, resulting in a modified total of fifteen improving factors and twenty six embedding factors.

The research is progressing, through a worldwide online survey (available until the end of April on https://www.isurvey.soton.ac.uk/6516), to confirm the framework and to identify the main inter-relationships between the key factors and their possible dependency on organisational contexts in order to propose the final framework. Future work will also analyse the factors independently from the themes, in order to confirm this pre-categorisation.

The contribution of this research is threefold:

(a) Examining the problem of project management effective implementation using the success factor approach, to identify the key factors to improve project management practices and the factors that might affect the embedment of project management improvement initiatives in organisations;

(b) Building knowledge in the area of embedding project management, addressing it with an “innovation lens” perspective, which, by itself, is a relatively novel approach; and

c) Adding empirical evidence on the dependency of the improving and embedding project management factors on the organisational contexts.

Exhibit 7 – Revised framework to improve and embed project management (PM) practices in an effective way.

Revised framework to improve and embed project management (PM) practices in an effective way

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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 or any listed author.

©2013 Gabriela Fernandes
Originally published as part of 2013 PMI® Global Proceedings – Istanbul, Turkey

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