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A very pragmatic European enterprise - reflections on cross border project involvement

Paul Stokes-smallThey say that you should write about what you know; what you’re passionate about.  And in the context of this project what I know about is running a pan-European Enterprise under the auspices of the European Commission.

That’s a rather grand sweeping statement isn’t it?  A pan-European Enterprise sounds pretty high powered.  Close your eyes and you can see visions of men and women in suits jetting around all over Europe, indulging in deep and meaningful discussions with bureaucrats and deciding the fate of millions.  So let me disabuse you before we go any further.  In this case the pan-European aspect simply refers to the fact that this project has partners from all over Europe and the work takes place in many different locations across the continent.  There’s hardly a suit in sight and to date I haven’t clapped eyes on a single bureaucrat.  And as for knowing about such enterprises?  What that boils down to is that I’ve done it before.  Ventures such as the e-InfraNet project ( for instance, a closely related project about European infrastructures—focusing on Open, Cloud and Green issues—now drawing to a close.  So I’ve made the mistakes, I’ve had the awkward questions thrown at me and I’ve been in the position of wishing I’d started collecting information for that overlooked aspect of the final report years earlier (and don’t talk to me about VAT; I have nightmares about VAT).

So in the context of European Enterprises in general how is this project coming along?  What are the defining characteristics of 4C as a collaborative, pan-European project?

Perhaps it’s better to start with a few brief words about the people and organisations involved.  We’re 13 organisations located in 7 different countries across three different time zones.  The lingua franca is English (and yes I do know how odd that sounds) and we have a mixture of academic and commercial partners.  Everyone involved has a strong personality—a pre-requisite when it comes to getting a project like this together—and cares passionately about digital preservation.  Sounds like recipe for disaster?  How on earth can all these nationalities and personalities gel into a successful project?

Well the fact is, it does, due in no small part to the consensual and open approach adopted by all concerned from the outset.  We’ve set-up our communication channels1, we’ve decided how and where we’ll meet, we’ve decided where and how we’ll work on our joint outputs and we’ve decided to be Open (with a capital “O”).  Yes there were (and still will be) compromises along the way and undoubtedly there are better ways of doing some of the things we’re doing.  We’re not using state of the art technology, but nor are we using the lowest common denominator.  We’re using appropriate technology, pushing the envelope a bit, but not excessively so.  In short we’re doing not discussing.  We’re getting on with it rather than spending our time arguing deliberating about how we’re going to deliver the elusive, superlative result.

A colleague of mine described this as the pragmatic approach and I think in that one word he has managed to encapsulate perfectly the underlying ethos of the management of the 4C project.  Yes it would be wonderful if we could meet face to face every month.  Yes it would be wonderful if budgets and resource expenditure were kept up to date in real time (especially from my point of view wearing my project management hat).  Yes it would be wonderful if we could use state of the art technology.  But if we had taken that “wait for the wonderful” approach we’d still be waiting to get started having spent significant chunks of the budget on air travel.  As it is, we meet virtually, we have a light weight reporting regime and we use freely available and easy to implement cloud based technology.  The result?  The first deliverables are starting to appear, on-time and on-budget.

It occurs to me that all of the above is a metaphor for the whole digital preservation movement.  (Please bear with me as I indulge in my Radio 4 ‘Thought for the day’ moment2).  With Digital preservation there will always be a better way of doing things; there will always be compromises to be made; there will always be mistakes along the way.  But as long as we can achieve something better than the lowest common denominator (which in digital preservation terms, dare I say it, would be doing nothing), as long as we can achieve co-operation across borders and as long as we can compromise and progress rather than be stubborn and stagnate then we’re winning.  I would even go a stage further and say that I believe pragmatism, a consensual approach and openness are all common character traits of those who work in digital preservation.  For such individuals it’s all about the art of the possible.  And that’s why the 4C project partners are working so well together.

So coming back to the question I posed earlier about how 4C is shaping up in the context of European Enterprises in general.  Well its early days, but the phrase “so far, so good” springs to mind.  We’re communicating, we’re compromising and we’re getting on with it.  And that’s a very pragmatic European enterprise.

Paul Stokes, JISC

Paul is the Project Manager for the 4C Project and manages Work Package 1 'Project Management' and Work Package 5 'Roadmap', as well as co-ordinating inputs from across the Project Partner team.

1 If you want to know more about these then drop me a line.

2 ‘Thought for the day’ moment—take any random news item and shoehorn it into whatever religious/philosophical theory you’d like to promulgate.  No?  Doesn’t work for you?  Must be just me then.