PROJECTS AS OPPORTUNITY TO DRIVE LASTING ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING

Maria Spindler

Projects can teach the line organization new functionality and enable learning by developing structural patterns and appropriate management options. They are understood here as self-contained and time-bounded organizations which create a simultaneously stable and flexible framework for innovation and learning (see, e.g., Davies & Hobday, 2005; Grabber & Ibert, 2011) This article focuses on the question of which conditions are necessary for line organization and project reciprocally to create optimal conditions and for learning potential to be used fruitfully by the line organization. It is an attempt to look behind the scenes. To this end qualitative interviews were conducted with line managers, sponsors, project managers, and project team members of 11 case studies in Central and Eastern Europe. The cases were chosen from among the author's long-term consulting cases with eleven clients who worked on their development and their learning as management and organization. They are from different industries: two banks, steel manufacturing, two universities, a foundation, telecommunication, consulting, political organization, research institute, and public administrative sector.

The results of the research show that the more projects are seen as different, as "sheltered workshops," the more they can try out new and high-risk ventures and the more they learn from failures. The line and the project organization serve as environment to each other and are at the same time dependent on each other; each is enabler for and beneficiary of the other. Differences and conflict relationships between line and project in terms of organization, management and learning culture can bear fruit for this learning. The case studies showed the following seven conditions for long-lasting learning for the line organization.

RECOGNITION OF PROJECTS AS URGENCY CREATORS FOR LEARNING

If the project's potential to highlight differences and weaknesses and create urgency for learning within the line organization was appreciated, it could be used as a learning source: Those involved spoke of hurdles, inflexible, dysfunctional, selfish, short-sighted management, rigid structures and urgency for change and learning. The "sense of urgency"[1] was seen as massive; making the effort to change was a struggle:

We had invested too much in relation to the results achieved. A lot of what was good couldn't be realized. We have to approach the whole thing completely differently, set up differently, prepare the implementation differently ... we have to change a lot in our line and project culture. We have to deal differently with our projects; otherwise the results are not useful for us ... How? This is still unclear.. (CEO, midsized manufacturing company)

A HIGH DEGREE OF MANAGEMENT AWARENESS FOR LEARNING THROUGH THE PROJECT

Against the background of their structural, leadership and cultural patterns, organizations (the management as system) had different degrees of awareness for learning through projects and dealing with uncertainty. Learning potential depended on the line organization management's awareness of the project's learning purposes. The following types of purposes were seen:

"Submarines" showed little movement towards learning:

We tried to find a solution for the president's desire to create the strategy. He gives no clear guidance, he has his ideas. So we came up with a rather silent project, a submarine. (Project member, political organization)

"Problem solvers" showed little movement towards learning:

We are well known for outsourcing and centralization of databases. Our clients are mostly satisfied; nevertheless, cooperation with the client and implementation are the big challenges. (Project manager, IT consulting)

"Changers" showed good learning conditions:

With this project we have to change the entire organization, from side-by-side silos to a network and process orientated organization. A risky innovation project that changes the whole structure. (Sponsor, banking sector)

"Inventors themselves" showed perfect learning conditions:

This identity project, it changes and shapes us through and through. Each person, team, partner, department is forced to look at their beliefs, mindsets, management culture. We all invent ourselves anew. (CEO, foundation)

  • [1] In John Kotter's terms for urgency for change (see Kotter, 2005).
 
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