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Boundary crossing and borders crossing

    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    Understanding Project Practice in

     Virtual Project Groups a Quest for a

    Scandinavian Discourse

    Working Paper

    presented at EGOS, 8th of July 2006

    Marie Hemming

    PhD student, Linköping University

    Blekinge Institute of Technology

    Box 520, S-372 25 Ronneby, SWEDEN


    International relationships, often structured as projects, are a rapidly increasing phenomenon in contemporary society. Project groups, operating in international environments can be found within various contexts; in and between private and public organisations and institutions such as schools, companies, and universities. The European Union (EU) is one of the contributors to this development through its support of international research and development projects.

    This paper explores, within the project management literature, conceptualisations used to comprehend project practice, which comprise cross-cultural and distributed work. Moreover it is suggested that a different theoretical departure activity theory could

    be a helpful tool to contribute to the understanding of complexity in such activities, especially when it comes to the necessity to grasp both material and immaterial aspects. Activity theory, as a framework for understanding project practice, is proposed as a contributor to the development of organization theory generally, and institutional theory specifically.

    This paper is particularly built on I) a review of articles and texts published on project management and intercultural relationships, II) empirical material collected from an EU-project. The material consists of E-mail correspondence, written reports, field notes when participating during formal and informal meetings, and several interviews with project participants. The empirical work was done for my PhD thesis and was collected during five months, spring 2004. Although the work of analysis is in an early phase, I will comment briefly on some possible results at the end of this paper. The EU-project studied will also be presented more detailed further on.


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

Globalisation a challenge for project management ideas?

    Project groups, operating on a global arena, imply encounters between people from different fields of knowledge and different organisational and cultural backgrounds. Contemporary studies show that globalisation challenges some of the traditional ideas of organising and leading work (e.g. Kayworth/Leidner 2000, Barinaga 2002). Kayworth and Leidner suggest that the challenges comprise at least four major areas: culture, project management, communication and technology. This being so, a

    closer look into the ideas of project management is justified.

From a modernistic point of view, project is regarded as a<

    ‚*<+ universal phenomenon, independent of technology and environ-

    mental contingencies‛ (Engwall, et al 2003:114).

    Engwall et al also states that a common point of departure when discussing project in management literature is the<

    ‚*...+ conception of the project as a time-limited, unique assignment

    with a project manager in charge of its execution. The underlying

    message is that success or failure primarily depends on the skills of the

    project manager in systematic planning, appropriate selection of team

    members, and application of project management techniques and

    procedures‛ (2003:113).

    What kinds of challenges are brought up by projects operating on a global arena? What do encounters between people from different fields of knowledge and different organisational and cultural background mean for project management ideas?

    These are questions particularly interesting to consider in the study of an EU-project since it lives under certain conditions regarding, for instance, control and coordination. The standpoint of project as a universal phenomenon is also interesting since EU-projects could be regarded as having an underlying mission; to strength the connections between the countries within Europe. (c.f. X) But does the EU-context really challenge the way of looking at projects as a universal phenomenon? Yes, that is my assumption since the arena where the projects operate, is very complex. The arena (or environment) includes multiple missions (one could for example mention outcome of learning/research, the project of reconciling cultural diversity or the peace project).

    Moreover, the funding from EU leads inevitable to different kinds of power relations, and a practice of certain steering/control mechanisms, sometimes facilitating, sometimes aggravating the project leader’s and the team members’ work. This will be

    discussed further on.

    In management literature the phenomenon of cross-cultural projects is discussed to a great extent. Concepts as multi-cultural virtual teams (Yoong 2001), virtual communities-in

    practice (Bourhis et al 2005), or international project groups (Barinaga 2002, Söderlund

    2000) are used. Collaboration in such project groups is often described in positive terms, for instance with words as ‚enriching‛ and ‚interesting‛, but experiences concerning


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    complexity, frustration and difficulties in understanding each other are also common (c.f. Barinaga 2002, Jansson 2005). The four dimensions pointed out by Kayworth and Leidner (2000), i.e. culture, communication, technology and project management, are apparent in the mentioned studies, though in very different ways and with different emphasise. There are also similarities between the studies regarding their starting point (or even reasons for entering the research arena), i.e. the complexity and abundance in the collaboration situation. Barinaga (2002) states that:

    ‚Abundance characterises human collaboration in general and

    international projects in particular; abundance meant as the immense

    variety of practices, behaviours and incidents that inundate life and

    are difficult to foresee when defining a goal, designing a plan or

    organising a cooperation.‛

    When adapting this view, i.e. human collaboration in international projects as something complex and problematic, it leads to questions concerning what the

    immense of variety of practices, behaviours and incidents mean in more specific terms, and also how this abundance can be handled (even if not foreseen). Those are issues in line with my research project. In the next section though, I discuss, in a more detailed way, how the field of Business Administration conceptualise the phenomenon of cross-cultural context‛.

    Understanding Distributed and Cross Cultural Project Practice - the Polarization Phenomenon within Business Administration

    Kayworth and Leidner (2000) points out the dimensions of communication and technology as crucial aspects in time of globalisation. Both dimensions are in focus in recently published research within an organisation theory/organizational behaviour context. Jansson (2005) for instance, argues that more focus on Information and Communication technology is desirable and needed when interpreting distributed collaborative work. The communication issue is also raised in academic work when language is in focus (e.g. Barinaga 2002).

    Not only research texts but also research conferences give a rather good picture of how collaboration in a globalised world is understood and managed. Except the four dimensions suggested by Kayworth and Leidner, other dimensions are put in focus, such as practice and identity. At NFFs’ (i.e. Scandinavian Academy of Management)

    conference on Iceland 2003, one of the tracks (covering boundary crossing and temporary work assignments) formulates its focus like this:

    ‚Nowadays boundary-crossing, temporary assignments and highly

    complex work environments need to be conceptualised with a

    dynamic and reflexive attitude towards organizing [---] With this

    move from a focus on stable constructs to a focus on organizing as an

    ongoing set of activities we need to return to fundamental aspects of

    organizing. We encourage contributions that, in the spirit of Karl


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    Weick and others, call for an active way of understanding organizing.

    Instead of dwelling on the best organization form, we call for attention

    on the basics of organizing:

    -What are we doing (activities)?

    - How do we define what we are doing (rhetoric)?

    - Who are we that do it (identity)?

    Concepts such as activities, rhetoric, and identities are thereby far

    more important than organizational structure, formal goals, and

    assigned roles in order to understand organizing.‛

    To me the text represents an adequate understanding of where the contemporary organising ideas are heading within the organization theory field in Scandinavia. Accordingly, structure, formal goals and assigned roles seem to play a subordinated role in contemporary research. My interpretation of this development is that it is in line with the influential ideas of social constructionism and social constructivism, where concepts like identity and rhetoric have an important place.

    These reshaping of ideas, from focusing on structure to focusing on activity (to put it simple) makes me believe that we are missing something important. Using concepts that polarize (for instance structure and activity) neglect the possibility to grasp the dimension of ‚both-and‛ (Fang 2002). Therefore, Fang uses ‚integrative dimensions

    instead of polarized dimensions to study culture‛. On an epistemological level the western roots of thought could be traced back to Aristotle;

    ‚The pervading paradigm in the current cross-cultural research is

    characterized by an ‚either-or‛ logic which emphasizes simplifying,

    categorizing, polarizing, atomizing, and analyzing. This logic is

    grounded in the western thought dating back to the philosophy of

    Aristotle. The thrust of the western thought is to analyze and search

    for the absolute Truth. The Greek roots of the word ‚analysis‛ denote

    ‚loosening‛ or ‚breaking apart‛ (Chen, 2001, 2002). Simplifying,

    categorizing, polarizing, atomizing are needed to undertake the

    analyzing missions. In this paradigm, the whole unity is broken down

    into parts and pieces which in turn are isolated into opposites to

    analyze how they actually work to further analyze how the wholeness

    functions. Opposites are seen as independent of and opposing with

    one another. Research questions tend to be positivist, analytical,

    rationalistic, functionalist or ‚either-or‛ in nature: yes or no? true or

    false? individualistic or collectivistic? long-term oriented or short-term

    oriented? feminine or masculine? black or white?‛ (Fang, 2002,


    This either-or syndrome could also be traced back to the Cartesian world-view where dualistic concepts such as individual mind versus culture/society, materialistic artefacts versus symbolic artefacts or individual action versus collective activity (c.f. Engeström/Miettinen 1999).


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

Another example of this ‚polarization phenomenon‛, as I choose to call it, is the name

    of the conference: “2005 European International Business Academy Annual

    Conference Landscapes and Mindscapes in a Globalizing World‛. The introduction

    text describes the conference as an<

    ‚*<+ acknowledgement of the multifaceted attributes of today’s

    international business. Landscapes evoke the structural and fairly

    objective aspects of international business, for instance the economic,

    geographical and spatial dimensions of cross-border activities. In

    contrast, mindscapes conjure imagery of the perceptual, and hence

    fundamentally subjective, aspects of such activities. Few international

    business scholars would deny that both aspects are important and that

    our field must necessarily encompass both, but because our

    scholarship seldom treats them in tandem we are left with partial and

    isolated insights. To understand an increasingly globalized world of

    business we need not only to comprehend its landscapes and its

    mindscapes, but also how they shape each other and together evolve

    1into ever more complex patterns of reality.‛

     As showed in the examples above, the field of management tries to deal with structural issues on one hand and mindscapes (i.e. perceptual) on the other, but seem to lack a relevant tool to grasp the dialectical relationship between the landscape and the mindscape dimensions. I agree with the analysis that we need to put more efforts into grasping the reciprocity of landscape and mindscape issues. In the same time I think it’s a mistake to use concepts like landscape/mindscape. Can landscape really be separated from mindscape and vice versa? As Fang (2002) pointed out, that type of dichotomies lead to obstacles reaching the ‚both-and-paradigm‛, it only makes us

    think in an ‚either-or‛ logic.

Fang’s account for the pervading paradigm has an important message; concepts used

    within the Business Administration field, seem to lead to rigidity in both research questions and results. The complex patterns of reality go, so to speak, beyond the terms used. In my search for theoretical frameworks grasping human, structural and processual dimensions I approached activity theory, which looks like a promising framework for getting away from the polarization phenomenon. Before I discuss activity theory as a potential tool for enriching and expanding the understanding of distributed project practice, I want to develop my examples how project work specifically are conceptualised within the BA-field a bit further.

    Denominations for Collaborative Work within the Management field Even if several studies could be said to have a common starting point, as mentioned above, it seems to be more problematic to identify similarities in the findings how to

    cope with these variety of practices, behaviours etc. in cross cultural project groups. There

    are several reasons to this of course, for example different epistemological assumptions



    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    or different theoretical perspectives. Nevertheless it’s interesting to realize that most of the studies have their biases in what is ‚The-Key-Issue‛. When looking at cross-

    cultural activities, there are an amount of different dimensions to focus. Yet, a lot of them are reduced - complexity turns to simplicity; it’s paradoxical.

    It is well-known that it’s important how we designate something since this not only indicates how we choose to grasp a phenomenon, but also tell us something about our epistemological basic assumptions (cf. ??). Let me give some examples. If the concept project‛ is used, the study’s focus often is related to an assumption of project as a ‚management thing‛ (Söderlund 2000, referring to Lundin 1995). Rules, structures, goals and leadership are often illuminated aspects in this literature (e.g. Bourhis et al, 2005). If the concept Virtual Communities-of-Practice is used, the participants and working progress/process are in focus and/or not very seldom the IT and communication abilities. Another common interest when using this conceptualisation is learning issues.

Other authors/researchers have chosen to use the term Multi-cultural team. These

    studies often put focus on cultural diversity on an individual level, i.e. between the members of the team. Hofstede is a common reference and it is often claimed that differences in cultural background plays an important role for the experiences of complexity. The risk with such approach though, is that it tends to create ‚Cultural

    Stereotypes‛ (the term is borrowed from Lillhannus 2002).

    Social networks is another concept used in research analysing international relationships. A common theoretical starting point here is the social network theories (e.g. Scott 1991). The focal point is often the network-building process or organising processes. Co-operation is here understood as a building activity, i.e. the architecture of networks must be designed, built up and maintained. Moreover, the studies using the social network concept very seldom take an individual perspective but put effort to analyse on an organisational level.


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

The terms used to capture project practice within the management field, often seems to

    exclude aspects of the activities. The table summarises the discussion:

Project practice Primary focus in international of analysis/ environments - Examples of Issues Examples of Focus suggested contributors investigated theoretical CONCEPTS roots USED

    ICT The distance ‛How physical gaps can Virtual team Communication problem be reconciled‛ theory

    Multi-cultural The ‚Differences in cultures Cultural diversity team/ characteristics of are crucial for the co- and how it affects Cross cultural cultures operation and must be project work team Hofstede dealt with‛

    ‚Co-operation is built Individual or How individuals on the capabilities to Project “as a interorganisa-Barinaga communicate in an understand each-other carrier of different tional 2002 international and therefore the languages” project group communication aspects Wittgenstein must be understood‛

    US-textbooks in

    Project ”as a way Project Roles, goals, ‚Project must be well of structure and Management leadership, organised and well organise structures and lead in order to complexity” Normative rules succeed‛



    level or business ‚How can relations be Makilouko Interorganisational sector established and Global networks Bieman, 1996 connections and maintained in order to societal movements Network theory be successful‛

    Negotiation and

    meaning built up Collaboration in ‚Human collaboration through and Virtual order to provide is difficult to organise Bourhis et al between Communities of and sustain formally it must be participants 2005 Practice communities-of- built up by interest and practice involvement‛ Sociology


    Establishment and Human Relations Project ”as maintenance of ‚Relations are the interaction and relations between fabrics which keeps Organisation relations” individuals and social units together‛ Psychology groups


    structures, unstable ‚Non-fixed structure as Temporary and changing a way of reaching organization environments, flexibility‛ temporal


Figure 1: Concepts used when discussing phenomenon of global projects. ( under development)


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    The table gives a rather scattered picture of established ideas of project work on a global arena. I suggest, on the right-hand column, different key focus to illustrate diversities between researchers investigating project work.

    In summary; I have shown that project as concept could refer to different aspects of human collaborative work. The term can refer to a structural dimension of work, to a way of organizing work processes, to a matter of steering/control, to diversity, virtual relationships etc. I have also shown that other concepts than project is used to grasp varying dimensions. For example, virtual teams, global networks or communities of practice are frequently used concepts for coping cross-cultural activities.

    As shown in figure 1, the conceptualisations seem to close the abilities to grasp both cultural diversity, structural issues and aspects of distance as something that have mutual influence on the work situation. Could this be handled by a change of discourse?

Management and Project Research a quest for a Scandinavian line

    of thought

    2The discipline of Business Administration/Management could be characterised as

    scattered, especially concerning research interests and methodological issues. Within the field of Organisation theory a so-called Scandinavian line could be identified (Czarniawska/Sevón, 2003). The Scandinavian tradition is not characterised easily but Czarniawska/Sevón argues that there are some distinctions in The Scandinavian organisation research (2003:13),‚*---] Nordic organization theory is deeply interested in the practice of organizing.‛ Moreover they argue that this interest naturally leads to a great number of field studies and that ‛the approach taken is strongly process-

    oriented‛. Another focus within the Nordic tradition is the embeddedness of the practises (in opposition to the universalising tendencies), according to Czarniawska/Sevón.

    To put focus on project research particularly, you could say that within the Scandinavian tradition there are multiple voices, arguing for project research taking a different epistemological position than mainstream project management research (e.g Blomberg 1998 & 2003, Engwall et al 2003, Packendorff 1995, Sahlin 1996). Engwall et al (2003:116) declare that:

    ‚During the last decade, however, an alternative discourse has grown

    strong among scholars interested in management and the organizing

    of projects. Whereas the mainstream project management researchers

    normally take normative concepts for granted, focusing on

    quantitative studies of large populations in order to identify universal

    laws, the alternative discourse evolves to a large extent around

    2 There is an ongoing discussion whether management and BA means the same thing. Some would argue that there are no differences (cf Engwall, 1992).


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    qualitative empirical studies examining projects realities beyond the

    textbook concepts. Thus, this research is often rooted in an inductive

    approach to the phenomenon. Based on empirical observations from

    indepth and qualitative case studies, it tends to challenge the

    categories of the established project management paradigm.‛

    I have argued that the conception of project is challenged when complexity is a fact; i.e. when the work is distributed, when funding/steering is supranational, when project members come from different institutions, professions and cultures etc. I perceive this challenge as a quest for the ‚alternative discourse‛, using the word from Engwall et al.

    My research interest and work on collaboration in EU-projects could be categorised

    3. This paper is an attempt to discuss the purport of into that ‚alternative discourse‛

    that alternative discourse emphasized by Engwall et al, and to suggest a theoretical framework to attain research in line with that Scandinavian discourse.

    In my search for theoretical tools to handle different dimensions/aspects of project practice, I approached activity theory s mentioned. The following section discusses possibilities to bring different conceptualisations together; not to exclude but include the dimensions, in order to get a more rich or holistic picture of project practice on a global arena. The theoretical framework is particularly promising when it comes to comprehension of the polarization phenomenon derived from a dualistic world-view, and when different dimensions of human work should be treated in a dialectical way..

Activity Theory a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary approach

    In the following text I will discuss activity theory as a complement to the existing theoretical frameworks within the discipline of business administration. The tradition of activity theory ‚is not widely known in organizational research [ <]‛ (Engeström,

    2005:159), but there is an increasing interest among scholars from the field of organization theory. This is obvious when looking at the growing number of researchers from the organisational field, participating in conferences with emphasis

    4on socio-cultural theories and activity theory.

Broadly defined, activity theory can be understood as

    [...] a philosophical and cross-disciplinary framework for studying

    varying forms of human practices as development processes, with

    both individual and social levels interlinked at the same time‛ (Kuutti,

    1996) .

3 There is much to say about the term ‚alternative discourse‛, which Engwall et al also discuss as the

    ‚Viking approach‛, appealing to the Scandinavian line of thought. There is also much to say about the imprecise terms quantitative study or qualitative study. Whether a study is qualitative or quantitative is actually not an issue (only on the level of data collecting), but in this paper I will not comment on that any further.

    4 ISCAR and ISCRAT are two conferenses on that subject


    Understanding Project Practice in Virtual Project Groups

    A Quest for a Scandinavian Discourse

    This means that concepts as landscapes/mindscapes, individual/collective, in the context of activity theory, are regarded as interlinked and should therefore be treated in a dialectical way.

    Activity theory has its threefold historical roots in classical German philosophy (from Kant to Hegel), in the theoretical concepts of Marx and Engels, and in the Soviet-Russian cultural-historical psychology of Vygotsky, Leont’ev and Luria (Engeström, 2005). Engeström/Miettinen (1999) discusses at least two approaches rather close to the activity theory and in line within the contextual and culturally situated theories. These are the sociocultural theory of mediated action (Wertsch, del Rio, & Alvarez) and the culturally theory of situated action (or legitimate peripheral participation) (Lave & Wenger). In management theory this latter line of thought is more recognized as the theory of Communities-of-Practice.

The most central idea within activity theory is the concept of mediation, originated from

    the Russian psychologists Vygotsky (in the 1920s and early 1930s) and a bit later, Leont’ev's work (Engeström, 2005:60). According to Engeström (ibid) the limitation of

    the first generation of activity theory, represented by Vygotsky, was that the unit of analysis remained individually focused. This was overcome by the second generation, centered around Leont’ev’s work. However, Leont’ev ‚never graphically expanded

    Vygotsky’s original model into a model of a collective activity system‛ (Engeström, 2005:60). Engeström (1987) developed the model, representing the third generation of activity theory, grasping both the individual and group actions embedded in a collective activity system (figure 3). As described, and shown in figure 3, activity theory directly opposes to the traditional dualistic framework, derived from the cartesian world-view, like that of individual mind versus culture/society, materialistic artifacts versus symbolic artifacts or individual action versus collective activity.

     Mediating artifacts

     Subject Object

    Figure 2. A common reformulation of Vygotsky’s model of a mediated act (adapted from Engeström, 2005, p 60)


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