Training for project management
a simulation workshop approach
Desmond L. Cook
Ohio State University
During the past two decades our nation has witnessed a remarkable growth in Research and Development spending by institutions of higher education. Expenditures for R & D activities in colleges and universities rose from $344 million in 1953 to $1,359 billion in 1963, and in 1973 an estimated $3,425 billion was expended for this purpose.1 The reasons for this upsurge in research spending are numerous and complex, but in general they have much to do with efforts to apply large-scale research techniques to social, educational, and economic problems as well as in scientific and technological fields.
This development has resulted in a number of effects: an increase of applied research activity carried on by teams large enough and complex enough to be compared to academic departments, a corresponding increase in the proportion of budgetary funds that are contracted rather than allocated to the institution, the need to be accountable to outside agency requirements without violating principles of academic freedom, and the institution's increasing reliance on administrators who can deal knowledgably and effectively with both research teams and sponsoring agencies. In particular, it is important to have principal investigators who can bring some managerial skills as well as substantive knowledge to bear on the work of th project. A project ought not fail because an otherwise highly qualified principal investigator lacks administrative experience or knowledge.
Too often, however, project managers gain administrative experience by trial and error: such experience can be very expensive, especially in short-term projects. Project managment as a professional field is a relatively new concept; while many people are becoming generally cognizant of the term and its application to developments within their own institutions, they do not have experience in — or perhaps even knowledge of — the specific activities involved. In addition, while a few individuals may have the time and interest to become involved in theoretical aspects of project management, the majority of educational personnel need to develop practical competencies as quickly as possible.
Little has been written, however, on how effective short-term training for project managers can be provided. This challenge was faced in the winter of 1973, when the authors were asked to conduct a workshop for the research section of the 67th Annual Convention of the American Vocational Association (AVA). The participants in this workshop were about 75 members of AVERA, the Educational Research subgroup of AVA. For the most part they were state-level personnel who served in some kind of research coordinating capacity, program officers directly involved in the administration of vocational education dollars. The objective of the workshop was to provide an experience that would expose them to as many practical aspects of project management as possible within a three-hour time constraint.
To achieve this objective, it was decided to focus on project problem-solving activities, beginning with the problem of conceptualizing a good project plan and finishing with the problem of discontinuing project activities. The preliminary work and decision making actually exceeded the role of the project manager per se, but it was considered important to show an interface between project management and research administration in the larger sense. Direct involvement by the participants was viewed as a better way to use the time than attempting to lecture or passing out a volume of materials and bibliographies that there would not be time to discuss. Instead, a simulation approach was used, entitled “The Life Cycle of a Research Project.” This simulation involved taking each workshop participant actively through the essential steps of the project development process.
The basic structure of the simulation was derived in part from the presenters’ personal experiences and from several instructional resources. These included the textEducational Project Management2 by Desmond Cook and self-instructional materials developed jointly by the Eucational Program Management Center at Ohio State University and the Project Management Component, Research for Better Schools, Inc. of Philadelphia. The self-instructional package covers the basic principles of project management as they relate to a local school district setting. The material is being produced under the title Educational Project Management Instructional Systems3. In addition to these sources, materials were drawn from the files of the Center for Vocational and Technical Education at the Ohio State University. The problems and solutions section was developed by Rex Stockton and Leo Burke.4
The simulation materials were based on real events — real proposals, real projects, real problems, and real situations — sufficiently masked to preserve anonymity. The participants therefore responded to actual situations with the kind of thinking they would really have to use on the job. The set of practical training exercises were designed to focus on four essential phases of project development: project planning, project start-up, project operations, and project close-out. In order to maximize individual involvement, the group was divided into small panels. This also encouraged more effective interaction.
PROJECT PLANNING: The six essential elements of a project prospectus, or précis (a planning document which concisely presents each necessary step in project development), were initially presented. These were (1) stating the research problem, (2) developing a rationale for studying the problem, (3) setting research objectives, (4) proposing a research methodology, (5) listing the duration of the project and (6) estimating financial resource needs. Appendix I shows the simple and direct guidelines handed out to get these points across. These guidelines were designed to be helpful to inexperienced proposal planners and writers as well as to institutional administrators who need criteria by which to judge a proposed project plan.
Next, participants were instructed to evaluate and rank for funding three actual précis in the field of vocational education. The first of these described a classical investigation into the effects of an instructional technique, a narrowly focused problem essential to the overall examination of a larger programmatic research effort. The second preécis focused on an administrative problem, the operation of statewide communication networks in vocational education. The third described a training program for educational personnel, emphasizing the importance of new ideas in the development of vocational guidance counselors. These three program plans were viewed as being representative of the different kinds of projects with which the workshop participants would deal in their jobs.
To assist them in the rating process, another handout briefly described criteria for priority ratings which would indicate whether the proposal was of enough interest to the evaluating body to continue to be considered for funding. Any proposal not achieving one of the three priority ratings given was to be eliminated from the running. Here it was shown that relatively exact criteria for such judgments can be applied and will streamline the enormously demanding task of proposal evaluation. In addition it was possible to determine that, despite its occasional cumbersomeness, committee action is the best way to reach an evaluative decision. Only in a group can individual biases be cancelled out and a truly balanced judgment be achieved.
The third exercise consisted of reviewing the components of a formal research proposal: (1) the abstract, which gives a concise, lucid summary of the project; (2) the specific research problem, which is the primary purpose of the enterprise; (3) intended objectives, which specify the expected outcomes of the project; (4) methods and procedures, including sample, design, instrumentation, analysis, and other technical aspects of carrying out the work; and (5) a complete and detailed budget. Workshop participants then evaluated their three proposal preécis using a checklist of proposal evaluation criteria . This activity completed the first phase of the workshop.
PROJECT START-UP: Proposal Précis 3, which seemed the least technical of the three, was used as the basis for the start-up exercise [Appendix V]. This precis describes a proposed invitational seminar at which twenty university educators, selected to participate on the basis of documents submitted in advance, would be guided through the process of complete proposal development. The workshop participants were asked to write out what they would do for each step fo the start-up process as if they were in charge of the seminar. The start-up activities included listing personnel needs, estimating facilities and space, and planning for equipment and materials. With this concrete planning done, the participants were then ready to move on to the most challenging phase of all — project operations.
PROJECT OPERATIONS: No one can predict what will happen once a project is actually underway. Inevitably, unanticipated problems will occur, each one calling for a creative and intelligent response on the part of the project manager — who, should he fail to rise to the occasion, might face results ranging from continued petty annoyance to complete disaster. Using Proposal Précis 2, we simulated ten problems which could occur during the life of the project . In formulating these problems, we referred to our own and others’ experiences in project administration and tried to represent a variety of types of problems that might be encountered including uncontrollable outside circumstances (such as a telephone strike at the time that new equipment needs to be installed) as well as issues involving breach of ethics (such as faking reports or releasing privileged data prematurely).
Participants were asked to consider and resolve each of the ten problems in small groups. When they had done this, a set of possible solutions was distributed and used as a basis for discussion and comparison with the participants’ own solutions. In many instances, the solutions proposed by the participants were very creative and suggested alternative courses of action that could be very effective in the situations described. The participants thus were able to learn that — even without a great deal of actual experience — they had resources of background, training, and inner logic that would be very valuable to them in problem solving situations. Also, as agency personnel they could gain some perspective on problems that university personnel might encounter. By working with these particular problems they had the vicarious experience of standing in the shoes of a project manager.
PROJECT CLOSE-OUT: Having steered their projects through the viccisitudes of operations, the participants were now at the point to bring activities to a smooth conclusion and fulfill all final agency obligations. As they had done in the start-up exercise, panelists considered items necessary to close out the project described in Preécis 3 — following a checklist provided to them. These items included completion of final reports, disposition of equipment and material left over from the project, closing of project accounts, disallowances, and any other considerations which they might think of themselves. The closing of the project also concluded the simulation of the project's life cycle.
SUMMARY: In this workshop, a day-in and day-out process which normally lasts weeks, months, and even years was compressed into a three-hour period. Although it was not possible also to incorporate the fatigue, frustration, learning and sense of accomplishment that are important ingredients of the real experience, a fairly complete abstract of the process had been provided. The participants were guided through a model of activity that should prove useful to them in undertaking the real thing. During the process they had also been provided with a concise set of materials that could serve as guidelines for project administration. While it was recommended that they read as extensively as possible in the available literature to develop some depth in the conceptual side of project management, the package of materials itself was intended to be immediately useful on the practical level.
1. National Science Foundation, National Patterns of R & D Resources, NSF 73-303, pp. 26-27, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1973.
2. D. L. Cook. Educational Project Management, Charles E. Merrill Company, Columbus, Ohio, 1971.
3. Educational Project Management Instructional System, Module II — Basic Principles of Project Management. Research for Better Schools, Inc., 1700 Market Street, Philadelphia. Pennsylvania.
4. R. Stockton and L. Burke, “Project Operations Simulation Exercise,” unpublished materials, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, 1973.
Ed. note: The appendicies refered to in this article are quite extensive and are therefore not included. These materials may be obtained by writing to the authors.