Project Management & Collaboration

Project management and collaborative work are closely related issues, and both are important for Business Writing. When we talk about project management, we mean the ability to manage long-term writing projects and juggle several projects at once, usually involving more than one person. When we talk about collaboration, we are concerned with helping students learn how to work together effectively. Neither project management nor collaboration are easy, but both are crucial. In many industry surveys of skills and experiences that are important, project management is often toward the top of the list. Academic programs have for years been moving to more collaborative work for similar reasons—employers in a range of industries have said that the interpersonal and intellectual issues associated with the ability to function as part of a work team are absolutely necessary. Furthermore, writers in business settings rarely work alone—the "authors" of documents are the corporation; workers are the "writers." These workplace realities are partially reasons why we push both project management and collaboration in Business Writing. But we also feel strongly that long-term, collaborative projects allow our students to engage in more sophisticated work, and furthermore, that by working over time and with others, they are able to do better work.

what is project management?
Let's begin with the assertion that all theories of writing in organizations are implicitly a theory of management. That is, all notions of how writing gets done, circulated, and acted upon within a workplace imply notions of how humans relate to each other—their roles and responsibilities relative to their positions and the positions of others. One of the reasons cases like United Drill are appropriate and work well in a business writing class is that they are cases about how writing shapes management practices—about how a workplace is managed (or not) through writing. On more concrete and practical levels, large-scale writing projects must be managed or they will fail. Management and writing are interrelated.

JoAnn Hackos, in a book called Managing Your Documentation Projects, writes about the "life cycle" of documentation projects. What she means is that a single project is actually composed of numerous activities that take place at different times and are often undertaken by different people. Such projects must be organized into coherent phases that address questions like:

  • Where do I start?
  • Am I on the right path?
  • How do I know if I'm done?

Her life cycle has five phases, and these phases can be approximated (at least in part) within the writing classroom:

  1. Information planning
  2. Content specification
  3. Implementation
  4. Production
  5. Evaluation

These phases cover in the most general sense what project management does. By extension, explaining these phases to your students can help provide them with an overall sense of what you mean by project management and what they must do as project managers: pose problems and plan (information planning); conduct research (content specification); write and test (implementation); produce ("finish"); test and rewrite (evaluation).

strategies for project management
It isn't important that every class or every project cover each area of the life cycle. In fact, sometimes for even the longest academic project the time frame is too short to make full-blown life cycle planning meaningful. But we do want to present and discuss a few concrete practices that you can ask your students to do. These practices, if successful, should make for better work:

  • Information planning
  • Structured research ("content specification")
  • Meeting plans

Information planning covers problem-posing and project planning, two activities that are crucial for any good project. Problem-posing is essential for a project because it determines the direction of the project—the research that needs to be done, the audience, and the time-frames needed. Simply put, problem posing consists of the preliminary research necessary for a work team to establish the organizational problem they will work to solve. Without a problem, there is no need for work—no research or audience needs.

Once a problem has been established, a careful project plan must be established. It is best to have students write this problem plan to you as part of a more formal proposal that includes the problem they seek to solve and the goals they need to meet in order to solve this problem. The project plan covers issues like:

  • Hours needed to complete the project
  • People needed and their specific roles and responsibilities
  • A system for decision-making (processes—how will decisions be made and by whom)
  • A schedule with milestones and deliverables (time frame, specific important dates within cycles, what tangible product will be delivered on important dates, etc.)
  • An assessment of risk factors that might cause problems and anticipatory strategies for working through problems.

Thus in the proposal that a work team might give you to gain approval for a project they might do two things: (1) argue for the validity of the project by arguing for the problem they want to solve and its relevance to their audience; (2) argue for their ability to carry out the project through a detailed and reasonable project plan.

As a teacher, the project plan becomes an important schedule for you. You can gauge how teams are doing relative to their time frame; you can assess individual work productivity; and you have student-provided due dates for work. As workers, they have taken responsibility for their work and for when that work will be completed (note the theory of participatory management you are showing them in this system and how this embodies our sense of students as workers).

The second project management strategy is called "structured research," or content specification. Research isn't typically considered a "project management" strategy, but it is if you focus on how research is conducted (or methodology). We would like you to ask your students to think about how they do their research.

We won't say much here about research methodology here, but we will discuss two strategies for engaging your students in more structured research. The first strategy is an issue of argumentation. Put simply, ask your students to justify the research that they are doing for a project. You ask them, in other words, to argue for their research. As a teacher, the questions you ask students might look like this:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • Why this problem? For whom is this a problem?
  • What research questions are you asking to help solve this problems (what are the unknowns)?
  • Why these questions and not others?
  • How are you going to answer these questions?
  • Why this approach and not another?

The goal is to ask students to think carefully about why they are doing research, what they are doing, and why they are going about it in certain ways and not others. Asking questions like this forces students to structure their research activity, and in the documents they write about their research, they are better able to argue for it and therefore for the quality of their solutions (they can more convincingly argue for their solutions because they have evidence to support their arguments).

A second strategy is to ask students to keep a research log. Research logs are adaptations of journals and can take many forms. We can discuss how to design a research log for a particular class and assignment, but for now, it is sufficient to understand that the log is another tool that can be used to structure research within the framework of project management because if fores students to plan and record their day-to-day activities and reflect on how these activities are furthering the work and goals of their project. It can be a highly effective tool.

The third project management strategy we urge you to adopt is meeting management. One of the reasons collaborative teams struggle is that they aren't effective at meetings. They either meet too often or not often enough, and quite often they are inefficient during meetings and thus waste time. We encourage you to teach students how to conduct meetings and to use items like agendas to plan work on a day-to-day basis.

For example, encourage students to establish leadership roles as part of the project plan. Encourage students to establish set meeting times. Encourage students to develop agendas before a meeting and to let that agenda structure the meeting. Encourage students to set and keep tight time limits. Encourage students to close with "action items" that must be accomplished before the next meeting. And encourage students to keep all people in their group accountable.

what is collaboration and how can we do it well?
"Collaborative writing" covers a number of writing practices as you probably know. The document you are reading is collaboratively authored, yet portions were written by one of us with the other reviewing and revising. In a sense, peer groups that you may have used in composition classes make every document in that class "collaborative." In fact, as the teacher of a writing class, you are a collaborator on every document written in that class. But collaboration can also cover production processes that are much more anonymous. Much organizational writing is done this way, with multiple writers contributing to the original production and subsequent review of a document; thus the corporation is the author and individuals along the way are writers. If we expand our notions of writing to cover research and design (which we do), then writing happens all the time and involves lots of people.

This review "collaborative" writing highlights its inevitability and indicates that you will see this range of collaborative writing within class. You need to decide with each group of students what forms of collaboration make the most sense for that group. What "makes sense" will depend on how the students divide up their roles and responsibilities, and it will also depend on what you want to teach and emphasize as an instructor.

Collaboration, however, is not the same thing as collaborative writing. And if you ask your students, their problems with collaboration don't necessarily have anything to do with "writing." Therefore, in teaching students how to collaborate effectively, we think it is best to start with interpersonal issues. There are many strategies for this. Some teachers advocate using personality inventories to match students and provide students with insight about their colleagues. Others try to match groups by interest. Still others attempt to construct collaborative teams based on ability level and/or gender. Each of these strategies is an attempt to get together a mix of students who will work well together. You may want to approach collaboration in this way as well.

Other approaches focus on planning. We began with project management because it forms the core of this approach to teaching effective collaboration. According to this model, if students have clear roles, processes, and expectations, they are more likely to function effectively. This doesn't always work, of course—you are all familiar with the problems of collaboration: slackers, personality conflicts, lack of leadership or poor leadership—but project management might be the best approach. In closing, then, consider the following list of issues that are crucial for you to address in order for collaborative groups to have a chance of working effectively:

  • Think carefully about how groups are composed: By you? By students? By ability? By interest? By geography (an issue at GSU)?
  • Have students establish clear processes for how decisions will be made (part of project plan)
  • Have students develop a process for conflict management, including your role (When do you step into groups to mediate? When do you remove someone from a group?)
  • Have students establish clear roles and responsibilities (again, project plan)
  • Have students maintain their roles and responsibilities through clear, day-to-day work divisions and tasks (done in meetings through agendas and action items)
  • Encourage students to practice some type of document circulation as a method of collaborative writing