Four years ago, Sandra Slaughter began studying the project management of a huge National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative with an ambitious goal: the creation of a “new Internet” – one that is more secure, accessible, predictable and reliable than today’s World Wide Web.
This initiative, known as the Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI), was started in 2007. To date, hundreds of millions have been spent on this effort, which has grown from involving several universities to numerous researchers at hundreds of institutions.
To gain perspective of how an initiative of this magnitude could be effectively managed, the NSF awarded a $600,000 grant to Slaughter, a professor of information technology management at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, and Laurie Kirsch, a professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Our roles have been as project management experts,” says Slaughter, who holds the Alton M. Costley Chair at the Scheller College.
Given that GENI has required a wide swath of scholars to work together collaboratively and share data, the project has been remarkably successful to date, Slaughter says, even though the initial goal of a “new Internet” has evolved into broader territory.
GENI provides a collaborative environment – a virtual laboratory – for academia and industry to understand, innovate and transform global networks and their interactions with society. By facilitating the transition of research into products and services, GENI aims to improve the economic competitiveness of the United States.
In GENI’s virtual laboratory, researchers across many institutions can run experiments on new technologies that could improve the Internet. “For instance, researchers wanting to simulate hacking attacks used to be limited to their particular university’s network,” Slaughter explains “But now they can run large-scale experiments involving computer networks across the country in a realistic way.”
Slaughter and Kirsch, who were recently awarded a one-year extension after the expiration of their initial NSF grant, were motivated to study GENI in order to better understand how to effectively manage projects that are difficult to execute due to size and complexity. In the realm of information technology, a large percentage of projects go past deadline and over budget, while a significant number are cancelled, they note.
“GENI is representative of a class of projects funded by the NSF in the U.S. and agencies in other regions of the world that will ultimately transform the way a scientific community conducts research,” they explained in a recent article on their research in International Innovation.
Slaughter and Kirsch also recently published an article on their findings – titled “Managing the Unmanageable” – in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems.
“Science will increasingly involve massive collaborations of researchers who will need an effective infrastructure for projects like this,” Slaughter says. “These kinds of projects are supposed to be transformative, but they’re somewhat nebulous in that they don’t have clear deliverables. How to best manage them is an open question.”
Through their investigation of GENI, Slaughter and Kirsch discovered it’s important for project managers to detect “fault lines” (or potential conflicts) between participants before serious divisions develop. Different groups might compete for parts of a project or disagree on decisions concerning infrastructure, platforms, goals, or the prioritization of tasks, she adds.
To prevent fault lines from developing into cyber quakes, project managers could implement mechanisms such as holding workshops or meetings to increase communication and cooperation across various groups of participants, Slaughter says.
GENI organizers sought to minimize problems at the outset by involving more institutions and awarding smaller grants for the completion of various projects. While awards for other cyber projects have often involved obligations of 5 to 10 years, GENI has taken a “spiral” approach involving year-long efforts. Investigators can submit proposals for the funding of specific development activities.
“This approach reduces the risk of one institution getting everything and failing,” Slaughter explains. “Instead of scoping out one mega project that is finished 10 years later, by which time the world has changed, GENI has taken an agile approach to project management. This means having small projects delivered more frequently. Instead of a two-year project, you might have one lasting 60 days.”
Though agility (or flexibility) is one of the latest trends in project management, Slaughter says she was surprised to see it work so effectively with a cyber project of GENI’s scale.
Georgia Tech was one of the first universities in the country to participate in GENI (with various players across campus, including the College of Computing, playing important roles). Slaughter and Kirsch’s research team included 14 business and computer science graduate students at both Georgia Tech and the University of Pittsburgh.
“GENI has a huge Georgia Tech connection, and a workshop on it will be held here in the spring of 2014,” Slaughter says.