Continuity in Project-Based Organizations: Networks, Artifacts, and Roles



Following the widespread diffusion of projects in a variety of business sectors beyond those in which they have been traditionally employed, research on project-based organizations (PBOs) has flourished (Hobday, 2000).  Empirical studies focused on sector-specific implementations of PBOs to single out and analyzed their underlying characteristics.  For instance, whereas DeFillippi and Arthur (1998) studied the structural features of organizations involved in the film making industry, Davies and Brady (2000) analyzed the capability development process of PBOs producing complex products and systems.

Project’s features – e.g. heterogeneity, long-life cycles, and temporary nature – led researchers to elect discontinuity as the major feature of PBOs.  Empirical and theoretical literature on PBOs argued that – contra functionally based organizations where departments act as knowledge silos instrumental to sustain organizational learning – the temporary nature of projects makes it difficult to encode learning in stable, organization-specific processes (Hobday, 2000).  Pure PBOs lack mechanisms to capitalize on knowledge acquired in one project.  In fact, whereas the stable division of labor and functional specialization entailed by traditional organizational structures enable boundedly rational individuals to perform tasks as it provides decision premises (March, 1958; Simon, 1947), the temporary organizational structure of PBOs hampers economies of learning, hinders organization-wide learning, and therefore impedes routinization of activities (Gann and Salter, 2000).


Projects’ heterogeneity magnifies the discontinuous nature of PBOs.  If projects exhibit one-off characteristics, PBOs confront the difficult task of “learning from samples of one or fewer” (March et al, 1991).  Projects may be characterized by relatively long life cycles, requiring that similar project activities might need to be retrieved and executed after long time intervals.  In addition, projects are characterized by temporary constellations of people.  Hence, new human encounters take place and new relationships develop when a new project is started, which may increase barriers to learning from previous experience (DeFillippi and Arthur, 1998; Tell and Söderlund, 2001).


More recently, empirical studies started enquiring and exploring continuity in PBOs and highlighted the importance of reparation mechanisms whereby PBOs compensate for the difficulties linked with the discontinuous nature of project activities.  Discontinuity seems to be more apparent in terms of learning processes: PBOs’ are inherently unable to capitalize on project learning and therefore to implement solutions developed in one project across the entire organizations (Brady and Davies, 2000).  Research illustrated that PBOs engaged in the production of technically complex products and operating in a cumulative learning regime (Grabher, 2004) do develop repeatable solutions (e.g., Davies and Brady, 2000; Hargadon and Sutton, 1997).  Stable organizational processes are utilized to store learning – and therefore create memory – even in situations where projects are carried out by coalitions of firms led by an identifiable organization (Prencipe and Tell, 2001).


No research work, however, has so far attempted to shed light on how learning and routinization of activities is sustained in the face of the PBOs’ discontinuity.  Surely, there is considerable heterogeneity in the extent and mode in which continuity is achieved across firms and sectors.  The mechanisms that support routinized behavior in PBOs must differ from those employed by “organizations who are engaged in the provision of goods and services that are visibly “the same” over extended periods” (Nelson and Winter, 1982, p.97).  We therefore lack a clear understanding of what the sources of continuity in PBOs are, how they operate, what their interactions are, whether they vary across different types of PBOs, and how they support routines that tend to remain stable across projects.


Relying on existing empirical research, this paper sets forth to begin to address this research gap by identifying two sources of continuity, which may be defined as structural in the sense of being at the basis of “recurrent patterns of social interaction that, over time, become institutionalized as durable forms of social relations that constrain subsequent phases of collective action” (Reed, 2003, p. 294).  First,  we look at social networks that have been shown to play an important role in the location and retrieval of expertise in project contexts acting as learning conduits (DeFillippi and Arthur, 1998; Grabher, 2002; Hargadon and Sutton, 1997).  Second, we focus on  artifacts serving the functions of memory repositories.  Firms involved in the production of complex product and services have different profiles in terms of their relative reliance on informal and formal (i.e., IT-based) tools for organizational remembering (Prencipe and Tell, 2001).  In PBOs, artifacts that maintain a memory of the product also work as boundary objects across different projects and enable some degree of continuity in the organizational processes of subsequent projects (Cacciatori, 2008).


Based on an ongoing case study of the Italian Civil Protection, we illustrate that artifacts vis-à-vis network formation play an important part in the preservation and adaptation of PBOs’ processes across projects executions.  System of artifacts that evolves with the network constitute the social fabric that enables continuity based on ‘remembering by doing’ in project environments.  Both network processes and the artifacts that support them are dependent on role structure.  Network, artifacts, and roles, therefore, constitute the antecedents of routinized behavior in project environments.

Contact information: J.C.M. van den Ende