How projects influence society


Norwegian School of Management BI, 0442 Oslo, NORWAY

Email: [email protected]


Project work is known to generate problems. So while project management guides proliferate in the form of books and articles showing how success can be achieved through project work, the actual results are mixed. History can point to at least as many fiascos as successes. What explains the popularity of project work in the face of the problems that affect so many projects?

This paper explores two of the main conclusions from a study of perceptions of project work in society. The study took place in 2008, and the database consisted of more than 200 master's degree students, all of them with a good knowledge on project work related to the companies they represented.

There were two central conclusions. First, respondents clearly believe project work has changed several areas of society, though the degree or magnitude of the impact varies. In some areas, project work has clearly generated new ways of behaving and thinking benefiting both public and private organizations. In other areas, though, the impact is apparently marginal. Some of these are particularly concerning as they are frequently drawn on to justify this form of work in practice. The second conclusion is that project work raises several paradoxes. While projects are beneficial, these selfsame implications often create problems for the business, institution, or individual in modern societies. The paper discusses some of these consequences and paradoxes and concludes by suggesting what could and should be done to mitigate the problems, and improve current project management research and training.

Keywords: project trends, project paradoxes, project management improvements


Several reasons have been given to explain why project work has gained such widespread popularity. Primary among these explanations are that projects are said to engineer change in a more effective and successful manner (Birchall & Lyons, 1995); projects enable superior financial management of limited resources (Bøhren & Gjærum, 1998); projects enhance organizational control (Morgan, 1989); projects sharpen competitiveness (Pucik, Tichy, & Barnett, 1993); and project work suits the modern-knowledge society and highly qualified worker (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978). As several authors have observed (Lundin & Søderhold, 1995; Blomberg, 2003), the crucial difference between project work and traditional line work lies in the higher technical, economic, and social efficiency standards required today, combined with innovation and personal commitment within clearly defined limits. While the line tends to operate on the basis of a longer-term, more sustainable platform, the project aims at delivering an end product before “self-destructing” as an organization (Andersen, 2005). Projects substitute adhocracy for bureaucracy (Cleland & King, 1983). Predictable methodology consequently gives way to looser networks, dissolvable teams, and projects under continual reconfiguration, which are constantly initiated and terminated, in answer to the challenges occurring at any one time (Røvik, 2006).

The question is whether increased use in new areas of society has changed how individuals, businesses, and organizations think and behave and how societal undertakings are executed from project work being the result of contemporary trends. Has it turned into a trendsetter itself?

Research Model

These questions were the backdrop for a study to determine whether parts of the economy and society in a country are affected by the use of projects, and whether attitudes towards this method of work has changed as well. The model chosen for the study was the European Quality Award (EQA) Model. The basic premise is that the results achieved by an organization depend crucially on the behaviors of the organization's employees. This behavior is in turn largely determined by the internal business or organizational culture, employee skills/qualifications, and attitudes towards their own organization. The model is depicted in Figure 1.

The model assumes links between key operative areas in a normal organization in a logical pattern. If the operative elements within and relations between each of the areas are logically aligned and satisfactory, they should impact positively, directly, and indirectly on the organization's strategy, employees, customers, society as a whole, and ultimately therefore the organization's economic performance. The model utilizes possible connections between the management's strategic decisions, how these decisions are taken, how resources are managed and allocated, how individual members of the organization are treated, how the manufacturing process proceeds, how satisfied or content organization members are, how satisfied the customers are, and how society as a whole reacts to the organization's actions to ensure overall profitability. The model has been tried and tested, usually with satisfactory analytical results (Zain, 1998).

The model has nine basic operative areas divided into two groups of operative elements termed indicators in this article. Five of these indicators are allocated to the preparation and execution phase (enablers), referred to in the figure as the execution phase and four in the results phase (Kanji, 1995). The division into phases and indicators is consistent with the way projects are conducted, focusing particularly on the project's downstream activities such as execution and result generation.

Research Method

The data on which this study is based were provided by three classes of master's degree students in 2008. The questionnaire posed 46 questions, of which 32 were directly designed after the EQA model. The questions were also designed to detect attitudinal differences between private and public sector organizations. The response scale extended from 1=extremely negative to 7=extremely positive. A score of 4.0 suggested no perceived impact or hardly any impact. All together 218 individuals returned the form.

The average age of 86% of the database was 38, plus/minus 10 years. Fifty-four percent were male, 46% were female. As anticipated, as many as 86% were employed as executive or middle managers.

The database was found to meet the criteria for statistical analyses due to its volume and composition, although there was noticeable bias in some areas. For instance, 77% of the respondents worked in private firms, while only 23% worked in public sector organizations. Furthermore, 73% of the respondents worked for firms with a payroll of more than 50 employees. Ninety-three percent of the public employees worked for a “large organization,” creating another source of bias. Since the primary reference of the database was master's degree students in business, we anticipated an overrepresentation of economists, and only 12% to 13% reported a background solely in engineering. Despite the bias, since the database focused on persons in the 30–40 age group in executive management positions with, presumably, wide-ranging decision-making powers, and, also presumably, a good deal of knowledge about project work directly or indirectly as a function of their job, the database was approved as a starting point for the study.

Analysis and Results

Figure 2 sets out the main features of the analysis. While the averages may seem rather indistinguishable, T-tests reveal significant differences for almost all of the scores in the figure, respectively (p<0.05 and p<0.01). As can be seen, an average score of 5.15 equals “somewhat” to “quite a large” positive impact. In that light, what first strikes the eye is the respondents' general belief in the beneficial impact of project work.

There are, at the same time, significant differences within different areas. There is a particular significantly higher (p<0.00) perceived positive impact of project work on the preparatory phase of programs/interventions (5.18) compared to the impact on the result phase (5.11). So, although there is a perceived positive impact on both phases, project work is recognized to have a greater impact on how interventions are initiated, planned, and organized than how it is executed and results are generated.

Already at this level, paradoxes emerge. The point of project work has always been to improve performance. Both goal theory (Andersen, 2005) and expectation theory (Steers & Porter, 1987) focus on the importance of end-product delivery, and the project approach was quickly recognized as the best way of getting this done. Fulfilling needs and goals similarly became key success factors, and performance and need satisfaction were key success criteria (Andersen & Jessen, 2000). It is, therefore, a clear paradox to find that projects appear to work best in the planning phase of major assignments than in the result stage, according to respondents. Therefore, the operative question is whether the contemporary focus on project preparation is a dilution. If it is true that project training and research stress performance and results less than planning and preparations, perhaps resourcing priorities need to be looked into.

Further, as the figures show, there are significant differences between private and public employee perceptions on the magnitude of the impact as well. One notes the overwhelming response of the private sector in emphasizing the benefits of project work relative to the public sector response.

This is another general paradox since both private and public sector employees' tend to give a much lower score to the impact of project work on public undertakings. The project approach stemmed originally from government work in the United States (Lord, 1989), and the first project tools were designed to improve the management of and ability to run major public programs and investments. In recognition of the many major projects undertaken today under government management (infrastructure projects, energy projects, health projects), it is surprising to find a significantly lower assessment of the government's ability to reap the benefits of the project approach than the private sector. Maybe the often normative style of management required by political and democratic systems (Tranøy, 2006) along with the new public management (NPM) idea of creating quasi-markets for the delivery and consumption of public services (Klausen, 2005) are policies to which the project approach is less suited. Therefore, it might be advisable to consider other implementation methods for public programs. Or government programs could forsake some of the traditional, normative bureaucracy and often random political interventions to achieve success with projects.

Particular Paradoxes

Some of these paradoxes and data are explored and analyzed in greater depth. The first breakdown is shown in Figure 1, where the two main phases, preparations, and result generation are each divided into three sub-areas, then further in direct reference to the EQA model. The results obtained from this division are shown in Tables 1–3, where 16 selected impact indicators are defined. Public and private sector respondents were asked to answer specially designed questions for each of these indicators.

As seen in Table 1, the most positive changes have occurred in the field of personal activity/development and management role, irrespective of sector, though the score in the private sector is markedly higher on all indicators. Next, also displaying a considerable impact is the effective economic output of the projects, not least in respect of customers. Here, too, the impact in the private sector is reported to be more positive than in the public sector. A third indicator with a general high score is employee satisfaction.

Management paradox

The questionnaire defined “management generally” as “project work helps an organization achieve its goals by integrating people, knowledge, technology and environment” (Schein, 1989, p). “Personal activity and development” was defined as “enabling and encouraging each employee's personal, individual development by means of relevant projects and assignments.”

There could be many reasons for the high scores attributed to personal activity and development and management role enactment. It would be reasonable to assume a close connection between proficient management and personal satisfaction. In addition, the high score on employee satisfaction, defined as “the results of the project make employees feel encouraged and appreciated.” Clearly then, employees—especially in the private sector—find project work both appealing and enjoyable. It may be that the pleasure of being challenged professionally in modern-knowledge societies means a great deal.

That project work today is a major problem-solving mechanism may be due not only to its technical and economic rigor, rationality and performance levels, but that project work has a positive effect on the modern individual's growth and development, mentality, and behavior. Putting it bluntly, it could be described as the “projectification” of society in these areas where the modern project's focus on problem solving, target-oriented management, and delivery of unique results combine with strict requirements on resource minimization, including human resources. Everything from the major investment, feasibility study, and research, to even the slightest of ad hoc interventions, is required to proceed based on a project blueprint. Programs in schools and leisure activities seem also expected to be project-wise. Because this is so widely considered a positive outcome is probably thanks to the ability of project work to promote a sense of control and professional growth in the individual worker. That the role of manager benefits as well could mean that managers are better today at detailing, clarifying, and encouraging themselves and others to contribute actively to problem solving, and to set relevant limits to their own and others' activities. Succeeding with the task one has set oneself is one of the key success factors in human activity (Thorsrud, 1969).

At the same time, paradoxes are implied. Given that so much human activity is goal-directed and rigorously defined also limits creativity. Creativity and innovation are considered essential today for successful development. For many of the tasks modern societies need to perform, this must be a problem. It cannot be healthy if projects are so rigidly defined that they slow down innovation, as, for instance, in the area of basic research, or that artistic activity becomes a type of project-oriented commission instead of a creative, unorthodox, and challenging enterprise. Who sets the parameters that will also often be a paradox? For projects, parameters are often set by different levels than the person performing the task and without consulting with the individual responsible for its completion. The balance between expectations and possibilities is easily upset. Both the manager and worker often get caught in the crossfire between various interests, which is clearly an undesirable situation. It is, therefore, interesting when the impact of project work on the management role and on employee satisfaction is considered in such a positive light despite the often high demands and stress that come with project work. This being the case, could it be seen as a preference for traditional management with strong leadership and control as two of the manager's primary tasks? That many people like being led as much as leading themselves is well known. Avoiding responsibility for difficult, weighty decisions may be something more people would like than modern personnel psychology seems to suggest. Recent studies have also shown that the more old fashioned, hard-nosed leaders, who are less concerned with the manager's social responsibility, are more likely to have success at the bottom line (Hartmark, 2006), and who for that reason, serve the organization and its employees best. In which “positive” direction modern management has been influenced by project work can therefore be an open question. Is it the approach's “softer” organizational management or its strict rigidity that provides the decisive incentive for personal commitment and satisfaction?

A striking paradox is the wide gap separating private and public sector scores for the same indicators. The divergent opinions regarding the impact of project work on the leader role are especially intriguing. The prevailing opinion in the private sector is that the impact of project work on the management role in the area of task performance has been highly positive, achieving a median value of “6.”

The prevailing view in the public sector is significantly behind, only granting “some positive impact” and a median value of “5.” Almost every fourth public sector employee can find no impact at all. In light of the increasing use of project work in government as a problem solver, the paradoxical nature of the situation can hardly be denied. If project work is used so widely without the type of leadership required by the project concept, dissatisfaction and imbalance between “theory and practice” must be the inevitable result. Government administrations may be unable to live up to the standards of modern project management, such as clearly defined, goal-directed management, delegation of responsibilities and powers, and proximity to colleagues.

Economy and Customer Paradox

Economic profitability and customer relations are clearly of central importance in modern project management. As can be seen, the average score is decidedly positive (5.38). And it is significantly higher for the private sector.

It hardly needs to be stated that projects are associated with economic investments and utility values. Projects require initial outlays, but they are recouped later. Therefore any project analysis will, include projections on whether the utility value will be at least as substantial as the investment cost (Bøhren, 1998). Although the utility value may resist quantification in purely economic terms, it will always be tacitly assumed that projects should “pay.” As we see, it is rated by both private and public sector employees as a key concern; it is also a leading indicator in the execution and result phases.

It is now widely recognized that the customer, the client, or recipient has become a key partner in both private and public undertakings. There is not much point in feeling happy with an outcome if the customer remains unconvinced. As all of the recent studies of what is termed “customer barometers” (Olsen, 2002) show, an unhappy customer can be highly problematic for a business or organization, especially if his dissatisfaction persists. Building robust client-organization relations are one of the main priorities of modern project management.

However, these views also harbor some inescapable paradoxes. The first is that project work has affected the economic performance of enacted programs more than customer satisfaction. It is a conundrum not least for the public sector that the principle objective is to meet the needs of citizens and users, even if undertakings are not particularly lucrative economically or commercially speaking. One cause of the imbalance could be the success of NPM in the public sphere, whereby public agencies and institutions see themselves and operate as if they were private businesses (hospitals, public transport companies, education institutions) (Klausen, 2005) even though they are not. Similarly, the traditional benchmark for project success is economic success. By adopting the benchmark, public administrations are encouraged to run public services based on purely financial accounting principles, even when the utility value is unlikely to be measured in purely monetary terms. This is another reason to ask whether projects are entirely justifiable as a policy mechanism to the degree they are used today.

The second paradox conjures yet another gap between public and private enterprise. The private sector is perceived to care more about the customer and client. It would not be strange, however, if the opposite were the case. Governments have a responsibility to meet the needs of the citizens and to make the investments required to fulfill that purpose. It is important in a democracy that the citizen's desire for “civic consultation” is attended to. So while a score of >5 means “some positive impact,” that the private sector scores significantly higher is again something of a conundrum.

To conclude, the indicators perceived as most affected by project work are the management role, relations between managers and employees, the organization's economic performance, and customer relations. However, the interpretation of these indicators reveals a number of paradoxes. One is that public administrations, which initiated the move to project work to start with, today are considered less positively affected by project work than private organizations. Another paradox finds projects in private organizations to be more attuned to clients and recipients than projects in the government sector. As the government is the servants of society, it should be the other way round.

Indicators for Areas Where the Impact of Project Work Is Considered Average

Table 2 displays the average impact areas. Since the scores are all greater than 5.0, the impact is deemed positive, though on average slightly less positive than the areas grouped in Table 1. There are paradoxes here too, however.

Responsibility and Authority Paradox

Since responsibility and authority gains a positive rating, the potential of project work strengthens. Independent responsibility in areas in which the employee is skilled tends to be associated with a positive response. The indicator was similarly defined in this study as “division of internal responsibility and authority in a manner in which the individual employee both understands and accepts his and others' responsibility.” Here, however, it is important to note the significant differences in perceptions between the private and public sectors. Clearly, project work in the public sector has not given employees the same opportunity to take on responsibility, if so desired, as the private sector. Public sector employees have particularly less independence in the preparatory stage than their counterparts in the private sector. This is true not least when it comes to work on strategy and strategy building during the preparatory stage. The indicator “internal strategy processes” is defined here as “to involve the organization's members in the work of aligning internal projects with the organization's strategy.” It would be more correct, though, to interpret this as a significantly wider gap between the management and employee levels in the public sector than in the private sector, notwithstanding democracy's attempts, not least through NPM, to narrow the gap. Nor the fact that good project management requires in principle proximity between the project's decision level and operative levels.

Resources Management and Economic Paradox

For many, project work means an opportunity to control and manage scarce resources better. The indicator is consequently defined as “utilizing relevant policy instruments in the (preparatory) work so that limited resources can be managed better in the daily operational work.” As is shown, this indicator was awarded only “some positive impact” (5.07). Of significance here, public undertakings score very badly (4.64), meaning by and large “no particular impact.” That the project is so ineffective in what originally was a key administrative area is a paradox indeed.

In addition, that project work only marginally contributes to the economy is another paradox (5.12). On this particular point private and public employees are united. There are several possible reasons for this paradox. For instance, strategy and performance are said to be insufficiently aligned. Then there is the difficulty of embedding projects strategically because of their unique individuality, at least over the longer term in which an economy needs to be seen. In their ad hoc form, projects can be conceived as more or less random games of chance, where success and fiasco are more unpredictable. If this is the case, there is good reason to ask whether the modern project is a good government tool; after all, governments have a responsibility not to gamble with public funds.

Collaboration Paradox

A third notable paradox is reflected by the relatively low score for “impact on internal social processes,” particularly in government undertakings. This indicator was defined as “internal social cooperation among the organization's members (team work) so that members support, encourage, and help one another.” Primarily, project work is conceived as teamwork, and insofar as personal activity and growth, management role and employee satisfaction all receive high ratings, one would assume it had something to do with good intra-team collaboration. But clearly this is not necessarily the case. The scores could just as easily indicate a conception of project work as individual work, aimed primarily at consolidating one's own position, training, and development. In that case, either team work or team training are wrongly identified as decisive for the success of businesses or government agencies, or the value of good team work is underestimated and too little attention is paid to its value creating propensity.

The paradox running like a thread through all this is that the indicators with only moderate scores tend to be associated with successful project work, such as strategic embeddedness, contributions to healthy economic growth, clear, practical division of responsibility and powers, good social processes, and good management of scarce resources.

Indicators for Areas That Are not Particularly Affected by Project Work

Compared to the relatively positive impact noted earlier, it is worth looking at the areas where the impact was considered low, sometimes very low. The scores are shown in Table 3.

Social Impact Paradox

As noted previously, there is limited support for contending that project work has affected economic growth to any extent. But where project work has had least reported impact is on social processes in society. This is the received opinion irrespective of sector. Generally speaking, society and social processes have not been signally affected by project work. One can interpret this in several ways. Modern culture's social processes may already be so well catered to that project work has little to offer in addition. Or, conversely, project work remains a technical and economic micro-level tool, lacking the ability to change society at the macro level. Project work as a discipline is unlike most others because it draws on wide range of disciplines and they need careful alignment. This requires transaction skills, which in this case is the ability to import, adapt, and employ elements from other disciplines in project work. It is necessary, particularly for the interpersonal aspect, to coordinate elements of sociology, psychology, organization studies, number theory, economics, and culture. The low score could indicate lack of success here, in the general view.

Compared to the positive scores on human activity and growth and employee satisfaction, this is a paradox. Project work may still be a purely internal matter for firms and organizations, unable to create external ripple effects through society.

Reward Paradox

Another paradox is the low score for economic reward systems. It would seem as if employee satisfaction occurs, as the indicators demonstrate, despite poor remuneration for important contributions. In that case, it would be a danger signal, because if employees are dissatisfied with an inadequate reward system or are unhappy with the lack of response to their work, the positive impact of project work in the various areas could unravel. It would make it harder to persuade people who have worked on major projects to take on new ones. Therefore, it may be necessary to investigate the form that compensation should take in recognition of a demanding project well done; a bonus system perhaps, or other forms of acknowledgement and opportunities for the people who were involved and did a good job.

Control Paradox

A final, important paradox is the low score, particularly for public administration, for management and control of scarce resources. Given the original purpose of project work—to make better use of scarce resources such as time and money—it is surprising to see the low rates for resource control. Clearly, the approach is perceived to have affected collaboration and management more than resource control and management. Again, there are several possible explanations. For instance, rich countries may have abundance of resources; one may not feel the need to worry if some of them go to waste. Or maybe project work is today more of an internal social and organizational domain than a management tool. If this is the case, and it is what society wants, project activity in a modern culture must acquire a completely new perspective, rather than the current one into which so many resources have been piled and whose development has been based on extremely outdated, quantitative models.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Project work has become one of most influential factors in modern societies. In utterly central areas of our working life and relations with one another, major benefits are seen to flow from projects that serve to enhance the common good. At the same time, this power is both variable and paradoxical. Some areas are positively affected to a high degree, according to reports. How managers lead, how we work, and whether we enjoy our work are three such areas. Economic collaboration between suppliers and users has brought major benefits and mutual understanding. However, changes in other areas have been much less noticeable. While the economy as an indicator scores well in terms of corporate economics, the control of scarce resources achieves a low score. And the impact on society's economic and social status is worryingly low. Clearly, project work remains an internal corporate and organizational tool, and many are the internal processes it has improved. But it has not succeeded in doing so in equal measures across society as a whole, not by a long run. There would also seem to be widespread dissatisfaction with the personal reward systems that come with project work, which should give cause for thought.

Given the wide use of project work in the public sector, the stark contrast between the significantly lower scores awarded by public sector employees to virtually every indicator of good project performance and those awarded by private sector employees is perplexing. It is a paradox given that government measures are precisely designed to benefit society through the skilled use of project work. If the tool is used improperly, the result in all likelihood will be under par as well.


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EQA Model

Figure 1. EQA Model

Analysis Results

Figure 2. Analysis Results

Table 1. Highest impact score

No. Impact area Aver.score Private Public Cluster category Project phase
1. Personal activity and development 5,54 5,63 5,24 Personal development Preparatory phase
2. Managment role 5,45 5,54 5,16 Management role in general Preparatory phase
3. Economic earning power 5,38 5,44 5,16 Economic utility effect and customer relations Result phase
4. Customer and client collaboration 5,32 5,39 5,09 Economic utility effect and customer relations Result phase
5. Customer satisfaction 5,30 5,36 5,11 Economic utility effect and customer relations Result phase
5. Employee satisfation 5,30 5,39 5,04 Employee mentality Result phase

Table 2. Medium impact score

No. Impact area Aver.score Private Public Cluster category Project phase
7. Division of powers and responsibility 5,27 5,38 4,89 Personnel development Preparatory phase
8. Own organization's strategic management 5,22 5,26 5,07 Strategy and control Preparatory phase
9. Internal strategy processes 5,12 5,22 4,79 Strategy and control Preparatory phase
10. Overall economic growth 5,12 5,11 5,14 Societal implications Result phase
11. Management of scarse resources 5,07 5,19 4,64 Strategy and control Preparatory phase
12. Internal social processes 5,03 5,13 4,68 Personnel management Preparatory phase

Table 3. Lowest impact score

No. Impact area Aver.score Private Public Cluster category Project phase
13. Treatment of employees individually 4,98 5,04 4,78 Personnel management Preparatory phase
14. Management of scarse resources 4,95 5,01 4,73 Strategy and control Preparatory phase
15. Economic reward systems 4,71 4,84 4,27 Employee mentality Result phase
16. Society overall 4,60 4,60 4,60 Societal implications Result phase

© 2010 Project Management Institute



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