Stepping Beyond the Personal and Professional Silos of a Research Project Manager

Brit Myers is a Project Manager for the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS), a non-profit membership organization with the mission of facilitating cross-boundary Arctic knowledge, research, communication, and education. She works to enhance the ability of the highly distributed Arctic research community to connect with one another and work more effectively through collaborative research programs.

Last year I was invited by Dr. Luisa Cristini  from the Alfred Wegener Institute to co-convene a session at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting.  Luisa was interested in submitting a session proposal specifically focused on issues relevant to the work of scientific project managers – a job title she and I share. Hoping to attract a larger number of abstracts to the proposed AGU session, we also agreed to reach out to the AAAS CEFP community to see if our session topic might be similar enough to their interests to warrant collaboration.  Luckily, AAAS’ Lou Woodley and another group of #CEFP17 session conveners agreed to join us in our efforts!

However, as we drafted the combined AGU session description – and during a number of other conversations that followed – there was some genuine uncertainty about where the boundaries might stand between those focused on professional development from a “Project Manager” standpoint vs. that of a “Research Community Manager.”  For anyone with a Project Management job title, it is hard to forget that Project Management is a well-established profession with an official Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) regulated through accreditation organizations like the Project Management Institute.  Alternatively, the “Research Community Manager” is viewed by the new AAAS Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement as an “emerging profession,” distinct enough from both traditional project management and/or non-scientific online community management to justify the time and attention needed to professionalize and institutionalize the role.

 

Image by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/building-ceiling-classroom-daylight-373488/
Image by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/building-ceiling-classroom-daylight-373488/

At the time, I was intrigued by the vague tension I could sense in the different role descriptions and professional identities. I had no problem at all seeing myself solidly in both camps. As a Project Manager, I am absolutely consumed by the cyclical practice of initiating, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet set deadlines. As a Research Community Manager, I am also working on a daily basis with the many highly distributed community members of the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS) to develop a stronger sense of belonging and connection across diverse geographies, disciplines, institutions, and world views to enhance their capacity to work together to develop, exchange, understand, and employ new knowledge.

To me, these two professional identities – project manager vs. community engagement manager – feel very much like the opposite sides of a coin, where the faces are either elevated or attenuated based on the evolving needs of a group and/or the many diverse norms and institutional frameworks holding a collaborative research project together. To explore this idea further, I’ve outlined a number of common work situations where I’ve found it useful to draw inspiration from one professional perspective or the other:

When can a Community Management perspective be useful?

  • Encouraging a Voluntary Workforce: Many large research networks bring people together on a voluntary basis around shared interests in a topic or theme. Encouraging a sense of community and ensuring that volunteers feel they are playing a meaningful role within that community can go a long way in sustaining participant interest and involvement.
  • Establishing Trust and Reciprocity: Western scientists charged with demonstrating the broader impacts of their research are often encouraged to engage with local communities &/or Indigenous knowledge holders. However, building trust and a history of reciprocity to serve as the foundation for these relationships may require a long-term commitment that extends well beyond the life-cycle of a single project. For more information on this topic, check out these helpful resources that ARCUS has compiled on Conducting Research with Northern Communities.
  • Managing Diversity: Over the past few decades, federal research funding has emphasized the value and need for large, collaborative, and interdisciplinary research projects to help solve society’s most challenging problems. However, helping diverse research teams, networks, or communities innovate across multiple disciplines, knowledge systems, &/or research methods can be challenging. As Cheruvelil et al (2014) discuss, a community management perspective can help ensure that the tensions that might accompany diversity remain productive.
  • Encouraging Information Exchange: Large research projects can include participants from many different institutions or geographic locations engaging with one another through a variety of online platforms and communication tools. Soliciting user generated content on these platforms—as well as working to improve information exchange more generally—often requires dedicating time and attention to both individual and online community engagement strategies.
  • Dealing with Conflict, Uncertainty, and Change: As a central node for the flow of information, research managers are often at the front lines when it comes to both identifying and responding to conflict, uncertainty, or needed changes within a project or group. Addressing these issues often involves ongoing or iterative engagement with many different people to identify solutions and/or encourage meaningful and lasting change. For project managers familiar with Agile methodologies, this might ring some bells. However, the difficult task of changing individual beliefs, personal dynamics, or workplace culture may take shape very differently with a community management approach than it might when using a project management framework (even an Agile one!).
  • Sustaining Collaborations Across Funding Gaps: Many research projects do not come with stable long-term funding. Ensuring that the value of an established and productive research team, network, or community remains intact across multiple project iterations or funding gaps may require research managers to think more about what they can do to keep established research communities together than how best to release resources when closing a project.

When can a Project Management perspective be useful?

  • Meeting, Conference, and Event Planning: Organizing research seminars, committee meetings, workshops, conferences, or other special events are all common tasks for ARCUS project management staff. Managing the logistics for these community convenings are tasks well suited to the traditional waterfall methodologies that most people think of when they hear Project Management referenced. (A community engagement perspective, however, is always super helpful when thinking about how to orchestrate a program or agenda that results in compelling and meaningful participant experiences!)
  • Proposal, Report, or Other Time-Sensitive Product Development: Large research initiatives are likely to be involved with the regular development of collaborative research funding proposals, reports, journal articles, white papers, or other research products with firm deadlines for completion. Mapping out responsibilities and tasks, tracking content deliverables, and ensuring product specification are met (e.g. of funder RFP or journal article submission standards) are among the many components of research product development that can benefit from a project management framework and support tools.
  • Designing New Strategic Objectives or Process Improvements: There is a HUGE community engagement component to both developing strategic objectives and improving organizational processes. That being said, you can also fail at these kind of engagement activities horribly if you haven’t first figured out and clearly communicated the process by which community input will feed into overall decision-making. Adopting a project management perspective from the beginning, can help pave an intentional route from point A to point B that increases the likelihood that outcomes will be perceived as fair and reasoned.
  • Processing Research Project Data &/or Building New Online Collaboration Tools: Since many project management methodologies have risen to prominence through their use in the software design sectors, this is likely a pretty obvious application! For further consideration, however, you might check out this new article from Wieters and Fritzsch on the application of software project management in scientific projects.
  • Coordinating Across Multi-Team Systems: Convergence research—which is currently emphasized as one of the National Science Foundations “Big Ideas” to guide U.S. research investment—entails the deep integration of knowledge, methods, data, communities, and language across the functions and specializations of collaborative research groups. For large projects of this nature, it can be very helpful to create a shared management framework to help bridge and regulate between the many different governing structures of all partners involved.
  • Documenting Workplans, Rules, Agreements, and Technical Requirements: As a research manager, creating, maintaining, and making sure attention is paid to key project documentation, decision points, or technical specifications is an important part of the role. Traditional project management documentation templates (e.g. Project Charters, Work Breakdown Structures, Project Plans) can all be useful tools for ensuring that important information is being captured, remembered, and put into practice.

I know that the methods, tools, and insights of the traditional Project Management profession will continue to serve me well in my career. I am also more than delighted that organizations such as the new AAAS Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement are working to shed light on the many ways that the project management roles within collaborative research teams, networks, and communities may be distinct from their corporate counterparts in the software design, marketing, &/or construction industries. As large research collaborations continue to proliferate, these efforts will all be made richer by research project &/or community managers with their own ability to draw upon a diversity of training, skills, and experience.

References:

Cheruvelil, Kendra S, Patricia A Soranno, Kathleen C Weathers, Paul C Hanson, Simon J Goring, Christopher T Filstrup, and Emily K Read. 2014. “Creating and Maintaining High-Performing Collaborative Research Teams: The Importance of Diversity and Interpersonal Skills.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12 (1). Ecological Society of America: 31–38. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/130001.

Project Management Institute. 2017. Project Management Body of Knowledge: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute. doi:10.1002/pmj.20125.

Wieters, Nadine, and Bernadette Fritzsch. 2018. “Opportunities and Limitations of Software Project Management in Geoscience and Climate Modelling.” Advances in Geosciences 45: 383–87. doi:10.5194/adgeo-45-383-2018.

(Cheruvelil et al. 2014)(Wieters and Fritzsch 2018)(Project Management Institute 2017)