How to...
Manage the research process

A project can be defined as a one-off activity which has limited or clearly defined resources. The point of project management is to ensure that the activity takes place within those resources, financial and human, and within an acceptable time-scale. There is no such thing as a typical project, but examples commonly cited are the building of the Scottish Parliament and the Channel Tunnel linking England with Europe (neither of which were completed within originally stipulated resources).

Why manage the research process?

As distinct from a tunnel or a building, research can seem a very nebulous project to manage. At the outset, researchers can often have a far from exact idea either of research outcomes or how they are going to achieve them; research can frequently undergo changes in direction; the collection of data can be notoriously hard to control as people fail to return questionnaires, and the organisation you hoped would grant access fails to do so.

If research is so uncertain, why does it need to be managed? Answer: because it is so uncertain. Because, too, almost all research projects, from the undergraduate dissertation to the doctoral thesis or post-doctoral group project, need to be done in a finite time (say a month before finals start/in three years if you are funded) and with equally finite resource (you/the team/a particular budget from a research grant, etc.)

A common reason why research projects come adrift is that people run out of time. Applying project management procedures to your research project will provide you with a structure that will give you some sort of control. According to Sharp and Howard (1996) project management will help you to:

  • clarify your aims and objectives
  • define your activities
  • identify critical milestones
  • ensure effective use of key resources
  • define priorities
  • increase the likelihood of successful completion.

The feeling of uncertainty is particularly acute with PhDs, where the student may be working full time on a project which is not due to end for another three years. Other large-scale research projects may also suffer from lack of definition, but there may be particular reporting requirements from the funding body which give a structure.

All projects have a particular life cycle, from definition to description. Research too has its own life cycle, from defining objectives to drawing conclusions and writing up/reporting. The following table shows how the project life cycle and the research life cycle relate to one another:

The relationship between the project and research life cycles
Project definition Define the research objectives – what are the main questions to be answered? Prepare the research proposal
Project design By what methods shall we investigate this problem? Finalise the research design
Project execution Obtain and analyse the data, and determine findings
Project description Write the report

We will look in more detail at different aspects of project management in subsequent sections.

Sharp, John A. and Howard, Keith (1996), The Management of a Student Research Project, 2nd Edition, Gower.

From objectives to plans: planning the project

Objectives

Planning a project is a major piece of work, and needs to be done up front. This is often difficult as you may not have a very clear idea of how the research will develop. It helps therefore to start off with some broad objectives.

Objectives may relate to a personal or strategic goal, such as "produce a dissertation to distinction standard by [x] date", "obtain a PhD","fulfil the criteria as set out by [x] – the funder". But you will also have objectives for your research, for example:

  • Research information cultures in international organisations
  • Understand the reasons behind the decisions to outsource human resource functions
  • Study the role of branding in the supply chain
  • Measure attitudes of librarians to the Internet.

You will probably need to break your main research objective down into a number of more detailed objectives, which should be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time framed.

Activities

Once you have got this far, you can begin the work of actually planning out the project in detail. To do this you will need to develop a list of all the activities which will need to take place, from finalising the idea up to writing the report. These will eventually need to be sequential and time framed but initially you may wish just to brainstorm a list of activities as they occur to you.

It will also help to think of the research project as a number of mini projects, perhaps defined by the research cycle: developing the proposal, designing the research, collecting the data, etc. These projects will probably correspond with milestones – significant stages along the way the completion of which is important for the overall project. If you are doing your research as part of a degree, you may have milestones created for you, for example you are expected to put a project proposal on a certain date, hand in the literature review etc. You may also have milestones that you agree with your supervisor.

Once you have a list of activities, put them in some sort of order. Don't worry if you can't always work out an exact sequence: some activities can be run simultaneously, a point to which we shall return.

Timing

Once you have worked out some sort of sequence, you then need to establish how long each activity will take. There are three things to bear in mind here:

  1. The total time required for the task.
  2. The time period over which the task will be executed – this is known as lapse time and assumes that you will not be devoting 100 per cent of your time to tasks in any one period.
  3. The need to plan in some extra time, known as "buffer time" to tasks. Always err on the side of generosity when you allocate time to task – things generally take longer than you think they will.

Buffer time is important, as is having a safety margin at the end of the project: some time between the final margin and the actual deadline. There are all sorts of uncertainties in research – you may find more literature than you planned for, data may be slow in coming etc. And there are the things that can happen in any project, such as illness, or unforeseen circumstance such as death of a relative.

You should also not assume, if you are generous with your time allowances and you meet your deadlines, that all is going well. Always start one activity once you have finished the last one, and use the "buffer time" to increase your slack at the end of the project.

Lapse time is often difficult to schedule accurately. You need to take account not only of other tasks in the actual research, but also of responsibilities outside the research such as other coursework, lectures, family, job, administration, teaching etc. It is therefore useful to decide how much time you have available/need (alas, the two may not be the same) on a weekly basis. When comparing task durations against lapse time, your weekly lapse time becomes time allocated to research.

Patrick is doing a part-time MBA, on which he spends an average of 15 hours a week. About half of this is spent on the project. Patrick reckons that he would probably spend the equivalent of a full working week of 35 hours on the literature review. Although this is currently his main task for his project, it is prudent to make allowance for the odd task so we can assume that he can spend 6.5 hours per week on the literature review. Thus the entire task will take him about 5.5 weeks.

Planning time over a longer research project

Generally speaking, the shorter the time-scale of any project, the easier it is to plan, and research is no different. Thus when planning a PhD, it may be better to plan at a fairly top level, looking at the main stages, e.g. narrowing down the topic, putting in the proposal, carrying out the literature review, deciding on the research methodology etc., then planning the various stages in detail once you've got there. The outcome of each stage is likely to dictate the shape of the next one.

It's important to know in broad terms what you need to do in what month (you can probably get general time-line guidance from your supervisor or someone in your department), but planning in detail when you are going to revise your questionnaire when you don't know for certain if you will be using this method is fruitless. Your planning should rather be of the "wave" variety discussed in the next section (see wave planning).

You might have a broad idea of the research paradigm in which you want to operate, perhaps dictated by your own skills and experience or that of your supervisor. But you might also need to do far more research into the methods already used on this or similar topics before deciding on a particular approach. Thus at the beginning of your research, you would only know what milestones you needed to achieve and by when (all data collected by x, in order to have sufficient time for analysis and write-up) and the actual detail of the data collection stage would need to be finalised when these decisions had been made.

Dependencies and the critical path

The next thing is to place the activities in the order which they need to occur, and decide which are dependent on one another. For example, suppose your research project involved interviewing managers about their leadership style, the list might look something like this:

  1. Research literature on leadership.
  2. Come up with list of questions.
  3. Determine sample size.
  4. Approach possible interviewees.
  5. Plan interviews.
  6. Carry out interviews.

Once you had analysed dependencies, you might conclude that you could start your questions as you were carrying out your literature search, and that you could come up with questions as you think about your sampling strategy, etc., so that the entire plan might look like this:

Image: planning the project

In other words, you are carrying out certain activities in parallel. It is particularly useful to bear this in mind for the data collection phase, when you will probably have periods of inactivity, which can be filled by, for example, writing up bits of the literature review.

There will however be some activities which are interdependent, i.e. when one activity cannot start until the dependent one has finished. This is known as the critical path.

Once you have prepared a plan, with dependencies showing and taking account of those activities which can be done simultaneously, you need to check it against your end date. This is the point where you need to check whether the project will achieve your objectives of getting a decent piece of work done by the target date. If you cannot, you will have to reassess and perhaps take out one or two activities, or change the approach.

Budget

The expenses you budget for your research will vary very much depending on the circumstances under which the research is taking place: you are unlikely to have much of a research budget for an undergraduate project, on the other hand if you are managing a large EU funded research project you may well have a budget that runs into six figures. In the latter eventuality, you should receive guidance from your funding body.

The sort of headings you should expect to think of are:

  • Staff (in proportion to their time spent on the project)
  • Costs of recruiting new staff
  • Training costs (e.g. in use of new software)
  • Equipment/IT/software (e.g. laptops for field researchers, statistical software, recording equipment for interviews)
  • Travel and subsistence (particularly for fieldwork, e.g. travelling to interviews)
  • Stationary and consumables – for example, postage costs of questionnaires
  • Events – e.g. focus groups, seminars to publicise research
  • Advertising and publicity.

If the research involves extensive fieldwork, this obviously needs to be budgeted for and you need to know where the money is coming from for travel, accommodation, subsistence, etc.

Identifying risk

Identifying risk is a key aspect of project management. If you know in advance where risk is likely to occur, you can create a plan to mitigate the risk. A scientifically managed project will always include a risk log, which describes the risk, assesses its impact, and identifies counter-measures.

It is not difficult to identify risks in research. Here are some examples, with suggested counter-measures:

Risks in research
It proves difficult to limit the literature review Continue to research the literature alongside other tasks, once the sustained reading period has ended. In any case you will need to keep an eye open for new developments during the course of your research
Failure to gain access to key organisation which you had hoped would provide data Apply early, and have a fall-back position – apply to more than one organisation, so that if the first organisation won't play ball then you have other options
A very low sample of questionnaires is returned Locate another source for the data, perhaps secondary data. Has another survey already been done, which contains the same information but from a different sample?
People unwilling to be interviewed Approach more people than you will need
Writing takes longer than intended Start writing early; certain chapters, such as the literature review and the research design, can be written before the data is collected (indeed, if data is delayed, you could fill in the time by writing these chapters, thus shortening your writing time and lengthening that for data collection)
Too many last minute tasks References and bibliography are fiddly, last minute tasks which will be made much easier if you keep a complete bibliographic record of everything you read, including a few words to remind you of the main argument, so you end up with an annotated bibliography

Although the writing up part is often looked on as the most arduous part of the research, by far the most risky aspect of any research is the data collection, since that is the area over which you have least control. It is really important that you monitor closely all arrangements for data collection and not just assume that you will gain access/people will return questionnaires/turn up to focus groups, etc.

A number of partners were carrying out a major research project across numerous organisations. Whereas other partners had their eggs in many baskets, one of the partners had decided to concentrate on one large retail business with numerous outlets over the country. They were delighted when the organisation agreed to cooperate, and helped to get focus groups across at least half a dozen sites across the country. However, although the organisation was willing, many of the staff members were actually fitting in part-time work with a lot of other things and didn't want to spend the time on extra tasks. So, one focus group had to be cancelled due to lack of interest, whilst to the one that was eventually held only four people turned up. In the event, the partner was able to contact its extensive network of tutors as well as use another internal survey.

Keeping control: monitoring the process

A plan of a project is an attempt to model it, to scope it out. If your project is a fairly simple one or if you are confined by strict reporting requirements from your funding body, then you will be able to produce an accurate plan which, once the project gets underway, you will need to monitor to make sure that you are on target. However, research is a notoriously uncertain field and in some cases, your plan will need to maintain a considerable amount of flexibility.

With some projects, and particularly some types of research, it is not that easy to plan every stage in detail. This is where wave planning is useful. It involves planning the entire project at a fairly high level, with a series of fairly large-scale activities, as in "write proposal", "develop questionnaire". Once you get close to the activity, you divide it into a series of "mini activities" or "work packages". For example:

Wave planning
Write proposal Decide on idea
Decide on format for proposal
Develop research question
Outline objectives
Describe scope
Outline main approach
etc.
Develop questionnaire Develop rough list of questions
Check questions with supervisor
Revise questions
Decide questionnaire format – e.g. e-mail, web, post, etc.
Prepare questionnaire
Proof questionnaire
Pilot questionnaire
Revise questionnaire
Send out

So, you only plan in detail for those activities which lie immediately ahead.

Monitoring

Once you are into the project, even though you may have to do some planning as you go along, a major management activity will be checking progress against the plan. This will involve:

  • Assessing where you are against your schedule – are you up to date, or behind?
  • What tasks are complete, of those which are not, what percentage remains to be done?
  • If you are behind, how will you retrieve the situation? Can you throw extra resources at the problem, which may mean your own extra time?
  • Reporting to someone else, who may be your tutor, supervisor, grant awarder, or sponsor.
  • Updating your project (we look at ways of doing this below) with your progress.

It is always important to be honest, both with yourself and with anyone you are reporting to. There is no point in pulling the wool over the eyes of others, or yourself. It is very tempting, when you are in a genuine hole, to rush ahead and do the thing with which you are delayed. However, sitting down and thinking your way around the problem may mean the difference between meeting an important deadline and not meeting it. Plan your way out of a crisis!

Achievement of project milestones (sets of related activities, which form important components of the project) is also a good point at which to assess your progress.

Particularly with longer term research projects such as a PhD, monitoring progress can be a good way of coping with the seemingly endless time of full-time research, and showing that you really are making progress. Those last five questionnaires that came in do really mean that you are actually 10 per cent nearer your data completion milestone!

Distractions and opportunities

Keeping your eye on the main objective can be very hard in research. For long periods you may be involved in lengthy, and frankly tedious, activities such as analysing questionnaire responses, not to mention the writing up. You need to avoid displacement activities, such as tidying your desk, checking your e-mail too frequently, mindless surfing, rather than starting to write, as well as going down blind alleys, of which there are always plenty in research.

On the other hand, genuine opportunities may arise which you will probably want to consider pursuing – an interesting point in an interview, a new angle suggested by a journal article. You should always keep an eye on the main goal, and don't do anything which might jeopardise the main research. On the other hand, if you are well ahead, you might want to risk a limited exploration. Take advice from your supervisor before you change the course of your research, and remember you can always come back and pursue an interesting research idea at another time.

Using project management techniques

So far, we have talked about project management in fairly general terms. There are however a couple of specific project management techniques that may well be helpful in managing your research project:

  • Gantt charts
  • Network diagrams

Both of these are ways of modelling a project.

Gantt charts

Named after an H. Gantt, these are charts where time runs from left to right. Each task has its own bar line, and follow one another in order until the task is complete. It is most useful for projects which have simple dependencies and where the planning is at a relatively high level.

Network diagrams

These use a non-linear metaphor – each task is placed in a box and boxes are linked with diagrams. This system is good for showing multiple dependencies and complexity, and is also probably a good technique to use if you want to scope out the project to begin with on a piece of paper. (working out a project in pen and paper is a useful activity in any case, allowing you to focus on the project without getting distracted by the software.)

Using project management software

The big advantage of project management software is that it helps you in the task of modelling and automates some of the scheduling, in that it can work out start and finish dates for you and, when a particular task takes longer, can automatically move on the dates of other tasks.

Microsoft Project is one of the best known project management tools and can model the project using both Gantt charts and network diagrams, as in the examples below:

1. Gantt chart

Image: Gantt chart

2. Network diagram

Image: network diagram

The drawback of Project, however, is that it is quite expensive and also time-consuming to learn. Unless you have access to it in your department or workplace, and can be trained in its use, you will probably be better off doing something within Microsoft Excel.

Running a research project with a team or partners

So far in this article, we have been making the assumption that just one person is working on the research. However, group research projects are becoming more common for undergraduate courses, whilst in post-doctoral academic research generally, collaboration with a number of partners on large-scale funded projects is almost the norm. It is not uncommon for researchers to work together across departments, institutions and even countries! We shall look at the particular features of such projects in this section.

Working in a team

When working in a team, it is important to set up a tight reporting and communication structure with regular meetings with clear agendas and minutes setting out allocated action points. Here clear objectives and responsibilities amongst task members, good communication lines and firm but friendly project management are essential, and interpersonal skills become as important as research ones!

One research project manager for an educational organisation has managed a number of high profile and politically sensitive research projects. She has to deal with a number of research partners spread out in different parts of the UK, each of whom has only a limited amount of time to spend on the project. She feels that this type of project management requires excellent communication and negotiation skills: it is important to understand people's time and resource constraints, as well as how their own professional agendas interact with the project's. She likes to maintain good relationships with partners particularly as the association may be across a number of projects, both now and in the future.

How to...collaborate effectively goes into this topic in a lot more detail.

Working on a research project for a funding body

Research is rarely, these days, carried out in a vacuum: most research has an external arbiter of quality. If you are enrolled on an academic programme, that arbiter will be those who assess your research project for an award. In that case, the predominant concern will be for academic quality.

Much research however is carried out not for the purposes of gaining an award, but rather with the support of a particular funder, which may be a business, a research council or the European Union. In which case, an important goal for the researcher will be to satisfy the funding body. They are in a sense the customer, and they will need to be satisfied that:

  • their funds are being well spent
  • the original research objectives are being met, and milestones achieved
  • other agendas are satisfied – for example, the UK ESRC is concerned about the contribution of research to the wider social agenda, whilst a commercial funder might want to see the research as an answer to a particular problem rather than an attempt to add to the body of knowledge.

Keeping funders happy is important to ensure current as well as future funding. The best way to do this is by regular communication. Funders vary as to how they wish the researcher to report. Some require a report at the end of the project; others require monthly reporting. Regular reporting, whether or not it is a requirement, is a good way of keeping the funder happy. Have milestones been achieved? If not, why not? It is always important to check carefully any deviation from the original research objective with the funder, and make sure that they are happy with the proposed change.

Understanding the agenda of the funder, and particularly any policy drivers, is crucial. For this reason, good research managers should ideally have a background in, and understanding of, the research area, as opposed just to being project managers.

Managing change

We mentioned above the importance of informing the funder of any change in the research. However, many funded projects are themselves subject to change, particularly those which are likely to be influenced by policy. Thus an important skill with these projects is the ability to react to change. This change is not just due to normal research project risks, such as data not being forthcoming, but to changed milestones as a result of different funder goals (which themselves may be the result of a policy change).

Planning therefore becomes something that is done on a monthly basis to changing milestones. This reinforces the need for good relationships with partners: it is not easy to go back to someone with the news that they will have to do more work, for the same amount of money, and to a difficult deadline. Being upfront and honest helps, here, as does having alternative plans up one's sleeve, and the recognition, which must also be shared by the funder, that perfection isn't always possible, and sometimes one needs a compromise solution!