Organizing project-based operations The interplay of content, context and social processes

University dissertation from Stockholm, Sweden : Kungliga Tekniska högskolan

Abstract: Project-based organizations (PBOs) are becoming increasingly widespread and important for the modern economy and society. Thus, they attact significant scholarly attention to their distinctive features. The unit of analysis employed by the majority of the studies is the project-based organization as a whole. Hence, the locus of attention stays at the organizational level, whereas project-related effects are discussed in terms of aggregate properties. With very few exceptions, projects as distinct entities do not feature prominently in the discussion of project-based organizations.This observation creates an interesting paradox. In particular, when projects are discussed as separate units of analysis, their complex organizational dynamics, idiosyncrasies, and institutional embeddedness are among important loci of attention. However, when projects and project collections are discussed within the context of the PBO, the very same aspects tend to be downplayed. Most commonly, projects are either neglected or implicitly assumed to be homogeneous, interchangeable atomic units without internal structure or dynamics, obediently following orders of the parent organizations. Their internal organizational properties are overlooked and the individual-level variables are assumed to have little or no influence on the project outcomes. This thesis questions these assumptions and posits that understanding the dynamics at the project operations level might have important implications for explaining the effectiveness of management arrangements in the PBO.In particular, this thesis aims to explore the factors that shape project-based operations in the setting of the project-based organization. The thesis examines three particular factors which affect organizing of the project-based operations: (1) the content of operations; (2) the context of operations; and (3) the social processes at the operational level. Structurally, the thesis comprises a cover essay and four appended papers (three of them published in international peer-reviewed journals).Largely inductive in nature, the thesis builds on two research studies. The first study represents an in-depth “insider” case study of project-based operations in the Operations division of a large pharmaceutical company. It employs a combination of data collection methods, including semi-structured interviews, participant observations, and document analysis. The second study represents a structured framework-based literature review. Recognizing the organizational properties of projects, the thesis draws upon several literature streams within organization theory and design to analyze the empirical data. The results elaborate how the organizing of project-based operations in the PBO is shaped by the interplay between the content, intra-organizational and wider institutional contexts, as well as endogenous social processes.The thesis contributes to the literature on project-based organizations by developing an institutional, as well as extending a contingency perspective on organizing project-based operations. Further, the results call for revisiting the conceptualization of the PBO by questioning the view of projects as atomic and homogeneous units. Finally, the thesis contributes to the literature by developing an organization design perspective on the PBO.In terms of managerial implications, the thesis offers a few frameworks which can be used to support the decision-making process in a PBO. In particular, Paper I develops a contingency model of program management competences (the 3C model), Paper II derives a framework that can help PBO managers in evaluating the sources of isomorphic pressure on individual projects and programs, while Paper IV puts forth an organization design model for the PBO. At a more general level, Paper II discusses how the identified isomorphic processes within the PBO can limit flexibility, innovation, and efficiency. Finally, the cover essay discusses the important factors that need to be scrutinized in order to assess organizing of the project-based operations, such as the technical content, the project landscape and social landscape or the influence of institutionalised practices and models.