Subject expertise, management effectiveness, and the newness of a project

the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary


Denis F. Cioffi
The George Washington University

The creation process that led to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comprises many characteristics of common projects, but it also boasts some distinguishing features. For example, seventy years spanned the OED's formal start and completion, with the same organization leading the writing and publication efforts all those years. This dictionary also enjoyed an immeasurable contribution from what we would now call open-sources (Watson et al., 2005), sometimes termed “hackers”—but only the true ones, those who “solve problems and build things” (Raymond, 1999, p. 233).

Throughout the world, more than 100 years before the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, volunteers responded to the OED's request for readers, to whom books were sent. These individuals were asked to look for both common and unusual words in sentences that illustrated their changing senses over the centuries. They (most of them) would then return the books (most of them) and communicate the information back to the editors in a standard

format. Thousands of people submitted more than six million handwritten slips of paper that OED staff and editors had to read, organize, and judge.

Because of the project's large open-source component and its long duration, one might not expect to see a standard S-curve of its progress. However, Figure 1 (Cioffi, 2006) shows a normalized S-curve fit (Cioffi, 2005) to the published dictionary pages over the entire life of the project, from its formal inception in 1858 to its completion in 1928. The dictionary's first fascicle was published in 1884, so with the exception of the (0, 0) point, this S-curve fit to the key project deliverables uses no data for nearly the first 40% of the project's history. Any detailed project analysis based on a (deliverable) S-curve should probably begin with the OED's change in editorship in 1879, but for our purposes here, Figure 1 gives additional evidence for the inherent project nature throughout the long creation of the text.

This dictionary project was also, unfortunately, somewhat typical in several other, less flattering ways. In describing the huge effort, a contemporary lexicographic scholar captured perhaps the fundamental objective and consequent difficulties of project management: “As always, translating abstract ideas into physical reality would present unforeseen complexities.” (Mugglestone, 2005, p. xx).

The project languished for its first 20 years. The first editor died shortly after taking the post. The second was enthusiastic but had many other outside interests; he was also quite disorganized. The editor who would make the single greatest contribution to the project's success, James Murray, was given a rose-colored view of the previous work and told that he could retain his regular job (which he did initially) while managing the project. He spent the rest of his life on it, often working 60 to 80 hour weeks, but he died in 1915, 13 years before its completion, not seeing it finished. When completed in 1928, the dictionary met the scope specifications and Murray's quality standards, but the original planners had underestimated the project's duration by a factor of seven. As for budget, “nobody at Oxford had a real idea of what the monetary figures really meant: overhead had never been included, and the value of money had changed beyond all reason” (Winchester, 2003, p. 243).

Using the OED as a prime example, in this paper I examine how subject-matter expertise and project management effectiveness must merge to enable a manager to lead the successful implementation of a project. The paper postulates that the more new components a project contains—the closer a project is positioned to the project side of a spectrum that places operations at one end and projects at the other—the more that project management and project leadership require subject-matter expertise. As one can imagine, measuring these largely qualitative aspects and transforming them into rough numerical quantities proves difficult.

Subject-Matter Expertise

The Victorian Age showcased a remarkable number of highly accomplished people, many wealthy and others not at all wealthy (such as Murray), who spent much time educating themselves, learning about the world around them, and sharing that knowledge with their fellow citizens (Winchester, 2003). In this respect, as in many others, it was quite a different place from today's world. Project management differed in that it lacked the formal tools we employ now, but its human side is quite recognizable. For a project to succeed—especially a creative, intellectual project—workers must respect the person who leads it, and the person who leads it must demonstrate competence, for demonstrating competence is one way in which authentic management power is generated.

The first editor of the dictionary, Herbert Coleridge (grandson of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), died in 1861, too soon to have any major effect on this project. The second project head, Frederick Furnivall, had sufficient expertise and enthusiasm and energy to spare, but his general lack of organization and his inconsistent focus on the project make the point moot. Subject-matter expertise cannot compensate for fundamental flaws in a management approach.

S-curve fit to OED pages

Figure 1. S-curve fit to OED pages

This S-curve fit to the published dictionary pages normalizes both the production of these deliverables (along the y-axis, y) and the project duration (along the x-axis, β). Also shown along the x-axis are the corresponding calendar years, from 1860 to 1930, in 10-year intervals. After the formal start of the project in 1858, 15,587 pages were published over the project's 70.278-year life, ending in 1928 (where a year equals 365.25 days), but none before 1884. To avoid obscuring the fit line, only 20% of the data points are shown. (For details on the S-Curve equation used to fit the data, see Cioffi, 2005.) Details of the production of this curve will be available in an upcoming work (Cioffi, 2007).

Murray's knowledge and expertise stand out for both their depth and breadth, which is all the more remarkable because his formal schooling ended when he was fourteen years old. He once wrote, “I at one time or another could read in a sort of way 25 or more languages” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001 p. 32), and in an 1886 letter of application for a job (that he was denied) at the British Museum library, he lists at least that many (see Appendix A). To lexicography he brought more than great depth and breadth—he brought a fastidious and what we would now call a professional approach, apparently generated internally:

…in the field which had been in the hands of amateurs James insisted on applying standards of exact scholarship. How he formed these standards is something of a mystery. He had had no training in research, and until he came to London, very little contact with those who had…but even before these new contacts had time to influence him, James showed intuitive grasp of essential criteria (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 79).

Most important for leading this project, which required skills in areas loosely or not at all aligned with lexicography, “he was no narrow linguistic specialist but had a wide general knowledge” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 33). For example, dictionary pages were a precious resource and a source of frequent arguments throughout the project, with Murray and his later co-editors wanting more and the publishers wanting fewer. The presentation of words on the dictionary's pages was therefore of critical importance, and upon opening the dictionary we see the “extraordinary prescience of Murray as a bookmaker…. In all of his decisions he seems to have achieved a rare perfection—the form of the book is one that no designer since has had reasons either to tinker with or to complain about” (Winchester, 2003, p. 120).

Murray's interest in word pronunciation led him to a friendship with a professor of Elocution and Vocal Physiology by the name of Bell. Murray gave Bell's youngest son, then a teenager, his first detailed and practical lessons in electricity, and so Alexander Graham Bell later called Murray the “grandfather of the telephone” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 50).

Leading the creation of this dictionary demanded such breadth because of the inherently all-encompassing range of English words. Murray would need to write or facilitate the writing of the definitions of words across this entire range, which often necessitated communication with experts in extraordinarily diverse fields of knowledge. As he himself pointed out in an 1882 letter to Henry Sweet (upon whom My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins was modeled), he would have to define 80,000 words that he “never knew or used or saw before” (Mugglestone, 2002, p. 2)—an amount greater than the number of words in Webster's dictionary, considered by many the standard against which to compare this new work (Winchester, 2003).

In summary, few would disagree with Winchester's pronouncement: Sir James Augustus Henry Murray “…was in all ways—and in particular, in intellectual ways—unforgettably remarkable. He was remarkable even in an age that produced a disproportionate share, or so it seems today, of exceptionally clever men” (Winchester, 2003, p. 70). Without, however, Murray's management effectiveness to combine with his intellectual abilities, the OED would not have seen completion in 1928.

Murray's Personal Management Competencies

Can we make any inferences about Murray's management ability from what we know of him outside of a formal business environment? In looking at more complex jobs, Gadeken (2002) reports that “it is more important to study what each project manager brings to the job”, such as, “personal competencies” (p. 100). Murray brought much.

In starting this extraordinary task, Murray had an excellent foundation for good management: He treated people well (including his 11 children, who worked hard and happily on the dictionary), he had high standards, and he had always approached his work in an organized fashion. In 1856, at 19 years of age and more than 20 years before his ascension to the editorship of the dictionary, he served as the secretary of the Hawick Archaeological Society, where “[h]e kept the Minute books with meticulous care, recording in detail the contents of the papers read at the monthly meetings, and often illustrating them with drawings and diagrams” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 46). A year later, now headmaster at Hawick Academy at only 20 years of age, he displayed a remarkably modern approach to education as well as a project-management approach to monitoring, evaluation, and control: “Treating the children as individuals and adopting the curriculum to their needs, he kept detailed monthly records of the progress of each pupil” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 31).

In 1874, five years before becoming the OED's editor, Murray “…was already cautious about stating as fact anything which he could not prove conclusively” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 80), an approach that, if not overused to the point of micro-management, is certainly an attribute of good project managers. This trait would prove especially useful in Murray's upcoming dictionary project because in the several previous centuries of glossary and dictionary creations, mistakes had often simply been passed on from prior material.

At least two other attributes contributed to Murray's success as a manager and as a leader. The quality of the dictionary benefited tremendously from Murray's attitude that scholarship came first, and in this, he “…was no respecter of rank” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 81). Perhaps most important in heading a project on which he would work for more than 35 years, he possessed a “strong sense of vocation” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 40). Indeed, one of two “project leadership competencies” by which one can “differentiate top performers” is to ask if they are “strongly committed to a clear mission” (Gadeken, 2002, pp. 102 – 103).

Upon taking the position, Murray quickly showed a flash of “organizational brilliance” as he changed slightly the size of the slips that volunteer readers used to submit quotations. The new size was used through modern times, and it gave Murray and his working colleagues two advantages: They could recognize the larger slips from the first twenty years of quote collections; and they hoped the standardized slips would minimize the number of quotation sent in “on anything that came to hand” (as, for example, Furnival was wont to do, and he contributed about 30,000) (Winchester, 2003, p. 111).

When the choice of Murray as editor was announced, his potential to fulfill the varied demands of the position was acknowledged publicly by one anonymous writer, who wrote that Murray “…unquestionably possesses in the highest degree that combination of learning, method, energy and power of organisation which an arduous task demands” (Bailey, 2002, p. 211). The writer appears to have recognized the multiple skills demanded of a manager of a project that sits toward the project end of the operations–project spectrum.

How New Is New?

Is there a spectrum from project to operation? Is the spectrum linear? If so, can a project be represented as a point on that spectrum?

Project management researchers say routinely that projects deal with new things. The idealization of the definition of project, in fact, claims each one is unique (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 5). However, project and operations experts have not together considered carefully where a project that includes a sufficient number of well-known processes makes the transition from project to operation. Moreover, making such a categorical distinction would be difficult, more arbitrary than necessary, and not useful. Terming an enterprise either a project or an operation suggests, at least at first glance, a binary set of requirements for the two conditions. For example, we say that in addition to pure project management knowledge, projects require both knowledge and skills in other areas such as general management, interpersonal relationships, and in the subject matter of the project (Project Management Institute, 2004). Managing projects requires some of the same skills and knowledge as managing operations, but it also requires others, and in different proportions. Thus, “for endeavors that have some of the features, you may adopt some elements of both project management and routine operations management” (Turner & Muller, 2003, p. 2).

How does one decide the right mix of “some elements” suggested above? I suggest placing projects on a spectrum from project to operation. One could immediately question the validity of describing a complex network of processes and deliverables with a single point: Does it make sense? Practically speaking, of course, determining that point—accurately and precisely—for a real project would require a (quite unknown) complex algorithm that evaluated and somehow integrated the newness of each individual task over the entire project life. (The right algorithm would also demonstrate whether a linear spectrum can fulfill the desired function.) Nevertheless, I suggest that no matter what the detailed algorithm, that in the end, one can compare individual projects and place them somewhere on this putative spectrum, albeit with some intrinsic uncertainty. I further suggest that a project's position on this spectrum affects the management requirements for its success.

In a classic paper written 40 years ago that embraces a conservative, minimalist approach to project management, Stewart (1965/1995) suggested using project management techniques when a project's scope is “[b]igger than the organization has previously undertaken successfully” (p. 30). This concern about size merges with the question of newness. Because increasing the size of a project would usually increase the number of new tasks, the size of a project also affects its newness component, i.e., its position on the spectrum. For example, given enough time, a reasonably intelligent, literate person could probably find or deduce the etymology of a single word, but the thousands of words needed for a dictionary surely demand the services of a lexicographer. Aside from this type of obvious subject matter need, where would we place the OED project on the newness spectrum?

Answering this question requires a brief diversion into the history of the development of English dictionaries, or, to put it another way, for this project (this analysis) we need to develop our own subject-matter knowledge. Figure 2 (next page) contains selected events I considered noteworthy from this project management perspective. These show the evolution of dictionaries and the corresponding scope increases in dictionary projects. Considered as a whole, the events noted in the table help us understand the newness of the OED project.

The reference used for nearly a third of the events numbered in the table is James Murray himself. In 1900 he was asked to deliver The Romanes Lecture (RL) at Oxford University; he spoke about The Evolution of English Lexicography (J. A. H. Murray, 1900). Although an authority, he did not have the benefit of modern scholarship methods, and his opinions about such things as “the beginning of lexicography in England” (#1 in the table) may be challenged by contemporary expert lexicographers. His more factual statements, however, suffice for our project management needs, and his lecture is a pleasure to read.

In the last column of the table, TPM represents Winchester's The Professor and the Madman (Winchester, 1998), which introduced me to the topic; this is followed by Winchester's TME, The Meaning of Everything (Winchester, 2003). The various PPPs represent Osselton's Chosen Words, a collection of his papers; the letter following the PPP corresponds to the letter following Osselton's 1995 bibliographical listings (1995a, 1995b, 1995c, 1995d, 1995e). And JM refers to McMorris's highly useful summary of OED publications (McMorris, 2002). In this column also lists the page number of any quoted material; this number follows the initials.

Numbers 5 and 12 note organizations dedicated to insulating a language, allowing changes to the status quo only with formal approval. This so-called prescriptive treatment differs from the descriptive treatment of the OED. A descriptive treatment, however, exacerbates scope difficulties in many ways, not least its completeness: “There are several reasons why exhaustiveness is impossible. One is that the lexis of any language keeps changing and expanding, and that the dictionary—unless it describes a very precisely defined set of words—cannot avoid being partly obsolete at the time of publication” (Bejoint, 1994, p. 24). That fact puts an interesting twist on our standard definition of a project as having a definite beginning and end.

Murray recognized well this difficulty with scope. In the preface to the OED's first published volume, he cited his great predecessor Samuel Johnson, who a century before Murray had written in the preface to his dictionary:

I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was…to chase the sun…I set limits to my work, which would in time be ended, though not completed. (Winchester, 2003, p. 95)

These beautifully expressed insights suggest a possible new terminology: Serial or Johnsonian projects end, but by design, the work is not completed.

The work continues. Since the time of the OED project, dictionary-making has moved farther to the operations side of the newness spectrum, but producing a dictionary continues to be a project, both because of technical (or technological) issues and the nature of the subject matter. Forty years after completing the first edition of the OED, editors still were making decisions that affected, for example, scope and project acceptance: “The first American dictionary ever to record the word fuck was—surprisingly enough, considering the prescriptive stance of the compilers—AHD (except for the Texan edition), published in 1969” (Bejoint, 1994, 127). AHD is the abbreviation for The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, as edited by William Morris and published by Houghton Mifflin.

As for the OED, electronically combining the original edition with the 1986 (second) supplement (to produce a “so-called second edition” in 1989) marked the beginning of freeing the accumulated knowledge from “the tyranny of alphabetization.” (Brewer, 2004, p. 7 – 9) Work on the third edition proceeds, as editors add new words as well as correct inconsistencies and errors in the first edition; the incomplete OED3 can be used online today.

Selected innovations in lexicography

Figure 2. Selected innovations in lexicography

In the next section I argue that the position of a project, on a newness spectrum, sets minimum required levels of project management effectiveness and subject-matter expertise.

Measuring Qualitative Properties

Ultimately, all measurements should be numeric (Meredith & Mantel, 2003; Resnick & Halliday, 1966). So I begin with setting the newness scale, which is the most difficult of the three scales. At this stage of research, one cannot claim any precision in estimating the newness component of any given project. One may, however, establish the range and the endpoints.

Figure 3 lists several large projects with which I am more or less familiar. I can claim to have studied well the Oxford English Dictionary project, and I have some familiarity with the Manhattan Project. I do not claim as deep an understanding of the other project listed in Figure 3. The last column shows my confidence in the ratings that I have assigned, from low (1) to medium (2) to high (3). (Operationally, it shows how much I am willing to argue.)

I chose to measure the newness component on a scale from 1 to 7 for several reasons. The imprecision in this analysis calls, at least initially, for discrete, ordinal measures; we cannot say anything with confidence about the linearity of the scale. The number 7 allows us to put 4 in the middle, with three categories above and below. It seems not unreasonable that to turn a project with a large number of new components into an operation with many processes could take about seven repetitions of the whole project.

What does it mean to classify a project at the endpoint 7 in the newness dimension? It does not necessarily mean that no other projects exist with a greater number or fraction of new tasks, but it does imply a belief that no other projects have a substantially greater quantity of newness, however one might measure that. At the opposite end, I take advantage of prior research to say a project at point 1 contains “[truly] routine operations management, where the processes need to be stable, activity oriented and continuous” (Turner & Muller, 2003, p. 2).

Uncertainty is another characteristic of projects (Turner & Muller, 2003), and I suggest here the range of newness and the newness spectrum correspond in some way not only with uncertainty but therefore also with decisions and decision-making. Project workers possess greater certainty when a project lies toward the operation end of the spectrum. Fewer decisions need to be made, and those that do need to be made probably have better-defined algorithms for the decision-making. At the project end, uncertainty and decisions increase.

For ranking subject-matter expertise, I used a scale with a range from 1 to 7, with 7 being where I would put a person such as Murray, the primary editor and the recognized leader of the OED project. The next column in the table, headlined “PM eff,” refers to project management effectiveness, not merely expertise. Murray's situation helps explain the use of this term. Murray presents some of the classic difficulties of having strong-willed, knowledgeable people in charge: stubbornness and a reluctance to delegate work. (For example, he initially fought the addition of sub-editors.) He also erred badly in his schedule predictions—as did everyone else associated with the project.

From a narrow project management point of view, Murray could have done better, which explains the 6 for his ranking. His colleague and good friend, Joseph Wright, edited the English Dialect Dictionary.

Wright drew on James's experience and learnt from his mistakes. He delegated more to his assistants, he never wrote a letter which he could avoid and he cut his social engagements to a minimum. He brought out the parts of his dictionary so regularly that the subscribers said they could set their clocks by them. (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 334)

Furthermore, Murray often faltered when he played the part of broker in his dealings with Oxford University Press; he was much better when playing the steward, when he was overseeing the project and the project team (Turner & Keegan, 2003). Although Furnivall angered people and complicated matters as much as he sometimes truly helped, at various opportunities many other luminaries also interfaced with the Press for Murray, several times saving the project.

As steward, Murray's subject-matter brilliance often coalesced with his project management effectiveness, particularly his emphasis on quality. The impossibility of separating Murray's management practices and his leadership ability from his lexicographic skills and associated knowledge led me to use this terminology, effectiveness, to measure the project management dimension. Why, I wondered, did these areas seem so tightly intertwined, and why did it seem to be so extraordinarily important in this project?

The preface to a reprint of a 1990 article explains “What Leaders Really Do”: “Managers promote stability while leaders press for change” (Kotter, 1990/2001, p. 3). This sentence shows the paradox of project management.

Projects are about change, so the project manager should lead as well as manage. The project manager sits at this conjunction, attempting to lead change in a planned manner, controlling the forces that destabilize deliberately the prior equilibrium.

In “Profiling the Competent Project Manager,” Crawford (2002) points out that measurement standards do not exist for leadership. By using effectiveness instead of only expertise for this category, I include leadership and do not attempt to measure it separately. For a project at the project end of the operations–project spectrum, leadership demands subject-matter expertise because a knowledgeable vision is needed to implement large changes to the status quo.

Ranking projects and programs

Figure 3. Ranking projects and programs

Figure 3 is ordered in terms of position on the operations–project scale. Although Murray could have done a better job managing the project, his rank of 7 in subject-matter expertise shows that the Oxford University Press could have chosen none more expert than he. Overall, I have no doubt he “was the right man at the right time” (K. M. E. Murray, 2001, p. 340).

The human genome project offers a fascinating example of the highest levels of subject-matter expertise as well as of managing large-scale projects. Because of an effort led by Craig Venter, the United States (US) federal government found itself in a race with a private concern to decode the human genome. The genome story again emphasizes the need for great abilities in both areas. The first director of the government's project was none other than James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA (along with Francis Crick and the insufficiently acknowledged Rosalind Franklin) (Maddox, 2002). He was followed by Francis Collins, again supremely well qualified scientifically. But it was Venter, not only a brilliant scientist but also a “scientist/entrepreneur” (Shreeve, 2004, p. 51), who used both capabilities to see what I would characterize as the project management solution to the problem—speed through parallelism and sufficient but not overwhelming quality—that in the end pushed the federal effort.

This combination in one person does not occur frequently. In the US federal government, the Senior Executive Service provides a good example of an attempted merging of subject-matter expertise, leadership, and general management skills. The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act created the Senior Executive Service to select an elite management core. The core as envisioned has not materialized:

The issue of whether the Government is best served by a cadre of generalists or subject-matter specialists continues to stir debate. In 1993, The National Performance Review, now known as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, found that “the majority of senior executives, however, now serve in the SES because of their technical expertise, often as key advisors and managers of support staffs or as operational managers responsible for parts of line (legislative) programs, rather than as agency-level leaders and program executives. While all are important positions, this mixture of roles makes it difficult to develop and manage the SES as a resource for agency management as originally intended.” (Office of Personal Management, 2005)

Subject-matter expertise to the exclusion of leadership does not work when operating at the highest administrative levels, i.e., cabinet-level departments of the US government, and it certainly will not work with state-of-the-art projects.

One might argue that the Manhattan Project benefited from two people coexisting in the role of project manager, Robert J. Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. While we cannot overemphasize the competence of Groves as Oppenheimer's assistant, the leadership was Oppenheimer's, and his role could have been played by only, at most, a handful of other people in the United States at that time. As is the case with Murray, the project demanded a level of subject-matter expertise possessed by few, and again as with Murray, Oppenheimer was the right man at the right time.

Roald Amundsen possessed both subject-matter expertise and project management skills to such an extent that I positioned him at the top of both scales. Amundsen was the first human to reach the South Pole, and he got there before his chief competitor, Robert Scott. The book referenced paints Amundsen as in most ways a model project manager and Scott as barely competent because of the ignorance, narrowness, and rigidity that characterized a failing British Empire.

Based on these five examples (and consistent with the tone of Gadeken's (2002) research) one might want to require that a manager's subject-matter expertise rank as high or higher than the project's position on the newness spectrum. The project management effectiveness rank can be one integer lower. (Michael Brown, who headed the US government's Federal Emergency Management Agency during 2005's Hurricane Katrina disaster, seemed to rank low on both scales.) Failings in formal project management may affect the triple constraint, but insufficient subject-matter expertise—and the focused passion that should accompany it—may prevent the completion of the project. In the two examples below, it also prevents the start of projects.

Halberstam's classic tome on the competition between the hitherto untouchable US auto industry and the (at the time) upstart Japanese echoes this theme of the importance of subject-matter expertise. In 1973, David Davis, an automobile enthusiast, was asked by a top executive of General Motors to examine the possible profitability of front-wheel drive cars, then popular in Europe.

The question struck Davis as precisely the wrong one, but at the same time typical of what standards no longer dominated the industry. The proper question, Davis believed, was not whether this could be a new option for which a little extra could be charged. On an innovation of this magnitude, the right questions were whether it worked, whether it was as good as everyone said, and, if so, how quickly it could be introduced. Davis believed that in the old Detroit, the Detroit of car men, no one would have asked what it might cost as an option but simply whether it made the car better…. The new Detroit, he thought, was more cautious, a place of people who had made their way up by taking as few risks as possible…. Innovation cost money and entailed risk, and they had little stomach for it…. In the new Detroit, it was mainly the engineers who still cared about innovation and whose principal pleasure came from changing and improving and probing into the future; and the engineers, he had seen, were almost completely stymied by the power of the financial people…. The auto industry was static. Its member corporations changed hemlines every year to give the illusion of change, but in truth they were more concerned with preserving their positions than with improving their products (Halberstam, 1986, pp. 22 – 23).

Thirty years after Davis's concerns, Mintzberg (2004) repeats the mantra in a book decrying the lack of experience (and hence lack of subject-matter expertise) of modern MBAs. In describing (low-technology) fast moving commercial goods (FMCGs), Mintzberg writes:

FMCGs seem to change all the time. But much of that change is cosmetic…. As a consequence, exploiting takes precedence over exploring: to keep the rather standardized products—the so-called brand—moving down established channels. As Ross Johnson put it as CEO of Nabisco, “Some genius in the past invented the Oreo Cookie and we're just living off the inheritance.” …[M]arketing is king, supported by finance, and the favored managerial style seems to resemble the fast-food cook more than the gourmet chef. (p. 129)

Project managers working at the project end of the operations–project spectrum need to create and lead: They should be management's gourmet chefs.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper looked at the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Despite its long duration and large open-source component, the production did manifest a classic characteristic of a project, an S-curve, and so the OED's unique properties and large scope in comparison to other English dictionaries place it firmly in the realm of projects.

From there, a brief discussion of the single most important figure in the project, James Murray, shows him to have been both a subject-matter expert (lexicography) and a man with the key traits needed for a good project manager and leader. The inability to separate Murray's various skills into convenient packages first suggested that the manager of such a project should possess great expertise in the project's subject matter.

I proposed that this requirement correlated with the extreme novelty of the OED project, and so I originated a scale on which project newness could be denoted. I looked quickly at a couple of other projects that showed results consistent with the OED project. Extrapolating beyond the realm of subject-matter expertise, I suggested that other project qualities, such as decision-making, also vary strongly with a project's position on the newness spectrum.

I believe that we—as project management professionals—can improve our recommendations for managing projects by encouraging an awareness of the location of each project on the operations–project spectrum. The projects closer to the project end of the spectrum demand more scrutiny. Therefore, the initial estimate of a project's position on the spectrum is a form of risk analysis, showing where senior management should focus its priorities.

An awareness of this spectrum can improve communication about projects. A colleague of mine related a story about having a student who insisted his professor was “WRONG” (e-mail shouting) for saying that he viewed as repetitive a certain work-effort performed by the student in the course of his regular employment. The repetitive nature of the work, in the opinion of the professor (and me), made the use of the term “project” incorrect. The conversation might have been different, and the communication improved, if instead of discussing whether the student's work activity involved projects or not, the question had been, “Where on the operations–project spectrum do your tasks lie?” The student might answer “3 or 4,” while my colleague and I would prefer “1 or 2,” in which case the student surely would think that the two professors were only “wrong,” not “WRONG,” thereby reducing the volume.

Despite the OED's large open-source component, this analysis is predicated on a cathedral model (Raymond, 1999). Consider the situation if instead the bazaar model is used. Extreme subject-matter expertise by a single individual leading the project would not be as necessary because of the aggregate open-source contribution. At the current time, however, typical business organizations will not pay for both leadership and widely distributed subject-matter expertise.


On sabbatical, one has the time to converse. Enjoyable and stimulating conversations (in person, through Skype, and via email) with the following people helped me develop this topic: Frank Anbari, Edward Cherian, Dick Donnelly, Peter Gilliver, Homayoun Khamooshi, Jim Kuhn, Young Kwak, Tom Mills, Lynda Mugglestone, Tjai Nielsen, Rodney Turner, Susan White, Erik Winslow, Phil Wirtz, and David Zalkind.

Bailey, R. W. (2002). ‘This unique and peerless specimen’: The reputation of the OED. In L. Mugglestone (Ed.), Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the untrodden forest (pp. 206 – 227). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Quote in title taken from Fennell, C. A. M. [1884, 2 February]. Review of A-Ant. The Athenaeum, pp. 177 – 178).

Bejoint, H. (1994). Tradition and innovation in modern English dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Brewer, C. (2004). The “electronification” of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, 25, 1 – 43.

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AppendixA. A letter written by James Murray in 1886 for a position at the British Museum Library; he was not selected.

I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and Special, has been my favorite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages and literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes—not indeed to say that I'm familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical & structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provencal, & various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages), Flemish, German and Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works for publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of Russian. In the Persian, Achaenenian Cuneiform, & Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew & Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phenecian to the point where it was left by Gesenius. (Winchester, 2003, p. 72)

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