The stakeholder approach in project management within various industrial sectors, especially construction and information services, is an internationally recognized professional discipline, which enjoys support from a growing community of researchers, scholars, and enquiring practitioners. Project management peer-reviewed journals are giving growing importance to this research area. In project management, it is accepted as one of the most important success factors. This began to be evident after the appearance of the well-known book by Freeman in 1984. After 25 years from its inception, we try to find where stakeholders are considered as an important issue, how the definitions within the stakeholder theory evolve, and which qualitative levels of contribution to stakeholder theory the articles have, by carrying out a meta-analysis of project management literature. This paper presents the results of a literature review on stakeholders within the leading project management peer-reviewed journals. A review of 2026 journal articles was conducted, focusing on stakeholders within project management. After the systematic search, 116 articles were assessed against the origin, source of information, industry sector, definition, context and level of contribution to the stakeholder theory. We found that stakeholder theory is predominantly fed by articles from the UK, Australia, USA and Canada and applied in the construction and IT sectors. The percentage of stakeholder articles against total articles increased over time, as well as the number of definitions. The understanding of the stakeholder notion is moving towards a more complex view. We also found that many stakeholder articles are from the project success, project risk, project performance and project strategy contexts, as stakeholders are playing a key role in these project management areas.
Keywords: stakeholder, stakeholder theory, project management, literature review, meta-analysis
Looking at Project Management (PM) literature, one can find a considerable number of articles dealing with project success, strategic frameworks, project environment and the social aspects of project management. Within these areas of project management research, project stakeholders are often mentioned as essential players in projects (Cleland, 1986; Miller & Olleros, 2001; Office of Government Commerce, 2003; Olander & Landin, 2005). Cleland (1986) introduced stakeholders and stakeholder management processes to the project management canon by highlighting the importance of stakeholder identification, classification, analysis, and management approach formulation. During the last few years, many authors stated clearly the extraordinary importance of stakeholders in projects (Burgoyne, 1999; Jergeas, Williamson, Skulmoski, & Thomas, 2000; Freeman, 2002; Dervitsiotis, 2003). Stakeholder management has become an important soft skill in projects (Crawford, 2005; Morris, Jamieson, & Shepherd, 2006; Winter, Smith, Morris, & Cicmil, 2006). Stakeholder theory has its origins in the year 1984. At that time, Freeman defined stakeholders as “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation's objectives” (Freeman, 1984). Freeman's definition is often cited as the classic stakeholder definition (Boonstra, 2006; Achterkamp & Vos, 2008). Although this term had been used before, Freeman was the starting point of the stakeholder theory (Achterkamp & Vos, 2008).
As 25 years have passed since the “year of birth” of stakeholder theory, we want to provide a picture of the research history of stakeholder theory in project manager literature. This article presents the meta-analysis of stakeholder theory and helps to understand its patterns and main drivers. There has been only one publication in a related direction (Achterkamp & Vos, 2008). It was dedicated to an analysis of 42 articles from the two journals International Journal of Project Management (IJPM) and Project Management Journal (PMJ) in the period between 1995 and 2006, however, with a different interest. In our meta-analysis we researched 116 articles, from 1984 to 2009, in the four most important journals of project management literature: IJPM, PMJ, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business (IJMPB) and International Journal of Project Organisation and Management (IJPOM). Certainly, we also studied some other stakeholder-articles, which have not been published in these four journals, but we excluded these from our present research in order to concentrate on project management literature. Furthermore, they would not change our results fundamentally.
In our results concerning the divulgence of the stakeholder theory approach, we found that it is well spread over the most important project management journals, over many industry sectors and also over many countries. By analyzing the cited definitions and their qualitative developments over time, we concluded that the understanding of the term stakeholder is moving towards a more comprehensive and multilateral view. Stakeholders are considered as more important in the context of project management. And finally we found that the drivers of stakeholder theory development are from articles related to the context of project evaluation and project strategy.
In order to picture the history of stakeholder research, we designed three research questions. The first one gives general information about the sources as to where the stakeholder articles were found, about the information sources of these articles, about the origin of the articles, by country, and about the industrial sectors, to which stakeholder theory was applied in the articles. This question enables us to find out how and where stakeholder theory is applied. Our second research question regards the understanding of the stakeholder theory over the observed 25 years, by stating all existing definitions of stakeholders and evaluating them in a more detailed way. In this way, we can conclude what understanding of this concept is common. In our third research question, we analyze the drivers of stakeholder theory development by looking more closely at the context of the articles and their qualitative level of contribution to stakeholder theory. This question provides us with information about the drivers of stakeholder theory. In the following, the three research questions are presented:
(1) Research Question 1: Divulgence—What information can we gain from the stakeholder articles concerning their (a) frequency in project management journals, (b) sources, (c) origin and (d) industry sectors?
(2)Research Question 2: Understanding—How is the understanding of stakeholder theory developing, shown by (a) existing definitions and (b) evolution of definitions?
(3) Research Question 3: Drivers—Which areas of project management literature are drivers of stakeholder theory, shown by (a) context of the articles with stakeholder theory application and by (b) qualitative levels of contribution to stakeholder theory?
Our methodology of research will be explained in the next section, before the results are presented according to the research questions. Then we will discuss our results and close with some conclusions.
This study looks at the research on stakeholder theory within the leading project management academic journals. The first steps involved the selection of peer-reviewed project management (PM) academic journals (Figure 1). While project management relevant articles are published in many academic journals and practitioner periodicals, such as The Academy of Management Review, Business Society, Engineering Management Journal, etc., the intent of this study was to focus on the premier academic journals specifically focused on project management. The results of this search included International JournaI of Project Management (IJPM), Project Management Journal (PMJ), International Journal of Managing Projects in Business (IJMPB) and International Journal of Project Organisation and Management (IJPOM).
The IJPM was established in 1983 by the Association of Project Managers in the UK on behalf of the International Project Management Association (IPMA). PMJ was established in 1970 by the Project Management Institute (PMI). The two other journals, IJMPB and IJPOM, are very new and both were established in 2008. With the selection of the project management journals, all article titles from 1984 to 2009 (including all the issues of 2009), were reviewed. During this review process, all book reviews, editorials, and showcase projects were excluded from consideration. While these articles provide some valuable information, the present research is bounded within the context of peer-reviewed articles specifically targeting the project management profession.
Within the next step, each remaining article title, abstract, and keywords were read in their entirety for the terms stakeholder, stake holder and stake-holder. During this step we found in some papers some synonyms for stakeholder, such as project environment (Pinto & Slevin, 1988), major participants (Hill, Russell, & Smith, 1988), or key players (Braz, 1989) etc., but we restricted our research only to the terms stakeholder, stake holder and stake-holder. In the PMJ journal, the abstract and keywords were first introduced in 1997, so in PMJ, from 1984 to 1996, we studied the introduction to find the previously mentioned keywords. In IJPM (Science Direct database) we found 3 articles (Toor & Ogunlana, 2009; De Bakker, Boonstra, & Wortmann, 2009; Liu, Chen, Jiang, & Klein, 2009) which are available online, but not yet published in any of the issues. We excluded these 3 articles from our research. As shown in Figure 1, this step produced results of non-applicable or applicable stakeholder articles. At the end of this step, four databases were available for analysis with the applicable articles. One database each was built for IJPM, PMJ, IJMPB, and IJPOM journals. Once the databases were available, we read the full-text of the applicable articles and sorted the data according to our research questions. Then we conducted the meta-analysis on the data in order to gain the answers to our research questions. The results and analysis will be discussed in the next section.
Percentage of Stakeholder Articles in Journals
The survey results indicate that the level of stakeholder-related literature is growing as compared to the earlier research. This section provides the details of the survey and meta-analysis of the data gathered. Performing the survey consisted of reviewing all identified IJPM and PMJ articles from 1984 to 2009 and IJMPB and IJPOM articles from 2008 to 2009. In the following subsections, results will be discussed as per research question 1(a).
The IJPM data source consisted of 1284 articles. Each article title, abstract, and keywords were read to find the word stakeholder. The result of this analysis produced 67 articles that had stakeholder in either, or all of, the title, abstract, or keywords. We conducted a similar analysis with PMJ, IJMPB, and IJPOM. From 649 PMJ articles, we found 29 stakeholder articles, among 69 articles of IJMPB, 16 were the stakeholder articles and we found 4 stakeholder articles from 24 articles of IJPOM. So, all in all, we found 116 stakeholder articles from 2026 articles of all four journals together. That means 5.7% of the articles mentioned stakeholder in either the title, abstract, or keywords.
To overcome the issues surrounding differences in the number of articles per year and differences in the number of journal volumes per year, data was converted to a percentage of stakeholder articles per year. Comparing these annual percentages of total stakeholder articles then provides a means to look for trends. Percentages of stakeholder articles are growing relatively over the years and reached the peak percentages of 15%, 15%, and 17% in the years 2006, 2008, and 2009, respectively (Figure 2). There are five years during which stakeholder did not occur in title, abstract, nor keywords in any journal articles. Even though the journal IJMPB is very new, it contributed a major portion of 5% in both the years 2008 and 2009.
Source of Information
To find more about sources, as per research question 1(b), the classification of the information sources over time is explained here (Figure 3), whereas the definitions of sources of information are given in Appendix A1 on Classification Method: Source of Information; the source of these definitions is based on the same method as in the literature review paper from Betts & Lansley (1995).
The sources of information on which papers are based changed over the years. They started with reviews in the initial years, and reviews stay almost stable over the years. However, case studies and empirical data are showing an increasing tendency over the years. In 2009, case studies occupied a major part, with 17 articles, that is, 63% of the total 2009 stakeholder articles are from case studies. Empirical data papers are in the second position, with 9 papers, and there is only one review paper. The main conclusion we can glean from the sources of information is that most of the published articles on stakeholders are of practical orientation, with case studies and empirical data, which comprise together 82% of the total stakeholder articles.
Origin of the Articles
According to research question 1(c), the origin of articles can be shown in a number of ways, for example, the type of institution, the name of institution, etc., but here we wish to present our results on a country basis, as this information will indicate which countries are considering the stakeholder approach as an important issue. There were some articles that were contributed by multiple countries. In this case, we provided weighting for each country. Weighting for a paper is a fraction that is dependent upon the number of countries. In all four journals together, 30 countries published their articles on stakeholder ideas. As it is difficult to gain an overview with the results of 30 countries in one graph, we are presenting the results of the top 10 countries, and we put the remaining 20 countries into the category “rest of the countries,” as the share of these top 10 countries is 82% and the remaining 20 countries altogether contributed 18% (Figure 4).
The UK is in the number 1 position with 26 articles, which means that 22% of total stakeholder articles are from the UK. Australia and USA are in second and third positions with 16 and 15 articles, respectively. These three countries, the UK, Australia, and USA, together are contributing 49% of the total stakeholder articles. Canada is in fourth position with 11 articles. Norway and Finland are in fifth position with 6 articles each. China and Hong Kong are occupying the next positions with 5 and 4 articles, respectively. India and Singapore follow with the equal contribution of 3 articles each. We also carried out the journal-wise analysis (Figure 4) and found that the UK is contributing a major part to IJPM, the USA is contributing major part to PMJ and IJMPB gains a major input from Australia. This means that each journal receives their major contribution from their home countries. Coming to the remaining countries, IJPM represents more countries compared to the other three journals.
One of the important results which we wished to see is which industrial sectors are addressed by these papers, which sectors are playing major roles, whether stakeholder theory is limited to one or two industrial sectors or has spread to other industrial sectors over the years, as per research question 1(d).
The definitions of industrial sectors are given in Appendix A2 on Classification Method: Industry Sectors; the source of these definitions is according to the literature review paper from Betts & Lansley (1995). It was not possible to classify many of the papers, as they dealt with project management in a more generic way. We have considered these papers under the general sector. In total, we have categorized the papers into seven sectors. In the earlier years, stakeholder theory started with the more generic papers and slowly it spread to other industrial sectors (Figure 5).
In 2008 and 2009, stakeholder papers are represented in almost all the possible industry sectors. The first paper in the construction industry appeared in 1994 and the development has picked up drastically over the years, until, in 2009, it became the most dominant sector. Information and services representation started in 1990 and, over the years, also became one of the dominant sectors, in addition to construction. On the other hand, the representation of manufacturing, agriculture/ development, and process industry sectors started in the 1990s, but did not pick up much over the years, with the exception that, in 2009, the manufacturing sector contributed a good number. Stakeholder theory spreads to the facilities and utilities sector very recently in 2006, and, since then, it appears frequently. This shows that stakeholder theory plays a significant role in many of the sectors.
According to research question 2(a), to find out whether and how the stakeholders are defined in our selected articles, we searched for definitions in all 116 articles. Among 116 articles, 28 articles mentioned a definition for stakeholder in their articles, which represents 24% of the total stakeholder articles. Among 28 definitions, 22 were unique definitions, either defined by the author himself or by some other author. For this research section, we considered all of the unique definitions which appeared in these 116 articles, irrespective of the fact that some of them were cited from literature other than the 4 reviewed journals. This is due to the fact that our main aim for this research question is to see which definitions appeared in these 116 articles, who sourced these definitions to the stakeholder theory and when, and whether there is any evolution in the total spectrum of these definitions from 1984 to 2009. Please refer to the Appendix A-3 on List of Definitions by Authors for the list of all 22 definitions. In these 22 varieties of definitions, there were only two main different types of definitions; one is stated by Freeman (1984, p. 46) “…a stakeholder in an organisation is any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation's objectives…,” another is by Cleland (1985) “…who have a vested interest in the outcome of the project.” The remaining 20 definitions are either minor modifications of these two definitions, or a combination of the two. For example, the definition by Dinsmore (1990) “who has a stake in project outcome,” is almost similar to Cleland's vested interest definition. Consider another example definition by Andersen (2005) “…a person or a group of persons, who are influenced by or able to influence the project.” This definition is similar to Freeman's “can affect and affected by” definition. From this observation, we defined two groups of definitions; one is the “interest-in” or “stake-in” definition group and another one is the “can affect or affected by” definition group, with the synonyms for “can affect and affected by” are “able to influence or are influenced by”, “impacted by” etc. And we found a third group of definitions which are combination of these two definitions. For example, Boddy & Paton (2004) “Stakeholders are individuals, groups or institutions with an interest in the project, and who can affect the outcome.” In this definition, we can find both the key terms “interest-in” and “can affect,” so this definition falls into the third category of definitions. We named the interest-in group as the Type I definition group, because it is the simplest definition of all three types; the can affect and affected by group we named as the Type II definition group, and the third category of definition group as Type III. After this clear classification of definitions, we sorted all 22 definitions into these three types. Among these, 10 definitions were of Type I, which represents 45% of the total definitions and Type II and Type III groups had 6 definitions each. Then, according to the next research question 2(b), we looked at how these definitions evolved over the time and whether there were any trends visible.
The evolution of the stakeholder definition started in 1984 with the Freeman's (1984, p. 46) well-known “can affect and affected by” (Type II) definition (Figure 6). Immediately thereafter in 1985, Cleland (1985) gave his well-known “interest-in” (Type I) definition. Considering the evolution of stakeholder definition, we found that since Cleland's “interest-in” definition, the Type I definition gained momentum and appeared frequently from 1986 to 2007; on the other hand, from 1985 to 2001 there was no Type II definition. In 2002, Freeman modified his definition and since that time, Type II definitions have appeared in the years 2005, 2006, and 2009. Even though the Type III definition appeared first in 1996 in the PMBOK® Guide, there were no Type III definitions from 1997 to 2003. The Type III definition appeared again in 2004 and, since then, it has appeared in 2006, 2008, and 2009. The important conclusion which we can draw here is that we can divide the 25 years of stakeholder approach into two eras, before 2002 and after 2002 (Figure 6). The era before 2002 is dominated by the Type I definition and the era after 2002 is dominated by the Type II and Type III definitions. Nevertheless, the Type I definition has its significance over the complete range of 25 years.
Context of Stakeholder Theory
The context of articles concerning the stakeholder notion, according to research question 3(a), was derived from the main focus of these articles and their keywords. As too many specific topics were discussed in the analyzed articles, we created groups of contexts as explained in the following: Many articles were dedicated to the field of project success, for instance researching success criteria, as well as to the fields of project risk and project performance. We put these together in the category of project evaluation context, as they are evaluating projects by success, risk, and performance. The second group of articles was dedicated to the project strategy context, containing articles about project management concepts, different strategic frameworks and also business processes in projects. As a third group, we identified the project social context, which includes articles focused on topics such as trust, communication, and leadership in projects. The fourth group we found was the project environment context, discussing the roles of clients, sponsors, users, etc., as well as concentrating on other external factors in projects. And the fifth and last group was for all other articles which did not fit into the groups explained above. We have termed this the miscellaneous category.
More than two thirds of the stakeholder articles are in the context of project evaluation or project strategy (Figure 7), that is to say that the body of stakeholder literature in PM is fed predominantly by these research fields—without saying anything about the quality of contributions. In contrast, we can conclude that stakeholders are considered as an important factor in the project evaluation and project strategy contexts. Articles with project social and project environment contexts contribute almost one third of the stakeholder literature in the analyzed framework (Figure 7), meaning that stakeholder importance is also considered in these two fields.
Qualitative Levels of Contribution to Stakeholder Theory
To identify the qualitative level of contribution to stakeholder theory, we introduced a three-level model differentiating the levels as follows: when an article simply mentioned the word stakeholder without any explanation or deeper meaning to the stakeholder theory, we termed it a Level III article. When stakeholder theory is explained and applied to any topic of project management we defined it to be a Level II article; and when stakeholder theory is discussed and developed further or enriched by new models or concepts, we classified it as a Level I article. Thus, the meaning to stakeholder theory could be described as high for Level I, moderate for Level II and low for Level III. In this relation, Level III could also be described as Terminology Application, Level II as Theory Application and Level I as Theory Development.
|Project Evaluation Context||Project Strategy Context||Project Social Context||Project Environment Context||Miscellaneous||Total [∑]||Percentage of All Articles|
We found some notable information to answer research question 3(b) (Table 1). Thus, the articles from the project evaluation context do not contribute significant content to stakeholder theory development, apart from one exception. They simply apply the terminology or theory. Most of the Level I articles can be found in the project environment context. This field of project management literature is dedicated mainly to investigating everything in the environment around the project itself. As stakeholders are the essential part of a project's environment, it is obvious why this context contributes most of the highly qualitative articles in relation to stakeholder theory: it mainly covers the area where stakeholders interface projects. It is the only group that is predominantly developing stakeholder theory in project management literature. In the project strategy context, as well as in the project social context, we found a more or less balanced allocation of articles to the three levels. In both, we saw a small portion at Level I and a significant part in Levels II and III. That is to say that, from time to time, there was an article published with a high-qualitative level of contribution to stakeholder theory, but in general both groups mainly apply terminology and theory. Summarizing, roughly every sixth article in the project management literature is of a high-qualitative contribution to stakeholder theory. Articles applying the stakeholder terminology or stakeholder theory are quite well balanced over the rest of project management literature.
Adding the year of publication to the articles, described by their qualitative level of contribution to stakeholder theory, we found that most of the Level I articles were published within in the last four years, 2006 to 2009 (Figure 8), although the beginning of stakeholder theory was in 1984 (see introduction) and many articles with Levels II and III were published before 2006. Obviously, the application of terminology and theory in those earlier years required a further development of stakeholder theory, which took place as a consequence after 2006.
Discussion and Conclusions
Our analysis of the stakeholder articles, firstly on a statistical level and secondly on a conceptual level, led us to some relationships between the results. On both levels we found support for some trends in stakeholder theory development. Before we come to these trends, one should not forget that our analysis is based on articles using the term stakeholder. As we already have mentioned in methodology there are also other expressions used for stakeholders. So, when we talk about trends we cannot exclude the fact that the concept which we define as stakeholder theory was also applied in other ways than those proven by our results. Therefore our conclusions are based on that which is explicitly termed stakeholder theory.
Firstly, visualized by the data of our information sources, we could find evidence for the recognition of the stakeholder approach, both in all of the project management journals we analyzed and in a wide range of different countries and industries. Considering the time dimension, we saw this trend increasing. In other words, one can conclude from these results that the consideration of stakeholder theory is spreading within the project management research and practice world.
Secondly, stakeholder theory is applied mainly in the project strategy context and the project evaluation context, which includes project success, project risk and project performance topics. As these topics represent the core of project management research, because of their focus on the management process of projects itself, we can conclude that stakeholder theory is becoming an important approach in project management.
Thirdly, the significance of stakeholder theory is increasing and expanding simultaneously. As we have demonstrated, the clearly increasing share of stakeholder articles in project management journals and the majority of highly qualitative articles concerning stakeholder theory have appeared within the last few years, and the recent drive and interest in the stakeholder approach is obvious. Also, the evolution of stakeholder definitions is evolving in the more complex direction, which is the combination of the two definition types I and II. That is to say that stakeholder theory is driven to develop further.
To generalize our conclusions, stakeholder theory should be considered as an important trend in project management research, which has been prospering for some years. Its multilateral basis and application supports our further research intention, which is to analyze stakeholder theory in more detail. Considering important milestones, stakeholder classification models and stakeholder management approaches, our aim is to provide a comprehensive state-of-the-art of stakeholder theory in future work.