Performing outreach or social good as part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies is a regular requirement of, and cost for, construction projects and contractors in UK cities. Even beyond construction, outreach is promoted by project professional communities and has become a criterion for obtaining and maintaining professional accreditation. It is also a common requirement in company professional development review programmes for project practitioners.
We propose an effective way for project professionals to meet these requirements – make friends with an academic. At the same time, academics in project management know that the only real way for their students to learn project management is to manage a project, or to get as close to timely project management experience as possible. Hence, there is real interest in closing the gap between theory and practice for students. Building relationships with the world of actual practice seems to be a way to do this.
As we will show, these clearly complementary problems can lead to a mutually beneficial solution for both practitioners and academics. But exactly what could a project professional offer? And how could they initiate such relationships?
The needs of academics in teaching and researching the management of projects
A range of problems beset academics’ efforts to get themselves and their students closer to the world of practice. Practitioners are well placed to solve these problems, and can speak to academic career concerns too.
Many academics in the projects area were practitioners in the past, but as every year passes, the anecdotes and war stories get older and less relevant. If the best way to learn project management is to manage a project, developing ‘experiential education’ is necessary – but difficult when the academic is drifting from experience.
Postgraduate project management education is exploding in popularity, particularly with international students. We are training students from different educational backgrounds with different post-education intentions. It is also a challenge to scale up efforts and resources to try to create an individualised learning experience for increasing quantities of students.
If the academic is from a school of engineering, there is a drive to promote STEM education and outreach to local communities and groups of special interest, such as primary schoolchildren. As academics research and teach, they tend to become experts in progressively narrower fields of the discipline.
However, with the rate of change in technologies, commercial practices and governance structures, and sectoral differences in project practice, it becomes less easy for academics to maintain their familiarity with current industry practices.
Like project managers, academics (using the University of Manchester as an example) are tasked with outreach and ‘knowledge transfer’ as part of their role and as a condition for promotion. For example, we must produce:
- evidence of connecting research, knowledge creation and knowledge transfer into beneficial activity or positive change (economic or social) in the wider community;
- improved public understanding of, and engagement with, knowledge and research;
- evidence of influence on professional practice or policy;
- a record of creation, development and exploitation of intellectual property; and
- in common with CSR departments and many project professionals, a sustained record of external engagement in support of the university’s social responsibility goals.
What can you do now?
So, now you know our concerns, how do these align with your work and professional development needs? Do you have a CSR requirement as part of your latest project or professional accreditation?
We can supply help to you as you reach out to your communities of interest. We can bring not only our experience of producing engaging educational experiences, but also our university resources and connections. We can give you opportunities to engage with our students and help us create distinctive, scalable teaching and learning experiences in project work.
Cooperation between academics and neophyte project managers might provide some interesting moments of reflection on practices you take for granted. We can also help with particular project management problems, from setting up a community of practice to promote the interests of project managers in your organisation, to answering research questions like ‘How much red is “enough” on a programme dashboard?’
Perhaps you have an idea of what you want and what you might be able to offer in such a partnership – so how can you find one? There are the obvious things: attend (virtual) conferences and read the attendee list; search LinkedIn. However, for a more coordinated strategy, start with the web pages of schools of engineering or business schools at the universities in your area. Usually for historical reasons specific to an institution, project management will commonly be taught in schools of engineering or construction, or business schools.
So, search for heads of project management research groups or teaching programmes. Alternatively, search for knowledge transfer or outreach directors, who can direct you to suitable academics within their departments. APM can also help you, through the connections of its education and research managers.
In your introduction, make it clear what you have to offer – is it subject matter specialism, a live case study, a site visit, a lecture, access to or demonstration of specialist systems, or an outreach opportunity? What do you want in return? This is an exchange of value and both sides can learn and come away with more than they contribute.
A mutually beneficial exchange
Through partnership with an academic, it is possible for project professionals to convert their knowledge and experience into compelling outreach activities and satisfy CSR obligations with greater ease, creating benefit for themselves, the profession, their projects and the social fabric around their projects.
This blog was co-written by Dr Ian Stewart and Dr Kun Wang.
Dr Kun Wang is a lecturer at the University of Manchester.