Academic Outreach

Eva Marie Gacasan, PhD student at Macquarie University
Interviewed by Dr. Louis Taborda, Director Academic Outreach

PMI members are invited to participate in this valuable research. Each participant will receive AU$25 remuneration for their time from Macquarie University.

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Eva Marie Gacasan

Can you describe your research in a few words?

My PhD research examines the role of psychosocial skills, particularly sensemaking, in the context of disaster recovery project management. My supervisor is Prof. Mark Wiggins.

Why is this research important? Who can benefit?

Both in research and in practice, the assessment and management of disaster situations, and the training provided in aid/humanitarian community, focus on the technical skills of the members. There has been an increasing awareness on the need to progress beyond the technical skills to include the non-technical skills that become more highly valued and utilized as situations become more critical and complex. The disaster management and project management are fields that have been quite distant from each other. There is little reference of project management in disaster management literature, and while the project management field has acknowledged its role in disaster management, it has less empirical – based perspectives to offer to the disaster management field. Both areas are similar in their call for more scientific investigations particularly on the topic of the non-technical dimensions involved in disaster recovery project management.

As disaster practitioners increasingly respond to disaster events, there is the growing interest not only on the victims but also on the responders in their preparedness and competencies to handle the demands of the project operations. This research, therefore, addresses this gap in both literature and practice.

Prof. Mark Wiggins

Why study disaster situations?

While different project environments are similar in characteristics such as the presence of complexity, uncertainty, risks and chaos, disaster recovery project environments are emerging as a distinct area of interest due to its unique identity. Unlike other projects, the project actors within a disaster project environment tend to be less or continually organized, thereby making the stakeholder management a major challenge. The interruptions in the economy, market, and governance (at the local and/or national level/s) also create great challenges in time and resources that add to the project risks of successfully and efficiently addressing the project goals such as the stabilization/ alleviation of the victims’ lives and livelihood, the rebuilding of community, and/or the development of community resilience for future disasters. As intimated earlier, there is relevance in conducting an investigation within this research context to contribute to the knowledge base in terms of the best practices and methodologies that could enhance project management in this area.

What and why sensemaking?

It is a non-technical skill that has not been empirically investigated in the disaster recovery project management but has important implications as sensemaking is the basic cognitive strategy that enables sound and timely decision-making and interventions. It is crucial in this context as the challenge often encountered by the disaster practitioners are the lack of coordination, integration, and communication that impacts timely and appropriate delivery of project targets. There is also a lack of understanding of the factors that affect it. Therefore, the aim of this research is to investigate the sensemaking skill based on its basic process, and based on the individual characteristics that could potentially influence it such as emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility, and cultural perspective. Further, this research examines its relationship to project complexity and project success.

What does your research involve?

Our study investigates how project practitioners engage in sensemaking when presented with simulated disaster-related project management scenarios. We compared differences in sensemaking through its basic process that is the utilisation of project-related cues, amongst disaster project managers with greater and lesser levels of crisis recovery experience, and amongst project managers with broader levels of project management experience. By examining the role of cues in sensemaking within and between groups, the importance and developmental trajectory of sensemaking skills (from beginners to the most experienced) could be inferred.

Using a quasi-experimental approach incorporating different levels of task complexity, participants responded to a series of scenarios that related to the post-Typhoon Haiyan core shelter recovery project implemented in the Philippines within the Red Cross movement. The scenarios were presented on-line as a series of tasks incorporated within EXPERTise 2.0. EXPERTise 2.0 is a software package that establishes levels of cue utilization using four sensemaking tasks: cue identification, problem diagnosis, information acquisition, and background knowledge.

What value does your research offer the PM profession?

My research offers both conceptual and practical value to the PM profession. As aforementioned, the nontechnical concept such as sensemaking, and its relationships to project complexity, project success, individual differences, have not been empirically investigated in the literature. Conceptually, this research therefore contributes to the expansion of the perspectives regarding project management approaches.

The practical value of my research is in developing a tool that objectively measures the sensemaking skill. Also this research provides scientific evidences that can support the design of training systems for disaster recovery project practitioners. Training programs may incorporate skill-based trainings through simulation exercises that emphasize both the technical and the non-technical aspects of project management.

Why should practitioners care about your research?

Practitioners from diverse project backgrounds can benefit from this research as the topic of investigation is a generic competency that is applied in project management. While there has been certifications for project management competency, there is still the continuing discourse of the competencies that need to be brought into practice as the existing measure or standard of project management competencies are criticized to be very limited. To be effective in the role as project manager, one’s toolkit must therefore be enlarged to be able to address wide-ranging concerns consisting of technical and soft issues.

How could practitioners assist with your research?

They can assist by taking part of our study, particularly participating in our online program that they can complete online at their convenience – see detail provided above. General project practitioners, or practitioners from diverse project fields can participate as we are including in our investigation the differences in the sensemaking performance among the different cohorts. The data sourced from them provides the empirical evidences that we would provide back to the disaster recovery community, in particular, and to the PM community, in general.

PMI Sydney would like to wish Eva every success in her research and hope she can provide us with an update on her results when they become available.
Dr. Louis Taborda, Director Academic Outreach (February 2016)


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