Managing Digital Projects
“Accidental” project managers can benefit from following these useful tips.
Posted Wed, 03/10/2010 - 10:18
Man with bianary code
While teaching a workshop on digital project management at last year’s Association of College and Research Libraries conference in Seattle, I began by asking the participants to describe to the class a project for which they were responsible. One librarian explained that her supervisor asked her to design a library website.
I asked her to relate any prior experience she had in designing websites, training that she had received in web design, and whether she possessed any design-related skills or knowledge. The serious look on her face as she explained that she had barely any experience at all designing websites was telling. Furthermore, she said that she was “uncertain where to even begin,” but that she felt “a workshop on project management is a logical place to start.” I agreed and then moved on to the next person in the room.
A film repository archivist said he was given an assignment to lead a project that involved digitizing a collection of production scripts for a film archive. He explained that his biggest challenges were managing the vast amount of copyright and intellectual property issues for the materials and gaining consensus among the stakeholders about selecting materials to digitize. He described to the class how difficult it had been to gain buy-in from the owners of the materials, much less getting them to agree to make the scripts accessible to the public. His purpose for participating in the workshop, he said, was to gain a greater understanding of how to proceed, especially given the fact that he worked alone.
A third workshop participant explained that her job within the library involved working with faculty to integrate library resources into course syllabi. Her goal for participating in the workshop was to gain a greater awareness of available project management tools. As each of the workshop participants related his or her project and purpose for being there, I listened intently.
By the end of the exercise, it was clear that what these “accidental” project managers needed was to understand basic elements of project management. The workshop participants can be described as accidental project managers because they were assigned to lead a project, but none of them had any prior formal project-management training. The workshop inspired me, because by the time it ended many of the participants expressed gratitude for what they learned and confidence in their ability to begin properly carrying out their projects. Several people explained that they felt better prepared to plan and organize their work, identify areas where they needed assistance, and apply the tools and resources that I recommended to get their projects underway.
Furthermore, this experience informed my definition of digital projects within libraries and cultural heritage organizations. As a result of the workshop, I formed a broader understanding of digital projects. My experience in academic libraries for the past 10 years had been confined to digitization efforts or instructional design activities. However, I learned that digital projects encompass myriad activities designed to address the preservation, access, and dissemination of information resources in an online environment. Managing digital projects requires the use of information and communications technologies and the application of basic project management skills and techniques.
What is a project?
To understand the importance of project management in libraries, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations, let’s first step back for a moment and define the term project. Each assignment the workshop participants described in the examples above had a scope, a time frame, and was designed to solve a particular problem. Their projects required such resources as time, money, and staff. Each project required a plan, which is the road map that guides how resources are put into use over a specific period of time. All projects, whether they involve designing a website, a curriculum, or planning a digital library system, have similar needs.
The Project Management Institute (PMI), the leading body of project-management professionals, defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” All projects share three common characteristics:
First, a project has a definite beginning and an ending date. It is temporary; it might last for one month or one year, but it eventually ends once the objectives have been met. By describing a project as temporary, you might think that I am referring to the project timeline. Let me be clear: Once a project’s objectives have been met, the project will cease to exist, or at least it should. In this case a project has a finite time frame in which to operate. At the end of a project the product or service exists and the team members are dismantled or reassigned.
What happens when they linger?
Yet sometimes projects can linger. For example, often software-development projects within libraries tend to morph into an ongoing activity. At least two ongoing activities result from software development projects: ongoing system maintenance and the addition of product features. Instead of ending, these projects continue without a formal plan or schedule.