Do We Need a Project Project?
| Steven Postrel |
A peculiar fact about business schools (at least in the USA) is that project management is not part of the regular MBA curriculum. Why is this peculiar? Only because a huge percentage of the work managers do is organized into projects, the success or failure of strategies often rests on the quality of execution of projects, and many of the principles and techniques of good project management are not immediately obvious. But hey, if anyone needs to know about this trivial stuff they can always go to a two-day workshop and get a certificate (probably from an engineering department). Or learn it on the job, which in this context often means screwing things up and trying to guess what you did wrong.
No need to dirty our students’ hands with all that icky planning and critical-path stuff–the organization faculty can stick to motivational theory, the operations faculty to stochastic modeing, and the strategy faculty to the resource-based view. Then we can all feel elegant. And our students can elegantly screw up product development, new process installation, quality-improvement initiatives, marketing campaigns, and all the other project-based activities where they are supposed to add value to the firm.
Of course, each business school department might acknowledge the importance of project management while preferring that some other group take on the teaching burden. But the strategy field in particular may be missing important research opportunities by ignoring or downplaying the importance of projects as units of analysis. Compared to a concept such as a “routine,” projects are easy to identify, possess fairly clear boundaries in time and organization space, have real meaning to organizational actors, produce observable outputs that can be compared to ex ante expectations, and naturally incorporate the creation of novel solutions to new problems.
The technology management field has a long tradition of empirical work looking at projects, especially in product development. My judgment of this literature is that while it has identified many important patterns, it has been light on systematic theory of its own or linkages to core ideas in economics and sociology. Hence, there is an opportunity for strategy people to use detailed project information to bring their theories down to earth while simultaneously providing useful theoretical synthesis of project management issues.
My earlier post about how management affects operational capabilities, discussed how David Hoopes and I are using detailed studies of product development projects to try to build an “engineering science of capability.” The project as a unit of analysis is critical to this research program.
From an empirical standpoint, projects are identifiable, have pre-specified objectives, and have measurable output, which makes them good places to look for collectively inconsistent behavior, as well as the mechanisms (impediments) that create the inconsistency. From a theoretical standpoint, projects link capabilities and positioning strategy; while strategy tells us what kinds of projects we want to execute, capability tells us what projects we can execute.
So it’s pretty important to know something about project management if you want to study organizational capability. But is it important enough for us to get our hands dirty?