The growing emphasis on using public-private partnerships (PPPs) to execute large government projects has many project managers scratching their heads over how to develop a collective competence among the partners that will see the project through to a successful completion.
Researchers at Aalto University and the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) have developed several project management suggestions based on their case study of a very complex PPP to develop Bygga Villa, a Swedish triple helix e-government initiative.
Funded in part by Vinnova, the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems, this PPP involved 16 organizations from academia, government and industry. The Bygga Villa project goal was to develop an Internet portal that would include "all information and services required for ‘The Anderson Family' to effectively plan, build and live in their house."
Researchers Inkeri Ruuska of Aalto University and Robin Teigland of SSE set out to discover both the challenges of developing collective competence among those involved in this PPP and ways to overcome such challenges.
To develop their case study, the researchers conducted 10 semi-structured interviews with six members of the project steering group and four project members, including the project leader.
They discovered that the greatest challenge was the potential for conflict due to differing goals, resource scarcity, and the interdependence of tasks among project members.
Differing partner goals
Representatives from government, university, and business expressed considerably different underlying goals for what they wanted to achieve in the partnership. For example, the researchers found that one of the partners, a private technical consulting firm, was most interested in developing its own technical competence during the project in order to sell this skill later to other customers. The academics, on the other hand, were interested in researching the integration of different technical solutions in order to publish their findings. Moreover, each partner organization's timeframe for the project varied considerably, with the academics working on a long-term basis, industry partners working on a short-term basis, and government somewhere in the middle.
Resources allocated to the project depended on the project's priority relative to the partner organization's other projects. A partner organization's size also affected its ability to deliver appropriate resources as required. Finally, the degree to which the expertise required in the project was located at the individual level or the organizational level at the partner organization also affected resource scarcity.
Interdependence of tasks
As all actors were highly dependent on one another to complete their tasks, the project had a high degree of reciprocal interdependence, which is the most complex form of interdependence, and the most difficult to manage. In addition, the partner organizations had different work methods, leading to further conflict.
The researchers' case study revealed that project managers overcame these challenges and brought the project to a successful conclusion by adopting the following methods:
Co-developing a clear project charter - a charter that specifies the project's overall vision, purpose and objectives as well as the "rules of the game". This clarifies each partner's goal for the project, defines parameters for decision-making and conflict resolution, and establishes resource supply and delivery. Developing this charter together also helps partners develop a common language for communicating about the project. One interviewee noted, ‘‘It is really important to get a collective perspective in order for everyone to understand the project's core and to develop the project's goals and outcomes....a critical point is when everyone is on the same page and is able to look at the project with the same ‘set of eyeglasses'."
Recruiting a project leader with strong knowledge-broker skills - a person who is a trusted member in a number of different communities (such as industry, government and academia) and who can act as a translator or negotiator of meaning across knowledge domains. In the Bygga Villa project, the second project leader to be hired had experience in all three realms: academia, government and industry, and was also skilled at backstage activities such as exercising power skills; understanding and intervening in political and cultural systems; influencing, negotiating, selling and managing meaning.
Conducting joint problem-solving tasks using boundary objects - an object that brings together project members to collaborate on a common task and discuss their differing views. Early in the Bygga Villa project, members decided to create a sketch of the final portal, which resulted in a long discussion of the portal's underlying business model as well as which functions the portal should support. The portal served as a boundary object that helped develop a shared understanding and language between the different project members.
Ensuring an understanding of the "big picture" through continuous open and balanced communication - communication through a variety of channels, such as newsletters, project webpages, and regular meetings with the project's various stakeholders. The Bygga Villa project leader drew project members into discussions and debates about the project goals, resource requirements and task sequencing on an ongoing basis. This created a continuous awareness of the sources of conflict, especially as the partners' goals changed over time. He also linked the "big picture" with the "little picture" - balancing the long-term vision with everyday operations. Developing an overall picture, say the researchers, "is an essential component of collective competence."
Beyond these methods, however, the researchers found that the Bygga Villa project was adept at managing collective competence for three additional reasons:
1) Members had a positive attitude towards conflict - they kept conflict at the task level, not the relationship level. They embraced conflict and viewed their differences as something to be leveraged to produce innovative, synergistic solutions. By turning conflict into creative conflict, they were able to continuously solve problems effectively.
2) Several of the project members had proficient dialogue skills, framing problems in a common way and making it easier to deal with them constructively and creatively in the group.
3) Not only did the members focus on fulfilling the objective components of project success, but they also placed considerable focus on individual members' satisfaction, ensuring that the project also fulfilled their goals.
While the researchers hope that practitioners can use these findings to develop collective competence in their own projects, they also suggest that their findings can be used in evaluating the feasibility of project proposals.
"Our results could help in determining both the criteria for the selection of those partnerships to receive funding as well as which projects actually receive funding," note the authors. "For example, to what degree does the project proposal address issues such as the individual goals of the project members, resource allocation, and "rules of the game" such as decision making and conflict resolution; what are the criteria for a project leader or to what degree does the selected project leader exhibit skills of a knowledge broker, and what are the plans with respect to communication?"
Source: Ruuska, I. and Teigland, R. "Ensuring project success through collective competence and creative conflict in public-private partnerships - A case study of Bygga Villa, a Swedish triple helix e-government initiative", International Journal of Project Management, 27:4, May 2009, pp. 323-334
PMPerspectives.org is a website which connects project managers and sponsors with project management researchers. Our mission is to understand and improve project management practices. The research team comprises Dr. Blaize Horner Reich and Dr. Andrew Gemino from Simon Fraser University, Canada and Dr. Chris Sauer from Oxford University, UK.
© Reich, Gemino, Sauer (2012)