#CAA2019: Project Management Strategies for Mid-Stage DAH Projects

The following is the text from my talk on project management for digital art history projects at CAA 2019. Here is the project planning worksheet discussed below. Direct questions to hannah[dot]jacobs[at]duke[dot]edu. Check out the rest of the session at #dahvenice2018.


Hello, I’m Hannah Jacobs, Digital Humanities Specialist for the Wired! Lab for Digital Art History and Visual Culture at Duke. In the lab, my main roles are to develop digital humanities pedagogical practices and to consult on and contribute to faculty research projects.

One of the common threads that runs through all of the projects in the lab is the need for project management–practices that help scholars and students collaborate to answer digital art history questions. This is equally true for the teams participating in this Advanced Digital Art History workshop–researchers already in the middle of their projects.

Let me begin, though, by considering what we mean by “project management”. The phrase is widely used outside of academia. In private industries, project management refers to the methods used to produce consumer goods and services. In cultural industries and the arts, project management refers to those practices that facilitate creative processes. In academic research, project management refers to those techniques we use to organize and carry out methodologies in order to answer our research questions.

Its use in the humanities is closely tied to the rise of digital humanities and with it the proliferation of cross-disciplinary collaborations. Yet even though the phrase is used differently across all of these fields, the concept of project management can be boiled down to a few universally applicable components.

So I’m going to follow up my colleagues’ presentations by talking about the importance of integrating project management into any stage of research and some of the related issues that arose in our discussions of project management during the workshop.

Essentially, project management is a collection of practices or habits. The Duke University Project Management Working Group has categorized these practices as communication, goal setting, time management, documentation, and organization. We think of these as practices because they are ongoing: they are more than a single task. These practices must be done over and over again in concert with a project’s research methods. They are more than setting deadlines at the beginning of a project or scheduling a meeting or creating file naming conventions. The practices of project management pervade the life of a project. Just as a digital art history project grows and changes over time, so does its project management.

So why do we need project management? For any given project, we are likely already doing a number of tasks that fall into the various categories I’ve just mentioned. The role of project management, though, is to help us recognize and improve how we do those tasks in support of our research. Acknowledging that project management is necessary, is already happening in some way whether we realize it or not, and continually reflecting on these practices is essential for digital art history projects.

Intentionally incorporating project management into research projects helps to minimize challenges, to use resources effectively, and to accomplish a project’s goals. As digital humanities project management expert Lynne Siemens puts it, project management “can help manage common issues such as project risks, unanticipated obstacles and tasks, team member turnover, and timelines, limit scope creep and budget overspending.” (Siemens 2016, 343)

Put another way, project management, in conjunction with research methodology, helps to answer these questions: How do we get started, how do we keep going, and how do we finish? Within these questions, we can recognize three interconnected and driving forces.

First, there is the “HOW” or “How do”–the interrogative that calls up a vision of the many tasks that will need to be organized and completed so that research questions can be answered and goals can be met.

The vision of these many tasks leads directly to an implied “who”, or “who will do these things?” We answer this question here with “WE.” As I’ve mentioned, digital art history projects largely rely on collaborative efforts of multiple scholars and practitioners. Indeed, our workshop was structured to acknowledge and support collaboration by asking that teams rather than individuals participate in the workshop. Beginning from this team-oriented mentality helps to organize the tasks that need to be done as no single person can complete them alone, and none of the tasks can be completed in isolation of one another.

Finally, there is the GETTING started, the keeping going, and the finishing–that is, the dimension of time. Digital art history projects morph throughout their lives. Changes may be intellectual, technological, or structural. Intentional project management is a tool that enables research teams to effectively navigate these changes.

Of these questions, the one most immediate to our workshop participants was “How do we keep going?” To understand how we addressed this question in the workshop, we need to consider the project team structures.

Each of the teams is composed differently: some are made up of 2 individuals, a scholar and a practitioner; others comprise groupings of more than one scholar and/or practitioner. Each of the teams also arrived at the workshop at different stages in their projects–from beginning a new phase to working through the middle of a phase to deciding what to do next.

We scheduled the project management session in the second half of the workshop so that after a week’s worth of theoretical and methodological engagement, participants had plenty of time to think about overarching research questions and methods before returning to the question of “how”.

We recognized that each team likely already had some form of project management practice in place, but we wanted to include time in the workshop to reflect on these practices as they would likely need to adjust them to support methodological changes brought on by other discussions, presentations, and feedback in the workshop. At this stage, when groups were asking questions such as, “How do we transition from one platform to another?”, or “How to we visualize our historical data?” we asked them to pause and reflect on their project management.

What follows are some observations generated in the workshop regarding the five project management practices as they need to be considered mid-project.

Beginning with communication, these practices include tasks like identifying roles within a team—including identifying a specific person as project manager; using those roles to maintain expectations and accountability; encouraging transparency about these expectations through tools like project charters or memoranda of understanding; meeting and co-working regularly; and agreeing to a common system for managing tasks and scheduling.

Underlying these tasks is an important aspect of collaborative research: BUILDING relationships. Spending time together on the project is critical to facilitating all parts of a project. The group reflected on co-working strategies, even for teams that are disparately located, and discussed activities that could help build relationships. One suggestion called for occasional seminar-style discussions of scholarship that relates to a project, noting this activity’s ability to help team members reconnect with their research questions. Several teams noted the importance of in-person meetings in which team members could get to know one another and build trust. And for projects focused on specific geographic sites, taking as many team members as possible to visit the site was suggested for improving all team members’ comprehension of the research questions. I would hazard to add that attending collaborative workshops such as this one also positively impacts teams’ relationship building as it gives them an opportunity to dedicate time to their project together and to interact with others doing similar work.

These kinds of activities may directly or indirectly contribute to a project’s success, but they are nonetheless crucial to helping teams work together toward a common goal.

When setting goals, teams need to first evaluate their resources, including expertise, time, infrastructure, and funding. They can then use this information to help define goals and break those goals down into smaller tasks. The team needs to review those goals regularly and make adjustments as the project progresses. Writing out, reviewing, and revising goals regularly can help teams maintain their focus and avoid scope creep—those tangential findings or ideas that can cause digital humanities projects to balloon beyond their capacity with surprising ease.

An exercise we do with workshops like this one is to ask teams to fill out this project planning worksheet. The exercise helps them to outline not only their goals and resources but also to brainstorm together how they’ll reach their goals. This activity has proven to be as useful to teams at the beginning of a project as it is to those in the middle. It offers a time for structured reflection, regardless of the project’s state, by helping teams to think together in ways they may or may not have done before.

A number of groups wished for more time during the workshop to continue working with this document. We encouraged them to take their copies–shared as Google Docs–with them to be reviewed and updated as their projects progress. In this way, they can use their project plan, with goals outlined, as a living document that can help them work through the inevitable changes—they can edit together, make comments, and facilitate discussion with one another through the document.

The third type of practice discussed, time management, encompasses not only individual time management of day-to-day activities but also group time management of larger project phases. Teams need to have a sense of how long each part of a project might take. Because this particular practice is about predicting the future, it’s important to schedule at least half again as much time as teams perceive to be needed and even up to double the amount of time.

The group observed that this EXTRA time is necessary for technical training, since many teams are likely to be learning or advancing their skills in digital methodologies as projects develop. Acknowledging and planning time for technical training is key to ensuring a project’s success.

But perhaps most critical to our discussion of time management was the recognition that project management itself needs to be included in estimates of time–both at the day-to-day level and at the project phase level. Planning for project management practices better integrates them into the overall project and avoids making them feel like extra work.

So what are those project management tasks we need to build in time for? Besides meetings and group activities, tasks that will take up the bulk of project management time are note taking and file or data organization. Developing standards for how these will be done is important–and putting these standards into practice is critical and takes time.

The benefits of doing this can be enormous. Documenting decisions, structures, methods, failures, and achievements, and knowing where to find all of the project materials used to create the project is useful in the short term. Project development is iterative. Likely, team members will need to return to earlier phases of a project to replicate or revise what has already been done. Having the notes and files available to understand what was done and what may need to be adjusted will make a project’s continued progress much smoother. This way if project team needs to return to a particular phase, they will not need to spend  extra time reconstructing it—and potentially extending the project’s timeline beyond its allotted resources.

Looking ahead to the completion of a project, these activities provide the groundwork for grant reporting, conference presentations, and publications. They can also help in the extension of projects. Best of all, when these materials are published alongside articles and reports, they contribute to the advancement of digital art history by offering methodological examples for future scholars to build upon.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves by thinking about final outputs, let’s come back to this question. All of the practices and observations I’ve just outlined together form the answer to this question. The key to making that answer possible is to be intentional, reflective, and continuous in the practice of project management. Indeed, I would venture to make the observation that project management is the key to advancing digital art history as a field, for the practices of project management are what make digital projects possible.

Thank you!