03 Apr 2020

Project Networks

European Projects Behind the Scenes (1)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

John – the manager (in a self-confident manner): Looking at the most recent financial records of our organization I figured out that your workload in Project A needs to be increased by 20 percent for the past three months. Moreover, the workload on project B needs to be decreased by 10 percent for the past three months. Otherwise, we will not be able to properly consume all the resources. You have to modify and rewrite your timesheets for the past three months. In addition, you have to prepare additional timesheets for your two colleagues. In the previous six-month period, we have to demonstrate their involvement in Project B. In the future, we will also increase my workload in Project B.

Mark – the researcher (surprised): But how should I describe the work in these new timesheets? I could have difficulties preparing the timesheets for my two colleagues.

John: Just copy the text from your existing timesheets.

Mark (ironically): And how should I redistribute the actual work that has been already done by myself in the past?

John: Don’t worry, this should be just a formal redistribution. In reality, everything stays the same. It’s just administration.

Mark: And how should I do it in the future?

John: We’ll see… It depends on our financial flows and potential new projects. You are still responsible for both projects, A and B. We will adjust the timesheets based on future conditions. But I really hope that we get a new project, otherwise, it will be very difficult to cover your salary…       

(Based on a true story from Organization X, as extracted from interviews.)

This story is quite common in European projects and demonstrates the difference between formal organizational structure and actual activities of actors that form informal project networks. In my first blog post from the vider series of “European projects behind the scenes” I will speak about the meaning of these project networks. Since they are rather complex and fluid it is difficult to understand their dynamics and they can easily avoid the formally established management structures and control. From a project management perspective, they are frequently bound to improvisation, intuition and our instincts. Understanding the informal networks together with the dynamics and communication flows presents the key to successful project management.

As stated by anthropologist Clifford Geertz we as humans continuously form networks through our activities but – as opposed to spiders forming their nets – we also get entangled and critically involved in our nets, irrespective of their purpose and function. Every European project is a complex form that consists of formal organizational structure and informal networks, developed spontaneously and is based on trust, interests, attractiveness, previously established interpersonal contacts, etc. The formal project structure is established in the preparation phase and described in the project application. It is shaped by specific knowledge and skills of project team members and how every partner is capable to contribute towards the realization of project objectives. Project methodology then takes into account the different roles of partners and is customized to allow smooth and effective delivery of work and project activities. Key characteristics and principles of formal project structure are therefore set before the actual project start.

With the formal structure and methodology developed in the application form, we aim to convince our reviewers that we are experts in what we do and that our project is well suitable to receive requested grants.

Reality could be quite different though since the informal structure evolves during the course of the project and is constantly being modified and customized; meaning that it is very difficult to foresee it and accurately describe it in advance. As an example, certain individuals could be included in the application form based on their references, formal position in organization or leadership experiences mainly to satisfy assessment criteria. After the project kick-off and during its lifetime the roles and tasks can be quickly changed or modified based on the actually available capacities of participating organization – and they do not always correspond to the plan presented in the application form. In practice, it is highly possible that one key person will deliver the majority of required work – from research and organizational tasks to administration and reporting. The artificial or, as I call them, the “phantom timesheets” are however prepared and submitted also for a bunch of other individuals who are officially employed in a partner organization, still, they were not involved in the project at all. And it is a high chance that these “phantom timesheets” were prepared by the same person who is delivering all the work in the project. Others just contributed their signature at the end (as described in our story at the beginning).

A similar case is when we involve famous names in our project. These “champions” have the right image, knowledge, and expertise that could – at least on paper – considerably contribute towards project success. In this way we address the assessment criteria, eventually leading to positive evaluation and project approval. Nevertheless, what happens in practice is that the so-called “champions on paper” do not deliver the required work and their actual role could be of minor importance. Even more, the applicant organization (coordinator) could be well aware of that already in the process of application; involving these “champions” solely due to their brand and public recognition.

Their working tasks are described in a way to allow plenty of maneuvering space in case the project is granted. Tasks could be either completed by another partner, could be redistributed with an amendment or could generally require minimal efforts.

A special working team is formed inside a broader team. The actual work is done by individuals who really invest their “heart and soul” in the project. Especially we can count on people who:

  1. are not overburdened with other regular tasks (e.g. pedagogical work);
  2. can career-wise benefit from project work and results (e.g. publishing scientific papers, cooperating with industry, etc.);
  3. have formally enough working hours dedicated to the project.

It is crucial for the coordinator and project management in general to identify these individuals very soon – irrespectively of the formal distribution of working tasks and hours as stated in the application form or description of work.

Established informal project networks are not bound solely to one project. They can be transferred, upgraded, but also reshaped or torn apart based on specific needs and long-term developments. A great deal of information, knowledge, practices, and experiences are being exchanged within these networks; a lot more than within formally established hierarchical structures.

Networks also guarantee the sustainability of project activities and results, and could be therefore considered as an important project result on its own.

Despite losing some of the intellectual capital we sometimes also need to leave a certain network if we want to focus or invest in the ones that are more relevant for us and which have long-term growth potential.

Project success depends on the people we work and cooperate with. Famous “champions”, astonishing references, even ideas, and content are frequently of secondary importance. With a trustworthy and reliable partner, we can successfully cooperate in the vast majority of projects, irrespective of the topic and their background. Good relations that are based on mutual respect and on effectively delivering the quality work that was agreed upon, present a key condition for successful and long-term cooperation in European projects. If a certain individual leaves an organization, the network will follow him or her. And we frequently forget about this when hiring researchers, especially in the academic environment. It is not solely the references, scientific publications or achieved education that count. From the perspective of European projects, it is the social capital that plays a key role; meaning the networks that we have access to and which we can involve in our work. If hired, these individuals will also bring an additional group of people together with them – people that are part of their networks. And this is definitely crucial when preparing, applying for, acquiring and managing European projects.

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.