Business and Management INK

The Power of Historical Literature Reviews in Project Management Research    

August 14, 2023 846

Lars Kristian Hansen and Per Svejvig reflect on their articles “Seven Decades of Project Portfolio Management Research (1950–2019) and Perspectives for the Future” and “Principles in Project Portfolio Management: Building Upon What We Know to Prepare for the Future,” which were published in the Project Management Journal. They explore how the power of a historical literature review may solve the problem of justifying and developing a solid contribution from a literature review.

Most project management scholars find literature reviews important. However, the success rate of publishing such papers is disappointingly low, as it can be challenging to establish a solid contribution in this type of research. We want to demonstrate how the power of a historical literature review may solve this problem and how it enabled us to publish two review articles based on the same stock of articles.

Abstract image of orange, yellow, and navy-blue paper on light blue background.
(Photo: Alex/Unsplash)

Our journey started in 2018 with the conference paper, “Towards rethinking Project portfolio management,” presented at the European Academy of Management Research in Action conference. The review feedback was that we needed a much stronger justification for doing our literature review and should go all the way back in history to the discipline’s origin. Thus, we traced the literature to its origin in the 1950s and selected a stock of 669 articles covering our timespan, as demonstrated in “Seven Decades of Project Portfolio Management Research (1950–2019) and Perspectives for the Future.” Identifying and filtering the literature was a demanding task. However, the reward came when we structured data with a historical text plot, as this shows how the past has shaped the present.           

Professional headshots of Lars Kristian Hansen and Per Svejvig.
Lars Kristian Hansen, left, and Per Svejvig

After the aforementioned article was published, we felt that we had a lot of knowledge that we did not capitalize on from our review of the 669 articles. The chance to capitalize on this knowledge came in a special issue on principles in the Project Management Journal, in which we published “Principles in Project Portfolio Management: Building Upon What We Know to Prepare for the Future.” By looking at our data through the lens of principles, we got a novel perspective to interpret our data. We found that our discipline’s principles were astonishingly resilient over time and asked ourselves how this could be. We came to the explanation that principles are more relevant than ever (in an uncertain world) as they do not dictate what to do in a specific situation. Instead, principles more broadly tell us how to think in different situations.

Overall, a historical review enables us to evaluate what has already happened, which places us in a favorable position to give advice for the future as important challenges have already taken shape, such as the emergence of artificial intelligence, pandemics, environmental problems, and growing inequality.

Lars Kristian Hansen is an assistant professor in the Department of Management, Aarhus University, Denmark. He is working on rethinking project portfolio management; this involves data collection in multiple organizations and a comprehensive review of the literature. Lars has more than five years of experience with IT project and project portfolio management in practice. Per Svejvig is an associate professor in the Department of Management, Aarhus University and Head of Project Organizing and Management Research Group. His research interests are in the area of project management and project studies, rethinking project management, benefit realization management, project value creation and virtual project management.

View all posts by Lars Kristian Hansen and Per Svejvig

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