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Social processes in projects

Guiding the way we work together
We’re exploring how projects succeed or fail as social activities by examining the complex interplay between the team, the delivery organisation, the client and stakeholders.

A great deal of pressure is placed on project managers and their teams. They are expected to deliver to demanding targets, often in ambiguous and politically contested environments.

Project teams have to come together and form collaborative relationships amongst themselves, the client, contractors and stakeholders, without the luxury of time enjoyed in continuing operations.

If relationships sour in projects, a culture of blame and mistrust can rapidly develop, leading to situations where mistakes are hidden, and risks rapidly escalate.

At the other end of the spectrum, when relationships work well, when stakeholders act as partners in delivery, the project process can become a source of inspiration and creativity.

We are working to improve social processes in projects through research that includes:

  • techniques for improving project team communication and psychological safety, 
  • diversity and wellbeing in project teams, 
  • ways of developing a greater understanding of project stakeholders, and
  • how to most effectively educate a future generation of project leaders.

Our research

Our experts: Associate Professor Julien Pollack, Dr Petr Matous

The demands placed on project teams are very high. A project will rarely be successful if the team of people responsible for delivery cannot work together effectively. However, project teams rarely have the luxury of long periods where positive working relationships can naturally develop over time. Projects need way of quickly developing trust and psychological safety to ensure performance.

Most team building takes a one-size-fits-all approach to developing interpersonal relationships, but this can waste time trying to strengthen already strong relationships. We suggest there is a better team-building approach. It’s about understanding that teams are social networks built on connections between individuals. It involves deep one-on-one conversations, designed to get people out of their comfort zones.

Our research tested a personalised approach to improving project team communication and explored the impact of team development on interpersonal networks of communication. We found that a when team building is customised to respond to the specific strengths and weaknesses within a social network, team building can have a significant impact on patterns of communication in a project team, with a relatively small investment in time.

Research suggests psychological safety is crucial in the workplace. There is much more to team success than simply focusing on the task at hand. Team members need to talk regularly and be comfortable raising difficult issues. Our research demonstrates how managers can enhance patterns of internal team communication in their teams, both in terms of how frequently team members talk to each other, and how comfort with difficult topics.

Our expert: Professor Lynn Crawford

Projects, as temporary organisations, present particular challenges to traditional concepts of work and careers. Increased understanding of the characteristics, experience and evolution of project-based work and careers is required to inform the attraction, development, retention and effective management of human resources.

In a volatile world, characterised by change and uncertainty, work and workplaces are becoming increasingly projectified. By their nature, projects are inherently uncertain, and those who choose to pursue project based careers tend to identify more with the project than the organisation, to have high self efficacy and thrive on the challenge and opportunity that uncertainty presents.

Improvements to human resource practices are required to support employees facing discontinuity and reduced security as they transition to project based roles. Project workers take responsibility for their own careers. Career progression and pathways are strongly influenced by opportunity and by interactions between the individual and their context.

As work becomes increasingly projectified, understanding of the nature of project based work and careers has extended relevance. There is a need for human resource management practices to be enriched with this understanding to support employees in evolving workplaces with reduced security and to attract, develop and retain talent for increasing numbers of project based roles across all industry sectors.

Our expert: Dr Ken Chung

Current project stakeholder models have been criticised as being static and unable to reflect dynamic flux in relationships to and from project stakeholders. These models are also usually focused on the project-to-stakeholder influence rather than the other way around.

Our research shows that understanding and identifying points of stakeholder influence can be better understood using a holistic model using social network theories and methodology.

Improved understanding of stakeholder influence leads to better stakeholder engagement which is conducive to project delivery.

It is also vital particularly in public infrastructure projects where communities are impacted because understanding stakeholder influence allows for proactive interventions that prevents the small minority that are often the most vocal and harmful to the project.

Our experts: Dr Fatima Afzal, Dr Karyne Ang

We're exploring the impact of shifting from traditional lectures and tutorials, to blended and flipped learning workshops in higher education.

Our study applies a mixed-methods research strategy comprising of surveys, semi-structured interviews, reviewing online teaching content and secondary data, and participatory action research.

Participants comprised of professional and teaching staff, and students from the undergraduate and postgraduate subjects.

The findings demonstrate that most students enjoy the workshops and interactions with their teachers while the positive learning experience is well-correlated with preparedness, increased knowledge acquisition and enhanced performance.

Self-directed flipped learning still needs to be ingrained with the students. Adapting teaching resources to suit a workshop structure that focusses on application and activities, rather than content delivery resulted in heavier workloads in the initial transition.