Adm. – Grad.2013 – 
Dir.; Codir.Stéphane Gagnon

Data With Direction: Design Research and a System Specification for ‘An Internet Of Rules’

Potvin, Joseph

Context: This thesis seeks to contribute to the discipline of Project Management (PM) within the holistic framework that is “project ecology”. This “level of analysis” for theory building is defined by Austrian economic geographer Gernot Grabher as “the interface between projects and the organizations, communities, and networks in and through which projects operate” (Grabher, 2004).

Objectives: We address an often-overlooked issue in the PM literature, namely the challenges of ensuring consistency, reliability, and efficiency of rule-based decision-making throughout project value-chains. In addition to contributing to the study of rule-based PM, we also contribute an innovative technological platform, “An Internet of Rules”, and demonstrate its value for PM.

Problem: As a key factor distinguishing “organizing by projects” from routine operations, project teams are exposed to much more variability and uncertainty, and must take into account a greater variety and more frequently changing set of rules expressed in contracts, agreements, legislation, regulations, case law, advisories, directives, standards, manuals, protocols, principles, guidelines and informal conventions. Some rules must be complied with fully, some on a ‘best effort’ basis, and others are optional. Rules get updated from time to time, but on no schedule. Each organization exists within a municipal, regional, and national jurisdiction, all which issue and enforce their own rules. Various bilateral and multilateral agreements may be in force. The contracts, logistics and entities that every organization is involved with commonly from, or they span, other jurisdictions with different rules. Hence, the challenges of rule-based decision making, within PM and project ecology, can create unforeseen risk factors that may emerge through “self-organization”, as defined in the 2nd law of thermodynamics as applied in Complexity Theory.

Question: As evidence of this phenomenon abound, we focused our thesis on the next step in theory building, namely to accurately analyze where, operationally and technologically, the PM discipline may help to develop new standards to control and overcome these risk factors. Our research question is: How do project managers discover and obtain practical knowledge of all the institutional rules that are ‘in effect’ and directly ‘applicable’ to their circumstances, at any given time? 

Theory: Building upon Agency Theory, and modelling project managers as agents seeking decision empowerment within a network of agents, we propose to automate project-wide and inter-project rule-based decision making by bridging the gap between rule makers and rule takers. Focusing on the “actionable” facets of agency, namely the criteria by which rule-based decision making can be implemented, we design a method for any project manager to discover and obtain all third party rules that are in effect and applicable to their decisions and interactions. A manager may or may not be aware of certain rules but would prefer to be notified about them. And the issuers of the rules may or may not know about certain managers but prefer to have a practical way of communicating with them. It is assumed that managers would tolerate some risk of exposing limited data about their identity and context to discovers what rules are in effect and applicable to their current activity or decision. 

Methodology: In pursuit of an empirical demonstration of this theoretical model, we carried out an Action Design Research (ADR) methodology, putting forward the business rationale, conceptual foundations, operational specifications, and working software to extend the Internet in a manner that will enable any project manager to easily disseminate, discover, and obtain algorithms which implement any class of rules that are in effect and that are applicable to their particular identity and circumstances.

Contributions: This doctoral dissertation is structured as a compendium of four academic papers. 

• The first paper is theoretical, and distinguishes rules from algorithms, and explains both about Agency Theory. An algorithm is an extension of human agency, problems can arise when algorithm managers usurp agency from operations managers. The paper concludes with human-centered automation policies and principles for project management.

• The second paper positions our epistemological and methodological stance in ADR, focused on solving PM challenges with a meso-level network platform innovation. It explains the comprehensive micro-meso-macro “”project ecology”” perspective, discusses the challenges of theory building, and outlines a suitable design research methodology. It explains “”engaged scholarship”” with industry and tests for feasibility, generalization, and utility.

• The third paper explains the first empirical results, mostly an operational model of rule based PM. It relies on insights from Agency Theory and Information Theory to model practical management communication between rule-makers and rule-takers. It then presents a conceptual basis of measuring, costing and valuing information and uncertainty, and explains the approach taken in this design research to reducing the cost of rules discovery and transmission.

• The fourth paper presents the second empirical contribution, mostly technical implementation, outlining the rationale and design summary for software that implements the ideas explained in the accompanying papers.

Outcome: The implications for practice of our research are numerous. Among them, the proposed “Internet of Rules” will enable ubiquitous standards-based automation of rule-based PM decision-making. It is likely to ignite a new paradigm generating feedback effects on pre-digital PM practice.