University of Southampton Project Managers and Coordinators Network

By Jon Lawn, BRECcIA Project Manager

I have been working in international development project management roles for nearly ten years now, moving through four large research projects at the University of Southampton, based in different faculties and with different funders. Over these nearly 10 years, I have met and kept in touch with individuals who have similar roles across the university, and many of us have had a shared ambition to develop something more structured than the ad-hoc coffee in the Staff Club – to keep in touch, share experiences and provide a community for learning about best practice.

The University of Southampton conducts world-leading research across a vast range of disciplines and scales of projects. With an increase in funding for larger research projects, for example in the form of international consortia, clinical trials, doctoral centres or interdisciplinary hubs, there are more Professional Services staff across the University who are funded by external research grants to manage or provide specialist project support to those activities.

There are now many ‘Project Coordinators/Administrators’, ‘Project/Programme Managers’ and ‘Communications Officers’ (to name a few roles) spread across faculties of the University, often embedded in and providing Professional Services to academic and research teams.

From time-to-time people have asked me “How do you set up a Theory of Change?” or “Do you have a few minutes to talk to me about developing a risk management strategy for my project?” or “Who do I talk to about altering our budget?”. Project management challenges present themselves to all sorts of staff members across our research-intensive University.

In early 2019, after some further scoping of similar roles around the university, the Project Managers and Coordinators Network was launched, with the ambition to link up these dispersed roles from across our community.

This group started fairly small, mainly consisting of colleagues working within the management of research activities, and has grown through word-of-mouth and invitations to others with similar roles as we find them, or as a new project is funded and a new position is created. This group has expanded further than project management within research, to include other industry areas across the university, such as IT and Software and institutional change management, allowing for a deeper understanding and sharing of the application of Project Management techniques across the University.

The aims of the network include:

– Support and guidance: To meet people who work in a similar role; who experience similar joys and challenges; share stories and learn from each other.

– Share skills and best practice: Imagine you have never compiled a Risk Management Strategy before and you suddenly have a week to do this for your research project – wouldn’t it be useful to have a group of peers you could call on to ask for advice?

– Collaborative voice: As we learn what is and is not working well for the management of externally funded research activities, we can provide informed and coherent suggestions for improvements and efficiencies. We can engage as a network with other professional services and academic teams to both learn and share.

– Mentoring: As a network of experienced and established project coordinators and managers we can be an asset to newly recruited staff into these roles, and for other staff across the university who may benefit from our experience.

– Professional Development: We are able to highlight professional development opportunities and information to each other, and organise seminars and training events.

The network has been meeting every 2 months (when we were all based on campus!) over a series of lunchtime events, including ‘Introduction to Agile Project Management’ training, peer-to-peer ‘hot topic’ discussions (including communication tools, budgeting and developing business cases, to name a few…) and simply for a catch up and chat – sharing our joys and frustrations! As with any network, we encourage interaction between members, and have developed a directory of our expertise, enabling us to know who to contact within the network if we have a problem or want advice in a certain area.

Expectations on research and academia from funders is increasing, with impact, communication, capacity building, knowledge transfer, trials, pilots, data management, ethical approval, financial management, sub contracting, EU tenders and resource management all playing important parts of successfully managing projects.

We have partnered with the Research and Innovation Services (RIS) at the University of Southampton to develop a knowledge base and portal of useful documents, guides and templates surrounding research management for staff members to access.

We look forward to seeing the network develop and grow, informing best practice and improving institutional structures around project management.

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