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Historical Research

If I collect data like Lessons Learned, and risk logs, then I could learn from the past, but I really don’t know how to conduct historical research effectively.”

Give me any three clients, and I'm betting they will have at least five different ways to do ‘Lessons Learned’ at the end of their projects. They’ll tell me, “Oh I didn’t know Lessons Learned was historical research.” Sarah Adams, a Sr. Project Manager, PHP and somewhat of a monster … well let’s just say, Application Development Team Lead under a lot of pressure.

She pushed the team to hold Lesson Learned at the end of every project phase, but no one ever did anything with them. “Then why did they hold the meetings?” you ask. Because that’s how Sarah was trained, that’s how she did it, and when you were on her project team, that’s how you did it.

It really is too bad, what a waste. The good thing is that if you stick around, you could change this. Maybe we won’t have to wait forever. You could show her a better way. Let’s look at Lessons Learned, Project Reviews, and the like, through the lens of historical research.

Historical Research is a viable research and development method that we can all practice. As we strive to improve and better understand Integrated PM, each one of us, using historical research, can advance the cause.

The purpose of historical research is to reconstruct the past systematically and objectively by collecting, evaluating, verifying, and synthesizing evidence to establish facts and reach defensible conclusions, often in relation to a set of particular hypotheses. With a little care, Lessons Learned and project reviews can provide the PM (Researcher) with the evidence needed.

Sarah was close to being a good example of this, but she didn’t follow through. She wasn’t looking through the lens of research. You bet she systematically collected evidence. However, as far as I know, she never formed a hypothesis to confirm or deny. I need to give Sarah a break for a bit, after all, they never told her at the PMI that she needed to be a researcher.

What does historical research even look like? Let’s take a look at some typical characteristics.

Normally, historical research depends upon data observed by others rather than by the investigator. This means looking at other’s project plans and Lessons Learned documents. Good data results from painstaking detective work which analyzes the authenticity, accuracy, and significance of source material. So now Miss Sarah Adams needs to be a detective, researcher, and in a few sentences, you’ll see the need for a scientist too.

Contrary to popular notions, historical research must be rigorous, systematic, and exhaustive; much "research" claiming to be historical is an undisciplined collection of inappropriate, unreliable, or biased information and conclusions.

Historical research depends upon two kinds of data: primary sources where the researcher was a direct observer of the recorded event, and secondary sources where the researcher is reporting the observations of others and is one or more times removed from the original event. Of the two, primary sources carry the authority of firsthand evidence and have priority in data collection.

Two basic forms of criticism weigh the value of the data: external criticism which asks, "Is the document or relic authentic?" and internal criticism which asks, "If authentic, is the data accurate and relevant?" Internal criticism must examine the motives, biases, and limitations of the researcher, which might cause exaggeration, distortion, or overlooking information. This critical evaluation of the data is what makes true historical research so rigorous-in many ways, more demanding than experimental methods.

While historical research is similar to the "reviews of the literature" which precede other forms of research, the historical approach is more exhaustive, seeking out information from a larger array of sources. It also tracks down information that is much older than required by most reviews and hunts for unpublished material not cited in the standard references.

The Steps for Performing Historical Research:

1. Define the problem. Ask yourself these questions: Is the historical approach best suited for this problem? Is pertinent data available? Will the findings be educationally significant?

2. State the research objectives and, if possible, the hypotheses that will give direction and focus to the research.

3. Collect the data, keeping in mind the distinction between primary and secondary sources. An important skill in historical research is note-taking-small file cards (3 x 5, 4 x 6), each containing one item of information and coded by topic, are easy to rearrange and convenient to file.

4. Evaluate the data, applying both internal and external criticism.

5. Report the findings, including a statement of the problem, a review of source material, a statement of underlying assumptions, basic hypotheses, and methods used to test the hypotheses, the findings obtained, the interpretations and conclusions reached, and a bibliography.

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