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Eva Šviráková: Being a project manager already at university

by Mira Vlach on May 03, 2009:

Summary: In the subject called Communication agency, which is optional (in the 1st,3rd,4th and 5th year) and compulsory (in the 2nd year) students at University of Tomas Bata in Zlín (Czech republic) have the opportunity to try taking part in real projects and their management. In our interview with Eva Šviráková, who was until the end of 2008 the head of this subject, we speak about its development and popularity among the students.

Ing. Eva Šviráková, Ph.D. - osobní fotografie
Ing. Eva Šviráková, Ph.D. presently works as an authorized secretary of the Faculty of multimedial communication (FMK) at Tomas Bata University in Zlín and as a professional assistant at the Institute of marketing communications FMK. Previously she had worked here as the head of economic department rectorate TBU, a secretary of Faculty of multimedial communication (FMK), an economist of FMK and a project manageress for Communication agency at FMK.

Mira Vlach – question (MV): Hello Eva, I don't deny I like the Communication agency subject very much, since I was acquainted with its results while I took part in your conference on project management. Could you present it, in your own words, to those people who have never heard of it?
Eva Šviráková – answer (): I'll try. Since it is an interview I might use less professional terms, hopefully it won't matter. Communication agency is a subject which is not being taught. That is not being taught in classrooms and isn't scheduled. At the beginning of the school year the students obtain a list of authorized projects, from which they can choose. These projects are initiated at the end of the previous academic year. Following that, groups are formed, and every student can choose according to his / her interests. Then it is in the hands of the managers who launch the project and invite others to meetings.

MV: What can students actually try in this subject?
: They can try all the work a normal advertising agency does. On top of that even project management, because I am not aware of the fact that common agencies would manage their work as projects. I guess you want to ask me what are the common activities? Here they are: first of all the vision, what the customer wants, hence the objective of the project and how to access it. Then we start to fulfil it: articles on the web and in newspapers, press conferences, communications with other media – radio and television, graphic style of the project and creation of corporate identity, communication with sponsors, applications for grants, project production, translations into English for international projects, teamwork, project management and integration of all the team members to the project team, etc…

MV: What specific projects, for example, do students implement and which of these projects are you most proud of?
: I'm not proud of the projects but rather those students who don't give up even if they don't thrive, but try to find new ways. I have already experienced a few crises with students. The latest was at the beginning of February 2009. Well I appreciate the achieved results as well as the trouble students had to go through. The harder a project is, the better it is for them. When everything goes smoothly it's either a coincidence that won't come up again or it's the outcome of a superficial project, which we also have sometimes. New and complicated projects come with problems. But you wanted me to list a few projects, didn't you? Among the big ones come: Miss Academia, Salvator, B´fashion, Rag day, University ball, Project management conference, Mixer, Percipio, Literary May (nowadays L!terra), also maybe Busfest. Among the smaller ones: Summer cinema, film club Bio, Workshops.eu, CastingoFka, Be seen.

MV: How difficult was it at all to set up the Communication agency subject?
: I don't actually know, I wasn't at the beginning of this subject at the faculty. The first projects began to be implemented in 1998 /99. I restarted the projects at the time of their lapse, but we shouldn't really boast about it. In my point of view, the key moment to launch a project is the general climate of the faculty. As long as you don't believe in students they can do something, you won't allocate projects to them. Once you are willing to accept the risks, which expose the faculty during the implementation of student projects, the projects get a green light. But it isn't always black and white or rather black and green. Life brings a lot of variations.

MV: Could you tell the readers something about yourself and how you got to this subject at all?
: Communication agency is a phenomenon, it's a lifestyle, it's an element. Who doesn't approach this philosophy, can't lead a project. Two of the academic workers left, who had been responsible for the subject. And there was a vacant place. I hadn't been very happy with my job at that time, so I quickly applied for it and asked the Institute of marketing management to let me try it, saying that I would manage to do it without a single help. With this promise on the border of common sense I gained this position. I was cheeky and at the beginning I didn't know much about project management according to published methodology (eg. IPMA, PMI etc.) and for learning by the ear I didn't have time. However, I liked projects, liked working with students, I was well aware of the university administration, so I managed somehow in the end. For a while I was again on the same boat with the students. They knew it and the co-operation was marvellous, I tried to helped them and and they rewarded me with beautiful projects, and sometimes also with a gift, a thank you, or a bunch of flowers for my birthday … Who has never experienced this, would never believe it. As I said, it's a phenomenon, though I am not saying problems never occurred. And gradually, I made my way to managing projects in accordance with the methodology as well. Mainly thanks to the conference we organized and also to the others, which I attended when there was a bit of time left.

MV: Were there any problems to keep the subject on the go?
: What kind of…. Are they problems at all? Anything you can read from books about project management we have experienced with the students. The students' syndrome of preparing the posters at the last minute, hard time with the graphic designers (by the way, we have our own graphic designers from among the students); however, we have an obligation to have every proposal of posters approved by the department of the rectorate chancellor. Hardly ever have we managed on time, so we came in for a lot of criticism for ignoring the regulations. We would have liked to do it properly, but we wouldn't then have enough time to print the posters in time. Is this considered to be a problem? I guess so.

As for other problems, more systematicaly: for instance, we didn't have any software for project management. And when we had it, there was no time to learn its operation. So the head of the project management office had no idea whatsoever, whether the managers worked properly and whether they were able to cope with the key tasks in the critical path. Actually we didn't even have any critical paths. That's what we are learning now. So the biggest problems are with the implementation of project management methods into real projects, which is a classical problem of universities: linking theory with practice.

MV: Could you please describe the developmental stages which the Communication Agency has undergone?
: I have done a case study as you know. Therefore this sneaky question I have been expecting. There are four stages. Is it normal that the stages precisely replicate the personal approach in management of Communication agency? The first stage was a period of chaos and intuition. We ran projects without project management methods. All the time we were trying to create new rules. The problem was, that we were trying to discover what had already been discovered. Although I wasn't at that time in the management of Communication agency, but from the post of the secretary of faculty (today I would say the manager of project financial resources) I was following and supporting everything. After that, came the new management, which lasted one academic year 2006/2007, and set really hard tools for project management. I named it a stage of bureaucracy. The students couldn't keep up, were upset, filling in project documents took their attention away from the project, which was running its direction regardless of the plans drawn up on the paper. Then during the academic year of 2007/2008 I came into the agency and my first task was, obviously, to recover the lapsed projects and motivate the slightly discouraged students. I learned the possibilities of project management in its bureaucratic form and so I was thinking about and looking for a compromise between management by means of intuition and management by means of bureaucratic procedures.

I invited Honza Doležal from PM Consulting who taught us at least the logical framework. We approached this project management methodology and began to use it. I worked for the agency till the end of 2008. In November, I still managed to implement some solutions to Enterprise Project Management, and that's how it ended. I had to leave and perform other tasks the Institution of marketing communications wanted me to. The new management, which manages the communication agency now, does not use Microsoft web communication solutions. Suddenly, there are new projects added in the middle of the academic year, which weren't initiated by the appointed procedure, also they don't insist on WBS in projects, there are no published logical frameworks, budgets, schedules… For this new stage I have no name yet. It's still very new, have lasted only a few month. It might bring a new perspective and perhaps it might even benefit the projects. But according to my experience, moving away from methods of project management is a step back.

MV: How does the school support the subject nowadays?
: You would expect that the school supports the subject in every possible way. I don't know how to answer. The amount of projects will be reduced again (last reduction was in the stage of bureaucracy). Reason? We can neither manage nor finance so many projects. But it is impossible to stop the implementation of all the projects and the reduction will only be on a very limited basis. Some projects have registered trademarks, others are being prepared for registration. So: the school supports the projects.

MV: How far is it possible to pass the experience from implemented projects on future classes, which are already managed by other students?
: There are still backlogs. Without a really good virtual project management office, where we could store project documentation in electronic form, we can never hand over the experience properly. Student's annual experience can never be expressed at an hour long meeting. The experience is very often unconveyable. In my opinion the main solution is that in the first year you choose a project and watch how the manager runs it, in the course of this project take the initiative to manage one of the sections and the following year you can apply for the position of a manager.

MV: Working in the communication agency, how much time does it require from the professors and school representatives and how demanding is it?
: It depends on the person and the project. Maybe I should speak for myself. I am the Head teacher of the project conference, it's a project which makes sense to me and I am keen on its good results. It is not only an internal project that should entertain a narrow group of people. It is a representative one with a budget of 300 thousand CZK in its economical variation. It takes me at the stage of planning and implementation about 20% of my work time and 90% of my free time. But this varies.

MV: What's the students' approach like towards the work in the agency? How is the distribution of tasks provided?
: Well, do I have to answer? The social competence of students is still relatively weak. They are very young, unable to cope with conflicts, or work as a team. Everyone understands the work must be divided, but it is better when the manager and the team agree. The kind of manager who only gives orders normally fails. We need proactive students for the team. Those who only wait and hope that there will be no job left for them, most of the time don't even get any. We are not a company. We pay credits for their work done.

MV: Is that so that every project is run mainly by a few active students, and then it is only up to the manager's skills how far he can engage the other members of the team?
: Yes, we can say so.

MV: This subject has been going on for a while. Do you have any feedback from those students who were actively involved in it and left for work?
: Yes. Two students from the fifth year who had been in touch with the agency a lot, moderated our conference this year. Both of them found a job during the time of their studies. They know what they are good at or what are their weaknesses and how to overcome them…. is it enough? How many of us managed to have achieved this at university?

MV: What is the demand of companies for projects carried out by students, or by thus trained project managers?
: We strive to offer our students a IPMA certificate, which they can pass, if they have managed projects as project managers and if they were successful. We pay for the exam up to the level D. We get them reference letters from companies in practice. We want them to have something in their hands. Also it looks better if there is written in their CV that they ran real projects and the employer might have heard of some of them. Also if they state that they know the methods of project management, their chances of getting a job is even higher. Some of the company representatives address the students even themselves. Some of the students have already worked for the Bata company, others for a marketing agency in Brno, or for Ogilvy. I do not have a precise picture of their success, but I see that there are no concerns about asserting themselves in practice.

MV: What would you recommend to people who would like to start a similar subject at their university?
: I'm not sure. I think, for this question, I would have to do analysis at the specific school first. Particularly the analysis of school culture. Where there is a rigid system and vertically oriented strict hierarchical structure, I would probably doubt whether it is worth it. Also, the person who starts the subject will have to have the confidence of university management. Will the management trust just anyone? And I am at the school culture again….

MV: Thank you for your answers. I wish you many prosperous projects for the future, interested students and a very flourishing subject.

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