Project field studies

sense making on-the-job


This paper describes the practice of learning through field study placement of the art and science of managing a project. How project managers learn outside the walls of a lecture room will be explored using two current project management subjects being taught at the University of Technology, Sydney. One subject is an elective in an undergraduate construction degree and the other is taught to second-year Masters Degree students.

The role of the supervisor and student will be reviewed against the concept of internships and coaching, which are used as tools to assist in the apprentice's learning journey. When undertaking the role of a field educator, the supervisor needs to approach the transfer of theory into practice by developing a language and behavioural guidelines that support the agreed learning outcomes. Contracts need to be developed and agreed to so as all parties understand their responsibilities and liabilities when managing this dynamic learning environment. This is not dissimilar to what a client or program manager may expect of a project manager delivering agreed project outcomes.

Leading the approach to this form of learning is the practice of fieldwork. Understanding the approach to developing competency and the impact of cultural differences provides a multi-levelled dynamic where parallels can be drawn against practising project managers. Ongoing partnerships to continue the iterative approach to learning on-the-job provides the apprentice project manager with a support network of mentors or “masters” to assist in the transfer of knowledge.

Knowledge Creation

The attainment of knowledge requires the student to learn, or experience some form of personal change or perspective. This change involves altering the frame of reference the student has used to filter experiences. These frames can be defined in terms of instrumental learning, being able to manipulate the environment or people to deliver the task, or sense making through communicative learning.

Project management practitioners are required to adapt to change to solve problems by finding, retrieving and processing knowledge. To achieve successful outcomes, knowledge must be created and converted by the practitioner in an often evolving and dynamic environment. Nonaka, Toyama, and Konno (2000) developed a “Model of Dynamic Knowledge Creation” to define the knowledge creation process in terms of three elements:

  1. The SECI process: The conversion between tacit and explicit knowledge through Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation.
  2. ba: A place where knowledge sharing, creation and utilisation can be shared.
  3. Knowledge Assets: The moderation of inputs and outputs to the knowledge creation process that can be defined as experiential, conceptual, systematic, and routine.

Further exploration of the SECI process is required due to the relevance to this discourse. A practitioner converts explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge resulting in an anticipated expansion in the quantity and quality of knowledge. The four modes of this conversion are summarised below:

  • Socialisation: Conversion of new tacit knowledge through shared experiences, often in a shared environment where an apprentice can observe, interact, and socialise often beyond the organisational boundaries.
  • Externalisation: Articulating tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge with others that will therefore create new knowledge.
  • Combination: Conversion of explicit knowledge to more detailed explicit knowledge through gathering data internally or externally and then shared within the organisation.
  • Internalisation: Taking the shared explicit knowledge and converting that into tacit knowledge by the individual.

The teaching approaches used in field work and reflective practice provide the student with the ability to convert information across all four of the SECI modes just listed. Undertaking field work in teams or through structured discussion provides the student with the opportunity to Socialise their experiences. The preparation and presentation of the assignment meets both the Combination and Externalisation requirements respectively when gathering and articulating data. Internalisation of the knowledge is undertaken through reflection, which is structured in written form and submitted for assessment after the field work has been completed.

The transfer of knowledge is facilitated by the teacher who can take on the role of a mentor or coach, working with the student in what could appear to be an apprenticeship or internship arrangement to develop and attain new skills. The teacher is a role model, a sounding board and a counsellor, supporting the development of his or her student sometimes outside the traditional manager-subordinate relationship.

The relationship between a teacher and a student is dynamic and often evolves as the student becomes more competent. This process of reflection-in-action can become elliptical, “using shorthand in word and gestures to convey ideas that to an outsider may seem complex or obscure” (Schon, 1987). The process of coaching a student involves telling and listening, demonstrating and imitating, and ideally will proceed uninhibited in a supportive environment that prepares the student to enter the “real” world armed with skills and knowledge that have been tested in a “created” or artificial world.

Internships provide students with the opportunity to experience the transfer of tacit knowledge through their mentors while working on “real-life” projects. These types of projects can be linked to what can also be defined as “real-world” projects, which are “educationally directed activities involving out-of-classroom action settings complemented by student and/or instructor directed reflection on the links between theory and practice” (DeFillippi & Wankel, 2005, p. xi).

This type of learning can be described as Action Learning, which according to Yorks, O'Neil, and Marsick (1999, p. 3) is:

An approach to working with and developing people that use work on an actual project or problem as the way to learn. Participants work in small groups to take action to solve their problem and learn how to learn from that action. Often a learning coach works with the group in order to help the members learn how to balance their work with the learning from that work.

The experimental learning cycle that the student may work through links the abstract concept to the student intern actively experimenting, providing a concrete experience and then an opportunity to reflect (Kolb, 1984). To transition through this cycle the student or intern may undergo what Sweitzer and King (1999), as cited in DeFillippi and Wankel (2005), defined as “The Five Stages of Internship,” as listed in Exhibit 1.

The Five Stages of Internship (Sweitzer & King, 1999)

Exhibit 1. The Five Stages of Internship (Sweitzer & King, 1999)


At the most fundamental level, the mentoring relationship is about learning. The mentor is a role model, a coach, a sounding board, and a counsellor, supporting the development of his or her mentoree outside the normal manager/subordinate relationship. As Murray (2001) stated “facilitated mentoring is a structure and series of processes designed to create effective mentoring relationships, guide the desired behaviour change of those involved, and evaluate the results for the mentoree's, mentors and the organization.”

The intention is to provide the mentoree with ideas, real-life experiences and support, whether in regard to a particular situation or challenge, project, or more long-term career goals and issues. As a coach, the mentor should not give definitive answers to any issues or questions, but help the individual become aware of what options there are. The mentoree is the one who has to make the final decision.

The mentor is not expected to coach or train the mentoree in technical areas, such as project management methodologies, competencies, etc.; however, there may be some passing of “behavioural” skills from mentor to mentoree, such as leadership, coaching and communication skills. The mentor is also not expected to appraise the mentoree's performance or “represent” his or her interests at the workplace.

The mentor, in either a formal or informal capacity, can provide the mentoree with career advice and awareness of options for career development; awareness their potential and skills; a way to build self-confidence; targeted development areas with personal guidance; new skills and knowledge; assistance in problem solving; opportunities to build relationships; real-life examples of career paths (e.g., what the mentoree can achieve in the future) helps to turn career aspirations into realistic objectives, and greater understanding of their current project management role and the practice of project management.

The benefits of taking on the role of a mentor can include: enhanced skills in counselling, coaching and other interpersonal skills; satisfaction of helping another in the project management community; recognition; opportunity to learn new ways of thinking from the mentoree; personal growth; and can provide new challenges.

Application in Higher Education

The philosophy of how students learn to manage projects has been to provide theory through learned texts. The advent of problem-based learning (PBL) as an approach to education was introduced through medical education in the late 60s in North America. What has evolved over the last two generations of students is a structure in which to start the “apprentice” on their journey with a problem to solve, either in groups or individually. This simulates “real life” for students to apply the learned theories in a controlled environment. Boud and Feletti (1991, p. 2) identified the characteristics of PBL as an approach to education:

  • Using stimulus material to help students discuss an importunate problem, question, or issue;
  • Presenting the problem as a simulation of professional practice or a “real-life” situation;
  • Appropriately guiding students' critical thinking and providing limited resources to help them learn from defining and attempting to resolve the given problem;
  • Having students work cooperatively as a group, exploring information in and out of class with access to a tutor (not necessarily a subject specialist) who knows the problem well and can facilitate the groups learning process;
  • Getting students to identify their own learning needs and appropriate use of available resources;
  • Reapplying this new knowledge to the original problem and evaluation the learning processes.

As a result of giving the student a choice in their learning environment he or she is more likely to be able to competently manage change. This can be seen in their decision-making ability in unfamiliar situations where the student hopefully makes reasoned decisions based on critical and creative reasoning. Self-directed learning is a way of dealing with problems empathetically and in a group situation provides opportunities for students to collaborate and manage the process holistically. On an individual level the student can reflect on his or her own strengths and weaknesses that can be managed to deliver the required outcomes and on an ongoing basis.

The use of PBL techniques is underpinned by the constructivist approach that defines learning as an “active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge” (Kearsley cited in Boud & Feletti, 1999, p. 126). The educational theories behind this approach have been summarised by Koschmann et al. (1994) as cited in Boud and Feletti (1999, p. 128), in Exhibit 2.

Educational theories on constructivist problem based learning

Exhibit 2. Educational theories on constructivist problem based learning

As a counter to the aforementioned problem based learning, project based learning has been defined by Smith and Dodds (1997; De Fillippi, 2001) as “the theory and practice of engaging in time-limited projects to achieve specified or emergent performance objectives (project deliverables) and to facilitate individual and collective learning” (as cited in DeFillippi & Wankel, 2005, p. xi). There is an additional theory that can be drawn from project based learning that deals with ambiguity as a “central leaning trigger” (Clifford, Farran, & Lodish cited in De Fillippi & Wankel, 2005, p. 12). The first trigger, that of leadership ambiguity, deals with the student wanting to know where he or she is going. Through an absence of direction, the student must observe, participate, experiment, and intervene to make choices with the available resources. How should the students proceed leads to process ambiguity, where students work toward milestones but are not given direction on how to achieve them. Performance ambiguity requires the student to define what success is to the project and how it will be measured.

To ensure that knowledge attainment is structured and lessons are learnt, students enrolled in project management subjects at the University of Technology in Sydney are being asked to participate collaboratively and then reflect individually on the lessons learnt. This form of cognitive apprenticeship “supports learning in a domain by enabling students to acquire, develop and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). It also allows students to learn within boundaries that are “firmly set by the task, culture and history of the community” (Nonaka, Toyama, & Konno, 2000).

Students undertaking undergraduate and post graduate project management studies are exposed to two different learning environments. Both classes require students to possess a foundational level of knowledge learnt in previous subjects before they can apply the theory into a practical situation. Students are monitored and supported by the lecturer and are required to submit assessable outcomes that meet both the learning objectives of the subject and the project “client's” expectations.

At the undergraduate level, students in their third year of a full-time Bachelor of Construction are tasked with designing and constructing a residential project in situ. The project involves the student working collaboratively in a project team to plan and construct a residential building in a disadvantaged community either within Australia or outside Australia. The subject includes instruction on both the customs and culture of the relevant community and the construction methods relevant to that community. Theory and the practical application on-site provide the student with the opportunity to experience how the theory and concepts taught in class can be applied in a real-life situation. Assessment of the knowledge gained in this subject is through the preparation of a project plan, participation on-site and a reflective journal.

Students in their second year of a Masters in Project Management are required to identify an industry-based project and are required to deliver the project to the client's specifications within a semester. The project is based on interpretation of the learning objectives of the subject and the opportunities available in the selected work place. The submission and presentation of the work-place project is expected to take the form of a project plan and in some instances the project may also be implemented depending on the client's expectations. Students meet regularly with the lecturer to present industry standard progress reports on their project and keep a reflective journal, analysing their experience as evidence of learning. Students are also expected to demonstrate collaborative capability by providing feedback to the cohort on their projects after students have presented their regular progress reports. Their feedback is placed in an online forum with a specified and assessable level of contribution and interaction to ensure each student has the opportunity to provide and receive appropriate feedback.


Formal field study placements were explored using two current project management subjects being taught at the University of Technology, Sydney. Understanding the practice of learning and how knowledge is transferred between the supervisor and the student is essential for the student to embrace change and modify behaviours.

Intentionally ambiguous “real-life” projects generate questions that lead to learning by doing with guided reflection. This provides the intern or apprentice with a clear frame of reference from which the mentor can direct the learning journey for their students. An event or “trigger” (Boud, 1999, p. 31) that occurs while undertaking a controlled field study placement provides the opportunity for the apprentice to be mentored.

This form of mentoring provides a space, or ba in which to support the development and foster the talent of the student(s) who may be new to the industry or have a specific need.
Furthermore, as mentoring tends to create informal support structures within an organization, it is expected to accelerate student development and make career planning more effective within the project management community. These structures also enhance communication and networking in the field and provide another example how important it is to lead and motivate people so as to keep them committed to developing a life-long passion for learning.


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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Chivonne Watt
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Melbourne, Australia



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