Project Management for a Digitisation Project
This paper takes a look at the role and responsibilities of the digitisation project manager. It addresses common managerial challenges such balancing the expectations of stakeholders and ensuring the of quality of output. It is intended to be of use to the management team of time limited digitisation projects or to resource management staff planning to digitise their collection.
Good project management is the key part of a success digitisation project. There are many diverse skills required within a well-managed digitisation project and the project manager will need both technical knowledge and project management skills to keep everything on track. Ultimately the project manager has overall responsibility for all aspects of the work throughout the course of the project.
A project manager will not necessarily need an in-depth knowledge and practical experience of all the project issues but for the less technically aware manager, it is advisable to have someone on the team (perhaps a technical manager) who does fully understand all the technical aspects of the project.
No two digitisation projects are the same. Each will vary in the type of materials being digitised, the timescale, budget, staff skills and project 'scope'. Some may be large collaborative ventures requiring frequent meetings of a 'steering group' and complex workflow control mechanisms; others will be small budget, independent projects, meeting the needs of a modest user group. Consequently there are no off-the-shelf solutions and what follows are recommendations that must be adapted to your own circumstances.
A project manager's responsibilities are likely to include, but not be limited to:
Defining project scope
Defining the goals, establishing the deliverables and ensuring the project undertakes all the work required but no more than that (preventing scope creep)
Establishing and managing a project steering group that can support and oversee the whole project, integrating the needs and requirements of the project and all its stakeholders
Assessing the cost of the project, applying for funding (if necessary) and once funded, keeping the project within the approved budget
Specifying, choosing and installing the project's hardware, management and storage infrastructure
Establishing and overseeing an effective and efficient workflow from digitisation to delivery
Acquiring staff, training them, and allocating them to each activity in the workflow
Ensuring that the project finishes on time. This means estimating the duration of each process in the workflow and creating a project schedule with appropriate and realistic milestones
Guaranteeing that all deliverable work is up to the benchmark established in the project specifications
Establishing clear lines of communication with all interested parties and disseminating project progress information (internally through the steering group and externally through appropriate channels)
Undertaking a 'risk assessment' to anticipate potential risks and then develop strategies for addressing them
Considering the future of the collection beyond the life of the current project (the 'exit strategy'). This might include finding additional funding or ensuring the on-going maintenance and preservation of the resource
The planning process
Project management begins at the planning stage, before the project proper has started. A survey of user needs and feasibility studies will identify the need for the project and then what it is (technically) possible to accomplish. Having quantified the project's aims as 'deliverables' and assessed the available timescale and budget, the project manager should then be able to make the decision on whether or not the project is achievable. If it is decided that the work should not or cannot begin, the project's scope must be revised.
Such planning should always be seen as a loop, where decisions may have to be revisited as more information becomes available and situations develop. With projects that are heavily dependent on changing technology it is important to develop a future proofing strategy that allows the project to grow without limiting the project's future options. Working with technology that is always developing may also lead to changing user and stakeholder expectations which will have to be taken into account.
Every stage of the project's workflow may present conflicting demands and the manager must be able to balance these. It is important to remember that a decision made in one area might well affect the others at a later stage.
You will find you need to balance the competing demands of time, cost and quality. The traditional planning tools of critical path analysis and Gantt charts may certainly help. Several software packages exist which allow you to identify which tasks can run concurrently and which are interdependent, creating network diagrams to aid your planning. If you are a new project manager, it may be useful to investigate training and qualification in project management methodologies such as PRINCE2.
The key to a successful digitisation project management is not to start until you know exactly you are intending to do, that you have what you need to do it, you understand how long it will take and believe your team are up to the task. It may also be a good idea at this stage to consult with staff from previous digitisation projects of a similar nature: it's always useful to pick up handy hints and learn from their experiences.
Once defined, you will need to ensure that your stakeholders are made clear on what the project will delivery and also what it will not delivery - the project's scope - otherwise you may find you become responsible for achieving new project goals for which you haven't the budget or time.
User needs survey
Once you have ascertained that your project is suitable and achievable you will need to carry out a 'user needs' survey. Establishing a profile of your audience's location, background, wants and learning needs will enable you to create a digital resource that is both useful and used. Some collections have found that these needs have changed over time and that the very existence of the digital collection has created new and unanticipated user groups. Keeping in touch with your audience will need to be an ongoing process.
To outsource or to digitise in-house?
In some instances, projects may only be able to house a skeletal staff and many of the activities, such as the digitisation or database design, may be outsourced.
Outsourcing work can bring some advantages but there are also risks associated it. If outsourcing, it is especially important that someone within the team understands the technical issues. You may choose to undertake the digitisation in-house because you have people with the right skills or wish to develop those skills in-house. For some, a hybrid approach, dividing the labour and combining the benefits of internal and external resources may ease the journey. More information on outsourcing can be found in the JISC Digital Media advice document To Outsource or to Digitise In-house?
After establishing what the needs of the end user and stakeholders are, you should find out if you can meet these, given the resources at hand. A thoroughly researched feasibility study will ensure you don't set off on a impossible endeavour. Your study should investigate:
- Your collection
- Its suitability for digitisation
- The conservation needs of delicate or valuable originals
- Whether the accompanying indexes and catalogues are comprehensive enough to create your metadata and to address rights issues
- Whether digitisation will benefit the collection
- The experience of, and lessons learnt by, similar projects
- The support available
- Sources and adequacy of funding
- The adequacy of the time allotted
- Skills of existing staff and the need for extra staff or training
- The need to make some digitisation trials, to ensure the technology is capable of creating the resources you expect, within the available time and budget
An important function of the feasibility study is to define project 'benchmarks' and design quality assurance measures which should be put in place to ensure that benchmarks are met. Benchmarks are clear definitions of the minimum standards acceptable for a given project. Depending upon the type of project they may include; file formats, the minimum resolution of files or compulsory metadata values. To set benchmarks you will need to have in place all of the hardware and software you are intending to use. Run a few items through the system, digitise, entering metadata and creating your delivery surrogates. When you are happy that you have an acceptable end product, save the output and record the details. Once in full production, these benchmarks can then be used in order to judge all project output.
The process of quality assurance should not be tagged-on as a last stage of your project but firmly embedded in the day-to-day workflow. For a digitisation project this means regularly checking the quality of the metadata, the files captured, the delivery surrogates and your delivery mechanism (this last one demonstrates the need for keeping in contact with your end users). Every digital resource should be checked and signed off by the responsible team member, creating an audit trail as a means to track faults. You can avoid further problems if you are able to identify what equipment was used and which team member created a file or entered metadata. However, be sure to encourage a blame-free environment, where the team share a desire to create a quality resource, perhaps with incentives for spotting problems early on. See JISC Digital Media's Quality Assurance report for more information.
Now that you know what you are trying to do, that it is achievable and who is going to do it, you need to create a detailed map in the form of a project specification document. In this, you will need to establish the order of project activities including, but not limited to:
- Selection for digitisation
- Clearing copyright
- Indexing and metadata
- Conservation of originals
- Transit of items to be digitised
- Digital processing or re-mastering
- Quality assurance procedures for all digital files and metadata
- Digital storage and back-up
- Creating a delivery mechanism
- Preservation of collection once the project ends
To create this workflow you will need to break your goals into tasks, and each task into its constituent activities. It will make life easier if you carry out as part of your feasibility activities a ‘time-and-motion’ study. This will help you identify bottlenecks, staff work rates and specific skills gaps you may have missed. It will also allow you to discover minor tasks you may have overlooked and then time them. You may learn that there are ways to improve the workflow, for instance planning to do your entire batch file processing at a certain time of day. You may also wish to create specific task designs that allows technical staff to vary their tasks during the working day. This will maintain their interest in and productivity for the project.
A risk assessment will allow the project staff to pre-plan strategies for coping, should an evaluated risk actually happen. A table should be drawn up detailing the risk, the potential for failure (e.g. high, intermediate, low) together with the name of the person or project partner who takes responsibility for it. This table will be a key piece of project documentation and should be revisited, updated and discussed as a team, especially when there are changes within the project e.g. staff leaving or joining. For more information see Risk Assessment
At this point you should create a detailed workflow manual for all team members and any sub-contractors. These manuals will contain clear instructions that will help staff in their responsibilities, will ease the introduction of new staff, and act as a basis for your quality control. It is likely you will find that you need to amend and update these manuals throughout your project to take account of lessons learned through experience.
You should define at which points during the project you will pause and measure your progress, review and measure your achievements and update your project specifications. Successful projects have regular and open communication between team members, managers and if you have one, a steering group in order to discuss progress, problems and potential solutions. Whilst "all team members must share the same vision" may seem a trite cliché, a plan that is collectively owned should improve the quality of your project's deliverables and you have more chance of delivering all of your project aims.
Sometimes, even with careful project management, the project's progress can slip, for example if digitisation is not being carried out as quickly as planned, or the quality assurance of the digital resources highlights serious problems which mean that some work need to be re-done. Under these circumstances the project plan and schedule will need to be adjusted, preferably with reference to the project's steering group. Any changes made will need to be clearly explained and documented for future reference.
Working with others within an institution and from outside, the project manager must also prepare an exit strategy for the conclusion of the project. Is there potential funding to add value to the collection? Perhaps your host institution would like to hold onto the skills and facilities the project created by making it an ongoing service? If not, what provisions have been made to maintain the resources you've created? Perhaps they can be deposited with other complementary collections. How will your collection be promoted? Some digitisation projects tell of how they have publicised their project around the country, but have forgotten to promote it within their own host institution.
At the end of the project, you should also make time to evaluate and reflect upon your journey against the project specifications and benchmarks, and to share the story with others (see JISC Digital Media paper on Learning Lessons from Other Digitisation Projects).
A project manager not only creates bits of paper, she is also a team worker, an advocate, a negotiator, an effective communicator, and a leader. She needs to motivate and coach her team members, fight the project's corner with funders and managers, and work closely with others in order to promote her project.
You may also be interested in our sister service JISC InfoNet's Project Management infoKit.