The CORNET Program is a collaborative R&D program at European level specifically targetting Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). In this blog, we illustrate how projects of this program and similar programs can successfully address SME needs through an iterative approach involving user committees from different domains and countries.
SMEs are the main drivers in many economies worldwide, especially in European countries where they hire around two thirds of the people and generate 58% of the total value added. However SME usually lack resources both in time and expertise to perform enough R&D in order to stay up-to-date in a world evolving at fast pace. This is especially true for ICT which is now required in all domains for successful operation, e.g. industry 4.0, logistics, eHealth, energy, etc
CORNET is a network of ministries and funding agencies that combine their existing funding schemes to increase the competitiveness of SMEs. In this blog we report about how we came up with a practical organisation of such projects to efficiently support SME needs and transfer results. We try to provide some answers to the following questions :
Our experience is mainly based on two CORNET projects (3 R&D partners and about 10 SMEs) and also CWALITY projects (CETIC+SME). In the scope of this paper we will take the project PRiMa-Q addressing the need for a risk-driven project management. We selected this project because its focus is precisely related to project management and to some extend the project itself is a case study. In general SME face many problems that can cause failures, delays or budget overruns in their projects. Such problems are not restricted to SMEs, but they can be very harmful or even fatal for them due to their limited size, maturity or resources. Project management is especially recognised as a vital part in the IT sector where about half of the projects are challenged and 20% still end in failure. This problem tends to extend to all domains because most products and services are increasingly connected and relying on the Internet of Things. The production process is also increasingly dependent on IT through the use of smart manufacturing.
In order to stay focused on the SME needs within a relatively short (2 year) project, following an iterative approach is strongly recommended. Agile principles and their four core values are totally aligned with SME needs and can drive the project:
Those values are further refined into 12 principles. Those principles are implemented in specific concrete methods such as Scrum (illustrated in the following picture), extreme programming (XP), behavioural driven programming (BDD). However such methods should not be blindly applied to R&D projects because the timing, level of resource allocation, target TRL is different than pure development projects. However key principles such as focusing on needs, validating early, adapt to change apply.
Our goal here is not to point to a specific method but rather to highlight a number of concrete actions which can be implemented in the scope of a short term R&D project. In the rest of this section we describe how the main concepts were implemented for our project and can inspire other projects of the same kind.
As most SMEs oriented projects, our project is quite short (2 years). For such a project it is important to avoid ambitious breakthrough but rather focusing on concrete objectives delivering value to SMEs that are quickly identified and agreed upon. Ideally, those objectives should already be stated in the proposal, as it is part of the reviewer criteria for such a project. However, in order to refine the requirements, a dedicated task is generally proposed in the first month of the project (see initialisation phase here above). Different means can be used to achieve an efficient gathering of requirements, in our case we used meetings with end-users, an on-line survey and extra refinement of the state of the art.
Meetings with end-users
A CORNET project has a mandatory end-user committee. The first meeting will generally focus on explaining the project goals to the SMEs representatives and identifying requirements with them. It is important to gather requirements that can be generalised in order to have a good exploitation potential but also to identify a number of concrete use cases that will drive a concrete validation. For this purpose, different techniques can be used like looking at existing systems from users, an organising brainstorming session, collecting user stories, etc.
Performing an Online Survey
In order to gather requirements at a larger scale than the user directly involved in the project, it is useful to design an online survey which should not be too long to fill. It should typically take 10 to 15 minutes and avoid too complex questions which will result in user leaving the survey. It can be first used with users already contacted in order to make sure it is well-designed before disseminating it at a larger scale using different channels and relays like sector specific organisation, professional social networks, and special interest groups. Such a survey should gather some information to characterise the respondent, current practices and identify/validate requirements through closed but also some open questions (not too many). Although by default such a survey should be anonymous, it can nevertheless propose to the respondent which is quite interested in the project to provide a contact to be informed by project progress or even to join the user committee. An example of survey question is shown in the following figure together with the analysis done on the collected answers.
Being "State of the Art"
A state of the art is usually already available as part of elaborating the project proposal. However, such a state of the art usually needs to be refined in order to better consolidate it, to cope with possible evolution since the writing of the proposal and most importantly to adapt to the more concrete input provided by the requirements analysis phase. In our case it was important to have a clear view of both existing project management tools and risk management tools. Specific criteria were identified with SMEs like cost, integration usability issues. Among the involved SMEs there are some software editors and naturally their tools are taken into account in this update. For example, the figure hereafter shows the resulting evaluation table for the key non-functional requirements identified as a result of the requirements phase and a short list of existing tools also validated by the partners as possible target tools.
Building a Common Vision
In order to build a common vision that will drive the project towards a solution, different means can be used. In addition to good collaborative infrastructures like Redmine, we highlight two interesting means with the related notations: building a (meta-)model of the concept (covering both problem and solution aspects) and defining a reference architecture of the solution.
First a meta-model is quite interesting to use for the following reasons:
Second it is important to define a reference architecture. There are different complementary goals behind the definition of such architecture such as:
Successfully addressing SME needs within a 2 year R&D project is quite challenging. We hope the guidelines can guide others to reach similar goals and also encourage SMEs to engage in projects of the CORNET program or other SME-oriented R&D programs like CWALITY. Don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.