Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl)

The Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is developing its project management community to improve project delivery and offer better value for money to its Ministry of Defence (MOD) and external customers. As a research-based organisation it had historically been difficult to quantify success for typically intangible project deliverables but through the use of bespoke training courses and workshops, designed around specific projects and research areas, Dstl has succeeded in implementing a strategy for controlling and managing projects more effectively.

Significant reforms have been taking place within the project management community at the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) as it embarked on a journey to improve front-line project delivery and offer better value for money. Dstl was formed in 2001 but had previously existed as part of a larger government organisation, the Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA) which was part privatised in 2001 to form the defence technology company QinetiQ with the remaining government-owned research arm becoming Dstl.

Organisation Background

As one of the principal UK government organisations dedicated to science and technology in the defence and security field, Dstl is involved in a wide range of tasks such as:

  • developing new armour systems
  • protection against chemical, biological and radiological attacks
  • support and advice to the procurement of helicopters and combat aircraft
  • maritime research relating to ships and submarines
  • exploiting emerging technologies for the military

However, as a trading fund of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) Dstl receives no direct government funding, but relies on the income derived from the projects it undertakes, predominantly for MOD customers. Around 95% of Dstl’s income comes from the work done for UK government, with 90% from MOD customers and the remaining 5% from other government organisations such as the Home Office and Department for Transport. The remaining few percent of Dstl’s income is derived from non-exchequer work, e.g. from other governments and industry where the work is deemed to be of benefit to the UK tax payer.

The Project Management Journey

Around 5 years ago it had started to become clear that project management within Dstl had lost focus. There was not enough emphasis on project management techniques to ensure successful project delivery and what’s more customers had begun to notice. The journey to improving projects and consistently delivering successful outcomes started around five years ago with a number of project management courses being conducted in-house. In 2010 the training was put out to competitive tender and a training provider was found which developed bespoke project management courses to be flexible and match Dstl’s needs.

Unlike many government organisations Dstl is not simply involved in procurement but focuses on science and technology-based research and development projects, which typically have uncertain outcomes with intangible or obscure benefits. Because of the specific working environment at Dstl, standard PM courses were substantially irrelevant to that environment so the new training provider, Parallel Project Training, spent almost three months replacing or adapting the core courses previously in use and began introducing a variety of bespoke modules to make the concept of project management meaningful for such a research-based organisation. With project deliverables typically in the form of technical reports or expert advice from a collaborative community of scientists, the ability to quantify success was an important aspect of these changes.

The various core courses are still based on the APM framework as previously adapted for use at Dstl but with the addition of a rolling programme of bespoke courses based on real projects with real problems so that they are relevant to Dstl’s project management professionals. Parallel was committed to understanding Dstl so that it could fully engage participants on courses and not simply teach material without really understanding project management from Dstl’s perspective.

John Bolton, Programmes Director at Parallel Project Training, remarked

“At Parallel we have a genuine desire to fully understand an organisation’s needs and to flexibly tailor a training programme to their specific requirements. Our use of real-life projects and problems incorporated into the training modules at Dstl has proved to be highly effective in helping their project managers to deliver successful projects which provide value-for-money. We also offer independent advice, where necessary, on issues being experienced in current projects; a unique service of which Dstl makes full use. They in turn keep us apprised of developments in their processes so our courses continue to be meaningful.”

As well as the training on offer to project managers, a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme has also been implemented at Dstl, which includes four stages from awareness to expert status and uses an experience matrix to identify the needs of individual project managers in order to help them progress to the next stage of professional development.

Project Management in Action

Dstl employs a significant number of Project Managers. Many combine their project management role with other technical roles, over recent years more and more have become full time professional project managers. While mainly from a technical background this community also includes those from non-scientific backgrounds as well as those from other government departments and from external companies. These project managers are responsible for around 1,300 projects a year worth £400 million. So whilst on average each project is for a relatively modest amount, for most project managers at Dstl the focus of the work on saving lives is the motivation that drives them.

Dstl projects have a wide spectrum ranging from fast-turnaround 24 hour projects relating to urgent operational analysis or urgent requests from an area of conflict that can cost just a few hundred pounds to complete, through to projects extending to more than three years and costing tens of millions of pounds. A typical project could be expected to cost a few million pounds and take 18 months to deliver. Such projects might involve the production of scientific reports or providing technical advice for procurement or policy decisions through to modifying, improving or developing a new bit of kit for the armed forces. As armed forces personnel are exposed to new threats and increased vulnerability in conflict zones Dstl can provide, for instance, additional protection and improved body armour. Recent work on body armour improvement has been instrumental in preventing internal bleeding in the field.

Embracing P3M3

In the summer of 2011, Dstl started looking at ways in which its enhanced project efficiency and delivery could be used to identify what it did well and where it could improve in order to add value to the Dstl business. This entailed using the standard Portfolio, Programme, and Project Management Maturity Model (P3M3) framework with which it could assess current performance and establish plans for further improvements.

Around this time Dstl underwent an informal P3M3 assessment, which was carried out by the accredited consulting organisation OutPerform, to establish a base level from which to build its improvements. This identified ten areas in which Dstl projects performed well and six areas for improvement. OutPerform then carried out an improvement planning workshop to determine how Dstl could progress from its existing level of project management maturity to its target level. The workshop established a prioritised list of initiatives to be implemented by autumn 2012, which included both developing new skills and making behavioural changes. An action plan was devised by OutPerform based on this assessment and then used by Dstl and Parallel Project Training to develop additional bespoke training modules.

In October 2012 a formal P3M3 assessment was carried out by OutPerform, and Dstl achieved its target Level 3 certification.

Andy Murray, Director of Outperform, who oversees all P3M3 assessments at the MOD, remarked

“I was very impressed by the highly professional and competent project personnel at Dstl. They already had very effective processes in place, which had been universally adopted, so the necessary improvements had a solid foundation. With a culture that is very supportive of the changes taking place, they comfortably reached their P3M3 Level 3 certification.”

The Future for Project Management at DSTL

Achieving P3M3 Level 3 is a huge achievement for the project management community at Dstl and is reflected in the projects it has been delivering and the value this has added for the UK government and around the globe.

Dstl continues to work with Parallel on the training and development of its project professionals. New learning technologies such as podcasts and e-learning stimulate personnel at all levels of experience, and the introduction of refresher courses helps the most experienced project managers to update their skills.

In continuing to seek better value for money by ensuring the right people are participating in the right training, bespoke training courses are being matched to the CPD scheme and to external courses and qualifications.

Mike Hogwood, Head of the Project Delivery Office at DSTL, commented

“Our project deliverables are now properly reviewed and our success criteria are well-defined so that all completed projects are fit-for-purpose and cost-effective. Individuals involved with projects have clear responsibilities and accountability and we are improving our project delivery all the time; we can leverage what we do well and know where we need to improve further. Project Management at Dstl has seen huge advances in the past five years and with the on-going training of the project management community at Dstl, and the plan in place to further enhance the maturity of our project management model over the next two years, I am confident that our stretch target of P3M3 Level 4 certification is achievable.”

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