Project Management Institute

Mechanisms for inter-project integration--empirical analysis in program context

Perttu Dietrich
Helsinki University of Technology
BIT Research Centre

Project management researchers have recently started to recognize that projects and project management do not only represent operational tools to organize minor tasks, but strategically important organizational capabilities (Cleland, 2002; Artto & Dietrich, 2004; Gareis, 2004). This ongoing discussion on the strategic role of projects has led to an emergence of a novel research area related to management of multiple simultaneous projects organized as multi-project programs. Multi-project programs represent vehicles that are increasingly used to develop and implement strategic organizational changes, too complex or vague in their objectives to fit into the traditional project management frame.

Several authors have presented their concerns that the project management literature is too heavily based on the ideology that projects are fundamentally similar (Shenhar, 2001; Shenhar & Dvir, 1996; Milosevic &Patanakul, 2002). Guided by these concerns, some research attempts have focused on factors that make projects essentially different from each other. A project’s size, uncertainty, complexity, and pace are examples of factors that are suggested to have major impacts on a project’s execution strategy (Shenhar, 2001; Milosevic and Patanakul, 2002; Shenhar and Dvir, 1996, Tatikonda and Rosenthal, 2000). These factors resemble those suggested in classical contingency theory, in which different modes of organizing are explained by complexity, uncertainty and size (Donaldson, 2001). Thus, a similar kind of thinking is starting to emerge among project management researchers.

Researchers studying programs and their management have observed a need to extend the emerging contingency thinking from single-project context to multi-project context (Pellegrinelli, 1997; Ribbers & Schoo, 2002; Vereecke, Pandelare, Deschoolmeester, & Stewens, 2003). However, the existing literature on program management is still heavily based on the “one size fits all” thinking. Moreover, it is not sufficiently explored to determine whether the results from the studies on contingent single-project management apply to multi-project setting.

This study aims to open up the contingency view to program management. To be more exact, this study focuses on the problem of inter-project integration and how the perceived uncertainty and structural complexity affect the perceived importance of different integration mechanisms used. Two research questions guide this study:

  • What kind of different mechanisms are used to ensure effective integration between different projects in intra-organizational development programs?
  • How does the perceived uncertainty and structural complexity affect the perceived importance of the mechanisms?

In order to answer the research questions, this study reports findings from the empirical analysis of inter-project integration mechanisms in four case programs.

Problem of integration

The problem of integration is a consequence of organizational fragmentation. It is proposed that the external requirements emanating from the environment leads to segmentation of organizations into various units (sub-systems), each having its own responsibilities and tasks (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967). Organizational segmentation enables organizational sub-systems to focus the attention effectively on a particular problem or task. However, in order to accomplish the overall purpose of the organization, these organizational subsystems have to be linked together. (Thompson, 1967; Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967). In organization theory, the management of the linkages among different organizational sub-systems is called integration or coordination (Van de Ven, 1976; Hage, Aiken, & Marrett, 1971).

Different studies in the organizational field reveal that the integration between different tasks or activities often determines how effectively and efficiently the overall goals are achieved (Gittell, 2002). For example, in product development, the way that the work is broken down and the integration among different tasks has a significant impact on productivity, quality, and development time (Cohen & Regan, 1996; Clark & Fujimoto, 1991). Gittell (2002) notes that similar kinds of results have been achieved in apparel production (Albernathy, Dunlop, Hammond, & Weil, 1999), air travel (Gittell, 2001), and healthcare delivery (Argote, 1982).

Three different studies have had major impact on increasing our understanding of organizational integration. First, Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) proposed that the appropriate way for integration among different organizational units is dependent on the degree of differentiation among the units. Moreover, in their study, Lawrence and Lorsch found that the level of differentiation is consistent with the diversity of the different parts of the environment. Thus they concluded that the integrating mechanisms in an effective organization are consistent with the diversity of the environment so that, the more diverse the environment, the more differentiated and integrated the effective organization.

Second, Thompson (1967) suggested that the type of interdependence among organizational tasks determines the appropriate integration mechanisms in organizations. He categorized interdependencies among different organizational tasks into pooled, sequential, and reciprocal. When each task delivers a discrete contribution to the whole and the delivery process is independent on delivery processes of other tasks, it is called pooled interdependence. Second, when the output of one task is an input for a second, it is a question of sequential interdependence. Finally, reciprocal interdependence means that the output of each task becomes input for others. In addition, Thompson (1967) argued that when the interdependencies among organizational tasks grow from pooled to reciprocal, integration among tasks through rules and procedures does not suffice anymore, but participatory mechanisms such as mutual adjustments are needed to deliver new information during the process of action.

Finally, Van de Ven, Delbecq, & Koenig, (1976) proposed that the use of different integration mechanisms is contingent on three different factors: perceived task uncertainty, work flow interdependence, and work unit size. Their study on integration modes in 197 formal work units exposed that integration through impersonal mechanisms, such as plans and schedules, is negatively correlated with perceived task uncertainty and positively correlated with work unit size. In addition, they found that the use of horizontal communication channels is positively correlated with the perceived task uncertainty. Moreover, the use of scheduled meetings as integration mechanisms was observed to correlate positively with perceived task uncertainty and workflow interdependence. Finally, they found that perceived task uncertainty correlated positively with the use of unscheduled meetings as an integration mechanism.

The three studies above have all contributed to research on integration by showing that different kinds of conditions external and internal to the organization lead to different kinds of integration requirements, and that the effectiveness of integration is dependent on the fit between selected integration mechanisms and the existing integration needs.

Within organization theory, the studies of integration are largely focused on the integration mechanism among different parts of the “permanent organizational arrangements,” more precisely integration between formal work units (Van de Ven et al., 1976) or functional departments (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967; Hage et al., 1971), to mention a few. Another area of interest has been integration in teams or groups (Gittell, 2002; Perlow, Gittell, & Katz, 2004). Even if the problem of integration has been studied extensively in different kinds of organizations and in team and group arrangements, relatively little is known about integration in complex multi-project entities—i.e., programs.

Programs are multi-project entities that differ from the “permanent” organizations through their temporally limited life, and through their action orientation. Programs are often characterized by a combination of uncertainty related to goals and tasks, and complexity emanating from large size and numerous dependencies among different activities. In addition, programs require the involvement of many individuals and the integration of knowledge from various disciplines, and are constantly subject to influences and development emanating from the external environment (Pellegrinelli, 2002). Consequently, integration requirements for multi-project programs are different from the integration requirements of permanent organizations. Furthermore, it is proposed that programs differ fundamentally from single projects because they often produce not just a single, clearly defined deliverable, but rather multiple deliveries. In addition, single projects are often focused on delivering an asset or a change, whereas programs aim to produce strategic or extra-project objectives (Pellegrinelli, 1997).

The empirical studies on integration in multiple-project contexts are relatively few, if any. However, some empirical studies on integration in the single-project environment have been accomplished that might help us to understand some aspects of integration in the multi-project environment. First, Andres and Zmud (2001) studied the effects of task interdependence, integration strategy, and goal conflict on the success of software projects through laboratory experiment. The results of the study revealed that organic integration strategy characterized by decentralized structure, informal communication and cooperative decision-making provided higher productivity than mechanic integration strategy characterized by centralized structure, formal communication, and unilateral decision-making. In addition, organic integration strategy was found to be especially effective when highly interdependent tasks were included in the project.

Second, Kraut and Streeter (1995) studied integration techniques in software development projects. They defined five categories for different integration techniques. First, formal impersonal integration procedures referred to written requirements documents, modification request tracking and data dictionaries. Second, formal interpersonal integration techniques referred to requirement review meetings, status review meetings, and code inspection meetings. Third, informal interpersonal procedures referred to unscheduled group meetings or co-location of requirements and design staff. Fourth, electronic communication—such as electronic mail and electronic bulletin board—was classified as one distinct integration technique. Finally, interpersonal networks referred to integration through individuals’ interpersonal contacts outside the projects. The results of their study revealed that the use of formal impersonal, and interpersonal, procedures correlates positively with the size of the project. The study also showed that informal interpersonal procedures were used especially in the planning stage of the project. In addition, the results suggest that electronic communication was used more often when the project was dependent on other groups in the organization. Finally, the use of interpersonal networks correlated positively with a project’s small size, certainty and dependency of input from other groups.

Third, Nidumolu (1996) studied the effect of requirement uncertainty and integration mechanisms on the performance of 64 information systems projects. The results of the study revealed that the vertical integration through decisions by authorized entities, such as project managers or steering committees, enables project teams to reduce project risk and uncertainty, and horizontal integration through mutual adjustments and communications correlates with improved project performance.

Finally, Adler (1995) examined integration in 13 interdepartmental product development projects. The distinct integration mechanisms characteristic of the product development context that they observed in their study include compatibility standards, capabilities development schedules, coordination committees, joint development, design rules, tacit knowledge, producibility design reviews, joint teams, exception resolution plans, and transition teams. The results of the study reveal that the use of integration mechanisms is contingent on task analyzability and novelty. They found that decreasing analyzability in the projects requires additional integration effort in the later phases of the project, and increasing novelty in the projects requires the use of more interactive integration mechanisms, such as mutual adjustment and team coordination.

Based on the previous studies of integration in permanent organizations (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967; Thompson, 1967; Van de Ven et al., 1976) and in single-project context (Andres and Zmud, 2001; Kraut & Streeter, 1995; Nidumolu, 1996; Adler, 1995), it is assumed that uncertainty and complexity serve as principal contingency factors, explaining the adoption of different integration mechanisms in multi-project programs. However, since the multi-project context differs from the permanent organizations’ context, and from single-project context, it is expected that the integration needs and the strategies to respond to those needs will be different in multi-project context. This study aims to extend the emerging contingency thinking from single-project context to multi-project context by exploring the effects of complexity and uncertainty on inter-project integration in multi-project programs. The methods for the empirical exploration of the phenomenon are explained in the next chapter.


Data collection

Inductive, multiple case-study strategy was selected for this study (see Eisenhardt 1989). Four case programs from four different companies were chosen as a source of empirical data. Of the four selected case programs, one was already completed and three were ongoing. Data collection in the selected case programs was multifaceted and included in-depth interviews, questionnaires, and documents and archives. In each case, 6 to 11 informants were interviewed. A total of 33 interviews were conducted, of which two were open and 31 semi-structured. Notes were taken during all the interviews. In addition, of the 33 interviews, 30 were tape-recorded and transcribed. The informants served various roles in the case programs, such as program managers, project managers, project employees, and members of the program steering group. The collection of empirical data was performed during the three-month period from September to November of 2005.

In order to measure the perceived uncertainty and effectiveness of integration in case programs, the interviews were complemented with 30 structured questionnaires. The filling out of questionnaires was integrated into the interviews. Researchers monitored and tape-recorded the filling out of questionnaires in order to ensure that the respondents understood the questions. This process of monitoring also gave respondents the opportunity to comment on the questions and to explain their choices, when necessary. In the questionnaire, the seven-point Likert scale was used.

Data analysis

The first phase of the analysis of qualitative interview data included in-depth, within-case analysis. This within-case analysis phase resulted in an initial list of different integration mechanisms that was further complemented during the cross-case analysis phase. Second, in order to compare different cases the level of perceived uncertainty, structural complexity, and perceived integration effectiveness was analyzed in each case. The analysis of perceived uncertainty and effectiveness of integration was based on the data acquired through questionnaires. The structural complexity was defined based on the analysis of interviews, and documents such as program plans, schedules, and monitoring reports.

Finally, the cross-case analysis included the comparison of integration mechanisms in different cases. This final phase of the analysis resulted in a complete list of different integration mechanisms and their perceived importance for each case. Moreover, the cross-case analysis provided a suggestion of the effects of perceived uncertainty, and the structural complexity of the importance of different integration mechanisms.

Case programs

Overview of the case programs

Case Alpha represents a strategic intra-organizational development program executed in a medium-sized, private-sector Finnish organization. The program was initiated in March 2000 by the CEO of the organization in order to respond to the changes in the society’s monetary politics and to rationalize the internal information delivery processes of the organization. The results of the program were implemented in January 2002 and, as an outcome, the program produced a novel information system that supports the organization’s renewed internal business processes.

Case Beta is an ongoing development program in a large international private sector-organization. The program was set up at the beginning of 2004 with an objective to improve and develop organizational capabilities related to the management processes in the customer interface. The planned duration of the program was initially two years. But after successful outcomes, the role of the program has shifted from a short-term, temporally-limited development activity to a more stable form of organization of the development of capabilities by projects.

Case Gamma represents an ongoing renewal program in a large, international private-sector organization. The program was initiated in spring 2004 with an objective to develop and launch a new operations management system in one business unit of the organization. The system-planned to launch in spring 2007-is used to integrate and unify practices with several customers of the organization.

Case Delta is an ongoing strategic organizational development program in a large, public-sector Finnish organization. The program was established in December 2004 by the head of the organization in order to develop services provided by, and internal processes of, the organization. The aim of the program is to both increase the quality of the services and the intra-organizational processes, and to decrease the unit costs related to producing service products for customers.

Analysis of effectiveness in inter-project integration

In order to study the challenge of inter-project integration in case programs, it was essential to first measure how well the integration efforts succeeded in the case programs. The evaluation of integration effectiveness was based on the analysis of four different indicators: participants’ awareness of the situation of different projects in a program, participants’ awareness of the linkages between different projects in a program, adequacy of communication among different projects in a program, and the integrity of projects’ results. In order to measure the values for the indicators, each informant was asked to commit to four statements in a seven-point Likert scale. For more in-depth information of averaged values for each statement and the respective ranges in answers, see Table 4 in Appendix 1.

The results of the analysis reveal that integration effectiveness in case companies varied from moderate (Alpha and Delta) to high level (Beta and Gamma). From an integration perspective, the cases of this study do not represent either extremely successful ones or total failures.

Because all the case programs are characterized by either a moderate or high level of averaged integration effectiveness, it can be assumed that adopted integration mechanisms in each case fit with the integration requirements of the respective case. However, the fact that the range of opinions of integration effectiveness is rather wide, especially in the case of Delta, indicates that there might be the potential in the case programs to improve the effectiveness of integration and thus possibly improve the performance of the program organization. The discussion of whether the improvements in integration effectiveness are necessary-and whether they would enhance the performance of the program radically or would only lead to minor improvements and would thus require an excessive increase in resource utilization-is left out of this study. Instead, it is assumed that the environment forces program organizations to adopt forms of integration that are appropriate for their purposes.

Analysis of structural complexity

In order to evaluate the structural complexity in the case programs, two different indicators were analyzed: the number of projects in the program and linkages among the projects. It was assumed that an increase in both number of projects and linkages among them will increase the structural complexity of the program.

First, because the number of projects may vary during the execution of the program, it was decided that the number of projects refers to the maximum number of concurrent projects in the program. Second, in order to map the network of linkages among different projects, program managers and project managers in each case were asked to draw the organization of the program with different projects. In addition, they were asked to indicate with arrows existing linkages among the projects. The concept of linkage was explained to refer to interdependency between two projects that affects the execution of either or both of them. Furthermore, program managers and project managers were asked to explain in their own words the nature of each linkage. The overall picture of linkages among different projects in each case program was formed by integrating different drawings and explanations provided by the program manager and project managers. Table 1 includes descriptive numbers related to both indicators of structural complexity.

Maximum number of concurrent 6 5 3 40
Average number of linkages from/to a project 3,67 2,8 2 < 1
Number of linkages from/to a project 2 to 4 1 to 4 2 0 to 2
Description of the inter-project linkage network of the program Network of linkages between projects dense, interdependencies between projects mostly reciprocal, high level of required integration Network of linkages between projects relatively dense, interdependencies between projects mostly sequential, moderate level of required integration Network of linkages between projects very dense, interdependencies between projects sequential, moderate level of required integration Network of linkages between projects sparse, interdependencies between projects mostly pooled, low level of required integration

Table 1. Characteristics of structural complexity in the case programs

The analysis of structural complexity revealed that the case programs differ in the number of projects and in the nature of the linkage network among the projects. Case Delta represents the largest program of the four cases in terms of number of projects. The network structure in this case is highly fragmented. The program is divided into three different categories, reflecting the existing structure of the parent organization. Furthermore, projects inside each category either serve as isolated entities or form small clusters of two to five projects. The linkages among projects that exist in different clusters are rare. Projects inside the same clusters are linked to each other through a common goal. However, the execution of different projects is relatively independent from each other. Thus, based on the categorization proposed by Thompson (1967), it is concluded that the dependency among the projects is mainly the pooled type in this program.

Case Gamma is the smallest program of the four cases in terms of number of projects. The structure of the linkage network is very dense because the program represents a coherent entity. The execution of each project is dependent on the others. Dependencies among the projects are sequential in nature. Each project in the program provides some input for other projects, but at the same time operates as an independent entity.

The cases Alpha and Beta are approximately the same size in terms of the number of projects. The network of linkages in both cases is relatively dense, case Alpha having, however, on average more linkages per project than case Beta. The structure of linkage network in neither of the cases is as homogenous as in case Gamma. In case Beta, dependencies among the projects are either pooled or sequential. In the case Alpha the dependencies between the projects are either sequential or reciprocal in nature.

Analysis of uncertainty

The perceptional uncertainty related to execution of the programs was measured through two concepts: novelty and analyzability. First, novelty was used to refer to the degree to which the program was different from the previous programs executed in the organization from the technological perspective, the structural perspective, and the resource or competence requirements perspective. Second, analyzability was used to refer to the degree of understanding at the beginning of the program related to the program’s goals, schedule, budget, resource needs, working methods, and internal dependencies. In this study, it was assumed that the level of novelty is directly proportional to the perceived uncertainty, and that the level of analyzability is reversibly proportional to the perceived uncertainty.

In each case, the level of novelty and analyzability was measured through ten seven-point Likert scale statements. The perceived level of novelty and analyzability related to each case program is summarized in Figure 1. For more in-depth information of averaged values for each statement and respective range in answers, see Table 5 in Appendix 1.

Uncertainty in the case programs

Figure 1. Uncertainty in the case programs

The perceived levels of novelty and analyzability reveal major differences among the case programs. In Case Alpha, the perceptual uncertainty is the highest. Case Alpha represents a highly novel program with a moderate level of analyzability. Case Beta is highly analyzable in all measured dimensions, and not very novel from technological, resource or structural perspectives. Programs Delta and Gamma are characterized by a moderate level of novelty and analyzability.

The wide range of answers (Table 5, Appendix 1) in each case can be explained by several observed facts. First, each of the cases’ programs represents a complex collection of different projects, some of which are more uncertain in nature than others. Second, all case programs involved various individuals representing different disciplines and different organizational levels, such as shop-floor-level specialists, professional project managers, middle-level managers, and even representatives of top management. Due to their different positions in permanent organization, all these people have different perceptions of novelty and analyzability. Furthermore, different individuals have different experience on projects and programs that finally affect their conceptions of novelty and analyzability.


Integration mechanisms and their importance

The in-depth analysis of interview data revealed 15 different integration mechanisms. The analysis based on searching identifiable patterns (integration mechanisms) from the transcribed interview data and from the filed notes. The observed patterns were coded using descriptive coding logic (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The codes changed and developed during the analysis process, until the additional analysis no longer refined the patterns. The process of data analysis proceeded iteratively, including various comparisons among existing theories and empirical data.

The integration mechanisms, obtained as a result of the analysis, were further categorized into five different classes, based on the formality of the mechanism and whether the integration mechanism is personalized or impersonalized in nature. Categorization of the integration mechanisms is modified from that proposed in the previous studies of Van de Ven et al. (1976), Kraut and Streeter (1995), and Tsai (2002). The respective categories for the observed integration mechanisms in this study are: formal group mechanisms, informal group mechanisms, formal personal mechanisms, informal personal mechanisms, and formal impersonal mechanisms (Table 2).

Formal group mechanisms  
1   Regular program core team meetings  
2   Collocation of core persons  
3   Decision making comittees  
Informal group mechanisms  
4   Autonomous unregular face-to-face meetings (between several project managers)  
5   Facilitated informal meetings between several project managers  
6   Integration through informal interpersonal network meetings  
Formal personal mechanisms  
7   Integration via liaisons (project employees or project managers program coordinator)  
8   Integration through messenger (program manager)  
9   External consultant as a coordinator  
Informal personal mechanisms  
 10  Direct contact between persons via e-mail or phone  
 11  Direct personal face-to-face contacts between employees or project managers  
Formal impersonal mechanisms  
 12  Information exchange through reporting and formal documents  
 13  Integration through plans and schedules  
 14  Organizing: definition of roles, responsibilities  
 15  Information database  

Table 2. Observed integration mechanisms and categories for integration mechanisms

Group modes of integration refer to mechanisms in which mutual adjustments occur in a group of occupants (more than two) through meetings. Formal group mechanisms refer to meetings that are planned or scheduled, whereas informal group mechanisms refer to autonomous, unscheduled meetings. The analysis of data revealed three different types of formal group mechanisms: regular program core team meetings, regular decision-making committee meetings, and the collocation of program employees. The third mechanism does not represent a meeting in its deepest sense; however, it is included in this category because it was mentioned in several cases as an important mechanism that enables face-to-face communication among several individuals. Three different types of informal group mechanisms for integration were found: autonomous unscheduled face-to-face meetings among several project managers, facilitated informal face-to-face meetings among several project managers, and informal network meetings. The informal network meetings refer to situations that enable participants of the program organization to meet each other outside the program. Project management seminars and special focus group meetings are examples of network meetings that were mentioned in the interviews.

Personal mode of integration refers to the mechanisms in which individual role occupants make mutual task adjustments through vertical or horizontal communication. Formal personal integration mechanisms are those in which the use of individual role occupants as integrators is planned, whereas informal personal integration mechanisms refer to integration through the autonomous behavior of an individual role occupant. Three different formal personal integration mechanisms were found. First, a program manager was used as a messenger who participates actively in execution and decision-making in different projects, serving as an integrator who delivers information between projects. Second, the same employees and project managers were used as liaisons, participating in several projects in order to ensure information sharing among projects. Third, an external consultant was used as a coordinator, monitoring the execution of projects and delivering information about critical points and boundaries among projects. Two informal personal integration mechanisms were found: direct contact between project managers or project employees via email or phone, and direct face-to-face contacts between project managers or project employees.

Formal impersonal integration mechanisms refer to the use of a codified blueprint of action that is impersonally specified. In-depth analysis of each case revealed several integration mechanisms that fell into this category. The observed mechanisms are: the use of formal documents and reports, formal plans and schedules, definition of roles and responsibilities, and the use of standardized information systems such as a common database.

In order to evaluate the importance of different integration mechanisms, the informants were asked to specify the three mechanisms that they considered to be the most important from an information acquisition perspective, and to rank these three mechanisms from most important to least important. Furthermore, these perceptional evaluations of each informant were quantified by assigning the most important mechanism four points, the second-most-important three points, and the third-most-important two points. All other mechanisms mentioned in the interview received one point each.

In order to calculate the importance of each mechanism in each case, the points assigned each informant (in the case) were summed. Thus the importance of integration mechanism i in case X (IMP) was calculated using the following formula (1):


MijX denotes the importance of integration mechanism i perceived by informant j in case X, and m denotes the number of informants in case X. Moreover, in order to compare the results among the cases, the relative importance of the integration mechanisms was calculated. The relative importance of integration mechanism i in case X (RIMP) was analyzed using the following formula (2):


N indicates the total number of integration mechanisms found in the study.

Table 6 in Appendix 2 includes the summary of the results of the quantification of perceived importance of different integration mechanisms in each case. First, the results of the analysis reveal that in each case several different (8-11) integration mechanisms were used. In addition, the relative perceived importance of different integration mechanisms changed case by case. In all the cases, formal group mechanisms were seen as the most important. Also, informal group mechanisms and informal personal mechanisms were seen as highly important. Formal personal mechanisms and impersonal mechanisms were only seen as moderately important. Second, analysis reveals how the perceived uncertainty and structural complexity affects the perceived importance of different integration mechanisms. The summary of integration mechanisms, uncertainty, and structural complexity in each case is included in Table 3.

Case Uncertainty Complexity Integration strategy
Alpha Very high Moderate Low High Integration strategy utilizes various channels of information delivery in order to assure proper inter-project integration. Formal and informal group mechanisms of integration are appreciated as highly important. The most important mechanisms for integration are regular program core team meetings and informal irregular ad hoc face-to-face meetings among several project managers. Formal and informal personal mechanisms of integration are perceived as moderately important. Program manager plays an espicially important role as a liaison delivering information among different projects. Impersonal mechanisms of integration are low in importance.
Beta Low High Low Moderate Integration among different projects is primarily based on formal group mechanisms and informal personal mechanisms of integration. Formal program core team meetings and direct face-to-face or e-mail contact among project managers or project employees are highly important mechanisms in coordination. Impersonal integration mechanisms, especially integration through formal plans and schedules, is perceived as relatively important. Informal group mechanisms and formal personal mechanisms of integration are not perceived as important from the inter-project integration perspective.
Gamma Moderate Moderate Low Moderate Integration strategy is heavily based on group modes of integration. Regular program core team meeting and facilitated informal meetings among project managers are the most important integration mechanisms in this case. Informal personal integration through direct contact among projects via e-mail or phone was perceived as relatively important. Also integration through impersonal vehicles such as a common database was seen as moderately important. Use of liaisons, messengers or coordinators was not perceived as important from the integration perspective.
Delta Moderate Moderate Very high Low Integration is based on information delivery in parent organization’s permanent decision-making comittees. This strongly hierarchy-based integration strategy is complemented with formal reporting practices that are perceived as moderately important. Informal interpersonal network meetings, and direct face-to-face contacts among projects support this mechanistic-oriented integration strategy. These mechanisms are also perceived as relatively important from the integration perspective.

Table 3. Inter-project integration mechanisms, uncertainty and complexity

The effects of uncertainty

The cross-case analysis between case Alpha (high novelty) and case Beta (low novelty) reveals that the novelty of the program seems to increase the importance of autonomous unscheduled meetings among projects managers, the use of project managers and employees as a messenger delivering information among the projects, and the use of an external coordinator enabling integration among the projects. Moreover, it was observed that, in case Delta, decision-making committees of the permanent organization were seen as more important integration mechanisms than in other case programs. In addition, the analysis revealed that the more novel the program is to the organization, the less important are the formal plans and schedules from the inter-project integration perspective. A somewhat surprising result is that the less novel the program is for the organization, the more important the direct face-to-face contacts among program employees or project managers are seen as an integration mechanism.

The effects of analyzability of the program for the importance of integration mechanisms did not appear very clearly in this study because the cases represented only moderate (Alpha, Gamma, Delta) and high (Beta) levels of analyzability. However, the importance of two integration mechanisms differ remarkably among the case Beta, in which the analyzability of the program was high, and cases Alpha, Gamma, and Delta, which all represented moderate analyzability. In case Beta, formal plans and schedules, and direct personal contact among project managers or program employees via e-mail or phone, seemed to be more important than in other less analyzable programs.

The effects of complexity

The number of projects indicates the size of the program. In case Delta, which represents a large program in terms of number of projects, the interpersonal networks external to the program were perceived as more important integration mechanisms than in smaller programs. In addition, reporting and formal documents played a more important role than they did in other case programs. Furthermore, a high number of projects seemed to decrease the importance of direct contacts among project managers or program employees as an integrating mechanism among projects.

Finally, interdependence among projects was highest in case Alpha and lowest in case Delta. The cross-case analysis revealed that the interdependence among projects seems to increase the importance of autonomous unscheduled group meetings among project managers and the use of an external coordinator. Moreover, interdependence among the projects decreased the importance of interpersonal networks, reporting and formal documents, and the use of project employees or project managers as liaisons delivering information between the projects.

Discussion and conclusion

This study provides novel insights on integration in a multi-project context. First, the in-depth analysis of four multi-project programs results in fifteen different mechanisms that are used to ensure proper integration among different projects. Moreover, the different mechanisms seem to vary both in their formality and to the extent to which they are personalized. Furthermore, the perceived importance of each mechanism seems to be different in each case.

Second, by expanding the emerging contingency thinking from a single-project context to a multi-project environment, the study demonstrates how the classical contingencies, uncertainty and complexity, affect the perceived importance of observed integration mechanisms. The results of the study suggest that high uncertainty increases the importance of an informal group mode of integration and a formal personal mode of integration. In addition, the results reveal that the high level of uncertainty decreases the importance of formal impersonal integration mechanisms and informal personal integration mechanisms. The results of the study partly support Daft and Lengel’s (1986) “theory” of information requirements effects to the structural design of the organization. However, the results also reveal that, rather than emphasizing either integration 12 mechanisms with high capacity to process information or integration mechanisms with low capacity to process information, the use of various different integration mechanisms with different information processing capabilities is important in a program context.

The analysis of complexity in the case programs also provided useful explanations for integration. Surprisingly, the distinctions among formal and informal, or personal, group, and impersonal did not seem to produce any significant differences among the cases. Nevertheless, the analysis of individual mechanisms among the cases reveals that a large amount of projects increases the importance of formal decision-making committees, and reporting and formal documents in integration. In addition, informal interpersonal networks external to the program seem to be important mechanisms to complement otherwise hierarchically-oriented integration when the amount of projects is large. The results of the study support those of Mintzberg (1979), who has acknowledged that a rich network of informal communication is, from an organization’s perspective, a highly important complement to otherwise relatively formal structures.

Finally, the study exposed some effects of inter-project interdependence on the importance of integration mechanisms. The in-depth analysis of the inter-project network within each case and among cases revealed that the high amount of interdependency seems to create a need for a two-fold structure. First, interdependence leads to the adoption of a separate coordinator serving as a formal linkage among different projects. In addition, interdependence among projects induces autonomous informal meetings in order to respond to local emerging problems.

The analysis of structural contingencies in multi-project environments reveals that not all organizational theories apply in a complex multi-project context. Neither are all ideas from the traditional single-project context applicable to programs. The study provides valuable insights for both researchers and program managers challenged to introduce strategic or large-scale changes in organizations. First, the study reveals that, in addition to the formal planning perspective, emphasized in managerial guidebooks, informal mechanisms are highly essential from an integration perspective. Moreover, the study demonstrates that proper mechanisms for inter-project integration are dependent on uncertainty and the complexity of the program. Thus, “one-size-fits-all” solutions do not lead to desired results. It should be noted that, in all types of programs, the proper integration strategy should allow the use of various alternative mechanisms for information delivery. The key question is: what kinds of mechanisms are the most essential in each situation?

When interpreting the results of this study, it should be noted that this research focused on intra-organizational development programs. Thus, other types of programs—e.g., research programs or policy programs—might require different types of integration mechanisms that have not been observed in this study. Furthermore, it is essential to understand that this research is explorative in nature and that the logic of analysis is based on an in-depth understanding of a relatively small number of cases. Thus, the results of the study should be seen as propositions rather than statistically verified laws. Finally, more research is clearly needed to test the results of this study and to explore additional contingencies and respective management strategies in a multi-project context. An important area of further research is the exploration of the way that the importance of different integration mechanisms change and develop during the programs’ “lifecycle.”

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No Statement Average Range Average Range Average Range Average Range
1 During the program execution I was well aware of the situation of the different projects 6,00 5 to 7 5,63 5 to 7 5,80 4 to 7 4,33 2 to 7
2 I was well aware abount the linkages and dependencies between different projects in a program 4,50 3 to 7 5,13 3 to 7 6,00 5 to 7 4,78 3 to 7
3 Communication between different projects in a program was sufficient 4,83 3 to 6 4,43 3 to 6 5,60 5 to 6 4,00 2 to 7
4 Results or outcomes of the projects integrated / have integrated well together 4,33 3 to 6 5,33 3 to 7 5,40 4 to 6 4,22 2 to 7
  Average 4,92   5,13   5,70   4,33  

Table 4. Perceived effectiveness of inter-project integration in the case programs

  UNCERTAINTY Alpha Beta Gamma Delta
No Statement Average Range Average Range Average Range Average Range
1 The outcome of the program differed remarkably from the previous programs in the organization from the technological point of view 6,33 4 to 7 3,00 1 to 6 3,8 2 to 5 4,00 2 to 6
2 The execution of the program differed remarkably from the previous programs in the organization from the technological point of view 5,83 3 to 7 2,50 1 to 6 2,6 2 to 3 3,56 1 to 5
3 The resource and completence needs of the program differed remarkably from the previous programs in the organization 6,00 5 to 7 2,63 2 to 6 3,4 2 to 5 4,22 1 to 6
4 In the program there were much more dependencies between projects compared to previous programs in organization 6,17 5 to 7 3,13 1 to 7 5,2 4 to 6 4,22 1 to 6
  AVERAGE 6,08   2,81   3,75   4,00  
5 In the beginning of the program there was understanding about the dependencies (related to projects’ execution) between different projects in a program 5,00 4 to 6 4,75 2 to 7 5,00 2 to 6 3,56 2 to 6
6 In the beginning of the program there was understanding about the work methods to be used in projects 4,67 2 to 6 5,13 3 to 6 5,00 2 to 6 3,67 2 to 7
7 In the beginning of the program there was defined a clear schedule for the projects in the program 6,33 5 to 7 6,00 4 to 7 5,60 3 to 7 5,33 2 to 7
8 In the beginning of the program there was defined clear budget for the projects in the program 2,60 1 to 4 6,38 5 to 7 5,20 2 to 7 3,78 2 to 7
9 In the beginning of the program there were defined measurable goals defined for the projects in the program 5,50 4 to 7 4,57 3 to 6 4,40 2 to 7 4,56 2 to 7
10 In the beginning of the program the resource needs were defined for the projects in the program 4,00 2 to 5 4,86 2 to 7 3,20 2 to 6 3,33 2 to 7
  AVERAGE 4,68   5,28   4,73   4,04  

Table 5. Perceived level of uncertainty in the case programs

Appendix 2

     Formal group mechanisms
1 Regular program core team meetings 1,00 1,00 1,00 -
2 Collocation of core persons 0,13 0,44 0,08 -
3 Decision making comittees - - - 1,00
     Informal group mechanisms
4 Autonomous unregular face-to-face meetings (between several project managers) 0,81 - 0,31 -
5 Facilitated informal meeting between several project managers - 0,06 0,92 -
6 Integration through informal interpersonal network meetings - - 0,08 0,48
     Formal personal mechanisms
7 Integration via liaisons (project employees or project managers program coordinator) 0,06 0,19 0,15 0,28
8 Integration through messanger (program manager) 0,50 - 0,23 0,20
9 External consultant as a coordinator 0,31 - - -
     Informal personal mechanisms
10 Direct contact between persons via e-mail or phone 0,56 0,69 0,54 0,16
11 Direct personal face-to-face contacts between employees or project managers 0,13 0,81 0,31 0,40
     Formal impersonal mechanisms
12 Information exchange through reporting and formal documents 0,31 0,31 - 0,60
13 Integration through plans and schedules - 0,50 0,08 -
14 Organizing: definition of roles, responsibilities 0,13 0,06 - -
15 Information database - 0,13 0,46 0,36
(*) Number 1,00 indicates the most important integration mechanisms in each case and numbers < 1,00 indicate the relative importance of each other mechanism in the case, “-” indicates that integration mechanism was not observed in the case

Table 6. Relative perceived importance of integration mechanisms in the case programs (*)

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