On the power of project competence

triggers, characteristics, and effects

Norwegian School of Management BI, Oslo, Norway


Our contemporary society is characterized by an ongoing projectification of several industries and sectors (Castells, 1998), and that makes it vital for most firms to develop competence to handle their projects. One way of developing this competence is by extracting lessons learned while working on projects. From this has come the project management research showing how knowledge development can happen in projects and how knowledge can be transferred among projects. Several researchers (i.e., Brady & Davies, 2004; Davies & Brady, 2000; Davies & Hobday, 2006; and Prencipe & Tell, 2001) have explored the development of knowledge and skills within the project setting. Researchers have also found that project work may stimulate learning and that projects may therefore function as arenas for learning (Lundin & Midler, 1998). Some have argued that we can design project-based learning (Ayas & Zeniuk, 2001).

From this, we can infer that projects serve as arenas for developing knowledge because projects demand that project teams solve fairly unique tasks. Project knowledge development may improve the level of an organization's knowledge. We may also assume—from the above-mentioned—that projects enable an organization to exploit its knowledge. It is realistic to assert that project work inherently involves reusing existing knowledge. For such a dynamic to function, the project-based organization (PBO) must hold the ability to store and transfer knowledge between its various organizational units. The issues of storing and transferring knowledge are highly complex matters that have received extensive attention within project management research. These efforts made tend to be inspired by the ideas on dynamic capabilities, ideas developed by Teece and Pisano (1994) and referring to an organization's ability to renew its own competencies and its responses, particularly as the context in which these ideas are embedded changes. Accordingly, the main emphasis has been placed on how PBOs may increase their capacity to act by transferring and reusing knowledge among their project teams. For PBOs to renew their capabilities, they need to transfer captured lessons learned and transfer knowledge to—and from—projects, which requires an understanding of how project teams learn, what they learn, and why they learn. Still, the capability research tends to overlook the importance of exploring project-level competence development.

I argue that an understanding of capability development in PBOs can extend to complementing the enterprise-wide approach by using detailed analyses of project-level competence development (Hedlund, 1994; Vaagaasar, 2006). I assume this is particularly relevant in projects that are complex in terms of technological innovation and interfaces among the involved actors as well as in regards to a general uncertainty. These are the projects studied here. Previous research has shown that highly complex technology as well as highly unique technological functionality complicates the transfer and reuse of knowledge (Brady & Davids, 2004). This involves particularly unique and complex projects, especially those which have problems exploiting knowledge developed elsewhere.

This paper takes a grounded approach to project-level competence development. A case-study analysis shows how project competencies are situated practices embedded in the actions and relations of the project team and the other actors that operate around the project. Additionally, it points to the characteristics of the competencies that have been identified. Below I develop and discuss a case story to illuminate two questions:

  1. What triggers project competence development?
  2. What are the characteristics of project competencies?

The paper is outlined in the following way. First I develop an overall theoretical framework, doing so by combining insights from a situated-learning perspective with a knowledge-based perspective and applying these insights to my examination of projects. I also describe how I collected empirical material during a longitudinal in-depth case, a study which involved much observing and interviewing. Then I outline the case and discuss my empirical findings in light of the research questions I have posed. I end this paper by analyzing the research and detailing my conclusions, in which I identify a few avenues for future research.

In this paper, I have made a first attempt at identifying and categorizing not only the triggers of project competence development but also the characteristics of project competence itself. With this, I also describe how situated-project competence development alters—quite dramatically—some of the power relations that exist within the project environment.

Situated Project Competence

To begin this exploration of project competence, I first examine the concept of project competence, as I have discussed in a previous study (Vaagaasar, 2006), a discussion referring to project-level competence. What I suggest is that project competence can be investigated at the project level, observed in the actions of project teams, and developed through the challenges that teams face throughout a project's life cycle. In short, project teams develop competence as they act to solve their tasks.

In this exploration of project-level competence development, I take a practice-based approach to learning. During the 1990's, several authors introduced theoretical frameworks for studying and managing knowledge (Wenger, 1998). These frameworks focus on two particular challenges within the field of knowledge management: the nature of knowledge and the situated nature of learning and knowledge creation. Learning and knowing are seen as ongoing processes: Knowledge is continuously comprehended and translated as a result of the interaction between individuals and between individuals and artifacts.

And just as learning and knowing are ongoing processes, rather than products, researchers have argued that competencies emerge – in a given context—with respect to an enterprise's value (Wenger, 1998; von Krogh & Roos, 1992). This means that the field should consider learning as a mediator for competence development. Thus, competence development is experience-based and evolving. This means that it is contingent on the challenges that a project team faces and the interactions that the team members negotiate. Furthermore, research has shown us that project competence is the evolving ability of a project team to make necessary things happen. This competence is constituted by three aspects: knowledge, skills, and aptitudes (Nordhaug, 1993). The characteristics defining these three aspects emerge as the project team interacts with its environment. Thus, these characteristics are situated in specific practices. These characteristics do not make less important those more general knowledge structures that are related to project management and to the more technical aspects of project tasks. Rather, these more generalized knowledge structures provide the basis for a project team's actions. As the project team develops knowledge, skill, and aptitude, they evolve the local translations of the more generalized structures. These translations are emergent and differentiated versions of the generalized structures displayed in situated knowledge, skills, and aptitudes of the project. This means that a project team's cultural and social aspects help create both the nature of its learning process the content of knowledge (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Cook & Yanow, 1993; Gerhardi & Niccolini, 2000; Lave & Wenger, 1990).

The Empirical Study

The empirical basis for this paper is a longitudinal study of a large-scale technology development project. The project involved the development and installation of an emergency communication for the railroad system to be operated via GSM – technology. When starting out, the overall objective of this project was stated as the facilitation of safe and efficient communication for the railroads, doing so by developing a full-coverage, rail-specific mobile communications network. Additional objectives involved reducing the total number of communication systems, facilitating more efficient operation, and providing new functions, services, and digital technology for the railway operation. The project, initiated in 2001, was completed in late 2007. The estimated budget was about 200 million Euros; this effort received funding from the national state budget. Establishing the GSM-R system entailed developing the technical units and the electronic devices required for radio transmission, a system which also includes devices of various kinds that will function along the railway, in the trains, at the control terminals (located at the seven common operation centers for train management), and at the shared operation management unit of the GSM-R system (OPM). The project has provided the railroad with the infrastructure and main operating procedures it required improve its communications systems.

The project was expected to alter the work routines and communication patterns for and between those who drive trains, those who supervise the train traffic, and those who provide system service. All these people had to acquire new competencies as a result of the project. The users of the GSM-R system are the people involved in train operations. The most important premise providers for the GSM-R development were the two departments in the project organization that manages technical regulations and traffic regulation. Other stakeholders of the project included local and regional politicians and the neutral control organ operating under the Department of Traffic and Communication that held the final authority to accept or reject the system. Additionally, there were two subcontractors involved, which are referred to in the case description as Alpha and Beta.


The empirical study, on which this paper is based, was designed to be qualitative, both in the way data were collected and the way they were analyzed. Inspired by procedures used in ethnography, I conducted a longitudinal and explorative study, which encompassed the main phases of my field research:

  • In 2002, I completed pre-field work by studying the project management field's literature so as to identify interesting research topics.
  • In autumn 2003, I conducted pre-field work related to the project studied.
  • I performed my main field work between January 2003 and December 2005.

Between November 2003 and summer 2005, I observed the project and the project management team. To obtain the necessary background information, I analyzed documents such as the project handbook and the descriptions of the team's project management processes. However, the most important sources of information have, in accordance with the ethnographic inspiration, been my systematic observation and semi-structured interviews (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1997; Kvale, 1996).

I conducted more than twenty interviews with the central actors, including – primarily – the project manager. Although interviews can occur in many forms, my interviews were based on the open format (Yin, 1994). My general interview style was semi-structured (Kvale 1996). I considered this style appropriate because I wanted to develop data as a result of my dialogue with the project participants. My aim was to present the participant's world (Kvale, 1996).

The ethnographic method recommends observation as a tool to collect data (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1997), and we applied this method extensively as it seemed to provide valuable insights to the project practices. For almost two years, I observed the weekly three-hour project management team meetings, as well as meetings between the team, or the project manager representing the team, and other actors. I found it useful to follow three interfaces regularly. These were the project team and project owner interfaces, the project team and sub-contractors interfaces, and the project team and users interfaces. I also followed the project management team's meetings with various user groups, extraordinary meetings with sub-contractors, and open meetings. Additionally, I participated in a wide specter of occasional activities, ranging from the monthly “salary beer” for all project team members to the celebration of 150 years of train operation.

It is hard to study emergent phenomena such as evolving competencies. The trick is to capture the changes without forcing these to conform to an idea of a stepwise development pattern. In my analytical work, I did two things to cope with the assumed fluidity of the project reality. One was to compare some processes that emerged in my descriptions at different points in time so as to identify the changes in nature. To control my emerging assumptions of transformations, I bracketed the action flows into action-sequences to compare and identify the changes that transpired over months. I believed the bracketing (Weick, 1979) could help us focus and identify changes in the causing elements that I, at the time, did not know.

Moreover, I tried to make sense of the data by applying principles from the grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Among others, I have used different types of sensitizing questions (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) as these appeared useful in gaining oversight of my material. Such questions can take different forms: For example, who are the actors here? What are the various actors doing? Why does a given activity seem to occur? At what time and to whom are actions directed? Using these kinds of questions, I continuously re-examined the material to identify both the central topics and the empirical patterns (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1997). When empirical patterns emerged, I provided studies from literature references that also demonstrate the emerging patterns.

The empirical material is presented in the form of a story, because stories can preserve plausibility and coherence and represent the past and present (Weick, 1995). This is important as I have suggested that project competencies can be adequately understood as situated practices. Following the technology project, I found story-telling useful way to capture the richness and the ambiguity of the material, trying to make sense of it without forcing predefined categories on the empirical material (Weick, 1995).

A Project Story on Relational Competence Development

I will present a case story that illuminates how widespread competence is developed in a project team. Even though the team was assembled as a high performance team solving a particular task, I observed an extensive development of knowledge, skills, and aptitudes as team members interacted with each other and with stakeholders within the project's specific context. This is what I call relational competencies, which I will describe through the following story and my discussion of the story.

From Technical to Relational Focus

As the technology project started, the project team was highly embedded in a managerial discourse of functionality and rationality. The technical task was defined but the relational activities were not. The organization used technical competencies as the primarily factor in selecting team members. At this point, the task specification was regarded as relatively clear and the involved parties operated from a belief in a shared understanding of what the task was all about: to build and implement the emergency communication system (Project manager 19.02.04). At the bases of the technical specification, the base organization identified the work processes to be performed, as well as the competencies one presumed to be required to conduct these processes. Much of these competencies were not available in the base organization and therefore they tried to recruit members to the project management team based on the explications of required competencies. The base organization seemed to succeed in doing so, as the project manager expressed that ‘these are very good people – the best around' (Project manager 08.03.04). Still, the first year of the project was characterized by numerous indications of trial and error when it came to the operational task solving. ‘We just had to act and see what happened' (Project manager 10.11.03). According to the project manager, in its very early days the project management team did neither place much emphasis on relational activities nor was it very efficient in such. However, the project work quite soon evolved to be highly relational, in the sense that much of the project management team's effort became dedicated to the forming and maintenance of relations with other actors. The project management team experienced that a great number of interfaces with various stakeholders constituted its task work, however, the members expressed uncertainty regarding how to act in the position they seemed to find themselves (Meeting observation 08.03.04).

Reasons of Emerging Relational Activity

The emerging focus on relational activity pointed to and seemed to spring from different sources. One was the project management team's belief in the project's destiny as fragile and contested. The team articulated this perception of fragility early in the project. It expressed that the space for making mistakes was limited, and if mistakes were made, the project funding could be at stake. Different reasons seemed to contribute to this feeling of being fragile and contested. One reason the team gave was limited time for completing the planned deliveries. This awareness triggered initiatives for forming and working with relations, trying to facilitate its own maintenance and also to buy itself time. One way it tried to buy time was requiring that project owners make faster decisions. This was an attempt to rush through decision gates. Additionally, the team also attempted to influence the content of decisions, as some decisions would require less time consuming activities than others.

In keeping with this, the project management team first identified the central project stakeholders and then approached them, intending to influence their decisions, both in regards to time and content. I observed how participants of the project management team aggressively approached the project owners, the technical-premise providers, and the representatives of the Ministry of Transport and Communication. The project team requested to take part in various decision-making processes; it argued in favor of these requests of participation referring to strong meta-discourses on competence, uniqueness, and time pressure. The observed pattern often started with one of the team members reporting on their situation. Following this, the project manager would typically ask: “Is that a problem or will that be a problem regarding the planned delivery?” This question often referred to the time aspect of the delivery. Then, if the answer was affirmative, the project manager would then ask: “What do we do?” This question gave rise to other questions: “Who is responsible for this at the main office, at the technical division, or at the sub-contractors? Who can we talk with?”

The project management team members discussed these questions and often identified those they needed to approach and the way they could compel them to make quicker decisions. In short, the team wanted to take part in decision-making processes and affect decision makers. I witnessed numerous dialogues that seemed to follow a certain pattern, like the one presented below that occurred during a team meeting:

  • PM—project manager; C—project team member.
  • PM: Who has this responsibility at head office?
  • C: N. and his people. And they will use at least a month.
  • PM: Do we have a month to spare? If not we need to see whom we have with us over there.
  • C: Mentions different persons.
  • PM: Do we have a plan for when this should be finished?
  • C: Well…
  • PM: Does it have any implications for Alfa?
  • C: Not really.
  • PM: But they said on Friday, that they needed it yesterday.
  • PM: So, I will just have a little talk about this with Gamma this afternoon.

When asked about their role in various decisions making processes, the project manager explained:

Often, the case may be that we need a clarification or a decision, but that we cannot make the decision ourselves. Then the staffs holding this mandate neither have the competence nor the resources to do so—or the head where it should be—and cannot make it either. But then, we can't make the decision ourselves, so we have to make sure that we have the right persons involved in order to have them make this decision and that the decision they make is ours, in the sense that we can live with it. That's what often happens; we have to make sure that those providing the premises make decisions at the right time and that they make the right decisions.

The project managers' words indicate that the project management team had developed the ability to affect decision processes.

The team's perceptions of being contested were also based on their emerging acknowledgement of how the technical development process was not so straight forward and manageable as assumed, but appeared to require extensive innovation. As the task development took unexpected directions and contingently required extensive innovation, the competencies of the team became a problem. They presumed that the task – on which the competence development was based – seemed false. So, even though the team had developed the idea to maximize their competencies for a particular task, the team members lacked the necessary knowledge and skills to complete the task. Not only did they try to develop these themselves, but they sought out sources where knowledge could be embedded. Knowledge seemed to be found in the numerous technical regulations and specifications that were part of the base organization's quality system. In dialogues with technical premise providers, these regulations were explored, but these seemed to illuminate only some of the competence gaps experienced.

Along with these explorations, the project owner's representatives were also approached. The project management team seemed to acknowledge, however, that the project owner representatives were of limited help in exploring the competence gaps. The general assumption emerging seemed to be, as the project manager expressed it (Project manager 15.04.04), that “there aren't many others we can play ball with”. This acknowledgement made the team conduct extensive discussions regarding where to seek appropriate knowledge and advice; it also made them try out different alternatives. The project management team engaged in workshops with similar emergency communication projects in other countries and in workshops held with the sub-contractors and users. During winter and spring 2003/04, the project team sought out quite a number of sources that proved more or less helpful, but as spring arrived, the numbers of possibilities were reduced. There seemed to be a set of relations recurring in the project's exploration of competence. The knowledge-relations that remained over time were mainly those who had evolved into so-called standing workgroups. Thus it seemed that the project management team, after having sought various sources for knowledge, had found a limited set of relations, where knowledge and advice, which enabled task solving, could be accessed. Over time, the project management team learned how it could get access to this knowledge and how the knowledge could be efficiently utilized. In summary, experiencing that technical knowledge fell short, the team explored relations to discover where they could find useful knowledge for task solving. The lack of technical knowledge triggered behavior that led to development of relational competencies aimed at obtaining access to technical knowledge.

I have described how the project work increasingly seemed to be about forming and working with relations and how the project management team appeared to handle the relational activities competently. With regard to whom the project team related, my materials indicate that some project relations, such as those with the main user groups and others, were laid out early in the project, while others emerged over time. These emerging relations also triggered the competence development. The relations seemed to emerge as the task developed and included more innovation. Unanticipated innovations were accompanied with technical problems and initiations of different task solving activities than those foreseen. As the activities of the project management team changed, the parties that had to be involved in the task solving also changed. Additionally, as the task solving work proceeded in different directions, there seemed to be new stakeholders emerging claiming to have a saying in the project management team's activities. When asked directly about how the project had become related to X and Y, the project manager summarized the situation saying:

Their role became apparent over time. I guess that was both because we did not realize it and also because little by little they came on strongly and wanted to take part and exert influence. Of course we knew from the start that the X the Y had to be part of this, but obviously, as they came on stronger they affected the process in various ways.

The project management team engaged in analytical exercises to determine the aspects of a given situation and the parties that would probably be involved and had to be considered. Moreover, the project management team worked to find out the most likely expectations these parties were holding and also reflected on what they could do to meet these. After these exercises, the project management team approached various stakeholders. They also regularly performed analytical exercises, followed by interaction with stakeholders. There are two issues worth noting here. One is that the project management team did not take the projects existence for granted. The other is that the project management team seemed to consider the project as coalition of stakeholders that needed to be kept happy in order to enable the project to stay afloat. Next I will describe two features of this relational acting.

The Characteristics of Relational Competencies

I identified two gradually emerging features of the project competencies that were quite remarkable. One was that the project management team, over time, acted variably in the relation with one actor over time. Another feature was that the project management team differentiated its actions across relations depending on the interests, expectations, and characteristics of the actors with whom it related.

Competence to vary relational activities.

I observed how the project management team seemed to work to vary its activities in relating with another actor over time. I will give an example of this. During spring 2003, the project management team selected its two subcontractors (Alfa and Beta) and thus developed its relationships with them. These relations took the form of being procedural and formal, rather than informal, and the project management team concentrated on drawing up contracts and getting basic routines established. The relations seemed friendly and polite, but communications were vague. In winter 2003/04, these communications increased in precision after they had started working together and obtained some experience with task solving. When starting up, the project management team emphasized Alfa's high level of competence, but as time went by their opinion about this seem to change. The project management team's discussions increasingly focused on how to enable Alfa to do their work by, among other things, changing their own structure so as to compensate for Alfa's weaknesses.

When Alfa did not deliver as promised and in accordance with the expectations of the project management team, the relations between the two parties became difficult. In winter 2004, the project management team took actions to increase Alfa's production by helping them plan and prioritize their tasks. In spring 2004, the project management team held monthly shared planning sessions with Alfa. A person from the project management team was also transferred to Alfa to help out with the planning work. Additionally, the project management team spent extensive time discussing Alfa's plans, to determine the realism of these, and the lack of realism was pointed to a number of times. Moreover, the project management team worked to help Alfa by providing incentives, as well as threatening with economic punishment. Gradually the relation stabilized as troublesome yet functioning. The interaction between Alfa and the project management team illustrate how the project management team, acting on the same relation over time, acted differently.

competence to differentiate relational activities.

I observed how the project management team developed an ability to act in differentiated manners when relating with various stakeholders at the same time. For example, in a situation where the project was not able to make its deliveries and its funding and further existence was at stake, the project produced stories. I identified five coexisting stories. They seemed to be developed partly to make other actors act in certain manners that the project management team assumed to facilitate task solving and partly for maintaining the stakeholders' belief in the project. The content of the stories were differentiated depending on with whom the project management team interacted and what kind of actions it wanted the other actors to undertake. For example, it was important for the project management team to enable system implementation by motivating the train operators to educate their people. The story it communicated to the train operator expresses belief in completed deliveries and the importance of efficient training, for facilitating safe system operation.

Speaking with the sub-contractor Alfa, the team wanted to facilitate a dedicated effort at the sub-contractors as no time could be spared. It assumed that if Alfa got to know about the possible delay, they would prioritize their effort elsewhere, at the cost of the project. It communicated that, if they all stood together and worked day and night, they would probably make it (Project manager 15.02.04). In interacting with the head director of the base organization, the project produced yet another story. This one was aimed at maintaining the head directors' trust in the project. In meeting the neutral control organ that was to verify the system, the project team expressed sensational stories about the unexpected situations they had encountered, tackled, and learned from and how the deliveries were almost completed and under control.

Above I indicated that an emerging feature of the project competencies was the ability to fine-tune the communication of a situation, contingent of the presumed interests of various stakeholders at a point in time. I found it noteworthy that the project management team also developed an acknowledgement of how the actors, with whom it related, were also related.

This is from a project team meting where the project manager, PM, discusses communication strategies
with his team members; A, E, and G.

  • PM:   Yes, so I assume we are all clear about what we communicate to Alfa.
  • A:   But what do we communicate to Gamma and the rest of JBV?
  • E.:   The trick is that Gamma can leak information to both Alfa and the Ministry, if they understand that we are uncertain whether we make it or not.
  • PM:   But, we will have conflicts if Gamma starts preparing for implementation on 01.04.04. and the system is not ready. They are so negative already, and preparations for implementations will be most demanding for them and…we need to communicate uncertainties in a way that is balanced.
  • G.:   Yes, we need to communicate that only 10–15% is not working.
  • PM:   No, we need to communicate to Gamma and the Ministry that 85% works.
  • G:   What we said to the Inspectorate last week was that with the limited solution we have already described, we believe that we will be able to make it.

The team members' ability to fine-tune their stories combined with their awareness of interrelatedness came about as differentiated, yet carefully balanced stories. The project management team developed sensitivity regarding what to say and how to say things, and not the least, how to time messages. More specifically, the team became increasingly aware of how to frame various messages in order to materialize their aimed for achievements. Gradually, the team learned to differentiate between how messages could be framed differently, depending on whom it communicated with. When about to approach a certain actor, the team members often described their own history of working with this actor. They also often tried to apply these competencies as strategies for communicating with those they wanted to influence.

Discussing Competence: Triggers, Characteristics, and Effects

The story presented shows how a project management team starts acting, in a fumbling manner, to form and maintain relations, and how their skills and knowledge in handling these relations gradually develop. This competence evolves as the team attempts, responding in ways particular to its environment, to solve the task it has been assigned. These fumbling activities, whereby relational competencies materialize, resemble the learning by trial and error process that Dewey (1938) coined as learning by doing. Moreover, this mediating learning process appears explorative in nature (March, 1991). It seems that, as the team acted and made sense of its actions (Weick, 1979), the members were able to develop shared patterns of beliefs and cognitions (Weick, 1979). As these shared patterns are tested in practice over and over, they are refined. Gradually, the team shows cultivated sensitivity regarding the solutions that could possibly work, the selection of actors to be involved, and the ways these can be involved in order for them to become aligned in the task solving.

I have presented observations indicating that the alteration of knowledge and competencies was an ongoing process that was highly related to the participation in activities and relations. Wenger (1998) has pointed out that knowledge is actually knowing and “knowing is a matter of participating…of active engagement in the world” (p. 4). I believe this was the case for the project I followed. Moreover, Wenger has proposed that learning as social participation reproduces and transforms the social structure where it takes place. This seemed to be the case my focal team. The team expressed a feeling of being contested, that its existence was at stake. Because of this, the team tried to affect the actions and decisions of these actors. Therefore, the project management team took actions to establish relations with these actors. It seems that the project management team enacted the task as relational (Weick, 1979).

There seemed to be three paths of relational competence development. One was triggered by the will to affect decisions. This determination led the team to approach various actors to affect timing and content of decisions. In the following, interaction relational competencies gradually emerged.

Another path of relational competence development was set off by the team, as it acknowledged lack of knowledge and skills, when the task developed in unexpected directions. It made the team approach actors to get access to their competencies and thereby expanding its resource base of knowledge and skills. Over time, the team learned where useful knowledge and advice were embedded and what actions would help them exploit these resources. Thus, in the case I studied, the team's lack of competence triggered them to establish relations with those who possessed the competencies the team lacked. These actions helped the team to perform their project activities adequately. I therefore propose that lack of technical competence can trigger team to develop relational competencies.

The third competence development path was triggered by unforeseen task changes. As the task developed in unanticipated directions, various stakeholders developed an interest in the project. As new stakeholders emerged on the scene, and claimed to have a saying, the project management team had to consider these actors, their interests, and the ways they could meet these interests. These considerations contributed to further the development of relational competencies.

My material describes how the project management team's activities came to be much about handling relations. I propose that the team enacted (Weick, 1979) the project task as relational, and thereby it constructed the project task solving as a relational activity. This means that the development I have described cannot be understood as mere adaptation to situational contingencies. The team could have responded to the perception of being contested or the lacking competence in numerous other ways. The relational activities emerged as the effect of the team's actions and its understanding the situation it faced. To illustrate this principle Weick (1979) says that:

What the orchestra members face is not simply the composition placed in front of them, but rather what they do with that composition when they play it through for the first time. The musicians don't react to the environment, they enact the environment. (p. 139)

The idea of the project task being enacted as relational and therefore contributing to relational competence development is in accordance with Wenger's (1998) proposition that learning reproduces and transforms the social structure. This lead the team I followed into a self-reinforcing circle. As the team became competent in relational acting, it experienced that it could act with efficiency both to affect the decisions and actions of others and to exploit the knowledge of others. Experiencing success seemed to facilitate the team's further actions to shape the decisions, offsetting more frequent interaction between the project management team and other interests. Through trial and error, the relational competencies took form.

With the empirical material, I suggest that the emerging relational competencies of the team gradually increased in concreteness. In general, they evolved from abstract to concrete, starting as a vague idea of who the stakeholders were and how these could be handled and then becoming hands-on guidelines for further action (Weick, 1995). As the different patterns of interaction between the project and its stakeholders emerged, the relational competencies became increasingly fine-grained and fine-tuned. This cultivation of relational competencies happened in the interactions of the project management team and the actors with whom it related. It came about as shared histories of learning where situated competencies were developed (Wenger, 1998). The expansion of competencies seemed to evolve in the teams' awareness as vital questions with regard to the task solving:

  • Who are the actors that we have to consider to develop the task?
  • What do these actors expect from us?
  • How do we act for them to develop the perception of getting what they expect from us?
  • How do we act to affect these actors?

Based on the description of how the teams' relational activities became more fine-tuned and fine grained, I suggest that it developed competencies that were both generic and situated. They were generic in the sense that as the team acted it discovered more general ways of meeting and treating stakeholders; they were situated in that each actor was composed of unique sets of preferences, characteristics, and ways of acting. The uniqueness of each actor meant that the knowledge developed and applied in each relation would be differentiated across relations. The implication was a team learning to take on different roles and presenting itself and its activities in various ways depending on whom it interacted with. Since the interests of the stakeholders were diverse, the team had to differentiate its presentations. I observed a multiplicity of presentations, that were differentiated, and to some extent also divergent, living side by side. This finding might be understood in light of Kreiner's (1995) point that project tasks change over time when stakeholders alter their actual interests or their ideas about their interests. Thus, the project management team might be expected to gradually act differently in order to meet the changing perceptions.

Above I provided descriptions of how the project management team I studied was capable of obtaining influence on major decisions and of the project owner and the technical premise providers. The project management team also managed to influence decisions involving major political and governmental actors. These observations suggest that the project management team I studied managed to position itself as an influential premise provider of the discourse in which it took part. This suggestion is not in accordance with mainstream project management theory. However, the practice-based approach that I have applied has more emphasis on process and change than mainstream project management research tends to presuppose (Engwall, 2003).

If one takes a process focus, things are believed to continuously change. They become what they become contingent of temporal co-presence, rather than design (Weick, 1979, 1995). This also applies for the distribution of authority. It makes the idea of a designed a-symmetrical power relation, where the project acts on the decisions of project owner, difficult (Kreiner, 1995). This means that decisions authority cannot be determined by organizational design and structures, but is a product of uncertain and moving positions from which action choices can be justified (Kreiner). This means that authority and responsibility for actions are to be negotiated, rather than being decided by hierarchy (Kreiner). “The non-hierarchical relations imply that none of the parties can dictate specific opinions and conclusions to the others” (Kreiner, 1995, p. 342).

As the interaction and communication between actors determine the outcome, strong identities can become fragile or reinforced through networking (Kreiner). Kreiner's proposal opens up for what I observed in the technology project, namely that neither the nature of projects, nor the power distribution of project settings, can be fixed in advance of the project work commencing. It is negotiated as the actors interact (Callon & Latour, 1981). Knowledge is linked with systems of powers, which produce and sustain it, and to the effects of power that it provokes and which extend it (Foucault, 1986).

This means that if the project maneuvers itself in a position where it can define what the valuable stories and discourses are, it can enact authority that was not intended for it. The project I studied seemed to develop the ability of translating the meaning and the systems of knowledge embedded in this social context, translating it into specific practices and structures. This helped increase the project management team's ability to guide the actions and decisions of others.


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© 2008 Project Management Institute



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