by Anne-Marie Cotton
Arteveldehogeschool, Belgium

One of the main motivations the founding fathers of EUPRERA shared back in 2000 when they launched the association was to facilitate networking activities amongst academics and practitioners in our field, allowing the building of a European Body of Knowledge in Public Relations.

The past two decades show their aim has been fulfilled. EUPRERA members identify their peers and fruitful projects are developed under the association’s umbrella.

Being one of the “Euprera Project Leader” I have been confronted both to the noble goal of knowledge creation and the labyrinth of EU-project management. Another common experience amongst EUPRERA members… I want to share the approach the MARPE Network* developed when it comes to reflect on how an EU-project must be evaluated. A recurrent element in each EU-project. The aim is enlightening the implicit professionalisation of academics related to the management of EU-project.

When we – the MARPE partners- defined the theme of our 2019-2021 Erasmus+ application “Developing a European Higher Education curriculum in public, corporate and civic diplomacy”, we determined a well-structured “issue management plan” as a result of an in-depth risk analysis. Our monitoring included 8 area where risks could occur: administration, management, project, legal and finances, techniques and developments, human resources, scientific data, scientific. For each, we identified potential threats and remedies.

After 18 months it is time for a first introspective reflection: did we identified the right issues and were we able to address them the way we planned?

Risk area 1: Administration
Coordinating a multitude of tasks due to the nature and the number of participants

  • Organisation and distribution of work packages and definition of the respective tasks of each partner
  • Administrative support provided in each establishment and with the bearer.

We identified “Administration” as the conditio sine qua non to be able to start the project. Experience learn this to be a basic condition to be fulfilled and to be carefully discussed before starting any negotiations between partners. As the MARPE partners know each other sometimes since more than 25 years, discussions were easy to overcome. And as French use to say: “les bons comptes font les bons amis ».

Risk area 2: Management
Acknowledging the dimension of “time” in academic environments when it comes to discuss agreements and schedule signatures, to follow-up of retro planning in combination with academic paths, a critical path.
Acknowledging the dimension of “space” with a MARPE Network multi-site management, with geographical dispersion of project holder versus project managers

  • Precise and shared process.
    • Students: responsibility by country of convention of each partner.
    • Identification of and responsible project leader. Direct meeting with partners.
  • Collaborative tools online and implemented as soon as the project is shared.
  • Supportive co-worker and strong administrative support.
  • Project tracking tool.

A shared characteristic of EU-projects is their “time” and “space” dimensions. Partners must adapt their working habits and adopt different collaborative perspectives. This sometimes leads to disruptive ways of thinking and acting. Embracing EU-projects is also applying the agile approach present in each organisation dealing with change management. It is therefor crucial to define a project tracking tool supporting the project development especially when you are dealing with different publics as we do (academics, students, practitioners and associations/organisations).

Risk area 3: Project
Mobilizing several participants (students, associates, partners), anticipating stakeholder agreement over time, as well as availability of participants, and managing interactions or unforeseen events, developing a project website, planning work and production in English.

In the project several partners have experience of project management and monitoring and use of an ASANA project management tool. The project pilots are relayed in each country to animate and follow.

  • Convention: each partner has provided a substitute relay that participates in the work.
  • Agreement, commitment, follow-up of timesheets by the project manager to frame.
  • Project manager, project planning and management tools, stakeholder engagement.
  • The site is already identified, the skills available.
  • Mastery of English by consortium members, use of subtitling when needed on online courses.

Based on our previous EU-experiences, we knew what it takes to organise the appropriate environment optimising the implementation of project management. This third risk follows directly the second as it deals with the publics we are bringing together. We experienced that agreeing on engagement specifications is compulsory to secure the project over its entire active period.

Risk area 4: Legal & finances
Drawing budget drift and budget control, monitoring expenditure, defining intellectual property of results and products.

  • Shared internal control process at each partner and annual monitoring audit.
  • Content licensed creative commons, conventional and clear project on the subject including for participating students.
  • Specific convention.

In our field, we are particularly sensitive to legal issues dealing with copyrights and the GDPR, the EU data protection law. Aiming the co-creation of intellectual products and the organisation of an academic conference in April 2021, we definitively paid attention to reflect on different issues and potential developments. EU-projects aim open-source outcomes: a perspective that is not always shared with some institutional goals. It is important to evaluate the entire process with your internal publics when writing the proposal.

Risk area 5: Technical & development
Determining the availability of online courses to a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), a “owned” online platform to co-build this body of knowledge (state of the art, case study, practical sharing, reflexive articles).

  • Use open platform of the University; skills and tools available in the group: solid.
  • Competence and resource (remote space, online site)
  • Requirement for shared access control between multiple partners.

Starting an EU-project with new partners equals the start of any relationship: you will have to discover the other. To avoid basic misunderstanding, it is imperative to have strong insights in technological understanding, competences and resources. Once the project starts, there is little time to organise extra training to acquire new skills amongst project partners. Be prepared and be sure you have a plan B. We implemented plan B this academic year, planning option A for next one.

Risk area 6: Human resources
Multi-culturalism, risk of conflicts (students and/or teachers …) during the annual intensive programs.

  • Students: sequence of information on the interculturality (in their countries of origin) and at the beginning of the intensive program.
  • Teachers: experience of the subject; experts act as mediator.

When it comes to the core of our educational duty, most of us already have some multi-cultural experience via Erasmus exchanges. However, as our Erasmus+ project includes an Intensive study programme, we enhanced this dimension based on previous Intensive Programmes’ evaluation.

Risk area 7: Scientific data
Defining the availability of external and internal scientific data, the quality of scientific data, but also securing, storing and saving scientific data.

  • Access to the corpus by European institutions, Quality of networks of professional partners in and around the project
  • Qualification of the researchers who are members of the project and co-construction of the methodologies, Quality of methodological support for students

Using secured University data storage facilities with rules in force to store, save and access, Systematic filing procedure and commitment of partners

Organising an EU-project requires being able to rely on both external and internal sources. Project management starts beyond its launch: we led a substantial analysis allowing us to identify potential external alliances enabling and reinforcing the co-creative approach of our project.

Risk area 8: Scientific
Major disciplinary diversity and schools of thought, new field of knowledge, dissemination and appropriation of results (swarming).

  • Space for consultation, co-construction of the team on pedagogical and research aspects (steering committee).
  • Shared terminology, and ongoing work on the meaning of concept, notions, Steering Committee.
  • Connection with European companies; Participation in annual conferences of learned societies.

Last but not least, there are great risks of misunderstandings, if boundaries are not correctly established at the start. Even if formal instruments are set to use it, for instance via the steering committee, these risks should be the subject of a particular and continual attention by the project leader. Therefor we added this last area to our risk analysis.

Our learning, as a team, is that it definitively requires professional skills and competences to design an EU-project. Some universities have dedicated profiles, others don’t. We were able to be endorsed from time to time and want to thank our colleagues from the internationalisation departments for their dedicated support and precious advice. However, theirs could obviously not reflect on the relevance of the content. Our 8 risk areas derived from another best practice including different ones but inspiring us to pro-actively -and professionally- prepare our first draft back in 2018.

To conclude: these risk areas are not exhaustive and are not compulsory. Each project has its own specificities and must be addressed in its way. However, from a reflective perspective, it can always be relevant to gain insights from peers’ experiences.

*The MARPE Network is composed of (in alphabetical order): Anca Anton (University of Bucharest), Anne-Marie Cotton (Artevelde University of Applied Sciences, Ghent), Hélène Boulanger (Université de Lorraine), Pepe Martinez (Universidad Cardenal Herrera, Valencia) and Susana Carvalho (Universidade de Lisboa).