Over the last decade a wide range of firms, organisations and industries have done or are in the process of restructuring themselves into some form of project-based production, following the lead of industries like construction, defence contracting, consulting and software that have traditionally used this form of organisation. At the same time the idea of what constitutes a project, using distinctions such as hard/soft, standardised/complex, mega/other and so on, has greatly expanded.
If project based production makes an important contribution to economic output that is a reason to study it, applying the methods and tools available. Given their multifaceted nature, it is obvious that ideas from many different fields of inquiry can be usefully applied to a range of issues found in projects and their characteristics. From economics there are interesting, relevant ideas that have come out of research across a diverse range of topics, including organisational and regulatory economics, property rights and contracts, governance and the principle-agent problem.
One way of harnessing this diversity is to use some of the characteristics of projects as a mechanism to group ideas together. The method used here is based on three broad approaches to understanding projects: projects as networks; projects as markets; and the psychology of projects:
- Projects as networks covers fields including incomplete contracts and procurement, collusion and corruption, supply chains and sub-contracting, lean production, integrated teams and temporary organisations.
- There is both a market for projects, and a project as a temporary market. Topics in this area include market characteristics and structure, market power and monopsony, auctions, bidding and information, Williamson’s fundamental transformation and asset specificity, and the ratchet effect in contracting and tendering.
- The psychology of projects is based on recent developments in behavioural and experimental economics, in turn largely based on Kahnemann and Tversky’s work. Optimism bias, bounded rationality, incentives and Flyvberg’s delusion and deception view are examples. Underpinning these are the principal-agent problem, moral hazard and information asymmetry.
The fields ideas can be drawn from, that are outside the general project management literature, include management and organisation studies, psychology and behavioural economics, network analysis, lean production, legal and institutional research, and transaction cost economics. Economic theory can be applied to a range of issues found in the procurement and contracting of projects. Thus topics such as competitive and oligopolistic markets, auction theory, game theory and buyer and supplier power are relevant.
Another example is the economics of contracts. This field includes the role of incomplete contracts in self-enforcing relationships, the design of contracts, economic reasoning and the framing of contract law, and the contract as economic trade. It overlaps transaction cost economics and its application to property rights, agency theory, moral hazard and incentives. Other related topics are norms and the theory of the firm, allocating decision rights under liquidity constraints, authority and flexibility in contracts, and theories of contract regulation.
Many of these topics are also found in New Institutional Economics and work on the econometrics of contracts and markets. Because projects can be seen as a collection of contracts, written and unwritten, all this is clearly relevant. Another is the role of legal and regulatory structures in institutional economics, which emphasises the importance of a stable and predictable environment for entrepreneurs and businesses, here taken to be the clients and contractors involved in the business of delivering projects.
Where the study of how economic activity is organized fits is a grey area. It exists somewhere between micro and macroeconomics, and is primarily interested in imperfectly competitive markets, like those found in professional services. In these sorts of markets reputation, relationships, regulation and risk are major factors, all of which have been extensively studied.
What the diversity of ideas collected here provides is, in many ways, the overall context and framing of a project. In the same way as a business plan starts with a scan of the environment and a SWOT analysis, a project could have a context scan of the network, market and behavioural aspects. That’s not to say these factors are not all part of professional project planning. Obviously they are. Rather, the economic approach shifts the focus to questions about how best to design and structure a project from the point of view of organising production and fulfilling a social or economic role. It’s a functional approach that has a limited amount to say about managing production or specific PM decisions.