Final Report—Research Project

Careers@Projects

img     WHITE  PAPER           2019

Prof. Dr. Martina Huemann

WU - Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria

Prof. Dr. Anne Keegan

University College Dublin, College of Business, Ireland

Dr. Claudia Ringhofer

WU - Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria

Vienna and Dublin, July 2019

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the Project Management Institute (PMI), who partly sponsored the research project Careers@ Projects as well as to our institutions and the practitioners who supported our research by sharing their experience in interviews and focus group workshops with us. We would like to express special thanks to PMI Academic Resource Manager Heather Ramsey and our PMI liaison Jonas Söderlund for supporting our research project. We thank our research assistants Matthias Gutheil and Helga Baumschabl for their support.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Brief Literature Summary

Boundaryless careers

Boundaryless careers and project professionals

Beyond the bounded/boundaryless dualism

The career-making activities of project professionals on projects

Implications and recommendations for project professionals and companies interested in improving understanding of careers on the project

Research Methods

Extensive literature search

In-depth interviews

Focus group workshops

Deliverables

The main outcome

Additional publications

Conference papers and presentations

Webinar

Findings

Conclusion

References

Introduction

Career research highlights a number of important shifts in the last two decades. The most important has been the shift from organization-bounded to boundaryless careers (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996). Authors highlight the importance of career patterns involving “moves across the boundaries of separate employers” (p. 6), the idea that everyone has a career, and the importance of subjective perceptions and personal discovery as key career concepts (Ellig & Thatchenkery, 2001). There has also been growing interest in novel career patterns and dynamic and temporal aspects of careers for all employees challenging a focus on organization-bounded aspects of career development for higher level employees in vertically integrated organizations.

The concept of the boundaryless career is of clear relevance for project professionals at all levels, who are often described as nomads hopping from project to project. Numerous challenges arise, including impermanent surroundings; high levels of mobility; continuous deadline pressure; and dynamic, short lived, and intense careers. Responses to this have included research on the pressures of “scrambling bee-like from opportunity to opportunity,” (Jones & DeFillippi, 1996, p. 89) and how individuals cope with movement from project to project. Another theme is about how organizations can provide formalized career models to motivate and develop people in the direction that fits the organization's requirements, and to “bound” the boundaryless career.

A gap remains in the literature regarding career-making activities that occur on the project. A focus on movement from project to project and organization to organization has reduced attention to projects as sites for career-making work and activities. We aimed in this research to focus specifically on what is happening on a project from a career perspective. Our research question was:

How do project professionals “make” their career on the project?

In particular, and to answer the above question, we were interested in the sub-question:

Who supports what aspects of career development on projects?

We adopted a qualitative research approach and applied a knowledge co-creation process with project professionals, project management scholars, and human resource management (HRM) scholars. Our methodology included an extensive literature search, qualitative in-depth interviews, and focus group workshops. We applied an interactive and multi-method cyclical research approach and conducted 55 in-depth interviews with project professionals from different companies. We used systemic constellations as visualization methods for the career paths of our interview partners.

Brief Literature Summary

Boundaryless careers

Career research highlights a number of important shifts in the last two decades. The most important has been the shift from organization-bounded to boundaryless careers (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996). Authors highlight the importance of career patterns involving moves across the boundaries of separate organizations, the idea that everyone has a career, the importance of subjective perceptions and personal discovery as key career concepts, and dynamic and temporal aspects of careers (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996; Ellig & Thatchenkery; 2001).

For example, Arthur and Rousseau (1996, p. 4) argue that “the term boundaryless distinguishes our concept from the previous one—the ‘bounded’ or organizational career,” and that “boundaryless careers are the opposite of organizational careers—careers perceived to unfold in a single employment setting” (p. 5). In articulating the specifics of the boundaryless career, the authors highlight “moves across the boundaries of separate employers” (p. 6) and careers based on “validation—and marketability—from outside the present employer” (p. 6, emphasis added). Clarke (2009) refers to the boundaryless career as one in which the individual moves from job to job, or from organization to organization, in the process transcending physical boundaries. Baruch (2004) holds that from an organizational perspective the concept is mostly about the shift from organizations offering careers based on secure employment for all, to opportunities for development. Table 1 compares the traditional career with the boundaryless career.

Table 1. Comparison of Traditional and Boundaryless Careers (adapted from Sullivan, 1999)

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Boundaryless careers and project professionals

The concept of the boundaryless career is of clear relevance for project professionals at all levels, who are often described as nomads, suffering from no-home syndrome, and hopping from project to project. They are seen as facing considerable challenges, in terms of their careers (Midler, 1995), that arise from what authors have variously described as “transient surroundings” (Hölzle, 2010, p. 779), “high levels of mobility and continuous deadline pressure” (Bredin & Söderlund, 2013a, p. 891), and “work situations that are often dynamic, short lived and intense” (Crawford, French, & Lloyd-Walker, 2013, p. 1176). Efforts to address the “problem” of the project manager's career have exhibited two streams, which have, perhaps inadvertently, created a dualism of the bounded/boundaryless in conceptualizing project careers.

One stream of research is on how individual project professionals can cope with the pressures of hopping and “scrambling bee-like from opportunity to opportunity” (Jones & DeFillippi, 1996, p. 89). The individual challenges and coping strategies associated with movement from project to project are the main focus. Research highlights the networking skills required of nomadic project-based careerists as they seek and exploit opportunities within inter-firm networks and broader constellations of networks, organizations, and personal contacts in plotting their next moves. Bailyn (1991) sees a project-based career as one that evolves from project to project. Huemann, Keegan, and Turner (2007) hold that the single project, due to its finite or temporary nature (Bakker, Boroş, Kenis, & Oerlemans, 2013), cannot provide a career. Skilton and Bravo (2008) argue that the individual undertakes responsibility for gaining skills and seeking opportunities while working on temporary, short-lived projects in order to build a project-based career. As a result, issues including project type and opportunities for enhancing social capital are key factors in projectbased career development. Careers outlive and overarch projects such that projects are merely stepping stones and a jumping-off place for careers.

The second theme emphasizes the opposite, focusing on how organizations can provide career support in the form of formalized career models (Walker, 1976) to support advancement of valuable project professionals with scarce skills and firm-specific know-how along a particular career path. The aim of these career paths is to motivate and develop people in the direction that fits the organization's requirements (Bredin & Söderlund, 2013b) and, effectively, to “bound” the boundaryless career.

Beyond the bounded/boundaryless dualism

To date, the focus on either organization-bounded careers or boundaryless careers has produced a gap regarding career-making activities that occur on the project. These activities might include efforts to move from that project to another, but could also include work and activities on the part of project professionals (at all levels) to remain on or prolong their time working on a project. We aim in this research to focus specifically on what is happening on a project from a career perspective. If the project is the stepping stone, we are interested in the nature and challenges of the stone, rather than in the hopping from stone to stone that has to date dominated career research for project professionals. We are interested in careers on the project from the perspectives of project professionals at different levels—junior, middle, and senior—and different roles (project manager and project team member) as well as different types of projects (e.g., infrastructure, construction, and so on) with different project sizes.

The career-making activities of project professionals on projects

The career challenges that arise from what authors have variously described as boundaryless, rootless, and footloose careers have been studied in some detail in recent years. These footloose careers have been contrasted with more traditional, linear, and vertical careers within the secure boundaries of a single firm. The hallmarks of a boundaryless career, such as portable skills, knowledge, and abilities (Arthur, Claman, DeFillippi, & Adams, 1995; Baker & Aldrich, 1996; Bird, 1996); personal identification with meaningful work (Mirvis & Hall, 1996; Mohrman & Cohen, 1995); on-the-job action learning (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988); the development of multiple networks and peer-learning relationships (Hall, 1996; Kram, 1996; Raider & Burt, 1996); and finally individual responsibility for career management (Brousseau, Driver, Eneroth, & Larsson, 1996; Hall, 1996) have been studied. The organizational implications of boundaryless project professionals (e.g., Bredin & Söderlund, 2013b) have also been examined.

The ways organizations may overcome “psychological boundarylessness of individuals” by encouraging horizontal career moves within organizations instead of vertical ones have been explored (Clarke, 2009, p. 12). However, the current focus on project professionals “hopping” from project to project, as “workplace vagabonds,” renders a number of career-making activities that occur on the project invisible.

Implications and recommendations for project professionals and companies interested in improving understanding of careers on the project

The challenges and the opportunities of project professionals to acquire support for their careers on projects is a key focus of this study. We aim to develop new insights for organizations and individuals regarding careers on projects and sources of support available. By support, we refer to anything that project professionals perceive helps them to develop their careers and to discover opportunities to develop and apply their abilities (Ellig & Thatchenkery, 2001). The main question guiding our empirical study is therefore:

Who supports what aspects of career development on projects?

Research Methods

In this study, based on a qualitative research approach (Yin, 2011), we applied a knowledge co-creation process (e.g., as used by Huemann, Eskerod, & Ringhofer, 2016) with project professionals and other project management and HRM scholars. Our methodology included an extensive literature search, qualitative in-depth interviews (Kepper, 1996; Lamnek, 1995), and focus group workshops (Powell & Single, 1996). We applied an interactive and multi-method cyclical research approach.

Extensive literature search

We started the extensive literature search with a keyword search. The keywords were defined in a research workshop at the beginning of the research project. Furthermore, the researchers defined relevant journals that deal with careers and with projects for the literature search. We identified articles as relevant in the keyword search. The abstracts were screened and a first coding template developed on the basis of concepts and theories emerging in that review and pertaining to support for career development on projects.

Among the key issues arising from the literature review were mentoring, line manager support, compensatory approaches to career development, formal support, informal support, experience in early career stages, and so forth. (For more information, see Huemann, Ringhofer, & Keegan, 2019, forthcoming) We performed a Skype meeting (6 April 2017), in order to discuss the results of the literature search. There, we performed an additional abstract analysis and clustered the articles in terms of their relevance to the research question.

In-depth interviews

Sampling

We performed 55 in-depth interviews with project professionals with different experiences and roles (project manager, project team member, project owner, project management office [PMO] head, and project management office member) on different types of projects (e.g., infrastructure, construction) with different project sizes. We purposefully selected the interviewees based on their experience as project professionals. We used snowball sampling to build up on our initial pool of potential interviewees gained through personal or professional contacts as well as project management associations. The minimum project management experience we were looking for was 10 years. To explicate and visualize the careers of project professionals, we used a form of a systemic constellation (Huemann et al., 2016). Systemic constellations use space as language, produce viable descriptions and models of reality, and show relationships in a (social) system in a spatial way. By that, these methods make dynamics between elements of a system visible. Figure 1 illustrates the systemic constellation used in the interviews.

We asked the interviewees to make their career paths, including important projects, visible. We prepared a set of cards in different colors and formats. The interviewees could select the cards they wanted to select and it was possible for them to express a special meaning through the use of different cards (e.g., big red circles represent crisis projects). All interviewees prepared their career path by putting the cards on the floor. In the next step, the interviewees explained their career path to the researchers. The researchers followed an interview guide using a semi-structured approach entailing core questions with flexibility allowed for follow-up questions.

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Figure 1. Examples of systemic constellations during the interviews.

In addition, we asked the interviewees to make the resources for career development on projects visible to us. On average, the interviews lasted 1 hour and 30 minutes, including the time spent by the participant preparing to present their career path using the cards.

Data preparation, transcription, and analysis

We recorded and transcribed all 55 interviews. Most interviews were held in the German language and were first transcribed in German. We then translated the transcriptions into English. We attended a workshop to clarify all final issues. These processes achieved high-quality translations of all of the interview transcripts.

Based on the research question and review of the literature, we developed a series of so-called start codes or deductive codes (i.e., codes developed on the basis of existing research and scholarship) to analyze the interviews. Using NVivo 11, a software package for analyzing qualitative data, we coded all interviews using our preliminary start codes. As the interview analysis proceeded, we refined our list of codes based on emerging findings and updated these to reflect the emergent patterns regarding career support. (For details, see Huemann et al., 2019)

Focus group workshops

We performed six focus group workshops (Powell & Single, 1996) with project professionals, project management researchers, and HRM experts to discuss and validate our findings.

Deliverables

The main outcome

The main outcome of our study is the article, “Who Supports Project Careers? Leveraging the Compensatory Roles of Line Managers,” by Huemann, Ringhofer, and Keegan (2019), published in Project Management Journal® (PMJ). The article was accepted for the PMJ Festschrift issue honoring former editor-in-chief, Hans Georg Gemünden.

Abstract: This exploratory research examines who supports what aspects of career development on projects. Our main finding is that while project professionals receive support from formal and informal sources, a compensatory mechanism is at play. When support does not come from direct line managers, project professionals are compelled to initiate informal practices, including mentoring, buddy systems, and communities of practice. Practical implications arise for organizations regarding how to ensure sufficient mechanisms are in place to compensate for lack of line management career support and to allow project professionals to access the development opportunities they need by supporting their self-initiated efforts.

Additional publications

■  Akkermans, J., Keegan, A., Huemann, M., & Ringhofer, C. (forthcoming). Crafting project managers’ careers: Integrating the field of careers and project management. Project Management Journal.

■  Keegan, A., Huemann, M., & Ringhofer, C. (2017). Human resource management in organizational project management: Current trends and future prospects. In S. Sankaran, R. Müller, & N. Drouin (Eds.), Organizational project management: Achieving strategies through projects (pp. 153–171), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

■  Keegan, A., Ringhofer, C., & Huemann, M. (2018). Human resource management and project-based organizing: Fertile ground, missed opportunities and prospects for closer connections. International Journal of Project Management, 36(1), 121–133.

Conference papers and presentations

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Webinar

A webinar will be scheduled with the Project Management Institute.

Findings

Based on our findings thus far, we conclude that project research and career support on projects is nascent. We repeat the propositions developed in Huemann et al. (2019), “Who Supports Project Careers? Leveraging the Compensatory Roles of Line Managers,” forthcoming in Project Management Journal.

Proposition: The application of a compensatory lens sheds light on who takes a role in career support on projects, if line managers cannot, will not, or are not mandated to fulfill this role

While organizations may have formal career ladders and structures, support for careers on projects is still largely hit and miss. Project professionals may receive support from their line managers, supporting the call by Bredin and Söderlund (2013b) to reframe line managers as career advisors and coaches. However, we do not advocate that line managers are the only actors seen as providing support for careers on projects, as this would ignore the many project professionals for whom line managers are not available, too busy, or with whom contact is too sporadic. Our view is that given the vast contextual differences in careers on projects, and taking into consideration the often shifting and volatile relationships project professionals have with multiple project and line managers (Keegan & Den Hartog, 2018), adopting an explicit compensatory lens when conceptualizing careers on projects is valuable.

This compensatory lens both acknowledges and welcomes the roles line managers can and often do play in supporting careers on projects, but also sensitizes organizations, project managers, and researchers to the need to consider other, “less official” sources of support that can and must be activated when line management coaching, mentoring, and support do not materialize, as is unfortunately often the case.

Our compensatory logic recognizes the interactive effects of individual responsibility for career development that are impressed upon us by boundaryless career theory, and the balance urged by employability theorists in recognizing that, although responsible for their own careers, project professionals must use the supports around them—on projects—and these are available in different forms depending on the context.

Proposition: HR departments are not visible to project professionals from the perspective of career support

In our study, the HRM department as a source of career support was not mentioned or considered by our respondents. Indirectly, HRM departments are represented in the findings if we look at formal practices, as they are often designed by HRM specialists. HRM departments or specialists are not explicitly presented as an actor providing support, rather, they are only indirectly present via the formal practices they contribute to or design. For example, the formal buddy systems and mentoring systems that organizations offer are linked with the presence of HRM specialists. This observation is in line with other studies that describe HRM specialists as operating on a more strategic level, and quite far away from project professionals (Huemann, 2015; Keegan, Huemann, & Turner, 2012).

Proposition: Co-creation of career support by project professionals

Based on the findings, project professionals need to be able to access support from different actors depending on the mix of projects and links to the line as well as the effectiveness of line manager support. One somewhat optimistic finding from this study is the opportunities presented by the co-creation of career support by project professionals who miss line manager support. These types of practices, which compensate for line manager lack of support, should be studied more systematically and explicitly. They should also be both acknowledged by and mobilized by organizations and individuals for supporting careers on projects. This also gives project management associations a vital role that they can more explicitly play in the career support of project professionals.

Proposition: If people have been supported during their own career, they are more likely to provide career support to young professionals

Experience with having received advice or mentoring emerged from our study as an important indicator of whether project professionals are willing to support others with advice and mentoring activities. Many seem to want to give back, and they reciprocate the kinds of support they received during their early career. Our study revealed that career support was provided especially on first projects and in project-crisis situations. These interventions suggest that career support is salient mainly at moments when it is required in order to avoid damage to the project manager's career. If the senior project professional has this experience, they are ready to mentor young project professionals. In contrast, if they perceived that they did not receive support in their project careers, they do not provide support to others. From a practical point of view, this suggests a relatively straightforward mechanism for building compensatory career support capabilities by making everyone a mentor at least one time as part of their project career development journey.

Conclusion

The boundaryless career concept has produced rich research in recent years. Compared to traditional career theory, the concept highlights dynamic careers driven by intrinsically motivated individuals pursuing project careers. Scholars have questioned how organizations might bound the careers of project professionals to avoid losing valuable personnel. Career paths are seen as an answer to the problems arising from needing to traverse organizational boundaries to develop a career.

However, even in “bounded” boundaryless careers (Bredin & Söderlund, 2013b), the notion of scrambling from project to project remains central. A gap exists in our knowledge regarding the project as a career. In this research, we started to address this gap by analyzing the following research question:

How do project professionals “make” their career on the project?

With the focus on the sub-question:

Who supports what aspects of career development on projects?

We adopted a qualitative research approach and applied a knowledge co-creation process with project professionals, project management scholars, and HRM scholars. Our methodology included an extensive literature search, qualitative in-depth interviews and focus group workshops. We applied an interactive and multi-method cyclical research approach and conducted 55 in-depth interviews with project professionals from different companies. We used systemic constellations as a visualization method for the career paths of our interview partners.

Our primary study results can be summarized as follows:

■  Our study reveals the compensatory roles emerging in support of project careers. For example, if organizations provide a strong mandate to line managers to support career development, it is less likely that these compensatory dynamics will prevail than when organizations fail to, or choose not to, devolve such responsibilities to line managers. (see Huemann et al., 2019).

■  Identifying organizations with and without such a mandate, and comprising career support in terms of who provides and what is provided, can provide deeper and more precise insights on these issues. Future research can be valuable in unpacking these factors and providing practical guidance to organizations and individuals regarding support for project careers (see Huemann et al., 2019).

■  The main career theory used in the project management literature is the boundaryless career. Other theories are not or very less considered (see Akkermans et al., forthcoming).

There are several more potential papers for which we will use the data generated in this research project. For example, we have not, thus far, identified antecedent factors for project professionals to self-initiate support; we have also not identified the relative importance of personal or organizational issues that underpin the patterns we observed.

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