Experience of running collaborative projects

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of California Santa Cruz]On: 19 November 2014, At: 18:26Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T3JH, UK

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    Experience of runningcollaborative projectsColin Harris aa University Librarian, The Manchester MetropolitanUniversity , All Saints, Manchester, M15 6BH, UKPublished online: 15 Oct 2009.

    To cite this article: Colin Harris (2001) Experience of running collaborative projects,New Review of Academic Librarianship, 7:1, 37-49, DOI: 10.1080/13614530109516820

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13614530109516820

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  • Experience of running collaborative projectsColin HarrisUniversity Librarian, The Manchester Metropolitan University, All Saints,Manchester, M15 6BH, UK

    BACKGROUND

    The Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) is a three yearprogramme, funded by the four UK higher education fundingbodies, with the broad aim of improving support for research in UKhigher education libraries and archives. It commenced in 1999 and willfinish in July 2002. The programme has three strands: (a) collaborativecollection management projects (in any subject area); (b) projects thatprovide support for humanities and social science research collections; and(c) the 'access' strand, which compensates libraries with researchcollections for costs incurred in serving researchers from other institutionsof higher education. (Further information on the Programme and itsprojects and activities is available at http://www.rslp.ac.uk)

    In the first two strands, the Programme has supported 53 projects. All ofthese projects have involved an element of collaborative working, althoughthe 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 partnersreceiving part of the project funding to partners (perhaps outside highereducation) making minimal contributions to surveys or maps of holdings.Collaborative working is one of the features that have distinguished theRSLP from its predecessor programme, the (Follett) Non-Formula FundingProgramme (NFF).

    The RSLP has commissioned a number of studies on aspects of theoperation of the programme and the broader library environment in order toinform the operation of future programmes that may arise (particularly asan outcome of the deliberations of the Research Support Libraries Group(RSLG)). The purpose of the present study was to explore the experienceof collaborative working, particularly with a view to identifying lessons forthe future, and the following recommendations are made:

    There should be a much more realistic assessment of the timeneeded to manage collaborative projects. Bidders will needguidance.

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  • 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 delaysin setting up (particularly, but not only, to do with recruitment).

    Further means should be found of enabling partners in other sectorsand domains to share project funding.

    There should be closer monitoring of projects, not for purposes ofcontrol but to identify opportunities for providing assistance acrossthe programme or across clusters of projects within the programme.

    The programme could undertake more careful analysis of skills gapsand training needs of Project Managers and of project workers andtake reasonable action to meet them. Some discussion should beheld with BAILER.

    The programme could actively encourage sharing of information andexperience among projects on matters such as technology,outsourcing, etc.

    The programme could consider the provision of a modelMemorandum of Agreement for working with partners.

    THIS STUDYThe study took the form of four seminars to which all Project Managerswere invited and which all but three attended. In addition, one ProjectDirector was invited to each seminar to provide some input from a differentperspective. (The definition of, and distinction between, Project Managerand Project Director is slightly problematic. By Project Director, we meantnormally the person who formally had made the proposal and was formallythe grantholder with responsibility for delivering the proposed projectoutcomes; by Project Manager, we meant the person appointed to managethe project and its staff and activities. Some participants thought that theyhad both roles; some projects used different terminology (for example, inone project the Project Director was called the Project Manager and theProject Manager was called the Project Administrator). Each seminarbegan with brief introductions of all participants followed by longerpresentations by two Project Managers. Three seminars were held inLondon; one was held in Edinburgh. It was stressed at each seminar, and itis stressed again here, that the purpose of the seminars and of the projectwas not to attempt to evaluate the projects or the Programme (it is expected

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  • 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 broadlyupon the life cycle of projects:

    i. Preparing proposalsii. Start-upiii. Work plansiv. Targets: contracts, service level agreements, etc.v. Communication, exchange of information and experiencevi. Skills gaps, trainingvii. Threats to completionviii Production of outputsix. Disseminationx. General benefits of collaborative workingxi. General drawbacks of collaborative working

    Running through all of the discussion it was expected that other issueswould arise, such as:

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

    PROPOSALSRSLP used a two-stage process for inviting proposals: brief expressions ofinterest followed by full bids from a selection from the expressions ofinterest. This process received universal approval, particularly since puttingtogether bids with partners was more complex than single bids (such asNFF). Many institutions were involved in a number of bids, either as leadpartner or non-lead partner, and the two-stage process helped to spread thework. A few participants said that they had done almost all of the work onthe bids at the first stage, but that was not typical.

    Typically the first stage would involve core partners, with the second stageallowing time to recruit more partners if necessary or appropriate. Some

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  • were working with networks of partners that had been in existence fordecades, so finding and recruiting partners was not a problem. For some,potential partners were obvious, so identification was easy, but recruitmentmight not be so easy. For others, some work was required to identifypartners with strengths in the project areas. The largest libraries, forexample 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 projectsto which they would be partners. In some cases, RSLP suggested additionalpartners to be included in the full proposal.

    In many projects there were partners from libraries outside highereducation, particularly the British Library and public libraries and in somepartners from other domains, particularly museums and archives. Ofcourse, project monies could not be paid beyond the higher educationsector. Some regret was expressed that, while other libraries weresometimes very willing to participate at their own expense, the inability forprojects to fund such participation necessarily limited the contribution. Inparticular, it was thought that the British Library would have collectionsrelevant to a large number of projects. This problem has been overcome tosome extent by RSLP's collaboration, in eight cases, with the BritishLibrary's Co-operation and Collaboration Programme, wherein monies cango to public libraries, museums, etc.

    Views varied about the adequacy of funds bid for. A small number felt thatthey had built in some additional margin to be on the safe side, but themajority perceived the exercise as competitive bidding and cut the fundssought to a minimum (which frequently turned out to be a mistake). Therewas some negotiation between RSLP and projects about funding levels, butnot always with RSLP trying to get more for their money.

    There was a view that bids did not cater for the aditional time that would berequired for the management of collaborative projects.

    It was generally felt that the proposal timetable was very reasonable, aidedby the two-stage process.

    SET-UPFor many this was the most difficult stage of the project. The principalproblems were to do with recruitment of staff, and the two key problems.were availability of appropriately skilled people and the apparentdilatoriness of personnel departments.

    Suddenly good cataloguers and archivists were in great demand, and some

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  • projects required very specific skills, particularly in special languages.Many projects were fishing in the same pool for skilled staff. Manyprojects reported having shortlists of one or two and reflect that if aparticular person had not applied for and accepted the post, the projectcould not have happened. Frequently, those appointed did not have thecomplete set of skills required and projects or their institutions had to trainthem as necessary. A very great deal of frustration was expressed withuniversity personnel departments. The key complaints were that personneldepartments:

    failed to understand the special problems of project workfailed to give projects any special treatment in the recruitmenttimetabletreated RSLP projects as second class because there were nooverheadswanted to check the personnel calculations in the proposal, eventhough these would generally have been approved by a ResearchOffice or equivalent.

    These problems were exacerbated by the fact that personnel departments indifferent institutions might have different requirements and procedures andby the fact that different institutions might have different pay scales (ie oldand new universities) and may appoint staff, eg cataloguers, to differentgrades. This problem would be further complicated, of course, if partnersin other sectors or domains were able to receive funding from theProgramme.

    One project explicitly had no such problems; no institutional funds wereinvolved and the Librarian was responsible for the project, so she was wereleft to get on with it.

    The second major problem area in the set-up stage concerned specialequipment: its specification, identification, acquisition and installation.This was a particular problem in projects that involved large-scale use ofvery special equipment, such as digitisation projects. Some avoided suchproblems by outsourcing such work.

    WORK PLANSProposed work plans were frequently modified in some degree, for avariety of reasons:

    Where there had been a delay to the start of a project due to recruitmentproblems, work plans would have to be rewritten to cover a period of, say

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  • thirty months rather than thirty-three. This was because the RSLPprogramme had a finishing date (31 July 2002) beyond which projectscould not be extended. There was widespread expression of a wish thatfunding programmes should be more flexible.

    As projects got going, managers sometimes found that they had notcalculated work rates sufficiently carefully. Some bidders had forgottenthat staff have to take holidays and might get sick. This did not generallyresult in major changes to plans, but could affect quantitative targets. RSLPwas thought always to be very understanding and reasonable.

    Some parts of projects might have been misconceived. One projectrealised, after consultation with academics, that part of its programme wasnot needed but something else was, and was able to change.

    On occasions it was found that partners were not completing their share ofthe work, so the load would be switched to another partner. Sometimes itwas discovered that there was not as much material at a site as had beenthought and there was more at another site.

    The problem of estimating the workload was a common one. Frequently itwas simply not known how much material there was to be worked on orhow much work was needed. There was a view that much more workneeded to be done at the bidding stage to scope the task.

    TARGETS: CONTRACTS, SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENTS, ETCThe formal commitment of partners to participation in a project wasgenerally given by a Vice-Chancellor or another senior manager. There wasa view that this was of little practical use, and that successful projectsneeded a formal agreement to be signed by the manager who would beresponsible for ensuring a partner's contribution. This sometimes took theform of a memorandum of agreement signed by participating heads ofservice. It was felt important that this undertaking should be given bysomeone reasonably close to the work, to ensure 'ownership' andcommitment to completing the work.

    COMMUNICATION, EXCHANGE OF INFORMATION ANDEXPERIENCEThere was a wide variety of practice in communicating among partners,depending, for example, upon geographical proximity or remoteness. Allparticipants 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 widelyendorsed. Email was used for general communication and for morefocussed discussion with various levels of closed lists. One project, forexample, had a list for project workers to communicate without the projectmanager.

    Project managers frequently travelled to visit partners. This was easy in, forexample, a London project, but less easy, for example, in a Wales project.All or key partners would frequently form a management board withregular meetings, but the view was common that, from time to time, face-to-face meetings of all project staff were desirable. There were occasionswhen email exchanges could become 'irritable' and issues could beaddressed much more satisfactorily face-to-face.

    Some projects had newsletters for regular communication.

    SKILLS GAPS AND TRAININGAs mentioned above, many projects were unable to find staff with thecomplete set of skills required for the job and had to decide which wereindispensable and which could be acquired by training. Frequently, theindispensable skills were specialised languages or technology orknowledge of the subject. Cataloguing and similar skills were frequentlydeveloped by training, usually within the lead partner's library, butoccasionally by other partners. The National Library of Wales ran a shortcourse in cataloguing.

    For Project Managers, RSLP ran two short courses, one on projectmanagement and one on financial management. Both were widely felt tohave been useful. Project Managers were invited, in the course of theProgramme, to suggest other areas in which training would have beenhelpful, but suggestions were not forthcoming. One Project Managerreported that she did not suggest anything because she thought that she wasexpected to know it all! It was a common feeling that Project Managerswere not experienced enough; many felt out of their depth in one or moreaspects of the project.

    In retrospect, Project Managers can identify areas in which training wouldhave helped, but they recognise that it might have been difficult to identifyareas in which enough people perceived the need at the same time (sinceprojects got off the ground and developed at different speeds) to make itworthwhile running a course.

    It seems likely that, had it had the resources to monitor projects' activities

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  • and needs more closely, RSLP would have been able to identify areas inwhich some co-ordinated training would have been possible: bibliographicand archival description; web design; digitisation have been offered asexamples. It would not be necessary to find subjects in which all 53projects had an immediate interest; clusters of eight to twelve might havebeen feasible.

    There was a feeling that some traditional library skills, particularlycataloguing, were not getting the attention they deserved in modern 'libraryschools'; equally, there was a feeling that, while library schools did giveconsiderable attention to management generally, it would be helpful if theydid more on project management, particularly since project-based workwas becoming a more common method of managing core activities inlibraries. More than once it was suggested that there should be a dialoguewith BAILER.

    THREATS TO COMPLETIONRSLP projects are, on the whole, different from other R&D projects, inthat, almost from the start, they are producing their product or output,typically creating a database or adding to an existing one. Failure to fulfilcompletely 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 whereserious shortfall was anticipated, RSLP changed the funding level.

    In addition to the ongoing production of the 'product', there is arequirement for a final report on the project. The production of the finalreport is problematic, particularly in cases where insufficient time for itscompletion has been allowed in the project timetable and it has to becompleted when the Manager has gone back to, or on to, another job.Nevertheless, every Project Manager is confident that their project's finalreport will be delivered in reasonable time. This is partly a function ofprofessionalism and commitment and, to a lesser extent, a fear that theirown or their Project Director's prospects of future funding might bethreatened should the report not appear.

    So the universal view among Project Managers is that projects will becompleted, in both of the above senses; but that did not stop them fromidentifying 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 notagreement about the best and worst circumstances. Some think that it is

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  • worse for staff to leave towards the end of a project because it would beimpossible to recruit for a short period of contract; others feel that for staffto leave towards the beginning of a project is worse because it exacerbatesthe already difficult problems of start-up, etc. Others think that the middleof a project is worse. Some feel that, towards the end of a project, theimportant development work (eg the web site) has been done; others aresaving 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 threepeople were to leave, the project would be in jeopardy.

    There is an interesting difference of opinion about the motivation andcommitment of project staff. One view was that project staff have noownership of the project, have fixed-term contracts and do not enjoy all ofthe benefits (eg training opportunities) enjoyed by their permanentcolleagues, with the consequence that they have very little commitment tothe project, particularly if their work is routine, repetitive or boring. Thisview was not shared by most, who reported high levels of interest andcommitment including, in one case, a reluctance to seek other jobs as theproject came to an end because they wished to see it through to the end.Clearly, there is an important role for Project Managers to motivate projectstaff; some assistance in this particular aspect of management might beconsidered.

    One of the strengths of the RSLP is that its projects are located in(frequently substantial) service environments, which means that, inextremis, 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 wasgeneral praise for the ways in which core staff in libraries had supportedRSLP projects.

    Other threats mentioned were power failures, machine failures, hacking,etc. Clearly, if there is a risk that projects might not take the necessaryprecautions to ensure that data is saved, stored and secured appropriately,there should be strong guidance from the Programme.

    PRODUCTION OF OUTPUTSAll projects will produce their 'products', which will be made available tothe community. The RSLP conditions of award require that, on completionof the project, Project Directors will ensure that the resource continues tobe available free of charge to the higher education community.

    All projects believe that, although their targets, original or revised, will be

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  • met, there is still more to do. There are further collections or materials tobe discovered within partner institutions; there are relevant collections ormaterials to be discovered in other institutions (particularly, perhaps, theBritish Library); and most collections continue to grow. On 31 July 2002,RSLP will stop. Some projects will stop; others will continue, where thereis a will on the part of lead and/or other partners to find the effort orresource to do so. Where projects stop, the general worry is not that on 1August the 'product' will seem out-dated or incomplete, but that in two orthree years it will be out-dated and incomplete.

    Short-term mounting of the 'product' and technical maintenance will bepossible, but long-term support is not guaranteed, particularly if ProjectManagers and Project Directors move on, leaving the product without anowner or champion.

    There is widespread concern that means should be found both forfacilitating further development of the products and for guaranteeing itscontinued maintenance and availability to the community.

    DISSEMINATIONMost projects have created a new resource that has potential value to one ormore constituencies in the higher education community and beyond andwill have to make a particular effort to make those constituencies aware ofthe resource and its value and application. In some cases, this effort will beminimal; for example, the ARCHway project is principally directed at theacademic archaeology community. Archaeology is a small, closely-knitcommunity and ARCHway, in York, already has close ties with theArchaeology Data Service and the Council for British Archaeology, both ofwhich will promulgate messages about ARCHway. Other projects, withmuch more diffuse constituencies, perhaps across sectors and domains, willhave to make more sustained efforts.

    Websites, leaflets, conferences, formal launch events have all beenmentioned as proposed dissemination devices. In addition, the RSLP holds'open days' at which all projects in the Programme display their wares.

    BENEFITS OF COLLABORATIVE WORKINGOne participant, speaking of the original motivation for collaborativeworking in this Programme, said that people were not interested incollaborative working, but just in getting the cataloguing done.Nevertheless, every participant (and this and the next question were theonly ones on which every participant was asked to express a view) was

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  • able to say positive things about collaborative working.

    Some benefits were not very specific: it was just good to work with otherpeople and to get to know other people with common interests. No doubtthis will assist with future networking and with laying the foundations forbidding to future programmes.

    A great benefit was the discovery of resources. Some groups hadlongstanding traditions of working together and no doubt had extensiveknowledge of collections, but in this Programme much was discoveredabout the existence of collections. Working together to make these assortedcollections known to, and available to, the user community was a source ofmuch accomplishment and pride.

    The opportunity provided by projects to develop interworking acrosssectors and domains was seen as a great strength, particularly perhaps inthe regional projects, such as Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland,where the impetus to such collaboration is strengthened by other aspects ofthe higher education system.

    Collaborative working was seen to be particularly useful where adimension of the project was the setting, adapting and application ofstandards. Much more progress was made in this area than would havebeen the case in single player projects.

    The fact that collaborative working was a requirement of RSLP projectsitself made them somewhat innovative, which added to the excitement ofrunning and participating in the projects. (As will be seen below, thisinnovation came at a cost, particularly in terms of project management.)

    Without external funding, some institutions might themselves have beenable, over time, to address some of the issues addressed in these projects. Itis certain, however, that without external funding combined with arequirement for collaborative working, many of the outcomes of theProgramme could not have been realised.

    THE DRAWBACKS OF COLLABORATIVE WORKINGThe overwhelming drawback was that collaborative working took so muchmore time than did non-consortial projects. Keeping partners informed,joint decision making, resolution of differences in practice (bothadministrative, eg salary scales, and professional, eg cataloguing practice),travelling between partner sites, constant pressure on partners to report ontime, submit invoices on time, etc., all added up. There was a commonview that more time should be allowed for collaborative project

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  • management than would seem necessary, and that project managementshould be properly resourced, ie where a Project Manager is seconded fromanother job there should be a full buy-out of time so that his or her time canbe fully dedicated.

    Many Project Managers complained that they were not sufficientlyexperienced or were deficient in some skills or knowledge. This is not aparticular problem of collaborative working, but is exacerbated by it.

    In the RSLP, many saw the inability to enable partners from othersectors/domains to share the funding as a serious drawback; many suchpartners made substantial contributions to projects, but it is felt that thiscould have been greater.

    Although the potential threat to projects posed by the exigencies of fixed-term contract working were apparently much greater than the actualproblems, nevertheless they did cause substantial anxiety throughoutprojects. 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 limitedtimescales.

    Views differed about the problems of financial management; some saw itas a nightmare, others simply expected partners to manage their share ofthe monies.

    Personnel issues (grading scales, grading of posts, recruitment procedures,delays) were almost universally seen as very problematic.

    CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONSThe overwhelming impression is that Project Managers feel that the RSLPand its projects have been a great success. A huge contribution has beenmade to making known and available important research resources and theprojects seem to be justifiably proud of the collaborative efforts that havebeen made. There have been many difficulties, large and small and, as itturned out, many more imagined than real. Many individuals feel that theypersonally have gained and developed as a result of the collaborativeexperience, and they would all advocate further working of this kind.

    There are some lessons from this Programme that it might be useful to bearin mind in future programmes, and the following recommendations aremade. (It should be stressed that these comments are not in any way

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  • intended as criticisms of RSLP programme management, which ProjectManagers agree has been at all times helpful and constructive.)

    Recommendations

    There should be a much more realistic assessment of the timeneeded to manage collaborative projects. Bidders will needguidance.

    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 delaysin setting up (particularly, but not only, to do with recruitment).

    Further means should be found of enabling partners in other sectorsand domains to share project funding.

    There should be closer monitoring of projects, not for purposes ofcontrol but to identify opportunities for providing assistance acrossthe programme or across clusters of projects within the programme.

    The programme could undertake more careful analysis of skills gapsand training needs of Project Managers and of project workers andtake reasonable action to meet them. Some discussion should beheld with BAILER.

    The programme could actively encourage sharing of information andexperience among projects on matters such as technology,outsourcing, etc.

    The programme could consider the provision of a modelMemorandum of Agreement for working with partners.

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