Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Collaborative project management: A case study of the Australia-South Africa Institutional Links Programme

Heidi Hudson
Department of Political Science
University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein
Higher and Further Education in South Africa have increasingly had to adapt to the challenges of internationalisation and competition, with the result that the management of projects in the tertiary education sector has had to become more efficient and effective. In the South African developmental context, however, this emphasis on productivity is often perceived to run counter to people-centred goals of effecting change. In the latter approach to project management there is less concern with planning and control and more with the management of people. The role of the project manager is also substantially different from that in a more rigid corporate approach. The paper explores this apparent tension between the two approaches to the management of developmental projects and argues that the two need not necessarily be incompatible. The Collaborative Staff Development for Quality Teaching and Learning Project in the Free State is used as a case study to illustrate how the two approaches can be successfully balanced in practice. Attention is given to the practical implications of various aspects, such as communication channels, team-building, progress monitoring, and management of quality. This discussion is set against the background of regional, national and international inter-institutional collaboration.

Introduction

In the present era of change in the Higher and Further Education sectors, transformation demands a range of skills and an openness to new practices in a variety of contexts. The project manager should, therefore, have "the social and political skills of the community activist, the planning and design skills of the engineer, the commitment to succeed against all odds of the revolutionary, and the business acumen of the ... entrepreneur" (Human & Strachan, 1997:5-6).

The theme of this paper is centred around the principles of project management in the area of staff development at institutions of Higher and Further Education. Collaborative project work and cross-institutional partnerships underpin the principles of an expanded notion of staff development (White Paper on Higher Education, 1997:28).

The aims of this paper are to:

Conceptualisation

The first stage of project management involves the understanding that project management is nothing more than identifying a real-world problem; reflecting on how to solve it (planning); embarking on a selected course of action (implementation); and then evaluating the outcome.

Culp and Smith (1992:1-6) distinguish between two approaches to project management, namely the structured approach and the person-centred approach. In the structured approach control of the project team is centralised. Measurement and documentation governed by well-defined rules and procedures are emphasised. The task of the manager is to coordinate activities and see to it that correct procedures are followed. Every project member has a detailed description of his/her role and resources and the purpose of these resources are clearly specified. The flow of information is regulated and reports are statistical in nature. The main disadvantage of this model lies in its limited capacity in dealing with institutional and broader political and global changes and the unpredictability of the human factor. In the person-centred approach, there is a clear definition of the project mission but the project manager does not dictate the roles of the team members. Flexibility, creativity and spontaneity are encouraged; information is allowed to flow freely; and decision-making is shared. Inspiration and motivation are regarded as forerunners of personal development (ownership through participation). Problems are solved informally and coordination seems to occur naturally. However, a person-centred approach taken to its extreme runs the risk of losing focus, becoming too democratic and consequently being ineffective.

In the Links Project the merits of both the structured- and the person-centred approach were combined into a holistic approach which enabled the project team to develop at its own pace, yet still meet targets and objectives. Although the project is divided into clearly demarcated phases with specific time frames (phase 1: needs analysis (March - April 1997); phase 2: training and implementation (May 1997 - October 1998); phase 3: evaluation and reporting of results (November 1998 - March 1999)) and certain procedures in terms of finance and reports have to be followed, allowance is made for participants to explore the unique context and human potential within their own institutions. Management is not seen as the single most important factor in the successful completion of the project. Rather, the Postcompulsory Education Staff Development Network of the Free State (operating informally since 1992) forms the backbone of the formal project structure.

Defining the problem

The next stage involves a combination of defining the problem situation and defining the problem itself in order to construct as rich a picture as possible of the problem situation. Drawing a causal tree or flow chart may help to enrich the understanding of the problem situation.

From March to April 1997 the Network institutions [2] participated in a Needs Survey to sketch a picture of the problem situation regarding teaching and learning in the Higher and Further Education sectors. Methods used ranged from brainstorming exercises, semi-structured questionnaires and focus groups interviews to surveys and interviews with students. The following broad areas of development were identified:

Leadership and managementDiversity
Teaching-learning strategiesCurriculum
Staff induction (Hudson, 1997:5)Research

Planning

The planning phase is arguably the most important, yet often underestimated, phase of all.

Defining project objectives
In the formulation of the objectives it is useful to start with the end result and plan backwards to the beginning, ensuring that the objectives are specific, manageable and built on consensus (Culp & Smith, 1992:164-165; Stallworthy & Kharbanda, 1983:11). The core aim of the Links Project relates to capacity-building among staff in the Network, i.e. staff development which should materialise through the implementation of the following six objectives:

Concretising objectives by dividing them into tasks
A useful strategy is to divide the objectives into tasks, each with its own objectives, time line, budget, defined inputs and outputs and responsible individual. This aspect of the Links Project planning was executed by means of the drafting of sub-project proposals for each institution. A participatory action research model was adopted and project bids were accepted along the lines of the developmental areas identified during the needs analysis phase. Each sub-project had its own aims, intended outcomes, timeline, budget, evaluation plan and method of disseminating outcomes.

Project scheduling
Developing a project schedule involves working out how much time will be needed to meet the objectives and complete the tasks. The objectives and tasks can be refined by creating activity charts. Graphic expression has the advantage of demonstrating the interdependence of various tasks. Furthermore, it allows project leaders to recognise unrealistic estimates, thus helping them to put contingency plans in place. In the Links Project, a time line was firstly worked out for the overall phases. Secondly, objectives were scheduled according to quarters for 1997 and 1998 respectively. Thirdly, each sub-project had a specific timeline and target date of completion. Principles of scheduling were not applied rigidly, yet those involved felt that in the context of the people-centred underpinnings, the scheduling allowed for the anticipation of problems.

Project budgeting
Resource planning, according to Human and Strachan (1997:47), involves:

In terms of the Links Project budgeting process the main constraint was the project leader's lack of experience regarding accounting and control. Budgeting is the area of project management where training is most needed.[3]

Consolidation of the plan
The final stage of the planning phase involves finalising objectives, tasks, schedules and budget. This can be achieved by consolidating these elements into a well-integrated plan, with the inclusion of possible contingency plans. In the case of the Links Project "The Plan" was documented in the form of an official Agreement between Curtin University and the University of the Free State, and a booklet of sub-project proposals.

Implementation and monitoring

The key elements to the successful implementation of projects are: The implementation of Links sub-project activities commenced in May 1997. Sub-projects were required to submit a preliminary progress report at the end of 1997 and a final project report upon completion. 46 sub-projects (37 institutional and 9 overarching) were identified. Some of the activities have included: The project is built on "real needs" and the project plan has proven to be realistic. Deadlines have been met and contingency plans have been kept to a minimum. The level of commitment of the project team remains extremely high[4]. A contributing factor could have been the fact that the projects are actively promoted among senior managers and other stakeholders.

Role of the project leader in implementation

The key ingredient to successful project implementation is project leadership (Jonsen, 1987-88:8). The term "project leader" is preferred to "project manager".[5] As Culp and Smith (1992:58) point out, a project manager emphasises control and runs the risk of getting others to do (coercion) rather than getting other to want to do (empowerment). Project leaders need two core competencies, namely the posibility to generate ideas and the knowledge of how to implement these. The leader should at once be implementor, manager/controller, shaper of events and agent of change (Human & Strachan, 1997:6,8,69; Briner et.al., 1990:5).

Effective communication, mostly by means of personal interaction and/or workshops, has enabled the project leaders to stay connected to the institutional (grassroots) activities. However, the constraints and risks are plentiful. Inexperienced leaders have to learn very quickly how to cope with the transition into management (Henderson et. al., 1991:29-46). These pressures are further increased due to the complexity and time-consuming nature of collaborative project leadership. In the case of the Links Project the situation was particularly complex, since the project not only had a regional and international focus, but also operated on a national scale by collaborating with South-African academic development and Higher Education associations and the Links Project in the Eastern Cape.

Monitoring project progress

Monitoring serves to detect and resolve potential problems, thus ensuring that the project remains on schedule, within budget, and that it delivers the anticipated outcomes (Culp & Smith, 1992:181). In the Links project internal review has followed a participatory action research approach with feedback at project meetings; sub-project reports; and face-to-face discussion as monitoring tools. The external monitoring process has consisted of six-monthly reports to the IDP. Ultimately, "management by walking around" (Culp & Smith, 1992:180-181) is the best way of establishing a realistic picture of the state of progress.

Final evaluation and reporting

This phase commenced with the Conference on capacity-building where the outcomes of the project were publicised. The project leaders of Curtin University and the Free State University have analysed the conference feedback and are currently working on publishing the Proceedings. The report includes recommendations and guidelines for future directions in academic staff development. In November 1998, an external evaluator visited the institutions and interviewed the people who were closely involved.

Conclusion

Collaborative projects have a good chance of sustainability if they are truly based on need. Concrete steps to address the need for staff development have already been taken as early as 1992. This serves as an indication of the real value of an informal network of people who share an unequivocal desire to cooperate. The Network participants have always had a clear perception of the aims, objectives and tasks of the joint undertaking. Prior consensus concerning their rights and obligations (Abegaz, 1995:12) existed right from the onset, hence the fact that cooperation takes place spontaneously. Many of the needs identified have been addressed and the capacity of members has been enhanced.

Nevertheless, much still needs to be done in the area of staff development in the Free State region. It was initially envisaged that these initiatives would become self-sustaining. While this is possible in the case of some of the participating institutions, it is doubtful whether the majority of the other institutions will be able to sustain the level of activity displayed over the last two years. Consolidation of capacity and skills still needs to take place.

Approaches to project management in Higher and Further Education have become increasingly complex in light of the trend towards regional and international collaboration. However, with these demands come also tremendous institutional and personal benefits in respect of opportunities for networking and building capacity.

Endnotes

  1. The Links Project is jointly coordinated by the Centre for Educational Advancement at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia and the Academic Development Bureau of the University of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The Independent Development Programme (IDP) manages the funds on behalf of Aus Aid, sponsor of the Links Project. Twelve institutions belonging to the Postcompulsory Education Staff Development Network of the Free State are participating in the project. The Network consists of 2 universities, 1 technikon, 4 nursing colleges, 1 agricultural college, 2 teachers' colleges and 2 technical colleges.

  2. The merit of the Network lies in the fact that previously disadvantaged and marginalised institutions are afforded equal status to the more developed institutions.

  3. Case studies on internationalisation in Europe also comment on the complexity of budgeting, financial management, and the lack of experience of those involved in the administration of such international programmes (De Wit & Callon, 1994:39).

  4. This is reflected in the 80-100% attendance of meetings and overarching activities and the fact that all the participating institutions presented papers at the Conference on Capacity-building for Quality Teaching and Learning in Higher and Further Education (22-24 September 1998), in Bloemfontein.

  5. The title of the paper should therefore read: "Collaborative Project Leadership..." However, I decided to keep the original title for the sake of continuity.

References

Abegaz, B.M. (1995). Universities in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities of International Cooperation. Background paper for the Joint Colloquium of the University in Africa in the 1990s and Beyond, Lesotho. 16-20 January.

Bitzer, E. & Mbuli, N. (1997). Collaborative Staff Development for Quality Learning and Teaching in Free State Network Institutions. Paper presented at the annual SAAAD Conference, Johannesburg. 1-3 December.

Briner, W. et. al. (1990). Project Leadership. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Culp, G. & Smith, A. (1992). Managing People (including yourself) for Project Success. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

De Wit, H. & Callan, H. (1994) (August). Institutional Strategies for Internationalisation in Europe. European Report for the IMHE/OECD study on Institutional Strategies for Internationalisation, Amsterdam.

Hudson, H. (1997) (November-December). Inter-institutional Partnerships as a Vehicle for Staff Development: A Case Study of the Free State-Australia Links Project. Discourse, 8(2), 1-10.

Henderson, E. et.al. (1991). Managing Health Services. Book 1. Walton Hall, Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Human, P. & Strachan, B. (1997). The Yenza Book: Project Management for the Public Health and Social Welfare Sector. Free State-Gold Fields Health and Social Welfare Management Development Programme.

Jonsen, R.W. (1987-1988). Overcoming Barriers to Achieving Interinstitutional and Interstate Cooperation: The Case of WICHE's Regional Graduate Programs Activity. Planning for Higher Education, 16(2), 1-10.

South Africa (Republic). (1997) (July). Education White Paper 3: A Programme for Higher Education Transformation. Pretoria: Department of Education.

Stallworthy, E.A. & Kharbanda, O.P. (1983). Total Project Management. From concept to completion. Aldershot, Hants: Gower.

Please cite as: Hudson, H. (1999). Collaborative project management: A case study of the Australia-South Africa Institutional Links Programme. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 167-172. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/hudson.html


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