Call for Panel Partners, BHC 2011, St. Louis, March 31-April 2, 2011
“Conceptualizing Projects as Business History” - Phil Scranton, session organizer
Projects are in general rarely-examined orphans in business history, as they represent temporary organizations not durable structures, involve teamwork and uncertainties that don’t fit into managerial hierarchies, and frequently are failures – over budget, late, conflict-ridden and given to blame games (think of Boston’s Big Dig, well profiled in its early phases by Thomas P. Hughes, the acclaimed historian of technology). This condition accounts for why business history usually ignores construction, for example. Perhaps it's time for business historians to research and discuss projects.
For example, a recent Ebay search presented over 2400 books on project management (not just projects) available for bid or purchase, and articles in the International Journal of Project Management note a vast increase in projects since the 1960s (their guess; I’d think in the US that this increase dates from World War Two – not only from the Manhattan Project), in time including freestanding projects and both firms sponsoring project-based units and other firms created AS projects, intended for sale or a rapid windup once the key goals of an effort were reached (many went broke, of course). Projects have been an element of business activity for centuries, of course – virtually all shipbuilding, railway and bridge construction, power system development, and other infrastructure creations have been handled through projects. However, business historians have looked most commonly to the “operations” that followed, but projects now seem to be generalizing into other domains – the Ebay list included multiple titles on projects in IT, pharmaceuticals, construction (of course), industrial engineering, R&D across varied sectors, aerospace, and so forth. None of these works ask historical questions, and it may well be time we began to do so. Has there been a rising tide of project-centered business practice, and if so, whence has this arrived, where has it been promoted (and resisted?), and how much has this development altered the landscape of employment, management, and innovation in nationals and regions? How did the field of project management arise, and what led initial leaders to seek a social-scientific, or management science basis for professionalization (which is now being sharply challenged)? Where are there projects beyond business history that business historians can profit from encountering? Can there be an empirically-based “theory of projects” within business history that might have value to businesses as well?
For BHC 2011, I will draft a “concept paper” aiming to frame issues about exploring projects (temporary organizations) as alternatives to firms, as functions within firms, and as means for complex collaborations among firms. It would be terrific to develop a panel proposal involving colleagues also working on conceptualizing projects historically, studying individual projects, considering patterns of project development in sectors or places, or thinking critically and creatively about the challenges of project management, as work practice and as a discipline. Interested parties should contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Proposals for the St. Louis BHC must be submitted by 1 October 2010, so quick action matters.
Phil Scranton, Rutgers University, Hagley Museum & Library, Enterprise & Society
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