The substantiation of the vision-to-projects (V2P) framework through action research

Department of Business Information Technology
University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Introduction: The Vision-to-Projects

Many literature sources agree that projects enable and facilitate the implementation of an organisational vision (Cohen & Graham, 2001; Phillips, 2002; Kendall & Rollins, 2003). The Project Management Institute's (PMI) Organisational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) stated that “projects help organisations deliver desired strategic changes in a changing world” (2003). It also stated that “this is true whether the goal is the development of a new software product, implementation of new systems in an organization, or designing and building a bridge.” Although the OPM3 recognized the fact that the vision and strategies of an organization are implemented by means of projects, it did not provide a lucid approach for proceeding from the vision to the projects. According to Peterson (2002), “any project undertaken by a company should be driven by business objectives.” Sources in the literature have also stated that many organisations lack a structured process through which to derive projects from the business objectives. Longman and Mullins (2004) also acknowledged that an organization's strategy should provide the boundaries for projects, and note that “installing effective project management includes putting a mechanism in place to evaluate every project for its fit with the strategy before implementation.”

Despite this, however, there is seldom a structured, formal process for deriving projects from the organisational vision. One of the main reasons for this is the way new projects are identified. Often, projects are driven from the bottom up; that is, a need is recognized at a lower organisational level, and then authorization and funding are sought at a higher level (Comprehensive Consulting Solutions, Inc., 2001; Phillips, 2002). The bottom-up approach might be necessary in some cases, but in the past this has often become the norm. Linking projects to the vision of the organization becomes a challenge, which makes an holistic view of projects almost impossible. It further makes it difficult to quantify the contribution that a specific project makes toward achieving the organisational vision, and measuring and managing the expected benefits. This does not mean these projects have no extrinsic value but that, rather, when looking at them in an holistic context, other ones might have been better suited to achieving the vision (Szymczak & Walker, 2003; Walls, 2004). The bottom-up approach prevents a more consolidated one to collectively managing all the projects within an organization, sometimes resulting in their being duplicated. Based on this, Marnewick and Labuschagne (2006) developed the Vision-to-Projects (V2P) framework, using the vision of the organization as a starting point from which to derive the projects needed to implement it.

The first two steps are to deconstruct the vision into strategies, using “Strategy Maps,” which are in turn deconstructed into business objectives (Kaplan & Norton, 2004a). The third step involves assigning measurements and targets to each business objective with a Balanced Scorecard (Kaplan & Norton, 1996). Each of these business objectives, with its associated targets and measurements, is then further deconstructed as projects and/or action items using principles from the project integration management knowledge area. The projects are then grouped together, where appropriate, into programmes related to the business objectives; that is, each business objective will be aligned to a programme or, at least, a project. The final step involves grouping together the programmes into a portfolio that is aligned to the strategies of the organization.

This essence of the V2P framework is illustrated in Figure 1, starting with the vision.

Vision-to-Projects (V2P) Framework (Marnewick & Labuschagne, 2006)

Figure 1. Vision-to-Projects (V2P) Framework (Marnewick & Labuschagne, 2006)

This theoretical framework was developed as a generalization model, using deductive reasoning based on an extensive literature survey. This paper reports on further investigation, through action research (AR), into the practicality of this framework. According to McNiff and Whitehead (2006), AR as a research methodology is appropriate when attempting to improve the understanding of something. In this case, AR was used to improve the understanding of, and to refine, the V2P framework. The paper is divided into four sections, with the first providing a brief overview of AR; the second focusing on the application of AR to the V2P framework; the third discussing the results; and the fourth comprising a conclusion.

Action Research

AR is known by many other names, including participatory research, collaborative inquiry, emancipatory research, action learning, and contextual action research, but all are variations on the same theme (O'Brien, 1998). The focus of AR is to involve practical problem-solving that has theoretical relevance (McKernan, 1996; Mumford, 2001). AR is a phenomenological paradigm, as the focus is on knowledge-creation based on the personal and professional experience of the action researcher (Avison, Baskerville, & Myers, 2001; Zuber-Skerrit & Fletcher, 2007).

What separates this type of research from general professional consulting practices or daily problem-solving is the emphasis on scientific study (Avison, Baskerville, & Myers, 2001; Coughlan & Coghlan, 2002). This means the researcher studies the problem systematically and ensures that intervention is informed by theoretical considerations. AR is considered a legitimate research method in the social sciences and is slowly reaching acceptance in the project management domain (Parker & Mobey, 2004; Whitehead, 2005). The following section briefly explains the AR process.

The Action Research Approach

The most prevalent AR description details a five-phase cyclical process, as illustrated in Figure 2 (Stringer, 1996; Avison, Baskerville, & Myers, 2001; Earl-Slater, 2002; McNiff & Whitehead, 2006; Zuber-Skerrit & Fletcher, 2007).

Action Research Cycle

Figure 2. Action Research Cycle

The approach first requires the establishment of a Client-System Infrastructure, that is the specification and agreement that constitutes the research environment. It provides the authority under which the researchers and host practitioners may specify actions and it also legitimises those actions with the express expectation that eventually they will prove beneficial to the client or host organization. This is followed by the five identifiable phases shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Phases within Action Research

Diagnosing Phase The diagnosing phase corresponds to the identification of the primary problems that are the underlying causes of the organization's desire for change.
Action Planning Phase Researchers and practitioners collaborate on this activity to specify organisational actions that should relieve or improve these primary problems.
Action Taking Phase The researchers and practitioners collaborate on the active intervention into the client organization, causing certain changes to be made.
Evaluating Phase Evaluation includes determining whether the anticipated theoretical effects of the action were realized and whether these effects relieved the primary problems.
Specifying Learning The purpose of this phase is to determine if the organisational actions must be modified to rectify the primary problems. This is based on the evidence from the Evaluating Phase. While the activity of specifying learning is formally undertaken last, it is usually an ongoing process.

The action research cycle can continue, whether the action proved successful or not, to develop further knowledge about the organization and the validity of relevant theoretical frameworks (Daniel & Wilson, 2004). As a result of the studies, the organization thus learns more about its nature and environment (Zuber-Skerrit & Perry, 2002).

Applying Action Research to the Vision-to-Project Framework

Different AR cycles were applied to the V2P framework, as illustrated in Figure 3. The overlapping of the three AR cycles is indicated by a pattern of vertical lines, illustrating that each subsequent AR cycle is dependant on the outcome of the previous one and that it involves the whole organization.

Action Research Cycles applied to the Vision-to-Project Framework

Figure 3. Action Research Cycles applied to the Vision-to-Project Framework

Research Methodology

Based on the practice of McNiff (2000), the V2P framework was broken down into manageable and measurable sections, each of which then went through the AR process and cycles previously described. The main sections were:

  • Using a Strategy Map to derive the strategies from the vision (Action Research Cycle A).
  • Using Strategy Maps again, but this time focusing on deriving business objectives from the strategies (Action Research Cycle B).
  • Using the Balanced Scorecard to assign targets and measurements to each business objective (Action Research Cycle C).
  • Using project integration management methods to identify projects to achieve the targets and measurements (Action Research Cycle D).

The following case study explains the application of AR to the V2P framework.

Case Study

Background

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) issued a decree that constituted rebuilding the country in a way that would enable it to build and maintain support centres throughout (O'Connor, 2007). The DRC defined a support centre as a town with an entire supporting infrastructure, including agricultural and environmental activities. A governmental department, Service National (Combrinck, 2007), was formed to oversee the implementation of these support centres, and its first objective was to select an organization that would implement four of the support centres in the southwest region of the DRC. The organization would be required to implement several projects across various divisions and so ensure the realization of Service National's decree or vision.

Selecting the Organization

The authors used the following criteria for selecting the research organization, which must:

  1. Comprise more than 50 full-time staff. The reason for this is that everyone should be involved in the compilation of the business strategies and the business objectives, thereby representing different views and stakeholders.
  2. Use projects as a vehicle for implementing its vision. This is to be able to link projects to specific business objectives.
  3. Not yet have a process in place for deriving projects from the vision and strategies. This is because the AR process may be manipulated by the participants to deliver a predetermined result, thereby losing objectivity.
  4. Believe that the research will be advantageous to the organization itself. A lack of confidence in the AR process would negate the validity of the results.

Based on these selection criteria, a South African (SA) organization was selected (referred to as “Organisation SA” for reasons of anonymity). This organization conformed to the selection criteria listed in Table 2.

Table 2. Selection of Organization

Selection Criteria Conformation to Selection Criteria
Number of full-time staff > 50 Organisation SA has a staff of 90. The organization is split into two sections, where the managerial section is situated in SA and the operational section is based in the DRC. The managerial section is 16 staff members and the operational section is 74 staff members.
Deploys internal projects Organisation SA has various internal projects, including setting up a mine in the DRC, building roads, and implementing an ERP system to manage the organization as an entity.
No vision to project process in place Organisation SA is a new organization, so does not yet have a process in place.
Supports research Organisation SA's CEO recognized the importance of the research, as it is mutually-beneficial to both Organisation SA and the AR group.

The next step in the AR process was to formalize the Client-System Infrastructure, which determines the subject of the study, the processes, the objective, and the agreed-upon outputs.

Subject of the Study

The subject of the study is a pragmatic framework that can be used to derive projects from the organisational vision (Marnewick & Labuschagne, 2006).

Processes

As indicated above, the processes that are used are Strategy Maps (Kaplan & Norton, 2004b) and Balanced Scorecards (Kaplan & Norton, 1996). These processes are used to deconstruct the organisational vision into strategies, business objectives, measures and targets.

Objective

The objective of the research is to determine if the V2P framework can be used to derive projects from the vision and therefore ensure alignment. This alignment would in turn ensure that valuable organisational resources are not wasted on projects that do not contribute to the realization of the vision.

Agreed-Upon Outputs

The outputs that were agreed upon for this research were:

  • The vision of the organization
  • The strategies and business objectives
  • The projects that must be initiated to ensure the successful implementation of the business strategies and objectives, and, ultimately, the organisational vision.

In order to conduct AR successfully, all participants had to understand the process and their responsibilities.

Team Structure

At an initial meeting held with Organisation SA, it was decided that the core of the research group would include the following three members:

  • An executive of the organization
  • A board member
  • The action researcher

Roles and Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of the executive were defined as follows:

  • Provide all the necessary information according to the needs of all relevant parties
  • Approve the vision, strategies and business objectives derived from the V2P framework
  • Ensure that all the relevant staff needed to participate were available to the action researcher

The roles and responsibilities of the board member were defined as follows:

  • Act as liaison between the action researchers and Organisation SA
  • Assist in the AR process in an active way by providing input and all relevant documentation needed to derive the strategies and business objectives

The roles and responsibilities of the action researcher were defined as follows:

  • Ensure that the process of AR was followed properly
  • Ensure that everyone involved understood the concepts of Strategy Maps and Balanced Scorecards
  • Observe the AR cycles and document all changes
  • Document all the processes, including the results

The agreed-upon processes, objectives, and outputs were communicated to all participants to ensure that no ambiguity could arise.

Once the Client-System Infrastructure was determined, the phases of the action research (Figure 2) could be applied within all three cycles.

Action Research Cycle A

The first cycle in the case study was to determine if the process of Strategy Maps could be used to derive strategies from the organisational vision. This was done through a series of workshops, including in their make-up several members of the executive management of the organization.

The first observation made was that Organisation SA's vision did not adhere to the general guidelines of a vision (Bogler & Nir, 2005; Pearce & Robinson, 2000), and therefore it had to be redrafted. Information regarding the vision was gathered through a series of interviews and meetings. The input from the action researcher stipulated the general guidelines, and the vision was redrafted based on this. Table 3 shows the vision before and after it was redrafted.

Table 3. The Vision Before and After Action Research

BEFORE ACTION RESEARCH
Vision Strategies Business Objectives
To mine the most sought-after diamonds:
  • Acting with integrity in everything done
  • Valuing our employees and their diversity
  • Establishing long term relationships with our customers
  • Creating value for our customers
  • Become a model organization in the community in which we operate
None
  • The recovery of the most sought-after diamonds in the concession diamond deposits
  • Investing in the growth in human capital within its community and the broader society
AFTER ACTION RESEARCH
Vision Strategies Business Objectives
To be Service National's partner of choice for the implementation of a sustainable first-class infrastructure
  • Productivity Strategy
    • (F1): Maximize the use of existing and new assets
    • (F2): The mining operation must be cost effective
  • Growth Strategy
    • (F3): Revenue from new customers, that is, Service National
    • (F4): Increase the account share with Service National
    • (F5): Offer products and services that are consistent, timely, and low-cost
    • (F6): Products and services that expand existing performance boundaries into the highly desirable
    • (F7): Provide the best solution to Service National
  • Customer Strategy
    • (C1): Low-cost supplier
    • (C2): Perfect quality
    • (C3): Speedy purchase
    • (C4): Appropriate selection
None

Once the vision was reformulated and communicated to the organization, the process of using Strategy Maps to derive strategies from the vision commenced. This was again done in workshops, where the action researchers explained the process of Strategy Maps. Due to space constraints, the strategies in Table 3 are only for the Operations Management Processes within Strategy Maps.

The inputs for each of the strategies were provided by the executive management team that participated in the workshops. Based on these workshops, the executive management team defined three major strategies: productivity, growth, and customer (see Table 3).

The following lessons were learned during this cycle:

  • The vision must be well-constructed for the V2P framework to be useful. If the vision is not well-constructed the subsequent strategies would also be poorly constructed and could place the organization on the wrong course.
  • Strategy Maps (Kaplan & Norton, 2004b) can be used as a method to derive strategies from the vision.

The output from this cycle was a business strategy and a go-decision to continue to the next.

Action Research Cycle B

The focus of cycle B was again to use Strategy Maps, but this time to derive business objectives from the newly defined strategies. The action researcher scheduled various workshops, the participants of which were the operational management team, as they were responsible for the production and delivery of the goods and services. The only person attending the workshops from the executive management team was a board member who acted as the liaison between the action researchers and the organization.

The starting point of these workshops was an explanation on how Strategy Maps worked and an overview of the revised business strategies. Data from the various workshops was gathered and documented, later to be confirmed by participants as a true reflection of the meetings held. The outcome of these workshops is shown in Table 4. The purpose of the Operations Management Processes is to produce and deliver goods and services to the customers (Kaplan & Norton, 2004a). It is one of four processes, with the others being Customer Management, Innovation, and Regulatory and Social. These are not shown here due to space constraints.

Table 4. Business Objectives of the Operations Management Processes

AFTER
Vision Strategies Business Objectives
To be Service National's partner of choice for the implementation of a sustainable first-class infrastructure
  • Productivity Strategy
    • (F1): Maximize the use of existing and new assets
    • (F2): The mining operation must be cost-effective
  • (BO1) Lower cost of ownership (F1)
  • (BO2) Achieve Just-in-Time supplier capability (C3)
  • (BO3) Develop high-quality supplier capability (F1, F5, C2, C5)
  • (BO4) Use new ideas from suppliers (F1, F2, F5)
  • (BO5) Achieve supplier partnerships (F2, F5, C2, C5)
  • (BO6) Lower the cost of production (F1, F2, F5, C1, C6)
  • (BO7) Continuous improvement (F1, F2, F6)
  • (BO8) Improve process cycle time (F1, F2, F5, F6, C2)
  • (BO9) Improve fixed asset utilization ((F1, F2, C3)
  • (BO10) Responsive delivery time (F6, C2, C3)

* The number in brackets at the end of each business objective shows to which specific strategy it links.

  • Growth Strategy
    • (F3): Revenue from new customers, that is, Service National
    • (F4): Increase the account share with Service National
    • (F5): Offer products and services that are consistent, timely, and low-cost
    • (F6): Products and services that expand existing performance boundaries into the highly desirable
    • (F7): Provide the best solution to Service National
  • Customer Strategy
    • (C1): Low-cost supplier
    • (C2): Perfect quality
    • (C3): Speedy purchase
    • (C4): Appropriate selection

The original business objectives listed in Table 3 are substantially different from the ones listed in Table 4, because a structured methodology was now being used to assist the organization in deriving business objectives from the strategies.

An observation was made that the executive management and operational team had difficulty determining the business objectives. A working session was held with these managers to determine the reason for this. It became clear during this session that they had difficulty determining the business objectives without relating them to operational measurements. Linking measurements and targets was only supposed to be done in the third cycle, within the original V2P framework, and was not addressed in cycle B.

The following lessons were learned during this cycle:

  • Business objectives should be developed in conjunction with the measures and targets.
  • Strategy Maps (Kaplan & Norton, 2004a) can be used as a method to derive business objectives from the strategies, but the Balanced Scorecard must also be used simultaneously, to determine the measurements and targets.
  • The processes of the Strategy Map and Balanced Scorecard do not have to change as they provide the results required. Changes must, however, be made to the V2P framework to incorporate the Balanced Scorecard during the defining of the business objectives.

Based on the above lessons, the AR cycles were adapted, as depicted in Figure 4.

Adapted Action Research Cycles

Figure 4. Adapted Action Research Cycles

Due to this change, cycle B had to be repeated.

Action Research New Cycle B

Based on the above information, the Balanced Scorecard was introduced into the new cycle B. The Operations Management process of the Strategy Map was used again. The implication is that AR cycles B and C, as shown in Figure 3, merged into AR new cycle B, as shown in Figure 4. Using this altered process, the identified business objectives, targets and measurements are listed in Table 5.

Table 5: Business Objectives, Targets and Measurements for Customer Management Process

Business Objective Measurement Target
(BO1) Lower cost of ownership
  • Cost of purchasing as percentage of total purchase price
  • Percentage of purchases made electronically
  • < 10%
  • > 90%
(BO2) Achieve Just-in-Time supplier capability
  • Lead time from order to receipt
  • On-time delivery percentage
  • Percentage late orders
  • Percentage of orders delivered directly to production process by suppliers
  • < 2 days
  • 100%
  • < 5%
  • 80%
(BO3) Develop high-quality supplier capability
  • Percentage of defects, incoming orders
  • Percentage of suppliers qualified to deliver without incoming inspection
  • Percentage of orders received
  • 5%
  • 80%
  • > 95%
(BO4) Use new ideas from suppliers
  • Number of innovations from suppliers
  • 5
(BO5) Achieve supplier partnerships
  • Number of suppliers providing services directly to customers
  • 3
(BO6) Lower the cost of production
  • Cost per unit of output
  • Marketing, selling, distribution, and administrative costs as percentage of total costs
  • R9 500
  • < 20%
(BO7) Continuous improvement
  • Number of processes with substantial improvements
  • Number of inefficient or non-value added processes eliminated
  • Scrap and waste percentage
  • 15
  • < 5
  • 12%
(BO8) Improve process cycle time
  • Cycle time (from start of production until product completed)
  • Process time (time the product is actually being processed)
  • 10 days
  • 2 days
(BO9) Improve fixed asset utilization
  • Percentage capacity utilization
  • Equipment reliability (percentage of time available for production)
  • Number and percentage of breakdowns
  • > 90%
  • > 95%
  • < 5%
(BO10) Responsive delivery time
  • Lead times: from order to delivery
  • On-time delivery percentage
  • < 24 hours
  • 100%

The output from this new cycle was measurements and targets that were directly linked to the business objectives that, in turn, were directly linked to the business strategy. A go-decision to continue on to the next cycle (new cycle C) was made, which involves transforming the above into projects.

Action Research New Cycle C

According to PMI (2003), two methods or mechanisms can be used to identify potential projects, the first being Requirements Management and the second Project Integration Management. The former, Requirements Management, covers the process of defining the business and technical requirements in a solution-free way (Powell & Buede, 2006). The requirements should be specified in a manner that allows the solutions that are subsequently proposed to be traced back to the requirements in a structured way and to be tested against the requirements. The use of requirements management ensures that the resulting specifications are typically of a higher quality than those done on an ad-hoc basis (McKay, de Pennington, & Baxter, 2001). The latter method or mechanism, Project Integration Management, covers the processes used to identify projects that will address specific needs (Project Management Institute, 2004), the primary goal being to successfully manage stakeholder expectations and to meet requirements.

Based on discussions with the managers of Organisation SA, the decision was made that requirements management was preferred. It must be noted that AR was not applied to the Requirements Management process, as it was outside the scope of the original Research Environment, as depicted in Figure 2. This decision led to another adaptation of the AR cycles. Requirements management was now included in AR cycle C, as shown in Figure 5.

Adapted Action Research Cycles

Figure 5. Adapted Action Research Cycles

Based on this change, cycle C had to be repeated. A workshop was held to identify projects that would potentially achieve the business targets.

Action Research Adapted New Cycle C

The introduction of requirements management made the executive and operational managers think of what they actually needed. As an example, Organisation SA needed to invoice customers. A basic financial package would have sufficed, but the question arose: would it address all the other needs of Organisation SA, as well as integrate with the rest of the initiatives? Organisation SA also had a need for a Supply Chain Management (SCM) system to address the business objectives of responsive delivery time (BO10), as well as improving the process cycle time (BO8). Based on this, the requirements for the financial applications changed, as Organisation SA needed to integrate the financial package with the SCM system. Based on these requirements, an ERP system could address Organisation SA's immediate and future needs.

The ERP system could also provide them with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) systems, that could achieve some of the other business objectives (BO2, BO4, BO5) as illustrated in Table 5. Using requirements management, the requirement was stated as “Implement a total IT solution.” The process of requirements management continued by defining additional business and technical requirements.

Using requirements management, the executive and operational managers of Organisation SA determined the projects necessary to implement the business objectives.

The advantages realized by Organisation SA having used requirements management are listed below:

  • The process is repeatable. This means that Organisation SA should be able to identify the same projects every time they go through the process of requirements management.
  • The requirements are measurable and the delivered product and/or service can be linked back to the original requirements.
  • Any personal preferences are eliminated, as it is a structured process.

The following lessons were learned during this cycle:

  • Requirements Management can be used to identify projects from measures and targets.
  • An additional step must be included in the V2P framework to allow for the introduction of Requirements Management.

Results

The application of AR to the V2P framework highlighted several required changes.

The first change to the framework is that the processes for developing business objectives and measurements and targets must be grouped together. This means that Strategy Maps can be used in conjunction with the Balanced Scorecard to determine the different business objectives and their associated measurements and targets.

The second change to the framework is the introduction of Requirements Management. This is added after setting the business objectives with its associated measures and targets.

The revised framework is illustrated in Figure 6.

Revised Vision-to-Project Framework

Figure 6. Revised Vision-to-Project Framework

Despite the positive results achieved, there are some limitations that need to be taken into consideration.

Limitations of This Study

The first major limitation of this study is that it was conducted on a relatively small organization in South Africa. This highlights two considerations:

  • A non-South African organization may respond differently to the process that was followed, due to cultural differences.
  • The size of the organization might influence the process. Future research will test the framework on larger organisations.

The second limitation is that the V2P framework is limited to organisations that make their own internal projects. The framework has not yet been applied to an organization that provides project management as a service to others.

Conclusion

This paper provided a brief overview of the V2P framework, as well as an introduction to AR and how it can be used to bring about change. The V2P framework is a holistic framework that can be used to derive projects from the organisational vision and strategies. The framework consists of proven methods and tools such as Strategy Maps, Balanced Scorecards, and Requirements Management. Through the application of AR, the framework was revised to be more pragmatic.

The first finding is that the format of the vision statement is crucial in applying Strategy Maps and the Balanced Scorecard.

The second finding is that the linear approach of the original V2P framework had certain inefficiencies. Humans are capable of complex thinking and processing multiple thoughts simultaneously. This led to the adaptation of the original model to have parallel processes and to bring in a new process that would facilitate turning needs into requirements.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this research. Firstly, AR can be used in the project management field to test and validate frameworks and concepts. There is a definite connection between AR and project management in that both bring about change and follow a life cycle. Project managers can therefore easily relate to AR as a research methodology to enhance methods or frameworks. Secondly, the revised V2P framework can indeed be used in practice to derive projects from the vision of the organization.

Future research is aimed at applying AR to other organisations that differ in context and size, as well as to organisations that provide project management as an external service.

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© 2008 Project Management Institute

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