Read an exclusive interview with Barbara Allan in which she discusses writing her new book, The No-nonsense Guide to Project Management, and offers advice on the skills needed for both small and larger, complex projects.
What research did you do for the No-nonsense Guide to Project Management?
My earlier book on project management was published by Facet in 2004 and this provided a starting point. A lot has changed since then so I carried out a huge amount of online research in the academic and professional literature, as well as searching the websites of library and information services to identify good case studies. In addition, I researched the current professional project management literature to gain their perspective. Finally, and this is the most enjoyable part, I contacted library and information workers as well as people teaching project management to gain their perspectives.
What is your experience of project management?
I’m lucky as I have had lots of experience of project management and I have always gravitated towards projects and volunteered to get involved in them. Some examples include: closing a library; moving libraries; creating a new library and information service; introducing new ICT systems; designing and developing both e-learning and traditional courses; introducing new working practices and contracts; leading an institutional-wide programme with a budget of more than £2.3M. Like most people, I have also experienced many projects in my home life: moving house; DIY projects; organizing celebrations and parties; organizing holidays. Basically, the same skills that are used in these domestic projects are essential for professional projects too.
Do you get stuck when writing?
Yes, I sometimes have so many ideas and examples buzzing about my head that it is hard to sort them out. When this happens, I tend to go for a long walk with my dog and think it through. Alternatively, I get out my Post-It Notes™ and takeover the kitchen table as I spread them about and work out the connections and contradictions between different ideas.
How does the new book differ from your previous book on this topic?
There are many major differences. I think the first one is that standard project management methodologies such as PRINCE2® and Agile are now commonly used in library and information services. In very large and complex projects, library and information services (or their parent organisation) regularly employ professional project managers often on a contract basis and they use these standard methodologies which means that a wider group of people learn about them. Another difference is that a wide range of technologies are used in project management. For example, specialist software packages, such as MS Project, may be used to help manage the project and these provide a wide range of reports which come in very useful at meetings. Collaborative software which enable teams to work together and jointly produce reports and other outputs are very useful particularly in international projects where team members may be working in different geographic regions and time zones. In addition, social media has made a huge impact both in terms of supporting team working and also in publicising the project. Both crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are used by some libraries and I found this a particularly interesting topic to research.
Does this mean that all project managers need to use these technologies?
This is a really good question. It depends on the size of the project. If you are leading a small project involving relatively few people then you can manage it using everyday tools such as your diary and a spreadsheet. However, you may choose to use specialist software as a way of learning how to use it and gaining an additional skill for your CV. In contrast, if you are leading a large and complex project then I think it is vital to use appropriate tools as a means of managing and sharing the project information.
What has stayed the same in project management in the past decade or so?
I think the basic idea of following the project cycle and working through each stage in a systematic manner is essential. The detailed process of documenting each stage is important as it means any change in personnel can be relatively easily managed. In addition, making sure that you have considered all the risks that may adversely affect the project and thought about how to reduce or eliminate the risk is important too. Finally, following standard procedures for managing the project budget is vital.
The project life cycle
Managing risks sounds a little scary. Is it?
I always enjoy the risk management side of any project. Basically, it involves thinking about five questions: What can go wrong? How likely is this to happen? What is the likely impact on the project? How serious is each risk? How can the risks be managed?Identifying the risks can be fun and sometimes teams come up with extreme examples which cause laughter. A key lesson is to allow time for unexpected events. For example, I was once involved in a library move and the initial movement of furniture resulted in an epidemic of fleas. Quite revolting and we had to call in professional pest control people to sort it out. Overall, we lost a lot of time but we had built that in as our contingency so the project still met its deadline.
What about the people side of projects?
Leading and managing the people side of projects is vital if the project is to be successful. It is particularly important in strategic projects such as merging two libraries or developing shared services where major changes are taking place. These strategic projects may take 2-3 years to implement and there needs to be a management of change process in place to help support everyone through the change.
In all projects, the project manager needs to identify and think about all the stakeholders who are involved in the project or may be affected by it. She then needs to work out (with her team) how to work with and communicate with this diverse group of people who will all have different needs, expectations and concerns. In the No-nonsense Guide to Project Management, working with different groups including virtual teams and also volunteers is explored with practical guidance on how to work effectively. Nowadays, many projects involve partnership working, e.g. working with local, regional or international partners, and it is important to pay attention to establishing, developing and maintaining the partnership if it is to be successful.
What is your advice to librarians entering the profession?
My advice is to gain as much experience as possible. Take up opportunities to be involved in project work and, if possible, sign up for training courses on project management. Project management is an important skill for all library and information workers and it is essential for anyone wanting to move into management and leadership positions. Finally, it offers very interesting opportunities to shape your library and information service and the services and products on offer.
Barbara Allan is an author and trainer. Her background includes managing workplace and academic libraries. She has spent many years working in business schools where her focus was on enhancing learning, teaching and the student experience, and the internationalization and employability agendas. Her qualifications include a doctorate in education (on the topic of e-mentoring and women into leadership). She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2008.Barbara is a Member of CILIP and the author of several Facet Publishing titles including, Emerging Strategies for Supporting Student Learning (2016), The No-nonsense Guide to Training in Libraries (2013), Supporting Research Students (2009) Project Management (2004) Supervising and Leading Teams in ILS (2006) and Blended Learning (2007).
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