Modelling Skills of Project Management – Reconnaissance and Surveillance

I was chatting recently with a surveyor friend about a project he was managing that required the workers to work at a good distance from where he was managing them. He told me about a technological innovation that allowed him to locate vehicles and personnel, and this system provided him the means to monitor the projects by comparing the technological data about when vehicles and personnel were at work or at the nearby town, with the time sheets that they submitted to be paid for the work done.

It made me consider the value of such monitoring in the context of research projects , where the research student is actually the research project manager and the research supervisor is in a similar position to that of my colleague, being responsible for an overall overview of the research. While not going as far down an Orwellian path as my surveyor friend, the analogy and anecdote led me to thinking about military monitoring and two military terms which have relevance and bearing on the whole situation of monitoring a research project from the perspective of the research supervisor.


The term reconnaissance has a geological or military pedigree and refers to surveying the land to determine a plan of action (Macquarie Dictionary, 1991). The word is derived from the French verb ‘reconnaître’ – to recognise or to acknowledge importance (Harper, 2001). In research communities, particularly action research, Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) have used the term ‘reconnaissance’ to describe the beginning stages of the research or pre-research. They see ‘reconnaissance’ as a reflection on the situation before undertaking action research. For them reconnaissance not only involved reflection but critical reflection.

Dillon (2007) discussed the process of reconnaissance in his research process and drew on McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead (2003), who had defined it as a process of clarifying the starting point of one’s research. Quoting McNiff etal (2003, pg. 35), Dillon suggested that reconnaissance allowed him to determine “where I was at, what I hoped to achieve and how I thought I would get there”.

In his theorising about the practice of reconnaissance, Dillon (2007) proposed that reconnaissance for him was self and situational. Under a notion of self-reconnaissance he argued that an investigator needed to consider the baggage that he/she is carrying into the situation. He begged the question as to how far in one’s history an investigator needed to go to uncover the personal historical events that are impacting both on the observation of a catalyst situation and on the determination of an appropriate intervention.

Framed this way, the notion of reconnaissance could apply to any research situation and for a supervisor might involve ascertaining knowledge about a proposed research student before you or your university accept them. This knowledge not only helps to determine whether or not the student is likely to complete their dissertation, but gives indication of the sort of support you or your university might need to provide for them in order for them to progress their candidature. Issues such as their level of spoken English, or of the language which the university uses; Their writing capability and whether they have already acquired essential skills in academic writing to undertake a dissertation; and given that research is about problem solving, you could also canvas their problem solving skills.

One of the additional areas of reconnaissance which I encourage research supervisors to canvas with their prospective students, is how that student recognises the ways in which they learn, and what therefore are their expectations about supervision.

The term surveillance also has a military pedigree and refers to keeping a watch on a location or person (Macquarie Dictionary, 1991). It is derived from the French verb ‘surveiller’ ( August 2011)

In the case of research projects, the notion of surveillance begs the question what do you watch? Observing a student first hand is unnecessarily overbearing and may not be warranted with the other workloads associated with academic work. What you can watch is their outputs and particularly be mindful of key milestones as indicators of their progress. When a research student commences their candidature, and often in the context of a research proposal, they are required to submit a project plan. This project plan can detail key milestones and these provide important objects of surveillance. The supervisor can note how a student’s work is progressing towards these key milestones.

A second area of surveillance is in the area of routines. If you and your student create routines in terms of meeting and submitting written work, a break in this routine is often a key indicator of something happening in their research project. I have always believed that cancelling a regular supervision meeting is an alert to me that maybe the student is struggling with some aspect of their research and this is the very time when supervision is helpful in providing a discussion platform to explore what the problems are.

A worrying thought…!
There will be some who read this that immediately discern in these strategies an imposition of project management on the student and question the suitability of this when we are trying to empower students. This is a concern I have as well, as there is a sense that project management is something done by the supervisor to the student rather than with the student. Mindful of this, what I have tried to do is to make my project management initiatives explicit so that I alert the student to the nuances of project management and how this body of knowledge can apply to the research project. This helps to build up their own repertoire of project management skills as part of a broader range of graduate research capabilities.

Dillon, P (2008) Reconnaissance as an unconsidered component of Action Research. Action Learning Action research Journal 13 (1), 4-17

Harper, D. (2001) On-line Etymology Dictionary. Accessed September 8th 2007.
Kemmis, S and McTaggart, R. The Action Research Planner. (3rd Ed). Deakin University. Victoria: Australia
Macquarie Dictionary, 1991 Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead (2003), You and Your action research Project (2nd Ed.) London: Routledge.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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2 Responses to Modelling Skills of Project Management – Reconnaissance and Surveillance

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