Project Management For The Digital Humanities

Natalia Ermolaev (, Princeton University, United States of America and Rebecca Munson (, Princeton University, United States of America and Xinyi Li (, Princeton University, United States of America and Lynne Siemens (, University of Victoria, Canada and Ray Siemens (, University of Victoria, Canada and Micki Kaufman (, The City University New York, United States of America and Jason Boyd (, Ryerson University, Canada

Many projects taken on by humanists — whether large scale with many team members and substantial budgets, or smaller, such as editing books and journals — require management. Regardless of size, scope, and budget, projects members must coordinate tasks, responsibilities, budgets and achieve objectives (Boyd and Siemens 2014; Siemens 2009).  Project management (PM) with its accompanying methods, tools and techniques provides one way to accomplish this. PM can help manage common issues related to risks, obstacles and tasks which might be unanticipated, team member turnover, timelines, scope creep, and budget overspending (Siemens 2016). To facilitate skill development in this area, there are training opportunities within Digital Humanities courses (Bailar and Spiro 2013), stand alone courses (University of Alberta 2015), training programs (Scholars’ Lab 2011), workshops (DHSI 2015; HILT 2015; The European Summer University in Digital Humanities 2015) and, finally, supporting websites (Appleford and Guiliano 2013).

While it has proven extremely useful to apply PM methods and tools to DH work, this panel examines the reverse: how do the principles, methods, and concerns of DH inform our PM methods and techniques?  How do we adapt PM frameworks to address issues specific to DH projects – such as complex scholarly research agendas, or interest in topics such as community engagement, design thinking, open source development, activism, etc.? This panel is concerned with what it means to incorporate project management into a DH project, looking particularly from the perspective of individuals who shape and implement these methods and tools. While scholars have reflected on aspects such as teamwork and collaboration (Siemens and INKE Research Group 2015; 2016; Ruecker and Radzikowska 2007) and project process and outcomes (Causer, Tonra and Wallace 2012; Simeone
et al. 2011; National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities 2010; Guiliano 2012), surprisingly little attention has been paid to how DH transforms project management implementation.

This panel seeks to address this gap with papers that demonstrate various project management methodologies specifically for the DH context. Panelists will discuss: how design can be integrated into the project management process, how PM can support the creation of a distributed and emergent open source development model, how PM can facilitate rigorous and satisfying interpersonal scholarly exchange, and how PM has been used to manage a multi-year, large scale DH project with over 35 partners.  The panel’s goal is to showcase solutions to issues that arise in DH work, and to see if we can derive a set of general principles or processes inherent in project management for the digital humanities.

Project Management and INKE

The Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) is a large-scale, long-term interdisciplinary research project that has been researching the future of books, e-books and reading.  To coordinate tasks, budget and a research team with over 35 members, research assistants, postdoctoral fellows, and partner organizations, the collaboration used a combination of project management tools.  In particular, INKE incorporated governance documents and a yearly planning cycle with associated research plans.

INKE’s governance documents were designed to guide the collaboration and support accountability by providing a foundation of common understandings.  At the start of funded research activity, the administrative team jointly developed these and laid out the working relationship between researchers, the sub-research areas, the administrative team, partners, and the executive committee, and outlined an authorship convention, intellectual property clause, and decision-making and dispute resolution processes, among other things.  An important part of these documents was a researcher agreement that all team members signed before receiving research funds. To further accountability, a copy of the governance documents were also posted on the online project planning workspaces as well as published and updated as necessary. These documents also proved useful for incorporating new team members and sustaining the working relationships.  As a sign of their strength, these have served as models for other team projects (Nowviskie 2011; The Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab 2011; nd).

Another important project management tool was the annual project plans where each sub-research area needed to develop to receive research funds.  These outlined research tasks, outcomes, responsibilities and accountabilities, timelines and required resources. With approval of these documents, funds were then distributed to the sub-research areas and their research started for the year.  To ensure accountability, the team reported at multiple points of the year and compared actual activities against those planned. The administrative team realized that this was not something to which they were accustomed and required skills that are not typically developed in graduate school and were often the equivalent to writing an article in terms of intellectual effort.  Having said that, the administrative team realized that this planning process provided an important foundation to create cohesion, and underpin the project’s working culture and serve to ensure that research was still completed even when researchers were busy with other responsibilities. Finally, given the pace of technological change, the yearly planning cycle made it easier to plan tasks that could be accomplished within a shorter timeframe while still addressing the overall research question which had a seven year mandate.

Overall, INKE has been a successful research endeavor as measured in terms of conference presentations, articles, and prototypes.  This project management framework contributed to that success.

Design for Digital Humanities Project Management

The project management workflow at the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton (CDH) changed significantly when we hired a User Experience Designer in 2016. Though the CDH had only been developing DH projects for two years, we had established a robust project management process in consultation with our institution’s OIT Project Management Office, and with insights from literature and models from PM resources within the DH community (
Siemens, 2016; Leon, 2011). But a designer’s input helped surface aspects of the process that are crucial for DH work, and our revised workflows have enriched both research outcomes and product deliverables.

In this talk we will discuss why and how design can be integrated into the DH project management process.  Visualization and design are becoming increasingly important in DH projects, and major points of intersection between design and DH have emerged. And we feel that DH project management would benefit from more engagement with the perspectives of theorists and practitioners in the design disciplines (Blauvelt 2008; Maurer et al, 2008). Design can play a key role in the “thinking-through-practice” (Burdick et al, 2012) ethos of DH work, and can contribute to the research process by shaping communication and argumentation. The addition of a “designerly way of knowing” (Archer, 1979) into the DH project management process can enhance research approaches by fostering productive synthesis in teams with diverse expertise and content knowledge.  When design thinking and tools are integrated into the co-creation of research, tool- and resource-building, new methods of inquiry emerge that deepen collaboration and enhance knowledge-making.

We will open by discussing the role of design in the current non-DH Project Management field. We will then outline our own PM methodology, and describe the interventions of design in this process: tools and strategies such as creating sitemaps, siteflows, interface wireframing, art direction, design mockup and acceptance testing.  Our presentation will be supported by examples from the major projects we have developed at our Center, which feature performative interfaces that go beyond pre-conceptualized interpretation and arguments to encourage discovery. These examples will demonstrate how design practice and ideation can inform each other in a iterative process of synthesis and refinement, and can facilitate diagrammatic thinking to help those unfamiliar with visual thinking adopt new approaches and perspectives. Importantly, we will conclude by discussing the challenges of integrating design into the project management process, and offer suggestions for how to overcome common roadblocks and misunderstandings.

DH Project Management as Scholarly Exchange

When considering the ways in which the principles, methods, and concerns of Digital Humanities (DH) can usefully inform and adapt established Project Management (PM) methods and techniques, it is helpful to observe at the outset that “management” is not a particularly valourized term in the (digital) humanities. Regarded as a (cold, profit-driven) business mechanism rather than an important aspect of scholarly practice, (digital) humanities faculty typically bristle at the idea that their research (individual or collaborative) should be subject to managerial protocols—an attitude only exacerbated by the pervasive administrative control exercised over their professional lives as a result of the  “corporatization of the university.” “Digital humanities” has even been accused (along with other transgressions against the humanities) of really being the “managerial humanities” (Allington) because DH projects can require substantial grants (usually to employ research assistants and technicians) that require strict administration and reporting, thus turning researchers into project managers (which, Allington presumes, is a bad thing).

However, in this presentation I will argue, based on my own experience as a DH scholar and project manager that project management, as it adapts to the particularities of (digital) humanities project requirements and personnel is, at its best, a collegial facilitation of rigorous and satisfying interpersonal scholarly exchange that is not available in familiar modes such as the conference presentation, the academic journal monograph review or the blind peer review process. The key practices of project management as they function in DH, I suggest, contribute to optimizing a sustained, substantive, and productive dialogue that can both “get things done” and contribute to intellectual and professional growth.

Themes of Community-Driven Project Management

The purpose of project management is to leverage and coordinate the creativity and effort of human beings in a common commitment to accomplish a shared goal. Having managed a wide range of projects in music composition, performance and production, print and film/video production, commercial software development and, most recently, open source digital humanities projects, the core skills required from a project manager remain essentially those of a skilled conductor, irrespective of medium. Nevertheless, projects in the digital humanities present their own unique challenges for effective management.

The essential challenge facing the project manager – to coordinate actions across a team’s heterogeneous backgrounds, requirements and skill sets – is foregrounded in Digital Humanities projects. Academic projects span a vast gamut of human interest, far more than commercial efforts tailored for profit, and they are evaluated not by market penetration or sales but on the value of their scholarly contribution.  Unlike many commercial projects, in an academic project context, team members often cannot readily be hired or replaced for the purposes of fulfilling the needed skill sets at hand. In addition, academic projects can often depend on only a fraction of the work hours otherwise available from each team member, causing additional barriers to effective team interactions.

Accompanying and informed by the project’s efforts to overcome challenges of staffing are matters of process. Within a digital humanities team, one often finds mismatching working hours between staff, significant differences in prior professional experience and other team issues caused by the conflicting demands of the academic context. As a result, process often evolves as a crutch or mitigation of the team’s shortcomings rather than an emergent behavior that maximize their strengths. Good DH project and project management ‘hygiene’ requires that the manager(s) and team properly apply, and effectively cultivate, a team ethic that empowers all to provide ongoing input on the team structure and dynamics, a dialogue that informs and engages the appropriate levels of process.

To accomplish success in a DH context, every project manager must compose the appropriate team according to the available talent, identify and understand the goals and requirements of the project, and coordinate the team’s activities according to the needs of a diverse user community. In my prior project management career, I have been gratified to be able to help compose and cultivate a team of talented collaborators, and to help a team process emerge from within the diverse team’s core strengths and identities. By carefully evaluating various distributed and feature-specific team models, and by taking a minimalistic approach to job- and issue-tracking, a team can often emerge its own process, grounded in the scholarly context of its genesis and eventual reception that truly speaks to the scholarly intent of the project.

Appendix A

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  25. Siemens, Lynne, and INKE Research Group. “Faster Alone, Further Together: Reflections on Inke’s Year Six.”
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