Bringing your project communications into the 21st century

Marshall McLuhan was right, "the medium is the message"

 

Abstract

Excellent project communications can serve as a catalyst for transforming stakeholder perceptions of a project from good to very successful. Conversely, poor project communications can transform stakeholder perceptions of a project from excellent to mediocre.

Historically, project managers have emphasized hard skills of project management; issues such as developing better project metrics to control the project and creating more sophisticated work breakdown structures to track the project. However, in spite of implemented continuous improvement for project hard skills, often project stakeholders are still not satisfied with the product delivered. A key contributor to this lack of satisfaction is that project communications have not demonstrated the same level of continuous improvement.

This paper focuses on the types of communications that exist in projects, the communication needs of the project stakeholder groups, and how to effectively meet these needs. The paper’s emphasis is on using a fusion of traditional communication tools and the tools that have been made available by computer technology.

Types of Project Communication

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) defines project communications as “the knowledge area that employs the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, distribution, storage, retrieval and ultimate disposition of project information.” (PMI, 2004, p. 221) The manner in which these communication processes are applied is a function of the type of communication that is being addressed. The three types of communications that are found in projects are:

  • Internal Communications directed to project team members
  • External Communications, directed to stakeholders that are not a part of the project team
  • Change Management directed to members of the change control board

Internal Communications

Although a project has numerous stakeholders, encompassing a continuum from the Project Sponsor to the people that use the product or service that is delivered by the project, there are two basic groups of stakeholders, active project team members, and everyone else. Communications between the active project team members must be more intimate than communications to other stakeholders. If the project is to be successful, internal communications should have the following characteristics:

  • Brief and to the point – Project team members have a ‘hands on’ understanding of the project, as such there shouldn’t be a need to provide background information that might be necessary to bring an outsider up to date on progress that has been made. If extraneous information is provided it will more likely detract from the communication than enhance effectiveness.
  • Specific to the area being addressed – Most project team members are working on work packages and their interest is focused on the task at hand.
  • Detail oriented – Information must provide all details needed to complete tasks associated with the communication
  • Explicit as to potential risks and benefits – Team members must be aware of potential risks and benefits to ensure that they understand the importance of their tasks to the success of the project and avoid unnecessary risks.
  • Interactive - To ensure the intended communication is received there must be a process in place that enables the recipient to express concerns or ask questions

External Communications

The project communicates with people who are not active project team members through external communications. These communications encompass the continuum of project communication starting with the project proposal and ending with the official project closing document. External communications have the following characteristics:

  • Formal tone – The nature of external communications is that they are directed to persons or organizations that are not actively involved with day to day project activities; as such the tone of the communications is formal and follows the appropriate etiquette of the audience.
  • Specific need – External communications are not spontaneous, they address a specific need. The need addressed may be a legal requirement, a customer need, or an organizational process requirement
  • High level – External communications do not provide details, unless they are explicitly required by legal, customer, or organizational imperatives, rather they provide summary level information to enable quick analysis and/or valid decision making.

Change Management

Change management communications are directed to both project team members and non-project team members and warrant a separate category because it is the vehicle through which the project is modified as opposed to a vehicle for providing information or clarification. As such the processes governing change management are significantly different than the processes followed for other communications. Change management communications have the following characteristics:

  • Issue identification – Proposed changes of process, schedule, budget, or scope are identified with specific information regarding the issues requiring the change, the proposed change, and the implications of the change.
  • Formal evaluation – The proposal is evaluated and a formal decision is made on either implementing or denying the change
  • Plan implementation – A plan is defined for change implementation that details what steps must be taken to implement the change

Talking Their Talk

Who Needs What Information and When

The PMBOK® Guide notes, “Project managers can spend an inordinate amount of time communicating with team, stakeholders, customer, and sponsor. Everyone involved in the project should understand how communications affect the project as a whole.” (PMI, 2004, p. 221) To effectively communicate project management information it is important to send the right information, to the right people, at the right time.

What Information is Appropriate for External Stakeholders

Project communications may be directed at the following external stakeholder groups:

  • Project Sponsor
  • Project Customer(s)
  • Change Control Team Members
  • External Regulatory Bodies
  • Program Office/Portfolio Management Office
  • Functional Managers

The project sponsor must understand the need for the project and the benefits it will provide to fulfill the role of project champion. In many cases this understanding can be acquired through a presentation of the reason the project was conceived, and the benefits the project will deliver, with a copy of the project proposal document for reference. If the project sponsor is convinced of the project potential benefits, the sponsor will sign off on the project charter. Once the charter is published the sponsor’s responsibility to the project will be threefold, to support the project politically, to use influence to clear logistical and political roadblocks as needed, and to act as a project ‘board member’ to provide guidance in assessing high impact change control requests. The sponsor can perform these requirements with minimal communications. The reports that are sent to project sponsors should contain executive summaries only. Any person who has the influence necessary to be an effective project sponsor will have many issues competing for their attention and they will appreciate consideration for their limited time. They will also be aware of the need to delegate and will not consider lack of details a lack of due diligence on the part of the communications provider. There is a caveat, always have the detail information readily available in case the sponsor requests it. The medium used to meet this communications need will be a function of what medium the project sponsor is most comfortable with. Historically the medium has been an official memo sent either through intra-company mail services or public mail services, however today it may be an E-Mail, or a password protected page on a project website.

The project customer(s), whether an internal customer or external customer, is focused on project success, specifically whether or not the project will provide the promised product or service, at the agreed upon cost, and on the agreed upon date. Unless there are contractual obligations to provide more detailed information, the communications with the customer should consist of regularly scheduled updates indicating the project progress. If the project is off track, there should be a high level explanation of the issues and the steps being taken to put the project back on track. Although project customers should never be misled, they should not be unduly burdened with extraneous details, or made anxious by issues that will be resolved by the project team within agreed to variances. The exceptions to this rule are issues that will have a material impact on project product or service, cost, or schedule. The Change Control Process section of the Project Quality Plan will outline the processes for obtaining customer approval to high impact change requests. The medium for communicating with the project customer will be a function of the customer’s preference. It can be a formal document delivered by a mail service, a teleconference, a videoconference, a meeting, an E-Mail, or a password protected page on the project website.

Change control team members are focused on whether or not a proposed change will enhance the potential for project success. Communications with the change control team are always formal and dictated by the Change Control Process section of the Project Quality Plan. The mediums used for communications can be hardcopy documents or electronic documents. The documents can be stored and retrieved via a project website, a shared drive of a server, or through manual means. The key is that the change process is followed and that all proposals for changing the project product or service, budget, or schedule be formally reviewed and documented.

The regulatory body will dictate external regulatory bodies’ communications. The project team will comply with the regulations as directed. There is no place for creativity in communications with regulatory bodies, give them what is required, no more or less.

The organization processes regarding the communications will determine Program Office/ Portfolio Management Office communications. The project team will comply with process requirements.

Functional managers are focused on providing the organization the best support possible with their available headcount and skillset makeup. Communications with these managers will concern the resource needs of the project. Specifically the project manager will communicate the projects needs and the timing of those needs to the functional manager, as well as provide feedback on the performance of the functional manager’s team members. The communications will be a combination of meetings, and requirement definition forms and status reporting on the functional manager’s reports activities. The medium for reporting will be a function of the organization culture. Some organizations prefer hard copy memos, other organizations prefer E-Mails, and others prefer password protected web pages. The key is that requirements be documented and that the communications be interactive to ensure resources are available to meet requirements when they are needed by the project, or that changes be made to the project plan to schedule work when resources are available.

What Information is Appropriate for Internal Stakeholders (project team members)

The following project communications are directed to project team members:

  • Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
  • Status reports for individual Work Packages
  • Scheduled Project Reviews
  • Lessons Learned
  • Project Closure Report

The WBS is the foundation document for internal communications. It is a hierarchical document that can be compressed or exploded to provide the information a particular project team member needs to successfully complete their assigned task. At its highest level of compression, the WBS can simply list project milestones and their due date. At its most detailed level the WBS can display work package dictionaries that detail the specific work package requirements for time, material, and skillset. In the past the WBS would be enclosed in binders, today they are found embedded in project management software applications and project website pages with links that allow easy navigation of detail levels, as well as links to project ‘blogs’ and ‘wikis’ to facilitate project issue understanding and resolution.

Status reports for individual work packages that project team members are working on should be communicated by the team member’s technical lead. The lead will get the information at regularly scheduled project meetings and relay it orally with hard copy or soft copy documentation. Soft copy documentation can either be distributed via Email, or via a password-protected page on the project website. It is important that the technical lead provide this feedback in order that technical questions may be answered and technical coaching may be provided as needed. It is also important that performance related status be documented for lesson’s learned analysis and Human Resources (HR) use if necessary.

Scheduled project reviews should occur as frequently as is relevant for the project’s success. The number of reviews will depend on the scope, complexity, and length of the project. There are two categories of project reviews:

  • Routine Project Status Reviews – These reviews are conducted at regularly scheduled intervals and address project performance metrics, approved project changes, and significant project developments. The project manager and technical leads should attend these reviews. The venue for the review has historically been a face to face meeting. Project managers can also use web-meetings, teleconferences, or videoconferences to eliminate travel and conference room scheduling for the meetings. Web meetings are a particularly effective venue as they incorporate robust communication tools including a white board, interactive question and answer messaging, and both written and oral messaging. It is a good practice to schedule a face to face meeting every four to five meetings to ensure interpersonal relationships are maintained.
  • Milestone Reviews - These reviews are conducted when significant project milestones are achieved. The project manager, technical leads, and project team members should attend these meetings. High level project metrics are reviewed at these meetings as well as the overall project performance. Special mention is given to significant project challenges and achievements. In order to minimize project disruption, web based meetings are an excellent venue. It is a good practice to schedule a face to face meeting at the project half-way mark and for the final meeting to ensure interpersonal relationships are maintained.

When the project is complete a lessons learned meeting is scheduled while the project is still fresh on everyone’s mind. All project team members should attend this meeting. At the meeting significant project accomplishments and challenges are presented. The underlying causes of these events are noted and a lessons learned document is filed for reference when similar projects are planned. The project manager must prepare background information on successes and challenges in order to facilitate the analysis. The venue can be either physical or virtual.

The project closure report is a collaborative endeavor of the project manager and technical leads. The report lists the project goals and documents, at a high level, how they were achieved. This report is provided to the project team members, the project sponsor, and the customer(s), to document the project’s completion.

Addressing the Challenges of International Projects

When the project team members and/or the external project stakeholders reside in different countries, the issues of translation and cultural disparity must be addressed.

The issue of translation is resolved through a straightforward, although somewhat tedious process. Specifically, all communications are first translated by a person that is fluent in the colloquialisms of the communication recipient’s language, then re-translated back to the original language by a different translator. This process ensures that there are no surprises when the communication is received. Translation of communications should not be relegated to a mechanical process or a translator who has a general understanding of the language. The idiosyncrasies of language are such that the only way to ensure true communication is to take the time to do it by people who are fluent in the local dialect.

The issue of cultural disparity can be addressed by a two-pronged approach. First, the communicator must have a basic understanding of cultural norms to ensure that communications are effective as well as not offensive. Second, the communicator must structure the communication to be effective based on whether the person(s) being communicated with are from a ‘high-context’ or ‘low context’ culture.

“(In) LC (low context) cultures, most of the information flowing between sender and receiver is contained in the message itself. Consequently, the message needs to be explicit and detailed because each party will rely almost solely on the information contained in the message itself. On the other hand, in an HC (high context) culture, less explicit and detailed information is carried in the message itself. Instead, the sender and receiver rely more on the context of the communication process to convey the message. Consequently, the human element and personal relationships tend to play a much larger role in communication in HC cultures.” (Rosenbloom, B & Larsen, T, 2003). Exhibit 1 provides examples of countries that have been categorized as being high context and low context.

Examples of Low-context and High-context countries (Rosenbloom, B & Larsen, T, 2003)

Exhibit 1 – Examples of Low-context and High-context countries (Rosenbloom, B & Larsen, T, 2003)

In order to communicate effectively, the style and mediums of communication will need to reflect the cultural context. This challenge is complicated when project partners do not share the same cultural context. When the project team members and/or external stakeholders reside in countries with different cultural contexts compromises will have to be made to ensure common understanding. Explicit recognition of the difference and explanation of what compromises should be made and why, will facilitate the communications process. Exhibit 2 outlines communication medium preferences and areas of sensitivity for overcoming potential challenges. It should be noted that these contexts are generalization and that exceptions to the rule often exist. Also note that just as countries have cultural context, organization cultures can be low-context and high-context and should be communicated with based on their context.

Cultural Context Preferences and Suggested Compromises to Improve Communications

Exhibit 2 – Cultural Context Preferences and Suggested Compromises to Improve Communications

Collecting Data

What data is really needed to manage a project?

The PMBOK® Guide admonishes project managers that “(communications) requirements are defined by combining the type and format of information needed with an analysis of the value of that information.” (PMI, 2004, p. 226). Project control is achieved through the analysis of accurate metrics reports. One of the largest challenges in project communication is obtaining the data needed to provide the raw material for the metric calculations. Often this issue is addressed by attempting to gather as much information as possible about every aspect of the project. Unfortunately this strategy usually results in project team members displaying contempt for the process because they don’t understand the need for the data. Such an assumption results in sloppy, if not inaccurate data input.

Data needs to be collected in the areas of cost, schedule, and quality. Specifically information on:

  • Cost of hours worked per team member
  • Cost of materials used completing tasks
  • Time spent completing tasks
  • Start and end times of tasks
  • Validation of task completion
  • Rework reasons
  • Rework costs

The data noted will provide a basis for Earned Value Analysis (EVA) calculations and quality control metrics. Any other data collected will be superfluous to project metrics, and although nice to have, will not provide a benefit worth the cost.

Successful data collection requires that the project members understand the need for the data. Simply telling project team members to provide the data will not encourage the commitment to accuracy that is necessary for successful project reporting. The need for accurate data collection can be communicated effectively to project team members by:

  • Emphasizing importance of data input at the project kick off meeting - At the project kick off meeting, time should be taken to explain the reports that will be generated during the project and why these reports are important. It should be impressed upon team members that they are the beginning of the process and without their efforts it won’t be successful.
  • Coaching by technical leads – During project execution, the technical leads should be checking data entry and coaching team members that don’t correctly input data of the importance of accurate data input and ways of ensuring the data will be input correctly. Such coaching creates awareness by team members that this is an important aspect of their job.
  • Creating data input mechanisms that minimize data entry time – If the team realizes that management is striving to make data input as easy as possible there will be more willingness on their part to cooperate in the effort.

Making Data Collection Painless

“Cardinal Richelieu famously observed, the art of taxation is like pulling feathers from a duck without the squawk.” (Hufbauer, C, 1999). The art of collecting data from project team members is similarly challenging. Many project team members consider their ‘job’ to be completing their work packages, not providing data for project metrics. Unfortunately, as was noted above, the project can only be managed effectively if such data is collected. Consequently, it is imperative that project managers secure the raw material for project reports in order that accurate project communications are possible.

Recent innovations in data processing technology can be used to facilitate data collection. Exhibit 3 provides a reference for data collection methodologies that will reduce data input time and effort by team members and as such increase the probability of accurate data collection.

Data Collection Methodologies

Exhibit 3 – Data Collection Methodologies

The Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan stated in Understanding media: the extensions of man, “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.” (McLuhan M. 1964). McLuhan’s point is that the medium used to convey a message does much more than deliver the message. The medium is an extension of the sender and influences the message as much as body language and physical setting. The choice of a medium for project management communications must reflect an understanding of implications of the medium to impact the effectiveness of the communication. For instance, Instant Messenger (IM) enables real time communication; people literally thousands of miles away can have a discussion as if they were in the same room. This tool is an extension of the individuals allowing them to be in many places at once, carrying on diverse discussions, providing the potential for great leaps in individual productivity. The tool also breaks down hierarchies of management, which can also greatly enhance productivity by empowering the most junior staff member to express the ‘out of the box’ concept that can save the project. However, the tool also uses a language of its own where abbreviations abound that only make sense to those who are fluent in the medium. People who don’t ’speak the language’ or that value the structure that hierarchies bring to organizations, or that come from HC cultures will not reap these benefits and may actually conspire to sabotage the communication if their concerns are not addressed. Clearly, the choice of medium is as important to successful project communications as is an understanding of language and culture.

Leveraging Communication by Medium Selection

In order to take advantage of a medium’s full potential, the advantages and disadvantages of the medium must be understood. The following mediums are used in project communications:

  • Hard Copy Communications
  • Oral Communication
  • Project Management Information Systems (PMIS)
  • E-Mail
  • Instant Messenger (IM)
  • Project Websites
  • Blogs
  • Wikis

Hard Copy Communications include traditional communications including reports, memos, and project binders that house the project plan documents. This medium has been the traditional communications medium used to document projects. The medium advantages are that it is accepted universally and can be transported and referred to in most environments. The medium disadvantages are that it is bulky, lacks body language and tone clarifications, and navigation difficulty increases exponentially as the complexity of the project grows.

Oral Communication includes oral discussion whether face to face, or using telephony equipment. Medium advantages include ease of use, if you can talk, you can employ this medium, and that voice tone adds to the understanding of the communication, as does body language when communication is face to face or via video connection. Medium disadvantages include translation issues either due to language, colloquial, or cultural issues, and lack of documented reference to ensure integrity of communication.

Project Management Information Systems (PMIS) include all computer-based application systems used to track, document, and report on project performance. Advantages include the enhanced data input and retrieval capability, potential for real time updates, and faster calculation of project metrics and project reporting. Disadvantages include need for expensive infrastructure (both personnel and equipment) to load and review data, lack of body language and tone clarifications, and learning curve for people who must use system.

E-Mail provides an excellent system for informal and formal project communications. The advantages of E-mail are ease of use, synergistic use of existing infrastructure, and potential for real time feedback loop. Disadvantages include the medium lacks body language and tone clarifications, it has a tendency to encourage immediate responses that are not always well thought out or expressed, and lowers face to face contacts even when the people have easy access to each other.

Instant Messenger (IM) enables instant communication between people who share a network. The advantages of IM are that a person can carry out a number of diverse conversations simultaneously without leaving their location, that networking hierarchies are breached thereby enhancing communications among people who need to be in a discussion, and communications are real time. The disadvantages are that to effectively use IM a person needs to understand the abbreviations that are ubiquitous to the medium, that informality can result in a poor choice of words, and that people can type an answer to a question in the wrong IM session thereby increasing confusion.

Project Websites are very useful for the aggregation of project information. Advantages of this medium are that people in many different locations can have secure access to project details in real time, that navigation of complex projects can be facilitated, and that all project information can be centralized for easy query and discussion. Disadvantages of this medium are that it lacks body language and tone clarifications, that it discourages interpersonal relationships, and that a technical glitch can bring down the entire project communications infrastructure.

Blogs are interactive sections of websites that typically present an issue or discussion points and solicits input from project team members. The advantages of blogs are that an issue can be thoroughly vetted in real time, that many possible solutions to a problem can be discussed by people in numerous different physical locations, and that documents can be made ‘interactive’ rather than two dimensional. Disadvantages are that blogs need to be monitored to ensure they are not abused, and that a technical and cultural learning curve are required of users to ensure the blog’s potential is realized.

Wikis are interactive sections of websites where team members can add to a document. The advantage of wikis is that background information can be easily inserted into documents by all team members. The disadvantage is that the wikis must be monitored and the information validated to ensure that misinformation is not put on the project site.

Communicating a Project’s Legacy

If an organization is to benefit from experience gained and processes developed in past projects, a process must be in place to archive and retrieve this information. The process must address the following areas:

  • Document archiving and retrieval
  • Template reuse
  • Lessons learned documentation and review

In the past document archiving and retrieval was a time and labor intensive process. Information processing technology makes this task relatively simple. Depending on the volume of documentation, solutions can range from library software that manages document creation, update, and retrieval, to simple website document links. The key is that the organization has a process for document creation and retrieval and follows it.

One of the key advantages of documenting past projects is that templates developed in one project can be used in future projects with similar tasks. Templates that facilitate project data collection, metrics analysis, WBS development, quality checks, change control, project reporting are organization resources that are exploited by effective project managers.

Lessons learned analyses enable future project managers to avoid past mistakes and emulate past successes in their projects. These organization resources are also exploited by effective organizations.

To take full advantage of past project’s legacies an organization must have a process in place that indicates that one of the initial planning phase steps in any project is to review the lessons learned and templates archives for similar projects. The process must also include a step that documents the process was followed and what the results were to ensure the potential of these resources have been fully exploited.

Conclusion

Project communications have a large impact on the probability of project success. Project managers have many tools available to enhance communications. The project manager that understands stakeholders’ cultural and informational needs and the advantages and disadvantages of the mediums available can leverage communications mediums for maximum effect.

References

Hufbauer, C (1999, February) Tax Policy in a Global Economy: Issues Facing Europe and the United States. AICGS Taxation Seminar, Washington, DC, USA

McLuhan M (1964) Understanding media: the extensions of man New York: McGraw-Hill, 1

Project Management Institute. (2004) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) (Third Edition). Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute

Rosenbloom, B & Larsen, T (2003, May) Communication in international business-to-business marketing channels - Does culture matter? Industrial Marketing Management 32(4) 309–315

© 2007, Pete Matassa
Originally published as part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, Georgia

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