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Bent Flyvbjerg

By Bent Flyvbjerg

How to Grow Classics in Megaproject Management

We are pleasantly surprised to see how strong megaproject management research stands when compared to other areas of management research, in terms of citations. This is cause for celebration – but not for resting on our laurels.

In answer to the question of whether classic texts exist in megaproject management research, we conclude:*

  • The answer depends on the definition of “classic” employed.
  • There is no general consensus among scholars in the field of megaproject management regarding what the classics are, or of the definition of what a classic is.
  • Classics do exist in the field in the sense of “citation classics” – that is, highly cited scholarly publications – and these perform remarkably well when compared to other classics in the management literature, for both older and newer classics.
  • There is no agreement as to whether “Kuhnian classics” – texts with paradigmatic clout – exist in this field. Some scholars argue they do, others they don’t. Furthermore, some argue that works identified as citation classics do not qualify as Kuhnian classics, indicating that the bar may be higher for a work to get to count as a Kuhnian classic than as a citation classic.
  • There is no indication that “conventional classics” exist, in the sense of works that are recognized as definitive by a majority of experts. No majority and no consensus can be documented on this point in megaproject management, but quite the opposite.
  • Works exist for which it may be argued convincingly that they ought to be considered classics, but they are not, because scholars in the field ignore them, to the detriment of the development of the field.

It takes 20 to 30 years to grow and consolidate a classic, so for megaproject management this work has only just begun, with the most important part to be done over the next ten to 15 years.

Going forward, we see the following main tasks to stimulate and improve scholarship in megaproject management, in terms of classics:

  • The classics that have emerged over the past ten to 15 years, new and old, should be further developed and consolidated. We are pleasantly surprised to see how strong megaproject management research stands when compared to other areas of management research, in terms of citations. This is cause for celebration – but not for resting on our laurels. It takes 20 to 30 years to grow and consolidate a classic, so for megaproject management this work has only just begun, with the most important part to be done over the next ten to 15 years. This work needs serious attention, including the updating of emerging classics when and if new data and theories warrant this.
  • New classics should be developed, focused on high-quality data and using the strongest theories from across the social sciences, for instance following the guidelines set out by Matti Siemiatycki. Too much scholarship in megaproject and project management build on weak, idiosyncratic data and weak theory with little impact. This should be avoided going forward by learning from best practice in other parts of the social sciences, and by emphasizing impact: in the academy, policy, practice, and civil society. More publication should be in high-quality journals and with high-quality academic publishers at the best universities, to secure vetting and quality control that would increase the likelihood of classics emerging from the process.
  • Ignored classics should be revisited and taken seriously, including where such texts are critical of megaproject management. To ignore criticism because it constitutes “uncomfortable knowledge” is the road to mediocrity, or worse. Criticism is the lifeblood of scholarship and should be welcomed. Selznick (1949), Hirschman (1967), Caro (1974), Sayles and Chandler (1971), and Sapolsky (1972) may be considered ignored classics, and others exist. Megaproject management is not in a position where it can afford to overlook important contributions to its knowledge base. These works, authored by people who have thought long and hard about megaproject management before most others, need to be carefully considered and integrated in the canon.
  • Debate should continue, and should be encouraged, about which texts may and may not be considered classics, with full knowledge that it may be difficult, or impossible, to reach a consensus about what the classics are, or even that they exist. No field deserves its place in the academy without engaging seriously in such debate.
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*) For the full version of this text, including footnotes and references, see Bent Flyvbjerg and J. Rodney Turner, 2018, “Do Classics Exist in Megaproject Management?”, International Journal of Project Management, vol. 36, pp. 334-341. Free pdf here: http://bit.ly/2exVyK6

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