Delivering global projects during a pandemic: sharing the experience

Updated: Sep 30

We are approaching the end of 2021, the second of two years of a truly anomalous period, characterized by the outbreak of a pandemic that has caused major upheavals in the personal and professional lives of many of us. The end of 2021 will also be marking three years since the GloFouling Partnerships project started. Looking back on these past two years, I can make a fairly precise assessment of some good lessons one can learn from delivering a project in rather disruptive conditions, and how new approaches have challenged our traditional ways of doing things. The pandemic and its constraints have pushed the Project Coordination Unit (PCU) out of the comfort zone of having to implement a project already pre-designed to the detail, to find alternative ways of delivering the expected outputs. Below is a brief summary of the lessons the PCU has learned in 2020 that helped us anticipate the challenges of 2021, and beyond, for the implementation of the project.


Adaptive management

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the PCU has been constantly focused on providing adaptive management responses to the externalities that influenced project implementation. Upon the onset of the pandemic, the PCU promptly developed a risk assessment of the potential impact on project activities, proposing a series of mitigation measures that were discussed and agreed with the Project implementing partners at the first project’s Executive Committee meeting in April 2020. The mitigation measures identified in 2020 focused, amongst others, on prioritizing the implementation of activities that could be delivered without travel (e.g., developing the three global guides and one training package for the delivery of the training course on biofouling management) and on using online solutions to replace some of the key events that were programmed for 2020, with the expectation to resume work as usual before the end of the year - which did not happen.

As disruptions continued and uncertainties persisted on the way out of this health crisis, the PCU called for an extraordinary meeting of the Executive Committee in February 2021 to discuss mitigation measures implemented and lessons learnt, and to present a revised workplan and implementation scenarios.


Virtual meetings - not fit for all purposes

Switching to virtual meetings has facilitated communication with the project’s beneficiary countries - Lead Partnering Countries (LPCs) and with regional organizations supporting the project - Regional Coordinating Organizations (RCOs) and helped maintain engagement, but the traditional, more formal physical meeting format had to be revisited, and allocated time shortened. Virtual meetings have an impact on the scope and depth of contents, and discussion topics must be limited and focused. While shorter regional raising awareness workshops could be delivered online, policy meetings to discuss and adopt regional strategies had to be postponed. However, virtual meetings enabled us to still launch online the creation of our Global Industry Alliance in June 2020, with quite a considerable media coverage. Since then, the membership of the GIA has steadily increased, and four meetings were held, with stream work identified and key activities kick-started.

Despite these positive aspects, the time zone differences across LPCs and RCOs remains an issue for a truly global project, with the inability to convene a meeting for all partners at the same time, which is still preventing us from organizing some of our major events, such as the project’s Global Task Force and our second R&D Forum. We are currently working to find the best solution in order to deliver these activities without sacrificing some of our partners and while maintaining a satisfactory level of interaction and exchange of information.


Online Training - pros and cons

Delivering training online was the obvious alternative to on-site training, but it required to rethink specifications of commissioned work and deliverables (e.g. for converting the training course package on biofouling management into material that could be delivered remotely), assessing the IT capabilities of the LPCs and their knowledge of the videoconferencing tool used. It also required in depth preparations with experts and speakers, as well as a rehearsal to avoid technical and delivery issues.

An important benefit of using online tools to deliver training courses and workshops is that it can potentially help reach a wider audience: 50 participants enrolled in the Philippines national introductory training course on biofouling management, which was delivered in December 2020 using a videoconference tool. However, this delivery mode also had some limitations e.g., limited focus of participants; limited interaction and engagement; and limited group activities. Developing online training packages requires a different teaching approach, mostly due to the additional preparatory elements typical for online delivery that are ever more important to maintain engagement and achieve a satisfactory impact on participants. The PCU has been largely involved in the preparatory work for the delivery of the introductory training course on biofouling management in the Philippines, although the course was a national one, hence in principle "hosted" by the country. From a technical point of view the PCU managed entirely the delivery of the training course, which required the identification of appropriate online solutions and getting familiar with the use of these solutions.


Capacitating national training institutions

Switching from on-site courses to online courses in a short period of time was challenging and for the delivery of the same training course in the remaining 11 LPCs, the PCU favoured a different approach, which consisted in identifying in each LPC a suitable national training institution, which would deliver the training, either on site or online. The PCU developed specifications and criteria to select these institutions. Once identified, representatives and teachers from these institutions were invited to participate in a “familiarization session” (three were organized in total to cover all the countries) during which the training package was thoroughly presented, and guidance provided on how to deliver the training on-site and on-line. IT equipment was also provided on a case-by-case basis.


Developing eLearning training

While online delivery method has proven to work with a general type of course, as was the case with the introductory training course delivered online in the Philippines, the same cannot be said for more technical training courses. IMO not being a training institute, it does not have the capacity or the know-how to deliver technical courses online as a primary mode. However, in 2020, the PCU has enrolled in a pilot project with the Technical Cooperation Division of IMO, in collaboration with the World Maritime University (WMU), with a view to "transforming" the training material developed for the general training course on biofouling management into a completely eLearning course, to be hosted on the IMO server. There is no doubt that this experience, which should be completed by the end of this year, will serve to increase in-house know-how, but for now, both IMO and the PCU are not ready yet to offer state-of-the-art online training courses, especially on in-depth technical aspects. We are currently considering the best approach to deliver these technical courses, and we may go for different solutions depending on the situation in the country where these trainings will be delivered.


Dealing with changing national priorities

Overall, the COVID pandemic has impacted the productivity of many industries and national administrations, despite adaptive measures put in place globally, after the first shock in spring 2020. Two LPCs ranked in the list of the five highest impacted countries by the COVID pandemic, with all other LPCs being subject to some form of lockdown, outing restrictions and quarantine requirements for travel. As in other countries worldwide, the focus and priority of governments in most LPCs was on considering options for solving the health crisis. This has reduced the level of effort and the responsiveness of some of our LPCs, although contact has always been maintained. Meetings were held throughout 2020 and 2021 with the project’s Lead Partnering Countries (LPCs) and Regional Coordinating Organizations (RCOs) to keep them abreast of developments and alternative plans.


Inevitably longer timeframes

Extra project management tasks were needed to adapt to the crisis, resulting in delays. A great portion of the PCU time was allocated to new, "non-planned" initiatives, which would normally have been dedicated to the implementation of activities as described in the project document. An example of this is the extra preparatory work the PCU carried out to support the future development of regional strategies, with a fact-finding/gap analysis report commissioned, and work on defining a common strategy template, to serve as a basis for discussion by regional task forces, when these would be able to meet. In general, the mitigation measures agreed by ExCom, LPCs and RCOs required longer implementation timeframes than anticipated – to present solutions to partners, redesign concept, readjust budgets and implement these solutions.


Cascading effect of disruptions

The project team also operated in a work environment that was subject to great disruption and several support services at IMO found themselves with new priorities to manage. It took several months after the COVID-19 outbreak for the situation to return to "normality" and a new "routine" to progressively re-establish itself. This situation had an impact on the way budget was allocated to activities as it was only in January 2021 that the PCU was able to get clarity on its IMO’s co-funding requests. All this required to work out a set of different options and constantly juggle the budgetary aspects to be able to support the implementation of new proposed solutions.


Conclusion

As a conclusion, in the last two years, adaptation and mitigation measures came with a significant amount of extra work for the PCU, which in turn increased implementation timelines. The development of new online solutions, in particular, required significant upfront preparatory work, in addition to coordination efforts with LPCs, RCOs and other partners for appropriate implementation. While the PCU was able to significantly mitigate the impacts of the crisis on the project, a number of activities included in the work plan for 2020 were inevitably delayed, out of which notably regional awareness raising workshops (implemented online in 2021) and meetings to set up the regional task forces (to be implemented in 2022). As the pandemic continues to significantly impact travel around the globe, further delays are still expected, affecting some our major international events. In 2022, it will be crucial for the PCU to continue applying adaptive management, as much as possible in the circumstances, be proactive and think of effective ways to deliver. Despite all these efforts, the delivery of all planned activities by the end of the project (December 2023) is likely to be affected and there may be a need to prioritize certain activities over others.

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