We develop society through projects, which is why we must develop projects

The Nordic public sector is increasingly being developed through project-driven innovations. But it is easy for projects to become isolated phenomena and for the new ideas and advances generated in them to go unrealised. How can public organisations innovate better, and how can the knowledge developed in projects be utilised and spread more effectively? A Nordic project led by the Swedish School of Social Science (Soc&kom) has explored project-driven innovation in public organisations.

The Inno-Nord project, established at the beginning of 2017, is concluding with the publication (Nordic Academic Press) of an anthology titled Innovation och projektifiering – att styra och leda handlingskapacitet i moderna offentliga organisationer (‘Innovation and projectisation – Guiding and leading capacities in modern public organisations’). Professor Stefan Sjöblom and University Lecturer Sebastian Godenhjelm of the Swedish School of Social Science have together with Senior Lecturer Christian Jensen of the University of Gothenburg carried the major responsibility for leading this research project. Working alongside them, University Lecturer Beata Segercrantz of Soc&kom and doctoral student Isak Vento of the Faculty of Social Sciences have also contributed to the project together with researchers from several Swedish, Norwegian and Danish universities.

Projectisation, or the increasing trend of framing work as projects or other temporary activities, has become prevalent in all sectors, including the public sector. This change can be attributed to the realisation that the public sector alone cannot handle today’s difficult and complicated problems, and projects are a natural way of bringing parties together across organisational boundaries. The difficult part is getting organisations to cooperate successfully despite their different cultures, different ways of working and different decision-making processes.

“In really big projects, technical knowledge about leading projects is not enough. Intercultural skills are also required,” Sebastian Godenhjelm says.

It is therefore a matter of understanding the traditions, values and interests of other organisations. But clashes are common, not just in meetings between the private and public sectors, but also when different public authorities cooperate with each other.

What adds to the difficulty is that many projects involve parties at several levels – the EU level, the government level, the regional level and the local level – as well as the sheer number of programmes and projects.

“Many people used to sing the praises of the project approach. But a project fatigue of sorts has now set in due to the number and diversity of projects.

“Individual government employees are often responsible for numerous projects. For instance, I once interviewed a government employee who was personally responsible for 60 projects. In that kind of situation, it is undoubtedly challenging to engage in a genuine dialogue with each individual project and connect them to comprehensive strategies.”

Pros and cons of isolation

A major advantage of the project approach is that complicated problems can be deconstructed into smaller parts, which makes it easier to tackle them and develop tangible solutions. 

A project has clearly defined start and end dates. A project has a budget and a framework. A project has a specific goal which the participants aim to achieve. And it is, of course, a good thing for regular operations if individual problems are ‘outsourced’ to project groups, thus reducing the overall workload.

In addition, it is often relatively easy to obtain project funding, and for example the EU, a significant funder, often requires that development efforts take place in a project framework.

The drawback of the project-driven approach is that projects often become isolated from other operations. It is easier to work effectively if you only need to focus on your own project goals, without having to take other projects or operations into account. But if a project is carried out according to its own targets and logic, the lessons learned may easily be ignored and end up never being implemented.

“This is why it is important to focus on the long-term effects of each project rather than just focusing on the project goals,” Godenhjelm points out.

It is often easier to establish new projects than make good use of the experiences gained from recently concluded projects. The implementation of results is usually not part of the project description. Instead, the permanent organisation often has to address that challenge, which, in turn, requires sufficient resources.

The researchers recommend that the context of projects should be taken into account. It pays off to invest time, skills and attention in transferring the knowledge achieved through projects to regular operations and to ensure that the results are implemented.

The researchers also recommend that the time perspective be expanded.

“You have to look both backward and forward. On the one hand, previous experiences should be used more effectively, and on the other, more effort should be devoted to analysing the potential consequences of projects, both the positives and the negatives.

“You also have remember that both temporal and contextual factors influence strategic choices. In other words, it’s not just about how projects are led, but also about how the authorities at different levels function in various roles and in cooperation with each other.”

Bringing the private and public sectors together

Innovations often emerge when parties from different backgrounds come together and create new ways of thinking. To some extent, cooperation between the public, private and third sectors is required for the renewal of the public sector, and the project approach enables organisations of different types to cooperate. But it is not easy.

“Cooperation is always somewhat challenging. Companies aim to make a profit, while the public sector is much more complicated because it incorporates the civil and social perspective on utility, which is not always the same thing as making a profit or achieving savings,” Godenhjelm notes.

“But it doesn’t mean the two can’t cooperate. Cooperation is a necessity in today’s society, and today’s public sector needs partners to succeed.”

With regard to innovations produced in the public sector, various indicators show that the Nordic countries are global leaders. One of the characteristics that sets the Nordic countries apart is our powerful institutions and their significance for the innovation environment. This also provides major benefits for the private sector.

“Many people perhaps think that the government hinders innovation. But Nordic institutions actually seem to contribute to the generation of innovations.”

At the same time, a critical attitude to the concept of innovation is required, bearing in mind that the concept has been developed with a competitive market in mind. Consequently, the concept is not always suitable for the context of the Nordic public sector. The concept is to some extent also used rhetorically. For example, activities that are actually about cost cutting, the updating of data systems or regular development are termed innovation projects. In reality, many innovation projects are not especially groundbreaking in nature.

“When we have looked at the type of projects that receive funding in Finland, we have noticed that they are usually about the improvement of work-related processes. Innovation projects are much more commonplace than many people imagine, and they could just as well be grouped under ‘improvement of a work-related process’.”

Upward trend in Nordic cooperation

The project included researchers from four Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. In addition to the researchers, non-academic professionals also contributed, which in practice was carried out by senior government employees working for Nordic innovation authorities. Their role was to, for example, serve as a critical sounding board, helping the researchers to try out their hypotheses.

Although the project aimed to provide tools for improving innovation in public-sector environments, the purpose was never to give definitive answers on what should be done. Taking into account how complicated and extensive the issue is, Godenhjelm thinks that any such answers would have been practically impossible and almost arrogant. He remembers the advice the researchers received from Hanne Harmsen, vice director of Innovation Fund Denmark.

“She said: ‘Remember that we are not dumb. We don’t want cookbook recipes telling us exactly what to do, because we know it requires more than that. We are looking for thought-provoking ideas to have at the back of our minds when thinking about innovations and projectisation.’”

The project has led to the establishment of a new Nordic network that includes representatives of both the academic and wider communities. This means the project is one of several recent examples of an upward trend in Nordic cooperation.

In political terms, the new Finnish government has highlighted the Nordic dimension, not just in the government programme, but also by appointing a minister with responsibility for Nordic cooperation. Godenhjelm sees this as a very important signal.

“When Finland joined the EU, it felt as if we wanted to focus on the EU as a whole and retreat from Nordic cooperation. But the EU and the Nordic countries are not mutually exclusive, and it seems we have now again realised the value of Nordic cooperation.

“I personally believe that we could do much more to exchange information across Nordic borders and use each other’s knowledge so that we don’t keep reinventing the wheel. We could cooperate a lot more, for instance, in the drafting of legislation. It doesn’t mean that everything should be streamlined – we can still retain our special national characteristics.”


About Inno-Nord

The Inno-Nord project was established on 1 January 2017 and concluded at the end of 2018. The interdisciplinary research project was funded by the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NOS-HS). The project included researchers from the Swedish School of Social Science, the Hanken School of Economics, the University of Gothenburg, the Jönköping International Business School, Uppsala University, Malmö University, the University of South-Eastern Norway and Roskilde University.  The project also involved close cooperation with key Nordic innovation authorities as well as Business Finland, Innovation Fund Denmark, Vinnova (the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems) and the Research Council of Norway.