Management Of European Funded Projects – Challenges And Best Practices.

By , and on May 5, 2014
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This article explains challenges and best practices in managing European funded projects. Those challenges are typical for large and complex international projects and mainly characterised by geographically dispersed participants, multiple organisational partners, and diverse teams of experts. Some additional challenges, mostly related to reporting and controlling, are added through specific requirements of the funding principles.

EUROPEAN FUNDED PROJECTS

Celtic-Plus European Programmes

There are various European Programmes for funded projects. The most prominent ones are the European Framework Programmes, such as FP7 with a funding volume of about 50 billion euro, and the current Horizon 2020 with a funding volume of about 80 billion euro. But there are also other programmes, such as industry-driven EUREKA clusters or regional European programmes. This article focuses on FP7 and Horizon 2020 as well as Celtic-Plus, the EUREKA cluster dedicated to a Smart Connected World. Funding of these programmes is different, between 30% and 100%, and the programme requirements and processes also differ significantly, which has an impact on the project management.

THE PROJECT PHASES

When we talk about project management, we often limit ourselves to the active (running) phase of a project. However a funded project can only start if it is accepted by the funding party; so the proposal submission phase is crucial for the success of such an undertaking. The following list summarises the different phases and the related items.

Submission Phase

  • Selecting a relevant topic according to the work programme and the call.
  • Building a suitable consortium.
  • Preparing an outstanding proposal, including work-packages and related budget.
  • Submitting the proposal and crossing fingers for funding.

Set up Phase

  • Contract negotiation (with the European Commission for EU projects; with the national Public Authorities (PA) for Celtic-Plus projects)
  • Agreeing a Consortium Agreement (mandatory for EU projects)

Active Phase

  • Project Kick-Off
    • Common understanding of the work and clear distribution of the project work amongst partners
    • Detailed planning of the work, incl. milestones, deliverables and meetings
  • Performing the work and providing deliverables and other results.
  • Controlling the work and budget, including reporting to funding authorities and auditing.
  • Funding the participants.
  • Ensuring dissemination and exploitation of project results.
  • Closing the project in a controlled way.


CHALLENGES IN LARGE COLLABORATIVE R&D PROJECTS

The management of collaborative R&D projects involves numerous challenges, due to their complexity and the heterogeneity of the people involved. In the following we show the most important ones according to our experience.

Building a project team

In practice, the continuous process of building the project begins long before the official start of the project. According to our experience, it may start as early as 1.5 years before the actual start of the project in the case of larger projects. When forming your consortium of partners in the proposal writing phase, you are laying a crucial cornerstone of your later project team. Mostly you will start with a core team of a few major partners and extend the core team to a project team as the proposal is taking shape. The challenge is to continuously build a harmonious, high-performing team from day one of the project idea. In good consortia a deep team-spirit develops, and a sort of friendship and optimism among the participants is perceived sometimes even by people from outside the consortium.

Managing diversity

Large collaborative international projects always deal with people of different cultural and professional backgrounds. These should be acknowledged and dealt with. When they are managed appropriately, and this won’t be easy, the diversity will become recognized as a virtue and strength of the project. The project management task is to work through each challenge effectively and sensitively, and to be aware that challenges and friction may reveal themselves at many different moments in the project.

Managing projects without executive power

By far the biggest challenge is based on the fact that the managers of collaborative European R&D project are in a special situation, which is fundamentally different from the situation of project leaders in company-internal development projects. The main difference is that the managers do not have direct managerial control over the personnel who come from other independent organisations. This means that there is no formal authority towards the partner organisations and their employees working in the project. This relatively low level of power increases the necessity and challenge for the managers to keep everyone motivated to perform their work by ensuring good team spirit and by applying excellent communicational and motivational skills.

Effective communication

The quality of project-internal communication is directly related to the effectiveness of the project team. The project management challenge is to facilitate effective communication on all levels – from the most senior project decision making unit to the sub-team on a sub-task level. Effective communication will help enable defined tasks and project goals to be achieved with the most effective investment of resources and time and with the minimum confusion ambiguity or duplication of effort. As the people in the project team are a diverse set of individuals, one of the challenges in sustaining effective communication is to build understanding and trust as a basis.

Keeping the project on track

Keeping the project on track means controlling and steering the project towards its goals as well as ensuring that the goals are continuously challenged, and, if necessary, adapted as the project progresses. This also includes controlling the consumption of resources in a way that the contractually promised results can be reached within the given resources and deadlines.

Managing resources

The three main resources to be managed in the project are human resources, i.e. the individual participants in the project and their contractually allocated work effort, financial resources, and time resources, i.e. the labour time and the absolute time available to achieve the objectives of the project. The challenge for the managers is to know at any given time in the project, where the project stands in terms of consumed resources, i.e. how much the real consumption deviates from the planned consumption of resources. Based on this permanent controlling, the managers need to be able to detect significant deviations in the resource consumption and initiate corrective action.

Handling programme-specific administrative requirements

Depending on the funding programme, there are specific administrative requirements for the project management, reporting and controlling. The European Commission has considerable administrative requirements towards their projects, particularly in regard to reporting and auditing. Getting the necessary information together fast enough and putting them into a concise report can be a real challenge for a coordinator of such a project. The figure below shows the FP7 reporting requirements in a simplified way. Eurescom has developed a rich set of tools, brand name: EuresTools, which help significantly in coping with these challenges.

Simplified view of reporting in FP7 projects
Simplified view of reporting in FP7 projects

The management requirements for Celtic-Plus projects are more light-weight, and a success rate of 70 % of the submitted project proposals has been achieved in the past years. Its funding scheme however has a particular challenge due to the independence of the funding decisions and the individual negotiations with the Public Authorities (PA) in the participating countries, and due to the fact that there are some European Countries that do not fund Celtic Projects at all. In the Set-up-Phase of such projects it is important that the project management monitors closely the progress of all national funding negotiations and interacts with the national sub-consortia, with the Celtic Office and if needed with the relevant PAs. If this phase is properly managed the project can kick-off sometimes within 6 months and can then take its benefits from the light-weight Celtic-Plus management procedures.

Managing risks

Anticipating and dealing with risks can be regarded as a special form of change management. In this case, the anticipated change is by definition negative, and the challenge is to deal with risks without allowing them put the project work off track. A number of typical risks can be anticipated, but if and when they materialise is mostly unknown. So the challenge is twofold: first, to have an early-warning system that identifies risks as early as possible, so that if and when they materialise you have time to take the necessary counter-actions; and second, to have contingency plans in place for major risks in order to respond swiftly and effectively, once a risk has materialised.

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Peter Stollenmayer

Coming originally from Deutsche Telekom, Peter Stollenmayer has managed ICT projects for more than 20 years at Eurescom, mostly as coordinator of FP6 and FP7 projects. Currently he coordinates the FP7 multimedia project Vconect.
stollenmayer@eurescom.eu

Milon Gupta

Milon Gupta is marketing manager at Eurescom and has 14 years of European project management experience. He is currently the dissemination manager of the 500 million-euro Future Internet PPP programme and coordinator of the EU-funded research project CI-FIRE.
gupta@eurescom.eu

Peter Herrmann

Coming originally from Alcatel Optical Fibre Division (France), Peter Herrmann has since 10 years been in charge of the Celtic-Plus Programme Coordination. During this time about 100 Celtic projects with an overall budget of about 800 M€ have been realized.
herrmann@celticplus.eu