Project and programme research centres – six critical success factors

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It is almost a truism that large-scale public projects frequently fail to achieve intended objectives and deliver anticipated benefits. There have been many explanations for this persistent poor performance, from the wrong methods and insufficient data to psychological biases and poorly trained leaders.

One high-potential, but underdeveloped, gap-closing mechanism is the independent (ie able to ‘speak truth to power’) but highly engaged (ie using real data about real projects) project and programme research centre (PPRC). Globally, there are numerous organisations carrying out important project-related research, but they do so in a variety of ways. To date, there has been no attempt to profile these institutions and establish key aspects of their operating models.

We set out to change that, and our research paper, Project and programme research centres: Lessons for scholarship, policy and practice, has now been published by APM.

Our goal to find all the PPRCs we could

Diverse in their locations, affiliations, research priorities, sectoral focus, and even titles, it was challenging to develop a comprehensive audit of PPRCs. Nonetheless, we believe our list captures the majority of such institutions and, consequently, provides excellent insights into the potential range of characteristics that underpin and embody PPRCs.

To give a richer set of insights, we did a deep dive into four of the most significant PPRCs: 

  • The John Grill Institute of Project Leadership, Australia;
  • The Stanford Global Projects Center, United States;
  • The ESRC Complex Product Systems (CoPS) Innovation Centre, UK; and
  • The Concept Research Programme, Norway.

Together with our preliminary audit of their public profile, publications, etc, we carried out a range of interviews with current and former senior leadership members. These were invaluable in generating further insight into the motivations and strategic decisions that shaped the development of these leading PPRCs.

The final report identifies a range of findings but highlights the following six critical factors to determining the sustained effectiveness of a PPRC. 

  1. Collaboration

Establishing and maintaining relationships is key to sustaining a PPRC. Long-term, honest but mutually beneficial exchanges benefit those studying projects, as well as public- and private-sector partners. Specific mechanisms that can support such trust-building included the co-creation of outputs – which can contribute to each party’s strategic objectives and reputation – and, where possible, long- or short-term physical co-location of researchers/practitioners. 

  1. Interdisciplinary work

By merging different perspectives, PPRCs can create innovative and impactful knowledge. Working across intellectual boundaries can also advance project scholarship, which was previously dominated by the study of project management tools and techniques. Vital to this is a supportive institutional environment that incentivises the analysis of real-world problems across often siloed disciplines. 

  1. Balancing long-term and short term-outputs

PPRCs face a tension between short-term demands for practical insights and long-term demands for academic outputs. Vital in managing this tension are organisation, preparation and strategic thinking when engaging with stakeholders. Specifically, embedding researchers and students within organisations, or using training and executive education programmes to share findings, can add direct value to organisations and contribute to refining research outputs. 

  1. Mentorship and leadership training

Empowering a future generation of strategic decision-makers is crucial for the continuity of PPRCs. Some ways to do this include exposing early career researchers to proposal writing, budget development, and strategic and political decision-making. Also, developing a handover strategy aligned with mentorship and leadership training is extremely beneficial for both PPRC scholars and the centres more generally.

  1. Entrepreneurial funding generation

The operation of PPRCs only continues for as long as they can fund their activities. Thus, an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ to seeking research funds is vital for continuity. Multiple avenues are worth exploring, including national research council grants, company contributions and, where appropriate, direct government funding. At crucial times, PPRCs should consider prioritising proposal writing over other research activities, or even recruiting someone proactive, with a strong network, to help secure funding.

  1. Network convening

Ultimately PPRCs convene networks across business, government and academia. The key to effective network convening is to attract the right organisations early on, so as to attract others that want to talk to them. Hosting curated events and engaging with the support of professional bodies, such as APM, can encourage organisations to contribute to research activity, either monetarily or in-kind.

Future research

This study was motivated by the noticeable absence of a single-source that profiles PPRCs across the world. As an initial repository of information, it provides insight into the work that PPRCs do, lessons about how to design such organisations and the opportunities that they afford affiliated researchers, as well as public- and private-sector partners. The report is, therefore, useful for institute developers, those who are part of PPR institutes and those from the private or public sector looking to collaborate with such institutes.

Future research is required to develop a more definitive repository of PPRCs. Especially given that projects are increasingly important for addressing complex challenges such as rebuilding societies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling climate change and achieving sustainability.

Download the full research report, Project and programme research centres: Lessons for scholarship, policy and practice.

Image: Topconcept/Shutterstock.com

This blog was co-written by Rehema Msulwa, Michael Lewis, Katherine Bloomfield and Phoebe Young.

Michael Lewis is a professor of operations and supply chain management, and the head of the Information, Decision and Operations Group at the University of Bath. He studies the management of complex business relationships and contracts (PFI/PPP).


Katherine Bloomfield is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Hull. Her current work resides within ‘Project X’, endorsed by the government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). Her research interests lie in the initiation and conception of major projects, public procurement, contracting and risk.


Phoebe Young is a second-year PhD student at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on complexity in government transformation projects in the justice sector.

Rehema Msulwa

Posted by Rehema Msulwa on 17th Sep 2020

About the Author

Rehema Msulwa is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Bath. Her research is interdisciplinary, with a focus on organising at the nexus of infrastructure provision, economic development and urban regeneration.

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