What is Project Management in Research?

project managementReading Chen Guttman's post, “What’s Your Idea of Project Management?,” over at the BitesizeBio blog triggered some thoughts that I wish to share with you. In this post I will answer Chen's call for project management and tell you about our idea of project management for research. (Note there may be some shameless self-promotion here.)

"Project Management is not for academia, it is only for industry, and we should keep it this way." [PI’s reaction to our Project Management module]

A few months after we started working on BioKM™, it became clear to me that something was missing. Something big. The modules were there and you could document all the entities underlying your work (plasmids, primers, documents, antibodies, genes, protocols etc’). Still something was missing, something that will help me understand - why there was a “pZS179 plasmid” in our general plasmid box, what it was used for, by who and how long ago. Why there was a silver stain protocol (which I never saw anyone using) and lots of other questions that pop up when browsing our lab knowledge base.

The system was missing the module that describes the path a research took: the questions asked along the way, the mistakes made, and the successes. (Obviously planning this path is an important part and was also missing.) When we talked with our users at the time and explained that we were going to introduce a Project Management Module, we received cold responses reminiscent of the quote above. Many thought we were aiming to "industrialize" the research process. Others explained they couldn’t be expected to plan for 12 months in advance saying ‘We plan and progress in small steps asking a big question and breaking it into small steps.’

All this feedback was our starting point.

Why does research function differently from any other domain? Why do all the stories I've heard about PIs trying to introduce project management tools (such as MS Project) end in failure?

Chen writes about goals. Goals. Not timelines not budgets, not outputs. Generally the underlying concepts behind all project management tools are time and budget. A good industrial project is a project that runs according to schedule and stays within the budget. (A great project is one that is executed according to schedule, stays within the budget, and you actually get the results you marked.)

In research all of the above applies but the terminology is different  - as it should be. For a project management system to work it should be adjusted to the needs of scientists -  it should speak the correct language.

Research requires different underlying principles: What is a well-planned project in research? What is a great outcome for a research project? A new insight? A publication? A new method?

This all goes back to the goals Chen discusses. We believe a well-planned project in research comes down to the path it takes; the results are the “by-product”. It is about the way you evolve your research question. It is about creativity and curiosity to solve the small problems you are facing along the way. It is about moving forward and not repeating your mistakes. It is about reflecting your progress. Mark your goals and have a system to assist you in achieving it few steps at a time.

Scientists deserve great tools that will assist in managing the research. We are working towards those goals, one step at a time.

In the next few weeks, I will write more about aspects of project management with focus on planning and tracking progress - the way we at BioData see it.

Learn more about BioKM and sign up for a free trial at www.biodata.com