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Success factors in project management are generally considered to be sufficient resources, clearly formulated and agreed requirements, unambiguous roles and responsibilities, as well as a fitting change management.

These are also important parameters for projects carried out at universities. In addition, however, there are at least three further university-specific factors that are decisive for project success:

  • firstly, respecting the principle of participation, which concerns the entire university across hierarchies,
  •  secondly, the understanding of the reference systems "science" and "science administration", which is of central importance for projects carried out in a university administration,
  • thirdly, and resulting from the first two factors mentioned, the ability of the project management to mediate between different interests in order to find a viable path that generates the broadest possible commitment and engagement.

Why are success factors for projects at universities different from projects at other types of organisations?

Special framework conditions

This is due to the special framework conditions of a university. The task of a university is, among other things, to gain scientific knowledge. Research, especially basic research, is per se open-ended. This means that creativity, innovation and exploration do not necessarily lead to a quantifiable and usable result, but are nevertheless indispensable for progress. Controlling and measuring success is therefore not necessarily possible - in contrast to an industrial company, for example, where the successful manufacture of a product can certainly be positively influenced and favoured.

The structural organisation of the university consists essentially of science with its faculties and departments on the one hand and the administration, which has a service-providing task for science, on the other. Ideally, both work hand in hand, even if they have different priorities due to different tasks.

Challenges in the cooperation between science and administration

The university administration should create optimal institutional conditions for the fulfilment of tasks in research, teaching and studies. Its support processes for science and research follow values such as plannability, reliability, regulation and compliance with the law. In contrast to this are the unalterable values of autonomy and freedom on the part of science, which are anchored in the Basic Law.

This exaggeratedly formulated dualism resolves itself profitably where the administration is so well positioned that it can meet the needs of science through efficiency, service orientation and flexibility, i.e. to gain and retain as many resources as possible of a time, personnel and monetary nature for the fulfilment of its tasks. Conflicts arise when administrative units reach their limits due to overload, lack of standardisation, outdated governance, unclear responsibilities and non-automated processes. External factors, such as changing legal framework conditions (for example, OZG, eGovernment Act, §2b UStG) and developments that require rapid action (for example, events affecting cyber security or compliance requirements) pose additional challenges.

Wide range of topics, numerous stakeholder interests

This is where many projects that we have carried out at a university administration come in. They focus on the modernisation and digitalisation of administrative processes. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that the more challenging the external conditions are for science, the more important it is to have a functioning management that relieves science of administrative tasks.

In times of declining basic funding, increasing relevance of third-party funding, international competition for the best minds, and the increase in administrative activities, the pressure to modernise is rising noticeably. The continuously growing demands challenge the organisation's adaptability and require that a culture develops that can act faster and more flexibly.

The ability to react adequately and with high quality in a short time is often something that higher education administration still has to acquire. Ultimately, this is what most modernisation and digitisation projects revolve around. Not only is there a wide variety of topics in these projects. The stakeholders are also numerous: researchers, teachers, students and those who would like to be, as well as employees from departments and administrative units, university management, committees, interest groups, ministries and third-party funders.

As complex as the structure of stakeholders with different interests, claims, rights and needs is, as diverse are the individual goals that the actors pursue in their respective functions. Access to resources (time, personnel, financial resources) naturally involves conflicts of interest. Power, influence and success do not depend primarily on monetary factors. The degree of micro-politics in a university is correspondingly pronounced.

Challenges in university project management

What sets universities apart from other organisations is the fact that they are hybrids of self-administration and management: Committees have to be involved, participation is required. This makes decision-making processes discussion-rich and sometimes also lengthy and tough.

In the complex organisational form of higher education, there are extensive challenges to systematic and sustainable project management: on the one hand, they lie in finding a viable path in a balancing act between often abstract, but consensual goal formulations and concrete, realistic, measurable, but usually controversial goals that allow projects to be worked on profitably and completed successfully.

It must not be lost sight of the fact that the overarching goal of projects in administrative units of a university is ultimately to optimise support processes in order to position science and research in the best possible way. This is the common denominator that unites the actors in their actions.

Successful project management thus requires empathetic translation work between different reference systems. It is necessary to understand and recognise the ways of thinking and the resulting actions of science and administration. Structures and processes usually have a history, a reason and a purpose. Based on this, room for manoeuvre can be identified with the aim of bringing about change for the good of the university.

Universities as places of discussion and participation

Therefore, the commitment of the university's management is indispensable in the project work, as well as an appropriate stakeholder management, a continuous and target group-specific communication accompanying the project, and formats that enable and promote participation. Not to forget a well thought-out and needs-oriented change management. After all, the organisational structure of a university is not subject to the same degree of regular organisational adaptation as is the case in industrial companies, for example. In the latter, necessary adjustments to changing conditions mean that reorganisation processes are more likely to take place on a regular basis.

Those who see the outlined specifics of universities simply as an obstacle to the successful completion of projects, which should be avoided as far as possible, are mistaken. Instead, it is important to appreciate that this is what universities are essentially about: they are places of discussion, participation, diversity of perspectives, negotiation, critical debate and the search for knowledge.