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					EXPERIENCE OF RUNNING COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS:
REPORT TO THE RESEARCH SUPPORT LIBRARIES PROGRAMME

COLIN HARRIS

May 2002

Background The Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) is a three year programme, funded by the four UK higher education funding bodies, with the broad aim of improving support for research in UK higher education libraries and archives. It commenced in 1999 and will finish in July 2002. The programme has three strands: (a) collaborative collection management projects (in any subject area); (b) projects that provide support for humanities and social science research collections; and (c) the ‘access’ strand, which compensates libraries with research collections for costs incurred in serving researchers from other institutions of higher education. (Further information on the Programme and its projects and activities is available at http://www.rslp.ac.uk) In the first two strands, the Programme has supported 53 projects. All of these projects have involved an element of collaborative working, although the degrees and models of collaboration have varied greatly; for example, the number of collaborating institutions has varied from two to over forty, and the extent of involvement of partners has varied from full partners receiving part of the project funding to partners (perhaps outside higher education) making minimal contributions to surveys or maps of holdings. Collaborative working is one of the features that have distinguished the RSLP from its predecessor programme, the Specialised Research Collections in the Humanities initiative (also known as 'NFF'). The RSLP has commissioned a number of studies on aspects of the operation of the programme and the broader library environment in order to inform the operation of future programmes that may arise (particularly as an outcome of the deliberations of the Research Support Libraries Group (RSLG)). The purpose of the present study was to explore the experience of collaborative working, particularly with a view to identifying lessons for the future, and the following recommendations are made: There should be a much more realistic assessment of the time needed to manage collaborative projects. Bidders will need guidance. The two-stage bidding process should be used again. If possible, there should be flexibility in project timetables, particularly end dates, to overcome problems associated with delays in setting up (particularly, but not only, to do with recruitment). Further means should be found of enabling partners in other sectors and domains to share project funding. There should be closer monitoring of projects, not for purposes of control but to identify opportunities for providing assistance across the programme or across clusters of projects within the programme.

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The programme could undertake more careful analysis of skills gaps and training needs of Project Managers and of project workers and take reasonable action to meet them. Some discussion should be held with BAILER. The programme could actively encourage sharing of information and experience among projects on matters such as technology, outsourcing, etc. The programme could consider the provision of a model Memorandum of Agreement for working with partners.

This study The study took the form of four seminars to which all Project Managers who were involved in collaborative projects were invited and which all but four attended. In addition, one Project Director was invited to each seminar to provide some input from a different perspective. (The definition of, and distinction between, Project Manager and Project Director is slightly problematic. By Project Director, we meant normally the person who formally had made the proposal and was formally the grantholder with responsibility for delivering the proposed project outcomes; by Project Manager, we meant the person appointed to manage the project and its staff and activities. Some participants thought that they had both roles; some projects used different terminology (for example, in one project the Project Director was called the Project Manager and the Project Manager was called the Project Administrator). Each seminar began with brief introductions of all participants followed by longer presentations by two Project Managers. Three seminars were held in London; one was held in Edinburgh. It was stressed at each seminar, and it is stressed again here, that the purpose of the seminars, and of this report, was not to attempt to evaluate the projects or the Programme (it is expected that the latter will be the subject of a summative evaluation at some stage). There was a loose agenda for discussions at each meeting, based broadly upon the life cycle of projects: i. Preparing proposals ii. Start-up iii. Work plans iv. Targets: contracts, service level agreements, etc. v. Communication, exchange of information and experience vi. Skills gaps, training vii. Threats to completion viii. Production of outputs ix. Dissemination x. General benefits of collaborative working xi. General drawbacks of collaborative working Running through all of the discussion it was expected that other issues would arise, such as:

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       

general management project management personnel management financial management other (institutional) commitments governance working with partners sustainability

Proposals RSLP used a two-stage process for inviting proposals: brief expressions of interest followed by full bids from a selection from the expressions of interest. This process received universal approval, particularly since putting together bids with partners was more complex than single bids (such as NFF). Many institutions were involved in a number of bids, either as lead partner or non-lead partner, and the two-stage process helped to spread the work. A few participants said that they had done almost all of the work on the bids at the first stage, but that was not typical. Typically the first stage would involve core partners, with the second stage allowing time to recruit more partners if necessary or appropriate. Some were working with networks of partners that had been in existence for decades, so finding and recruiting partners was not a problem. For some, potential partners were obvious, so identification was easy, but recruitment might not be so easy. For others, some work was required to identify partners with strengths in the project areas. The largest libraries, for example Oxford and Cambridge, were relevant to a large number of bids, but it was reported that at least one had set a limit to the number of projects to which they would be partners. In some cases, RSLP suggested additional partners to be included in the full proposal. In many projects there were partners from libraries outside higher education, particularly the British Library and public libraries and in some partners from other domains, particularly museums and archives. Of course, project monies could not be paid beyond the higher education sector. Some regret was expressed that, while other libraries were sometimes very willing to participate at their own expense, the inability for projects to fund such participation necessarily limited the contribution. In particular, it was thought that the British Library would have collections relevant to a large number of projects. This problem has been overcome to some extent by RSLP’s collaboration, in eight cases, with the British Library’s Co-operation and Collaboration Programme, wherein monies can go to public libraries, museums, etc. Views varied about the adequacy of funds bid for. A small number felt that they had built in some additional margin to be on the safe side, but the majority perceived the exercise as competitive bidding and cut the funds sought to a minimum (which frequently turned out to be a mistake). There was some negotiation between RSLP and projects about funding levels, but not always with RSLP trying to get more for their money.

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There was a view that bids did not cater for the additional time that would be required for the management of collaborative projects. It was generally felt that the proposal timetable was very reasonable, aided by the twostage process.

Set-up For many this was the most difficult stage of the project. The principal problems were to do with recruitment of staff, and the two key problems were availability of appropriately skilled people and the apparent dilatoriness of personnel departments. Suddenly good cataloguers and archivists were in great demand, and some projects required very specific skills, particularly in special languages. Many projects were fishing in the same pool for skilled staff. Many projects reported having shortlists of one or two and reflect that if a particular person had not applied for and accepted the post, the project could not have happened. Frequently, those appointed did not have the complete set of skills required and projects or their institutions had to train them as necessary. A very great deal of frustration was expressed with university personnel departments. The key complaints were that personnel departments: failed to understand the special problems of project work failed to give projects any special treatment in the recruitment timetable treated RSLP projects as second class because there were no overheads wanted to check the personnel calculations in the proposal, even though these would generally have been approved by a Research Office or equivalent.

These problems were exacerbated by the fact that personnel departments in different institutions might have different requirements and procedures and by the fact that different institutions might have different pay scales (ie old and new universities) and may appoint staff, eg cataloguers, to different grades. This problem would be further complicated, of course, if partners in other sectors or domains were able to receive funding from the Programme. One project explicitly had no such problems; no institutional funds were involved and the Librarian was responsible for the project, so she was were left to get on with it. The second major problem area in the set-up stage concerned special equipment: its specification, identification, acquisition and installation. This was a particular problem in projects that involved large-scale use of very special equipment, such as digitisation projects. Some avoided such problems by outsourcing such work.

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Work plans Proposed work plans were frequently modified in some degree, for a variety of reasons: Where there had been a delay to the start of a project due to recruitment problems, work plans would have to be rewritten to cover a period of, say thirty months rather than thirtythree. This was because the RSLP programme had a finishing date (31 July 2002) beyond which projects could not be extended. There was widespread expression of a wish that funding programmes should be more flexible. As projects got going, managers sometimes found that they had not calculated work rates sufficiently carefully. Some bidders had forgotten that staff have to take holidays and might get sick. This did not generally result in major changes to plans, but could affect quantitative targets. RSLP was thought always to be very understanding and reasonable. Some parts of projects might have been misconceived. One project realised, after consultation with academics, that part of its programme was not needed but something else was, and was able to change. On occasions it was found that partners were not completing their share of the work, so the load would be switched to another partner. Sometimes it was discovered that there was not as much material at a site as had been thought and there was more at another site. The problem of estimating the workload was a common one. Frequently it was simply not known how much material there was to be worked on or how much work was needed. There was a view that much more work needed to be done at the bidding stage to scope the task.

Targets: contracts, Service Level Agreements, etc The formal commitment of partners to participation in a project was generally given by a Vice-Chancellor or another senior manager. There was a view that this was of little practical use, and that successful projects needed a formal agreement to be signed by the manager who would be responsible for ensuring a partner’s contribution. This sometimes took the form of a memorandum of agreement signed by participating heads of service. It was felt important that this undertaking should be given by someone reasonably close to the work, to ensure ‘ownership’ and commitment to completing the work.

Communication, exchange of information and experience There was a wide variety of practice in communicating among partners, depending, for example, upon geographical proximity or remoteness. All participants agreed that two things were indispensable: email and face-to-face meetings.

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The view that RSLP could not have happened without email was widely endorsed. Email was used for general communication and for more focussed discussion with various levels of closed lists. One project, for example, had a list for project workers to communicate without the project manager. Project managers frequently travelled to visit partners. This was easy in, for example, a London project, but less easy, for example, in a Wales project. All or key partners would frequently form a management board with regular meetings, but the view was common that, from time to time, face-to-face meetings of all project staff were desirable. There were occasions when email exchanges could become ‘irritable’ and issues could be addressed much more satisfactorily face-to-face. Some projects had newsletters for regular communication.

Skills gaps and training As mentioned above, many projects were unable to find staff with the complete set of skills required for the job and had to decide which were indispensable and which could be acquired by training. Frequently, the indispensable skills were specialised languages or technology or knowledge of the subject. Cataloguing and similar skills were frequently developed by training, usually within the lead partner’s library, but occasionally by other partners. The National Library of Wales ran a short course in cataloguing. For Project Managers, RSLP ran two short courses, one on project management and one on financial management. Both were widely felt to have been useful. Project Managers were invited, in the course of the Programme, to suggest other areas in which training would have been helpful, but suggestions were not forthcoming. One Project Manager reported that she did not suggest anything because she thought that she was expected to know it all! It was a common feeling that Project Managers were not experienced enough; many felt out of their depth in one or more aspects of the project. In retrospect, Project Managers can identify areas in which training would have helped, but they recognise that it might have been difficult to identify areas in which enough people perceived the need at the same time (since projects got off the ground and developed at different speeds) to make it worthwhile running a course. It seems likely that, had it had the resources to monitor projects’ activities and needs more closely, RSLP would have been able to identify areas in which some co-ordinated training would have been possible: bibliographic and archival description; web design; digitisation have been offered as examples. It would not be necessary to find subjects in which all 53 projects had an immediate interest; clusters of eight to twelve might have been feasible. There was a feeling that some traditional library skills, particularly cataloguing, were not getting the attention they deserved in modern ‘library schools’; equally, there was a

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feeling that, while library schools did give considerable attention to management generally, it would be helpful if they did more on project management, particularly since project-based work was becoming a more common method of managing core activities in libraries. More than once it was suggested that there should be a dialogue with BAILER.

Threats to completion RSLP projects are, on the whole, different from other R&D projects, in that, almost from the start, they are producing their product or output, typically creating a database or adding to an existing one. Failure to fulfil completely original targets is generally not regarded by Project Managers (nor by RSLP) as failure, particularly if it is due to factors beyond projects’ control such as the exigencies of recruitment. In the one or two cases where serious shortfall was anticipated, RSLP changed the funding level. In addition to the ongoing production of the ‘product’, there is a requirement for a final report on the project. The production of the final report is problematic, particularly in cases where insufficient time for its completion has been allowed in the project timetable and it has to be completed when the Manager has gone back to, or on to, another job. Nevertheless, every Project Manager is confident that their project’s final report will be delivered in reasonable time. This is partly a function of professionalism and commitment and, to a lesser extent, a fear that their own or their Project Director’s prospects of future funding might be threatened should the report not appear. So the universal view among Project Managers is that projects will be completed, in both of the above senses; but that did not stop them from identifying a wide range of threats to completion. The principal threat is that project staff will leave for another job, fall ill, get pregnant and need maternity leave, or not perform well. There is not agreement about the best and worst circumstances. Some think that it is worse for staff to leave towards the end of a project because it would be impossible to recruit for a short period of contract; others feel that for staff to leave towards the beginning of a project is worse because it exacerbates the already difficult problems of start-up, etc. Others think that the middle of a project is worse. Some feel that, towards the end of a project, the important development work (eg the web site) has been done; others are saving the details of web design until the end. One project reported that, less than three months from the end of the project, if any one of three people were to leave, the project would be in jeopardy. There is an interesting difference of opinion about the motivation and commitment of project staff. One view was that project staff have no ownership of the project, have fixed-term contracts and do not enjoy all of the benefits (eg training opportunities) enjoyed by their permanent colleagues, with the consequence that they have very little commitment to the project, particularly if their work is routine, repetitive or boring. This view was not shared by most, who reported high levels of interest and commitment including, in one case, a reluctance to seek other jobs as the project came to an end

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because they wished to see it through to the end. Clearly, there is an important role for Project Managers to motivate project staff; some assistance in this particular aspect of management might be considered. One of the strengths of the RSLP is that its projects are located in (frequently substantial) service environments, which means that, in extremis, core staff from the service can be drafted in to help on a project. (This is another reason for ensuring that the service’s senior officer is signed up and committed to the project and its completion.) There was general praise for the ways in which core staff in libraries had supported RSLP projects. Other threats mentioned were power failures, machine failures, hacking, etc. Clearly, if there is a risk that projects might not take the necessary precautions to ensure that data is saved, stored and secured appropriately, there should be strong guidance from the Programme.

Production of outputs All projects will produce their ‘products’, which will be made available to the community. The RSLP conditions of award require that, on completion of the project, Project Directors will ensure that the resource continues to be available free of charge to the higher education community. All projects believe that, although their targets, original or revised, will be met, there is still more to do. There are further collections or materials to be discovered within partner institutions; there are relevant collections or materials to be discovered in other institutions (particularly, perhaps, the British Library); and most collections continue to grow. On 31 July 2002, RSLP will stop. Some projects will stop; others will continue, where there is a will on the part of lead and/or other partners to find the effort or resource to do so. Where projects stop, the general worry is not that on 1 August the ‘product’ will seem out-dated or incomplete, but that in two or three years it will be out-dated and incomplete. Short-term mounting of the ‘product’ and technical maintenance will be possible, but long-term support is not guaranteed, particularly if Project Managers and Project Directors move on, leaving the product without an owner or champion. There is widespread concern that means should be found both for facilitating further development of the products and for guaranteeing its continued maintenance and availability to the community.

Dissemination Most projects have created a new resource that has potential value to one or more constituencies in the higher education community and beyond and will have to make a

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particular effort to make those constituencies aware of the resource and its value and application. In some cases, this effort will be minimal; for example, the ARCHway project is principally directed at the academic archaeology community. Archaeology is a small, closely-knit community and ARCHway, in York, already has close ties with the Archaeology Data Service and the Council for British Archaeology, both of which will promulgate messages about ARCHway. Other projects, with much more diffuse constituencies, perhaps across sectors and domains, will have to make more sustained efforts. Websites, leaflets, conferences, formal launch events have all been mentioned as proposed dissemination devices. In addition, the RSLP holds ‘open days’ at which all projects in the Programme display their wares.

Benefits of collaborative working One participant, speaking of the original motivation for collaborative working in this Programme, said that people were not interested in collaborative working, but just in getting the cataloguing done. Nevertheless, every participant (and this and the next question were the only ones on which every participant was asked to express a view) was able to say positive things about collaborative working. Some benefits were not very specific: it was just good to work with other people and to get to know other people with common interests. No doubt this will assist with future networking and with laying the foundations for bidding to future programmes. A great benefit was the discovery of resources. Some groups had longstanding traditions of working together and no doubt had extensive knowledge of collections, but in this Programme much was discovered about the existence of collections. Working together to make these assorted collections known to, and available to, the user community was a source of much accomplishment and pride. The opportunity provided by projects to develop interworking across sectors and domains was seen as a great strength, particularly perhaps in the regional projects, such as Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the impetus to such collaboration is strengthened by other aspects of the higher education system. Collaborative working was seen to be particularly useful where a dimension of the project was the setting, adapting and application of standards. Much more progress was made in this area than would have been the case in single player projects. The fact that collaborative working was a requirement of RSLP projects itself made them somewhat innovative, which added to the excitement of running and participating in the projects. (As will be seen below, this innovation came at a cost, particularly in terms of project management.)

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Without external funding, some institutions might themselves have been able, over time, to address some of the issues addressed in these projects. It is certain, however, that without external funding combined with a requirement for collaborative working, many of the outcomes of the Programme could not have been realised.

The drawbacks of collaborative working The overwhelming drawback was that collaborative working took so much more time than did non-consortial projects. Keeping partners informed, joint decision making, resolution of differences in practice (both administrative, eg salary scales, and professional, eg cataloguing practice), travelling between partner sites, constant pressure on partners to report on time, submit invoices on time, etc., all added up. There was a common view that more time should be allowed for collaborative project management than would seem necessary, and that project management should be properly resourced, ie where a Project Manager is seconded from another job there should be a full buy-out of time so that his or her time can be fully dedicated. Many Project Managers complained that they were not sufficiently experienced or were deficient in some skills or knowledge. This is not a particular problem of collaborative working, but is exacerbated by it. In the RSLP, many saw the inability to enable partners from other sectors/domains to share the funding as a serious drawback; many such partners made substantial contributions to projects, but it is felt that this could have been greater. Although the potential threat to projects posed by the exigencies of fixed-term contract working were apparently much greater than the actual problems, nevertheless they did cause substantial anxiety throughout projects. Again, this is not a particular problem of collaborative working, but is exacerbated by it. Negotiations with commercial suppliers can be difficult and time-consuming and assume greater importance in projects with limited timescales. Views differed about the problems of financial management; some saw it as a nightmare, others simply expected partners to manage their share of the monies. Personnel issues (grading scales, grading of posts, recruitment procedures, delays) were almost universally seen as very problematic.

Conclusions and recommendations The overwhelming impression is that Project Managers feel that the RSLP and its projects have been a great success. A huge contribution has been made to making known and available important research resources and the projects seem to be justifiably proud

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of the collaborative efforts that have been made. There have been many difficulties, large and small and, as it turned out, many more imagined than real. Many individuals feel that they personally have gained and developed as a result of the collaborative experience, and they would all advocate further working of this kind. There are some lessons from this Programme that it might be useful to bear in mind in future programmes, and the following recommendations are made. (It should be stressed that these comments are not in any way intended as criticisms of RSLP programme management, which Project Managers agree has been at all times helpful and constructive.) Recommendations There should be a much more realistic assessment of the time needed to manage collaborative projects. Bidders will need guidance. The two-stage bidding process should be used again. If possible, there should be flexibility in project timetables, particularly end dates, to overcome problems associated with delays in setting up (particularly, but not only, to do with recruitment). Further means should be found of enabling partners in other sectors and domains to share project funding. There should be closer monitoring of projects, not for purposes of control but to identify opportunities for providing assistance across the programme or across clusters of projects within the programme. The programme could undertake more careful analysis of skills gaps and training needs of Project Managers and of project workers and take reasonable action to meet them. Some discussion should be held with BAILER. The programme could actively encourage sharing of information and experience among projects on matters such as technology, outsourcing, etc. The programme could consider the provision of a model Memorandum of Agreement for working with partners.

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