on 17 September 2013
In `Stakeholder Relationship Management', Lynda Bourne has written a book about a vital aspect of project management; too often taken for granted by practitioner literature. While global city bookshops groan with the weight of books offering risk management methods or governance models, there is a real lack of material on this so-called `soft' skill, and Dr Bourne's contribution is therefore to be welcomed.
The book sets out to do three things; initiate a discussion into why stakeholders matter, describe an approach for monitoring the effectiveness of communication with stakeholders, and develop a set of guidelines for organisations to implement the approach that she describes. Case studies for Heathrow Terminal 5 and the BP oil disaster are used to illustrate the zero cost concept of stakeholder management and position it as part of effective risk mitigation. The author intends the reader to accept her analysis without question and provides clear diagrams to back up her approach, and a recommended model along the lines of CMMI with which to assess the organisational maturity of their project.
However, the view that stakeholders need to be `managed' (as opposed to engaged) is just one of a number of assumptions that I find hard to support. Dr Bourne's rather mixed approach to Communication sometimes refers to it as a "primary tool" and sometimes as the "only tool" to facilitate this management, and yet she has a strong bias against storytelling, saying; "a senior manager will have no patience for information delivered as a story". This statement flies in the face of evidence supporting the use of narrative to convey retained messages, and is unnecessarily conservative. Her approach hinges around the identification of senior managers, and then targeting appropriate communication to the `right' stakeholders so that they continue to support the action of the project, but this approach is flawed for all but the most basic of projects. Key stakeholders change throughout the life cycle of a project, and a project role that is critical to the early stages may become redundant in the latter stages. Dr Bourne uses the adjective "important" to describe the stakeholders that the reader needs to target, but this word is clearly subjective and prone to change as issues are raised and pressure builds in different areas. Despite her encouragement of a group approach to stakeholder identification, she has already made her mind up that the "important" stakeholders are the senior managers in the host organisation; a decision that is no doubt warmly received by those in a position to support the organisation-wide implementation of her method. Another assumption made that I find troubling is her focus on `additional' communication above and beyond the traditional policies, practices and reports that she seems to take for granted will need supplementing. Is it not possible that, done properly, these traditional methods of communication should satisfy the needs of key stakeholders; allowing the project leader the opportunity to focus on engagement as opposed to the transmission of information?
The book is useful and thought provoking, but suffers from a split personality; sometimes it comes across as quasi-academic, yet at other times it is a straightforward description of process, occasionally veering into the area of sales material. I was pleased to see Dr Bourne talk about a synthesised view of project success, but disappointed to see no reference to the changeability of it. A glaring omission to me is the absence of any reference to the excellent work of Peter Checkland in the field of soft systems methodology, or to that of an ex-student of his, Mark Winter, who has written possibly the best and most useful book on project management ever written (Images of Projects, also published by Gower). Dr Winter says "the actual reality of projects and programmes is not the lifecycle process...but rather a complex social process involving multiple individuals, groups and organisations, all continually interacting within an ever-changing flux of events". Compare this to Dr Bourne's statement ("success or failure depends on the views/perceptions of stakeholders and also the passing of time"), and you will understand the debt that she owes but has not acknowledged. Even her stakeholder circle model, with its five steps of identify, prioritise, visualise, engage, and monitor, appears to paraphrase soft systems methodology; missing only the all important control device element or feedback loop which is so important.
There are other slips in her academic approach. In the T5 case study she says there "may have been some connection between the management culture of the new owner (Ferrovial), its reported cost-cutting and the quality of T5 facilities when BA began operation in March 2008." This insight is based on "informal discussions with individuals connected to the UK construction industry". She bases her approach on the five dimensions of stakeholder management identified by Stoney and Winstanley, but doesn't ever explain why she thinks this approach is valid. Later, she takes the three concepts of power, legitimacy and urgency that Mitchell, Agle and Wood identify as being valuable for identifying important stakeholders and changes the 'legitimacy' one into 'proximity' for no apparent reason. The stakeholder circle that features as the main prop for her approach to visualisation is constrained to displaying the top 15 stakeholders only; a constraint that is imposed due to "empirical observation", but never properly justified.
Most importantly, there is a lot of emphasis placed on the arrival of an index number for each stakeholder, but the process to get to this number is a bit opaque - almost as though we have to part with some more cash, in the form of purchasing services or products, before we can fully understand the methodology. Given the criticality of the index number to the whole approach, I find this lack of clarity frustrating and unfair.
All in all, the experience of reading Dr Bourne's book on stakeholder relationship management is a mixed one. While I welcome the focus on a subject that is dear to my heart, I expected more, and find the lack of academic rigour and occasional typos (unusual for Gower) a bit sloppy. The world of project management deserves a great book on stakeholder relationship management, but this isn't it.