Human resources in project-based firms

moving in, moving out, moving on


Elisabeth Borg and Karin Bredin, Linköping University, SWEDEN


This paper is about people in project-based firms, in particular, the type of project-based firm that relies heavily on knowledge workers. We focus on contracted technical consultants involved in complex problem solving at one of the major technical consultancies in Sweden. In this setting, three processes seem to be important: moving in (to swiftly act in a role and be able to contribute to the project); moving out (to prepare for departure and effective handover); and moving on (to find new challenging assignments). This paper draws on the theoretical idea of “liminality,” that is the feeling of being “betwixt” and in the threshold between organizations and assignments. We identify two types of liminality: social liminality and technical liminality. Thereafter, we identify four working situations with special reference to liminality. Based on these situations, we pinpoint the ideal-typical coping strategies that the studied engineers rely on. It is argued that the examination of liminality among project workers adds to our understanding of the practice of project-based organizations, and specifically what people do in these organizations, what problems they experience, and how they cope with these problems.

Project-Based Firms and Human Resource Management

Human Resource Management (HRM) is undergoing profound changes in companies that put greater emphasis on the project dimension (Söderlund & Bredin, 2006). The changes include outsourcing of human resources (HR), transformations of the HR organization, changes in the pool of human resources, such as an increased reliance on temporary “hired” engineers, and a subsequent distorted psychological contract between employer and employee (e.g., Burgess & Connell, 2006; Garsten, 1999). Changes also lead to somewhat new work roles for the individual engineers: new skills are needed and new challenges are faced. Despite the many studies that have argued for the important effects of project-based structures on the HRM system, only a few studies focus on the work situations of project workers (cf. Nordqvist, Hovmark & Zika-Viktorsson, 2004). This is particularly interesting given the many observations that HRM plays a decisive part in creating lasting project-based organizations and HRM's significance for dealing with the common negative effects of knowledge transfer in project-based organizations (Hobday, 2000; Midler, 1995). A number of issues and effects require further investigations, including the effects on role tension/strain, motivation, mobility, and competence development. This paper tackles a limited portion of this agenda by focusing on a specific category of project workers engaged with complex problem solving in project-based organizations, namely technical consultants/contractors.

In this paper, we focus on professional project workers, their work situation, and their competence development. The individuals that took part in our study are highly skilled and well educated, many have a master's degree in engineering, and most of them have worked for several years in the studied company. Contrary to much previous work of engineers, they are not easily said to be members of so-called “communities of practices” (Brown & Duguid, 1991). Instead, due to high mobility, changing circumstances, travelling inside and across organizations, their situation is perhaps better described, to draw on findings presented in Lindkvist (2005), as members of “collectivities of practice.” The collectivity compared to the community, better grasps the dynamic, mobile, and temporary characteristics of project-based organizational forms. As Lindkvist argued:

Typically these kinds of groups consist of diversely skilled individuals, most of whom have not met before, who have to solve a problem or carry out a pre-specified task within tightly set limits as to time and costs. As a result they tend to become less well-developed groups, operating on a minimal basis of shared knowledge and understandings. (p. 1189)

The idea of project-based organization as a collectivity of practice has a few important implications for the way we look upon individual-organizational relationships and for the understanding of HRM in project-based organizations. What then seems important to analyze is how individuals in these settings relate to less developed groups and organizational contexts and how they cope with higher demands on flexibility and mobility. In our conception, it seems critical to understand how they move in, move out, and move on from the continuous flow of challenging projects. To grasp the move, our study takes interest in one particular idea and theoretical concept, namely liminality, a term used in related research on consultants and contractors, such as studies of liminal spaces (Czarniawska & Mazza, 2003) and liminal positions (Garsten, 1999). Liminality denotes the time and space of transition from one social status to another. The word originates from the Latin word limen, could be translated as ‘threshold'. In the original usages, liminality was primarily conceived as a temporary, transition phase to depart from one culture into another one. One of the first studies to investigate liminality in the social science was Arnold van Gennep (1909) in his Les rites de passage. The term has since then been used modestly but regained popularity through a series of studies of the work of consultants and professional temporaries (e.g., Garsten, 1999). In such settings, these transition phases are associated with feelings of anxiety and a blurring and merging of distinctions. In the present study, we use the notion of liminality to describe a particular working-life situation, namely the feeling of not being part of an organization, nor being completely outside (see for instance Garsten, 1999), but rather betwixt. We investigate how individuals cope with liminality and how they seem to be able to turn the problem of liminality into something positive, with positive consequences on motivation and competence development. We thereby follow a line of inquiry into the problem and challenge of liminality developed in recent years that has proved to highlight important HRM problems in modern working life, including temporary organizations, contingent work, and employee mobility.

When applied to the context of work, earlier research has indicated that liminality can more or less become a permanent condition, in which individuals develop a sense of belonging with various organizations, although without feeling any deeper commitment to any organization (Garsten, 1999). In project-based organizations, for instance, one may think of the engineers who move from project to project, from team to team, and even from one client organization to another, not having solid roots in one team or department. Drawing on Garsten's (2008) analysis of “workplace vagabonds,” perhaps these people might better be described as “perpetual project vagabonds.” The kind of project worker discussed here is typically affiliated to a permanent organization (or alike) and one or more projects at the same time. Similarly, they are supposed to be “lone wolves with a social talent, confident in themselves” (Garsten, 1999, p. 615), which in Brocklehurst's (2003) terms tends to lead people to try to create a concrete and anchored self (cf. Sennett, 1998). Viewing project workers as “liminal personae” (Garsten, 1999, p. 606) forces us to explore the attributes and ambiguity of liminality and investigate how these threshold people deal with their liminal situation, how they seek satisfaction along the road, how they adapt to different situations and different people, and how they balance emotional investments in new projects.

There are of course not only problematic issues; several studies also indicate that many people rather express their likings for this kind of liminality or threshold situation. They experience freedom to focus on something interesting for a limited period of time and then, after having completed their assignment, they can move on to new challenging assignments (e.g. Lindgren, Packendorff, & Wåhlin, 2001). Although developing such approaches seems to be a difficult feat. Barley and Kunda (2006), for instance, discuss the challenges of learning to deal and live with liminality as a key factor for the success of free agents and self-employed contractors, but exactly what this liminality is and what made the contractors learn to live with this is not discussed in further detail. Similar observations are found in the Fenwick's (2007) study of the importance of “network identities,” which are considered important, however, seem to be difficult to develop.

The primary aim of this paper is to contribute to the knowledge about engineers and their work situation in project-based organizations. We focus on one particular category of engineers—a borderland contractor-type of engineer that so far has received marginal empirical attention. We argue that these engineers represent a typical human resource in many project-based organizations. In this paper, we focus on identifying types of liminality situations that the engineers experience and how the studied engineers learn to cope with situations of liminality. Such explorations might also offer new light on the often negative view on liminality found in extant literature and add empirical insights to our understanding of role strains in project-based work.

Research Methodology

This paper reports on an explorative study of engineers working in project-based settings. One may generally divide the study of engineers as either those focusing on contractors/engineers operating in the open market or those focusing on employed engineers working in traditional, permanent organizations. The former focus is common among scholars with an interest to explore contractors, the new temporary workforce, and the difficulties and dilemmas of free agents (Kunda et al, 2002). Other studies explore engineer's working situations in hierarchies or at least more permanent organizational settings. A typical example of this would be Kunda's (1986) study on engineering culture. However, between these two extremes, we find a host of potential gray-zone studies: engineers moving around from project to project within the same organization; engineers moving from project to project basically in the same team but with new clients (cf. Philip Slater's, [1965] notion of “nomadic tribes”); and engineers working as intermediary consultants within a large company but for use in external and internal projects, etc.

The study reported here is an example of a study in this great borderland of temporariness. The company we investigate is one of Sweden's most important and successful technical consultancies. The empirical focus of this paper is the consultants that move from project to project in different parts of the organization, to different clients, and to different parts of the clients' organizations. We interviewed a selection of high-skilled individuals to explore their working life situation and how they deal with what we in this paper label liminality.

We follow the methodological ideas presented in earlier influential works on human resource management, which touch upon aspects explored in the present paper, such as Barley and Kunda's (2006) studies of technical contractors in the United States and Fenwick's (2007) investigations of network identities among change management consultants. Both Barley and Kunda and Fenwick take their point of departure in in-depth interviews with experienced consultants. We have adopted a similar approach to allow for comparisons. The major intention with our empirical research was, however, to generate new insights, new theoretical ideas, and analytical concepts. Thereby, we are not aiming at statistical generalizability but rather analytical generalizability of trying out theoretical concepts and frameworks that may be further explored. Hence, cross-sectional and longitudinal data need to be gathered to validate the findings presented here.

Our ambition was to generate empirical insights that were grounded in specific, verifiable details, which would provide a foundation for broader comparative analysis. This might also lead us to make comparisons among different types of borderland occupations and work roles ranging from external consultancies to more or less internal pools of human resources. This type of comparative approach might be particularly relevant due to the limited number of published studies about project-based organizations (see Whitley, 2006; Hobday, 2000; Lindkvist, 2004, for exceptions).

The initial stage of the study was divided into three phases. In the first phase, we interviewed managers and studied corporate material to get an overview of the context of the firm, the organization, and the various knowledge bases residing in the organization and to get an idea of how the managers carry out their management roles and duties. Important here were activities linked to mobility and competence development.

For the second phase, we selected 20 consultants with a broad variety and experience, men and women, and different technical expertise. The interviews were semi-structured entailing a set of open-ended questions following an interview guide covering such topics as personal background, professional history and education, work role, assignments, and a set of detailed questions about their current assignments. Our ambition was to allow for open conversation about the engineers' working life. We also let them add questions to comment on things that were not directly touched upon by our interview guide, but were considered important for them in the professional lives. The interviews lasted between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed on an empirical level, listening through the recordings, making notes, and detecting patterns in the interviews. When quoting from the interviews, we use code names (Manager I, Manager II, etc., and Engineer A, Engineer B, etc.) since some of the information might be considered sensitive to the individual engineer or manager.

In the third phase, we conducted the analysis of our data and carried out additional, complementary data gathering, such as telephone interviews and e-mail questions, to add breadth to our investigation and correct any misunderstandings. The analysis focused on identifying a set of similarities and patterns across our dataset, and a selection of differences among the interviewees.

Advanced Engineering: An Inside View of Project Work

Advanced Engineering (AE) is one of Scandinavia's leading technology and operations consultancies. The company is an experienced partner in a range of areas regarding technical systems with technical consultants and experts within information security, systems security, logistics, systems integration, systems development, and mechanics. AE's employees are often located at customer sites. AE has grown considerably in recent years, and today, approximately 1,000 employees work for the company, of which 21% are women. The average age is approximately 37 years old and almost 80% of the employees have a master's degree in engineering.

AE is known for its skilled employees and knowledge within a number of specialist disciplines. It is a popular employer that competes head to head with Sweden's most popular engineering employers, including Ericsson, Scania, Saab, Volvo, and ABB. The company says that they “offer better learning opportunities than our competitors” and “we invest more in personal and competence development compared to other employers and technical consultancies” (Internal Documents).

“I think everybody here would agree with me that the most important thing is the development of the people and the assignments they have. We stress the value of on-the-job training. To me this is a fundamental and important attitude that you need as a consultant and that the company continues to supply the people with the right challenges in their assignments.” (Manager III)

Top management has invested a lot of time and resources on a series of support functions and development programs. AE has a number of technological networks, which together with mentoring programs and continuous dialogues with their consulting manager play important roles in the consultants' competence development and the steering towards new assignments. One consultant explains the competence networks in the following way:

“If you are working for a client, you get the information on how they work at that company. The influences from other businesses and companies then come natural when you gather consultants from different settings. As an individual consultant, you might have the time to see all those firms in ten years and learn all those things in that time. But if you gather a team of consultants and talk about these things you have the possibility to accelerate your own experience curve.” (Consultant K)

Another opportunity to develop competence is to take part in different internal development projects, where the engineers in AE are allowed to experiment and try out new methods and technologies besides their regular assignments.

“We have also focused on opportunities to take part in conversations. These conversations, more like structured development talks, could be with senior mentors, with their manager or with one of their colleagues. The most important thing is that it works and that we have regular support…not necessarily who does it.” (Manager III)

Looking for the Right Employees

Being a knowledge-intensive firm, a critical issue for AE is to recruit the right people. A few managers mentioned during interviews that AE must have “good people” with a “certain attitude” and “personality,” apart from the essential required technical skills. The reason is that these good people have much easier to shift assignments, to enter new teams, and new problem-solving contexts.

In the interviews, the managers often point out that the successful consultant must have a particular kind of humility and self-confidence, as well as a stable social life, to be good at switching assignments. Social skills and the ability to communicate are also stressed, compared to skills considered important for engineers in general. This is also brought up by the consultants. A few patterns can be observed in our conversations. These generally focus on social skills, communicative abilities, and a general problemsolving capability.

“It is quite a special role being consultant. You are hired by a company and you're sitting there together with the rest of the people in your team and you're expected to do as good job as the others. But you can't take part in the everyday complaining about the project or the organization…. As a consultant you can't say things that the regular employees can, it wouldn't be professional.” (Manager II)

“The social skills are important. To be able to so to voice your opinion, you need to get an understanding of the situation, what kind of situation is this, what is needed…do I need to act, how should I act? And when you have managed a certain number of situations you grow as a person and thereby become a better consultant.” (Manager III)

As to the reasons why people want to work for AE, many return to the opportunities of moving across projects and across problem-solving contexts. They are more or less aware of the negative aspects of working as a hired consultant, but still consider this a preferred alternative compared to work at one of their client organizations. Some people refer to the possibility of working with exciting technology and others stress the social dimensions of consulting work.

“You get the best things out of two worlds, you get to be a part of everything going on at the client firm and everything happening at AE. That can of course also be negative, because you can start doing a lot of fun things at AE at the same time as you're suppose to work 100 per cent for the client. I've been engaged in a course AE is holding and that takes a lot of time” (Consultant N)

Moving In: Assignments As Source of Knowledge and Motivation

Assignments differ in several respects. Some are primarily focused on a single project; others are more role-focused, assuming a role in a regular line organization, often working with several projects in parallel.

The typical assignment, though, is normally around one or two years, depending on the area of technology. Even though assignments can last for several years they are frequently renegotiated, which means that the consultants cannot plan for more than three or four months ahead. This opens up for a certain degree of uncertainty and management stress. Career in the traditional sense is not considered critical. Instead, both managers and consultants emphasized assignments and projects.

“We want to talk about career as new roles and new assignments…We don't want our consultants to focus on a particular position or a title…. This tends to get people more focused on position instead of knowledge and capabilities. That's not the focus we want.” (Manager I)

“I've never had that kind of thoughts, of having a career. I never had a plan. I've done what's fun. If something comes around I go with it, something where I feel that I get something out of it.” (Consultant L)

The shift of assignments is a continuous topic for discussion. Some argue that the engineers should stay shorter on the assignments to be able to develop new capabilities and skills. Others, including some of the consultants, prefer longer assignments. Yet other consultants do not emphasize this as firmly. What seems to be important for them is not necessarily the duration of the assignment, but rather the opportunity to choose. Consultants want to move around, it seems, but they want to decide when to move.

“As a consultant you don't have to end up in the situation where a lot of regular employees end up—holding desperately on to their desks and their tasks. The consultant has a very different job—to complete the assignment and then move on to the next assignment. That's a big difference.” (Manager II)

Still leaving contracts can sometimes be associated with a certain kind of stress or feeling of anxiety. For instance, one manager tells the story when consultants wanted to stay on a contract but were refused to do so.

“We had a few guys in my group who had to leave an assignment they really liked because the client was re-organizing. This was definitely a tough time for them, it was a mourning process, for sure.” (Manager II)

New assignments tend to be coupled with positive feelings, with the opportunity to learn new things. At the same time, there is a feeling of newness that some believe is negative. Moreover, one might believe that the role of the consultants is very clear and specific. That roles and contracts are set and clients need to think through why they need the consultant and for what they are going to use the consultant. However, this is normally not the case for engineers at AE.

“Many assignments are very fuzzy. You start with a three months' contract and then you extend the contract, then you extend it again. You might be there for several years and what you are doing at the moment is very different from what they hired you to do. That's a thing we need to improve.” (Manager I)

Moving Out and Moving on to New Assignments

One might then wonder when is the time to move on. The interviewed managers talked about the problem of having a consultant who stays too long in the same assignments and that consultants often need guidance to move to another assignment, in particular if they are satisfied with their current assignment. This also seems critical to learn a particular task deep enough to be able to transfer that learning to other contexts. As expressed by one of the managers:

“When I review the competencies of my people I might identify a few possible problems. For instance, that this engineer is getting a bit too narrow in his technical skills, so I might start a process to get him onto another assignment to broaden his repertoire of skills.” (Manager IV)

Several of our respondents emphasized the criticality of mobility to develop competence. Some argued that this is a unique talent in itself but also that mobility gives opportunities for knowledge combination.

“I had worked with this system for 1.5–2 years and it felt like I knew it by then. And the work was pretty much done and there wasn't many new tasks coming in…. It mostly kept going and I felt it was time to do something else, because I didn't learn much at the time. It felt more like being a regular employee just getting the job done and not much more than that.” (Consultant P)

Still there are some consultants that stay with a certain client and in more or less the same assignment for many years. This forces managers to apply strategies to transfer consultants to new projects. Thus, managers have a critical role in stimulating mobility, both by talking to consultants about their plans and talking to clients about their needs. This is, however, not an easy task and is frequently seen as a dynamic interplay among the client's representative, the consultant's manager, and the consultant. What managers emphasize is to have people that know their limits, know the specialists, and understand the reasons and opportunities to move. As one of the managers said:

“We don't want consultants who enter assignments that they can't handle.” (Manager III)

It is in some situations a matter of convincing clients about the potential of a particular client, of boosting that person's reputation.

“Once in a while, you see potential in your people that others don't see and that clients might be too afraid to see. I had a pretty young guy working for me. He was really skilled and I knew that he had the capability to move into a more strategic role. I had to talk the client into it. He got the assignment and it works really well.” (Manager II)

However, in some cases, it is more a matter of handling consultants that are dissatisfied with their current assignment.

“I have had situations or issues where I know that the consultant isn't too happy with the assignment. I just have to start working to find another assignment, if not then the consultant will quit. This happened recently in my team and it is always sad. I want them to stay.” (Manager II)

Project Work and Challenges in Assignments

In many of the interviews with the consultants, they brought up the subject of differences between being an experienced consultant and a not so experienced or a newly recruited consultant.

“When you start working as a young, inexperienced engineer, you might be great at programming. But that's not the important stuff…. You need to keep things simple, do only what the customer wants, but the client doesn't know what he wants. So you just have to work your way through, as a lot of questions, acquire a feel for what is good and what is not good, what the client might want. When you get more experience, you have to be able to identify these things—what the client wants and what he doesn't want. It's not easy.” (Consultant D)

One of the main differences that are brought up, especially by the older consultants, is that as a consultant you usually develop a more relaxed approach to the assignments with experience. As said by a consultant concerning his first assignment;

“With that client it was very fuzzy at a start, which was really frustrating. To begin with you don't know the department, you don't know the people, and you don't know what to do. And most importantly for me, was that I had to little to do, which was really trying….but now, after a while, I'm more ‘ah, never mind.'” (Consultant H)

Consultants can also develop their skills not only by assignments and training but also other qualities seem to be important. However, much of this is done early on, through work on various projects for numerous clients.

“When you start working here it is very important that you build your platform, since this is the platform that you will be using for the rest of your career. You start with technology, but you move on from there, but we are a technology-intensive company so you need to have a strong connection to the tech stuff.” (Manager III)

Related to this problem is the continuous need to establish trust in new working situations. Socialization becomes a key issue.

“It's always about establishing yourself. When you come to a new assignment, it costs a lot of energy, because you have to get to know people and earn their trust. So you have to create a spot for yourself in this new company” (Consultant C)

However, not all refer to the major problem as strictly social; others tend to view the problems primarily from a technical point of view, pointing to problems associated with design features and technical specifications.

“My assignments are typically a year or so. When I enter the project, the project is already rolling, and there is some kind of problem in the project, that's the reason why they got me hired, so to speak…. When the project is finished, my job is completed. (Consultant A)

When asked about the typical dynamics of an assignment, many referred to very loose and fuzzy beginnings that over time were sorted out through a variety of techniques and methods that clients “do not know who they hire” and “why they hire them.”

“The task is seldom very clear, but the client thinks it is. As a consultant, you often have to ask yourself ‘What is my task, really?' You have to sort it out yourself. No one will tell you, it is a muddling work and that's something no one else than you can do—you have to understand your task, your environment and the situation.” (Consultant G)

Dealing with ambiguity and fuzzy assignments seem to be important skills for the trained consultant. These skills seem to combine self-confidence and proactive behavior in problem solving. Some refer to social skills as fundamental in these situations:

“If you're working in a project and get a task to write a specification for example, then you have to see who made the design on this thing, and go ask him how it is suppose to work. And then you might have to see someone else to ask them something. That's how you create your network that most of the other people in your group already have.” (Consultant M)

Others point out the importance of a relaxed attitude:

“At least it's less stressful now not knowing exactly—that's the way it is. You recognize that situation, it's always like this. I have more patience now in one way, and at the same time, it's easier to recognize the flaws. But you get more used to it, you know it takes some time. I don't understand it all from the beginning and you have to talk to people to get things started and so on.” (Consultant J)

Over time, consultants develop the skills and experience to cope better with complexity and ambiguous situations. This frequently also tends to change the typical assignments for which they have been recruited.

“When you get more experience you assume more and more the role of the adviser. That's not only because you know the technical but primarily, I think, because you are a person they trust and want to work with.” (Consultant F)

However, this seems to be a delicate issue, of not voicing your opinion too strongly, of listening to the needs of the clients and quality of the atmosphere.

“If you have a very strong opinion about something you can't hesitate, you have to tell the client. But there are different ways of saying things, you need to get them onboard, get them to see the reasons for listening to your ideas. You have to be mindful.” (Consultant G)

Moreover, as one of consultants put it, but once assignments have been understood an inherent dynamics exist.

“Assignments are not static. They change, constantly.” (Consultant B)

Moving On: Anxiety and Excitement

In our interviews with the consultants, a recurring theme has been the anxiety of finding new assignments. However, consultants over time learn that assignments come and go and that some months only a few new assignments are announced.

“It is a mixed feeling, both excitement, anxiety and a bit of worries. But, you can't worry too much because there is really nothing you can do about it.” (Consultant E)

Managers seem to have an important role to play to sort out the anxiety of not knowing where to go next. The manager at the operative level has an overall responsibility for a number of consultants and part of their work is to explore the opportunities and needs for new assignments, stay in touch with the consultants, know what they are doing, and what they would like to be doing. This is also where much of the formal HRM responsibilities reside.

“Competence development and the career planning are responsibilities of the consulting managers. They should know when someone is interested in moving on, taking the next step, change assignments, etc.” (Manager III)

Managers also play a role in identifying problems on client sites. For instance, people might not be doing well in a particular project, might not deliver the level of quality that the client expects, or are not able to cope with his assignment in other respects. One manager said:

“We have had a few people who have reacted a bit weird because they were over-stressed or over-worked. As a manager you just need to stay in contact with these people and the client to sense these signals, and once sensed you have to act.” (Manager II)

The consultants on their side besides handling assignment shifts speak about the need and importance of a having access to some kind of speaking partner. This seems particularly important when consultants are involved in demanding projects. At the same time, consultants emphasize that the role of speaking partner can be assumed by someone else, which generally emphasizes the ‘collective' character of HRM in these settings.

“I have been alone working on a few really tough contracts and in these cases I just had to phone my boss or one of my colleagues to tell them about my horrific story, to get someone to listen to my problems and concerns. You need support and help to manage some of these assignments.” (Consultant F)

Liminality in Projects

In this part of the paper, we summarize some of main observations and findings. We rely here on a grounded theory approach in combination with the use of ideal types. One might say that we aspire to produce an ideal type of work, or work situations, that functions as an abstraction with the capacity to capture key attributes of the focal phenomenon. As such, ideal types are useful not primarily because they are descriptively accurate; actual instances rarely evince all of the attributes of an ideal type, still they can serve as models which may assist in thinking about social phenomena (cf. Barley & Kunda, 2001, p. 83).

We depart from a pattern observed in our empirical accounts, namely the distinction between technical and social situations. This surfaced as important in many of the interviews and was brought up by the managers as important to satisfy clients and foster motivation among engineers. In other words, engineers seek situations that are technically and socially comfortable and challenging. This insight might also inform our understanding of liminality. The distinction between social and technical liminality draws on ideas presented in studies in other contexts: from team learning to leadership. This distinction is then building on a long and strong tradition of organization behavior research. Our separation into the social and technical aspects of liminality might also be linked to Nadel's (1959, in Barley & Kunda, 2001) distinction between “non-relational” and “relational” aspects of roles, which according to Barley and Kunda (2001) are roughly equivalent to the notions of “action” and “interaction.” In our interpretation, this generally means that engineers may experience liminality primarily on the technical side, or primarily on the social side. By making this differentiation, we also emphasize the dual nature of complex problem solving as consisting of both a social and a technical process, echoing the debate about two forms of group development: the social/Tuckman-type (1965) and the task-oriented/Gersick-type (1989). In the following, we discuss this distinction further.

This distinction of liminality as two sides of the same coin echoes earlier research on temporary teams and trust. It also mirrors the complexity inherent in many of the situations of complex problem solving. For instance, Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer (1996), in a much-cited chapter, discussed the importance of swift trust in temporary project teams. The authors analyzed the significance of surrounding institutional frameworks like role and rules to perform the first stage of basic trust. From that end, trust can evolve, for instance, if people trust a particular role then behaviors will be interpreted based on expectations of how a personal in that role is to behave. Through this supportive act of trust-building, swift trust can occur in situations that at first glimpse might be considered to lack many of the features that we normally associate with trust-building, trust that was considered important to engage in more complex joint problem solving. One might therefore extend Slater's observation that “instant familiarity” is fundamental in temporary systems, however, this instant familiarity relates to both social and technical dimensions. Accordingly, it makes sense to detail two types of liminality: one that potentially could be referred to as primarily a social type of liminality, another one that is predominantly a technical liminality. Of course, in practice these tend to be nested, but returning to the interviews, many of the consultants speak about frustrations when it comes to understanding the task and the project and the social situation.

Types of Liminality Situations and Coping Strategies

Our first distinction between types of liminality will provide the foundation for the coming analysis and the construction of an ideal-typical model. When analyzing the interviews we also see that the respondents tend to refer to different strategies and mechanisms for how to deal or cope with their threshold situations, or what we here refer to as liminality. Some of these mechanisms and strategies are more or less implicit; they are referred to and discussed in passing, others are highly explicit and could even be codified strategies learned at one of the many training programs within the company. Notwithstanding its formal or informal character, we interpret them fundamentally as ways to cope with liminality. One set of such strategies and mechanisms tend to focus on either the social or the technical aspects, as discussed previously.

Another set of strategies or mechanisms are instead attitudinal without a specific focus. For instance, we see a pattern in the level of activity that the individuals signal when dealing with their liminality. In some cases, they almost signaled a passive attitude towards the liminality situation, in other situations a much more active attitude. In situations where the passive attitude dominates, engineers typically refer to the importance of “wait and see,” “things will get sorted,” and “not much that you can do.” In other cases, the instead emphasize the importance of acting and taking control, seen in quotes like “speak up,” “share your experience,” and “influence the client.” From our point of view, these attitudes represent two completely different ways of coping with liminality. Based on this pattern analysis, we distill two primary parameters of relevance to the analysis of liminality in project-based work: focus and attitude. The combination of these parameters leads to four situations with four concomitant strategies that project workers rely on to deal with their liminality (see Figure 1). This use of the strategies also has the potential of turning liminality into something positive, both for the individual and the organization/collectivity of practice. The model thereby gives a tentative contribution to our research aim of augmenting the understanding of liminality situations in advanced engineering and what strategies people use to cope with their liminality. We discuss in further detail each of the situations, with a specific focus on the four coping strategies.

Liminality and Coping Strategies: A Model for Analysis

Figure 1. Liminality and Coping Strategies: A Model for Analysis

The following strategies are discussed and theoretically analyzed in the paper: (1) reputation reliance, 2) role carving, (3) relaxation, and (4) redefining. In the following, we briefly discuss these four strategies and how it relates to our empirical observations and previous empirical work.

The first identified strategy, reputation reliance, centers on the social capital of the engineers—how they are perceived when they enter the teams, how managers introduce them to new organizational contexts. This also relates to the reputation of AE engineers in general and what during the interviews was referred to a self-confidence and professional. For sure, a good reputation is a foundation for trust building in temporary groups (Meyerson et al., 1996) and also important in the engineering problemsolving contexts discussed here. However, what is perhaps more interesting is how individuals try to affect their reputation, how managers of the pool of resources “market” their people to build reputation and, ultimately, to make it easier for the engineers to enter new collectivities of practice. For instance, managers here referred to the importance of talking to the client about the track record of an engineer, of convincing them that “this person will do a good job.”

Our second coping strategy will be referred to as role carving. This was a strategy important in situations, it is argued, where social liminality was the key factor. The importance of role carving has also been emphasized in previous research. For instance, the study by Barley & Kunda (2006) emphasized the importance for contractors to carve out roles to be able to learn to live with their liminality. As the authors say:

But one way or another, all contractors had to learn to live with their liminality. To do so, they carved out roles for themselves, ranging from ‘gurus' and ‘trusted confidants' to ‘hired guns' and ‘warm bodies' purchased solely for their ‘skill sets'. These roles allowed contractors to rationalize their status and resolve the practical dilemmas of life on the job. Ultimately, however, their status as outsiders was more than a symbolic issue: All contractors knew that sooner or later they would have to return to the market in search of another job. (Barley & Kunda, 2006, p. 249)

This strategy generally highlights the ongoing structuring and dynamics of roles in social settings and perhaps most importantly in dynamic projects. Meyerson et al. (1996) highlighted the importance of rather fixed and clear-cut role definitions to make swift trust possible. Whitley (2006) argued for the significance of stable and separated role definitions to form lasting project-based organizations. However, it appears as it might be difficult in these situations to have such clear role definitions. It might also be that consultants want to change role structures either to affect the social or technical problem-solving process. The negative side is of course that it might lead to “high costs in time, worry, conflict, and temporary inefficiency” (Stinchcombe, 1965, p. 4). During the interviews, consultants referred to too high expectations and that they had to respond to an institutionalized image of what a consultant is. They also mentioned the problems that clients often do not know what to expect, because the problem to be solved is not yet fully explored. For instance, one of the respondents had been hired as a configuration manager, although this was not according to him what the client really needed. Respondents also emphasize the importance of building platforms from which they can act. This is typically common when they have just entered new assignments, although as they say, role carving is a continuous process.

The third strategy, relaxation, zeroes in on the individual's ability to live with liminality and to cope with the problem of entering new organizational constellations. This strategy centers on the technical aspects and is predominantly here seen as a passive attitude. The interviewed consultants referred to the importance of “wait and see” and that you learn that “things get sorted.” Often in these cases, it seemed like they could only moderately affect the situation, the consultants rather understood that this situation had to be dealt by the client or the rest of the project members.

The fourth coping strategy revolves around the redefinition of tasks and technical problems. It is active and fundamentally focused on the technical type of liminality. We label it redefining, although it encompasses a broad range of skills and mechanisms. For instance, it covers how engineers reinterpret and reformulate the task, system properties and functional specifications. It is here viewed as an active coping strategy because engineers in these situations reinterpret and reformulate complex problems more than what is common in everyday complex problem solving. During the interviews, some refer to their role as being advisor and that they think that the client does not fully understand the problems. This can happen in new projects. It could also appear in projects that have been running for years, but where the approach has not been accurate. A problem could be defined either as something distant from the engineer, or as something within his or her scope of responsibility, as something within a distinct domain of technology or as something more integral. In some cases, redefinition had quite severe effects such as a speedy promotion to assume project manager responsibilities, in other cases, effects such as having to leave the project because the client found out another way of handling the problem or in the extreme case that they in fact need a different consultant. In either case, it could be seen as a strategy to redefine the liminality situation. Fenwick (2007) reported on this type of coping strategy in her study of independent contractors. They often see from the beginning when a project for which they are being hired is poorly conceived or grossly short-changed in resource and time, but “they must proceed delicately to determine how to shift management's thinking without jeopardizing the contract or their reputation” (p. 518).

In Table 1, we try to summarize some of the salient features of each identified strategy. We present observations on when the strategy is commonly used and what mechanisms seem to be important to realize the strategy. We also offer some ideas on what type of support from the rest of the organization that is needed to make use of each strategy successfully.

Table 1. Coping Strategies in Project Work

  Reputation Reliance Relaxation Role Carving Redefining
Liminality problematic Social, passive Technical, passive Social, active Technical, active
When? In what situations? New projects with new people Ongoing projects carried out with experienced clients Changing projects, typically early in assignments Difficult projects, troubled projects
Dynamics in project process Often early, and if specific problems occur Projects that are ongoing and are either well on track or that experience a complex nested problem Typically early in the project or in projects that have experienced major change Often early
Why? Intention To ensure swift trust and responsibilities Too complex problems, difficult to comprehend context To clarify expectations, to reduce role overload, to build trust Productivity improvements needed, complexity must be reduced
Most common among Inexperience or unknown consultants, new clients Experienced consultants, existing projects, established teams Both experienced and junior engineers, although somewhat for different purposes Experienced engineers in complex projects
What? What mechanisms are used? CVs, list of previous projects, word-of-mouth, self confidence Waiting, small talk, listening Job descriptions, project management models, contracts, social interactions, meetings Brainstorming meetings, informal talk with other engineers, problem analyses
HR support, what do managers do to support Contacts with client and project manager Competence development to prepare, build self-esteem Contracts to clarify role, job descriptions Speaking partner
Resource/assets Reputational assets, social capital Occupational assets, experience from problem-solving situations Professional assets, professions important Technical assets
Problems with using the strategy Power conflicts May lead to lack of trust May lead to stifled group process, inflexible team System-wide sub-optimization

Concluding Discussion

The study presented in this paper is important for several reasons, primarily because of the need to provide empirical investigations into working life, work situations, and HRM in project-based organizations. For the context discussed in this paper, we argue that the problem of liminality is particularly important. First, it is significant to be able to improve the effectiveness of collectivities of practice—a type of project organization gaining popularity in complex problem-solving contexts. Second, it may lead to an improvement of working situation and development of skills of project-oriented engineers (cf. Allen & Katz, 1995) and how problem-solving skills relate to both social and technical features. In that respect, such studies may augment our understanding of both an increasingly important organizational capability and individual problem-solving skills. The present study is thereby an attempt to explore contemporary or even postindustrial HRM. One might argue that HRM is increasingly occurring at the limits of organizations within networks and teams that cross-organizational divides. Such studies would need to pay more focus to project work, in particularly since there is a “dearth of data on what people actually do–the skills, knowledge, and practices” (Barley & Kunda, 2001, p. 90). This would then also shed further light on the three issues of moving in, moving out, and moving on. As this study has documented, these three issues are critical for project workers pursuing their careers in fluid, project-oriented organizations and industries.

We also highlight the importance of linking problem-solving situations with people dimensions. Whitley (2006) also showed the need of linking HRM with problem-solving contexts, however, his main perspective is chiefly macro-oriented compared to the one presented in the present paper. Still, we believe both perspectives are needed to acquire a comprehensive understanding of HRM and project-based work, in particular between the dynamics and linkages between problem-solving contexts and individual skills and the coping strategies engineers use to handle liminality. As seen in the present paper, there are some overlaps with the macro-and micro-oriented studies, for instance, when it comes to role structures. For example, we identified the importance of role carving as a coping strategy that the individual relied on to deal with liminality. The general role structures found on the macro-level were therefore generally essential but not sufficient to help the individual deal with the problem of liminality.

We also emphasize the need of exploring further the aspects and types of liminality to improve the analysis of project-based organizations as collectivities of practice. Given their temporary, fluid, and mobile nature, liminality is a key attribute for project workers. At the same time, our main argument has been that coping with liminality is important to improve both working life and organizational effectiveness. Thereby it captures an important element in modern definitions of human resource management: the dynamic interplay between employee/contractor and employer/client. Based on our empirical study, we identified four liminality situations and four corresponding coping strategies: reputation reliance, role carving, relaxation, and redefining. Through this analysis we show that: (1) liminality is not necessarily a negative thing, positive things can emanate from liminality; (2) liminality consists of primarily two types—social and technical—and these types are intertwined, although for analytical purposes they might be kept separate; and (3) it might be possible to identify a set of coping strategies based on the dimensions of focus (social/technical) and attitude (active/passive).

We believe there are several vistas for future research in the same vein as the study presented here. First, we have studies of what happens in project-based organizations, how people interact in project-based organizations, and how these interaction patterns differ from interaction in other work settings. This seems important to increase our knowledge about the problem-solving capabilities of such organizations and to establish theories of practice and the actuality of project-based organizations. Second, we believe that studies into human resource management in project-based organizations are particularly relevant and interesting. Such studies would continue along some of the lines presented here but, of course, need to go further to look at the relationships between managers and contractors/consultants in terms of expectations and need of support.

The notion of liminality can offer several avenues for further research—exploring further different types of liminality in combination with different dynamics of liminality—why liminality occurs in one situation and not in other settings, why certain types of liminality are considered to be problematic and others less problematic, etc. Tied to this would be empirical studies of competence development and organizational measures to improve individuals' abilities to cope with liminality and the type of coping mechanisms most important to improve the organization's problem-solving capabilities. However, such empirical studies should acknowledge the importance of grounded empiricism and disciplinary eclecticism because these two tend to be “particularly crucial in the social sciences during periods of large-scale institutional and infrastructural change” (Barley & Kunda, 2001, p. 90)


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