Building a communications infrastructure

by George Pitagorsky, PMP


REMEMBER THE FAIRY TALE about the Sleeping Beauty? The beauty, a princess, was put to sleep by a sorceress who was inadvertently overlooked when everyone else in the kingdom was invited to the young princess’ christening. The sorceress was so ticked-off that she put a curse on the baby. The rest is history.

Perhaps you once left a powerful person out of a meeting or a decision and found later that he or she put a curse on your project. Or maybe you left communication to chance and found that simple facts got distorted or overlooked until they became the center of large conflicts or errors. You may have assumed that you have reached a meeting of the minds regarding the definition of objectives, requirement, design constraints or other critical issues, only to find later that no real agreement had been reached.

Effective communication is candid, clear, at the right level of detail, timely, relevant to the interests and needs of the participants, involves the right people, and ensures mutual understanding of content and conclusion. Formal communication should have a written result that documents issues, understandings and action plans. Yet, even when project performance is an integral part of an organization's life, there may not be an established project management communications infrastructure. It is often necessary to create a temporary infrastructure to support management and performance of the project.

What Is Communication Infrastructure?

Communication infrastructure is the set of tools, techniques and principles that provide the foundation for the effective transfer of information between people. Tools include groupware, e-mail, project management software, fax, phone, teleconferencing systems, document management systems and word processors. Techniques include meeting ground rules and procedures, problem solving, decision making, conflict resolution and negotiation techniques, reporting guidelines and templates, escalation procedures, and so forth. Critical communication principles include the concepts of “straight talk,” dialogue vs. debate, and process planning, review and refinement.

Complex projects with participants from multiple companies, divisions or other organization units represent a communications challenge. With the current interest in business partnering and the need to integrate complex technologies and services into geographically dispersed systems, it is becoming increasingly common for people from several technical disciplines and organizations to collaborate on relatively short-term, high-impact projects.

We must combine automation with a set of protocols and principles to ensure that the right information is received by the right people, in the right form, at the right time, and that it is understood in the way it was meant to be understood.

In some industries—defense and aerospace, among others—large prime contractors have traditionally established a project management infrastructure that includes a formal communication plan and techniques that support project communications. But other complex projects (for example, in Information Systems and Business Process Reengineering) may be performed in organizations in which such projects are exceptions. These organizations are often not prepared to handle the complexities of such efforts. Commonly, subcontractors to these projects are more experienced than the principals but they are often not in a position to influence infrastructure development.

Communication Throughout the Project Life Cycle

Effective communication is a critical (if not the most critical) contributor to project success. The PMBOK Guide™ identifies five project management processes: Initiation, Planning, Execution, Controlling, Closing. Communication is critical to all.

Communication is integral to project initiation, when project champions describe their ideas and opportunities to those who authorize, influence and execute projects and create the dialogue needed to reach consensus regarding each project's definition and disposition. Passing the results of those decisions in the form of project charters is another aspect of communication during project initiation.

Communication continues to be critical during project planning, when both the product and the way the project will be carried out to produce the product are negotiated and described. Communications during project initiation and planning focuses on why a project should be done; what impact it will have; who will be involved; who will have what authority, responsibility and accountability; how they will be organized; what procedures they will follow; how much the project will cost; how long it will take; and how much risk and uncertainty are involved.

Reader Service Number 5020

During project execution and project control, data is collected, summarized and distributed to keep stakeholders abreast of project progress (or lack thereof) at the appropriate level of detail. Timely, accurate and candid information are the key requirements for project and functional managers to control and direct project work. Senior managers and clients need information to make key decisions, to set strategic direction, and to make decisions to continue or end the project. Changes and issues must be identified, evaluated, prioritized, scheduled and addressed, requiring a formal communications process with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

Communicating in a Complex Project

The following case study is based on a project led by Carol Gorelick and Carter Crawford of Solutions for Information Services Inc. The approach they used clearly shows how groupware technology supports communications needs in complex, virtual projects.

CP, a start-up company specializing in European mergers and acquisitions, initiated a project to design and implement their information technology strategy, providing capabilities for the organization to function as a paperless, virtual office across multiple international locations.

The project was planned to consist of the following phases:

1. Move from shared space in a law firm to temporary facilities. Install a LAN, provide information services and basic technology (word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail)

2.  Move to permanent facilities. Move the LAN and all existing functionality.

3. Install information and technology capabilities in the second office in London. Provide “just like New York” functionality. Integrate with New York.

4. Expand information sources and applications.

Time frames were tight and dependent on the start and end of leases. The organization was growing rapidly from two to 15 employees in three months and 15–40 in a year. Expenditures must be value-driven. In CP's evolving culture flexibility was critical to success.

The project involved participants from several firms, including CP:

■ CP staff—initially the principal and his assistant, later an office manager, technology/information manager and the professional staff with assistants

■ System integrator—New York (Vendor)

■ Training company—New York (Vendor)

■ Application developer—New York (Vendor)

■ Communications company—New York (Vendor)

■ Cabling company—New York (Vendor)

■ “Solutions”—New York project manager and technology consultant

■ Integrator—London (Vendor).

Communications and Coordination Problem. The project needed a way to communicate among the participants quickly and effectively. The need could be satisfied by a project management and communication tool that all participants would use to formulate plans, track project status and communicate regarding issues. Fax, phone and e-mail options left a lot to be desired. Each participant had different e-mail access. Fax results in hard copy, with its filing, distribution and management problems. Phone requires parties to be available at the same time and requires the discipline of recording the results of conversations in some hard copy form, making sure that all parties that need to know about some aspect of the conversation get to know.

A Lotus Notes discussion database was a possibility. But previous experience raised questions about the viability of setting up a shared database across companies in a short time frame. Complexities included the need for security, setting up the host server and integrating six participating companies with disparate technology platforms.

Internet Solution. “Solutions” found a subscription-based Internet product, Involv™ by Changepoint. As discussed in the accompanying article, this product had many of the features needed to coordinate project planning and performance and did not require any significant technology implementation.

The product permits the designated project manager and staff to build a project task list. Everyone else is given “client access” and can read the plan and all other documents, update their individual tasks, add discussion items to any task and attach any document to a task. Issues and change management are supported.

The project plan was entered into Involv's database as four projects, corresponding to the phases described above. Tasks were entered within each project and assigned to an individual. Each task had an anticipated project start and end date and an initial time estimate. The person assigned the task accepted the task with the assigned start and end dates or revised the dates. Discussion was possible with all members participating. All data was available to all the project participants in one central location. Communication and planning did not require participants to be online at the same time, though it was necessary to get participants to agree to going online within a specified period (daily in this case).

The product automatically creates an e-mail message to notify a team member that a task has been assigned. It is the responsibility of each team member to review relevant tasks and activity on a timely basis. Team members update tasks as they are completed or when they are modified to change scheduled times. Participants can view the project by project, task and/or person for project status reporting. Interfacing with Microsoft Project is relatively easy, permitting full project planning and reporting using a full-featured project management tool and then transferring task lists to Involv.

Benefits. The major benefit of using groupware, whether subscription-based or not, is that project history and upcoming tasks are available to all team members at anytime from anywhere. A byproduct of the application is status reporting. Face-to-face meetings are reduced. New project team members and/or vendors can quickly learn the project history and outstanding issues. “Solutions” developed the project plan with a robust project management tool, for example, Microsoft Project, but users navigated through the Involv application with very little training.

With Involv, startup was quick and easy. No systems development or integration was needed. The concept of “renting” an application is not new—timesharing systems have been available on main frame computers since the ’60s. Subscription-based groupware products can add significant value in projects involving multiple vendors or departments within the same company, particularly when the technology infrastructure doesn't support interactive workgroup collaboration.

Because it was necessary to get all participating groups to accept the use of the system as their primary means of communicating within the project, it was necessary to explicitly discuss project communications. By doing so, the project team avoided many of the problems that arise when there are different understandings about how, how much, when, and to whom to communicate.

During project closing, communication plays a key role to make sure that the product is acceptable, that responsibility for the product is properly transferred, and that lessons learned are identified and made known throughout the organization.

Throughout any project there is a continuous need to resolve conflicts, make decisions, solve problems and keep everyone with a need to know supplied with the information they need.

What Is Effective Communication?

Most people in project management have experienced ineffective communication—there's no meeting of the minds about critical issues; information fails to get to the people who need it in time for them to use it; erroneous information is distributed and used as a basis for decision-making; assumptions are confused for facts; information becomes the spark that ignites politics and conflict; critical information is withheld; a huge amount of time is spent in unfocused, ineffective meetings.

Effective communication—timely, candid, accurate, cost-effective transfer of information among people so that there is mutual understanding—seems more the exception than the rule. It seems that, left to chance, people will more likely not communicate or miscommunicate than communicate. Not that we don't want to communicate effectively, we just don't devote the time and attention required. Often, organizational values inhibit candid communication. Often, we take it for granted that everyone will understand everything the way we do. Often, we assume that people either don't need to be kept abreast of what's going on or that it is not worth the time and effort required in keeping them abreast. Often, we assume that silence means agreement. These and other invalid assumptions lead to many of the avoidable problems encountered in projects.

Now, with the use of automation, we can communicate to more people, faster and without them being there at the same time we are (asynchronously). While this offers great advantage, it is also the source of much concern. Faster doesn't necessarily mean better. We must combine automation with a set of protocols and principles to ensure that the right information is received by the right people, in the right form, at the right time, and that it is understood in the way it was meant to be understood. The communication infrastructure is built upon the principles of “straight talk,” dialogue vs. debate, feedback to assure mutual understanding, and process planning, review and refinement. Tools and techniques make applying these principles easier, but don't be deluded into thinking that just because you have a sophisticated groupware tool that's guaranteed to promote collaborative work efforts that you've solved your communication problems.

Communications Management. Effective communications in projects requires sensitivity to cultural and individual needs, planning, and disciplined execution of the plan. A comprehensive communications plan creates a solid foundation for project performance.

Communications planning consists of identifying the people who will take part in the project (the stakeholders); identifying the subject areas they will be interested and involved in (as decision-makers and people who will act upon or be effected by the decisions); the levels of detail of information each will need; the media they will use to communicate; the form and content requirements of each of the kinds of communications they will have in the project; the way documents will be stored, distributed and controlled; the way meetings will be managed; and the roles and responsibilities associated with communications. In addition, it is necessary to address any cultural norms that may inhibit candid communication.

Don't view communications planning and communication as an extra to be sped through or avoided to get to the real work as quickly as possible. If you wait until you need information before you plan how to obtain it, store it, retrieve it and distribute it, you risk far more delay and discomfort than if you take the time to plan and have the discipline to follow your plan.

Straight Talk. In some project management settings, even when a formal plan is set for communication, people are reticent to tell it like it is. In more than one organization it is considered bad form to highlight the fact that a group has failed to fulfill its commitment to provide a deliverable on schedule. In other settings, bringing up negative points regarding a popular idea is frowned upon. Open criticism of project performance may be viewed as too embarrassing to permit effective post-implementation review and the wide distribution of lessons to be learned from errors and omissions.

Effective communication requires that issues be addressed openly (within the constraints set by the need for confidentiality, civility and common sense). The term “straight talk” is used to connote the candid communication that encourages people to express potentially unpopular or embarrassing concerns, facts, criticisms and opinions. Straight talk does not condone blunt, cruel or abusive expression. It involves finding an appropriate way to tell it like it is for the benefit of the project and for ongoing performance improvement.

Automation Assistance. Project management tools such as Microsoft Project are widely used for planning and control. E-mail and groupware tools such as Lotus Notes are used to facilitate communication and administration. Tools by themselves will not solve all communication problems or address all issues, but they can help. They speed things up and promote a higher level of standardization. Tools do not necessarily improve the quality of communication: improvement requires a concerted effort by the communicators themselves. The use of tools, however, can result in higher-quality communications. The selection and implementation process provides an impetus to discuss communication needs and to engineer procedures to address them. Tools speed up the process, minimize the need for paper, simplify and facilitate document management, reduce (but not eliminate) the need for face-to-face meetings, and promote written documentation of all aspects of the project.

Groupware supports collaborative efforts. It enables asynchronous communication, in writing. It permits the capture, storage and controlled distribution of information regarding the project plan, status, product description, scope and plan changes, issues, acceptances of deliverables, and so on. It enables asynchronous communications, which minimizes telephone tag by allowing people to communicate without being available to one another at the same time. It enables some meetings to take place in cyberspace rather than in conference rooms. Electronic information capture and retrieval minimizes administrative effort and ensures that up-to-date information will be available when and where it is needed.

Infrastructure Building

Groupware is relatively easy to use once a secure and well-supported system is established and protocols, forms and files are defined and agreed upon by project participants. Establishing the system, however, is a relatively significant effort requiring special skills and technology. Support, consisting of backup and recovery, security, allocation of storage space for files, computer operations and troubleshooting, requires skilled and dedicated resources. To successfully implement and use automation, particularly groupware, the project needs the support of Information Technology services.

Reader Service Number 5095

The inability to obtain the human and technical resources in time to accommodate a project's needs is often a barrier to using groupware. Even where projects are performed regularly, the time and effort to establish an effective technology infrastructure is often difficult to muster. We often find that infrastructure building takes a back seat to more immediate project requirements. Unless it is addressed as a part of a broader program of project management improvement, it often doesn't get done.

Subscription-Based Systems. To the rescue come subscription-based systems. These offer ready-to-use groupware. Some are tailored for project administration, communications and control. These systems offer an immediately available facility, supported by an established service provider.

Involv is an example. The product is by Changepoint of Ontario, Canada. It costs $12 per month per user. Availability is immediate, via the Internet. A project team desiring to use the system registers its members, assigns a manager, makes sure there is access to the Internet and is ready to go, without the need for internal IT services and support.

Involv provides features that enable task assignment, controlled asynchronous discussion, document attachment, issues management, change management and service request management. Task assignment and status reporting is facilitated by allowing transfer of data from and to project management software. Access to information is made easy using a standard Web browser. Security features protect each project from outside intrusion and permit project performers to see only the tasks assigned to them. Where a team has its own standard formats for change management, issues management, and so forth, the system can be tailored to their needs. (See sidebar for an illustration of how this is done.)

Use a Common Set of Tools and Techniques. In the CP project described in the sidebar, it was relatively easy to get agreement among the participants to use Involv and the planning and control procedures set up by the project manager. The project manager quickly proved that other technology options were infeasible and that the option of relying on an informal communication and project control approach was unacceptable. The vendors were relatively small firms and their project people recognized the ease with which they could use the tools and comply with project control standards. The procedures were simple and intuitively sound.

In other projects, the participating organizations may not be as flexible as those in the CP project. A common barrier is having a subcontractor, who must comply with his own firm's procedures for planning, change control, progress reporting and issues control, refuse to take on the extra work of complying with the project's procedures. Often such vendors have enough clout within the project to dictate many of the terms of their engagement. Getting past this one requires some compromise and, possibly, extra costs for interfacing systems or reporting in two different ways. To avoid problems like this, address project communications as part of the planning process and include communication requirements in vendor contracts.

If a vendor's communications plan, tools and methods are superior to your own and it is feasible within time and technology constraints to have everyone share that approach, use it. In any case make sure that everyone is sharing an effective communications approach.

Avoid overkill. Every project needs formal communications and controls. Small projects, however, tend to require a different degree of formality and control than large complex projects. Tailor the tools and techniques to the needs of the specific project and to the style of the participants. There is no need for bureaucracy; but there is need for a disciplined approach that results in the documentation of mutual understandings.

COMMUNICATION IS AMONG the most critical success factors in project management. Technology can aid in the process but is by no means the only aspect of communications that must be addressed. Candid communications among all parties to the project, effective meetings, clear and accurate objectives, roles and responsibilities, information at the right level of detail at the right time and mutually understood language are all necessary.

The technology piece is by far the easiest to address. Improving the organization's ability to communicate is often a cultural change issue requiring a disciplined effort and patience. Working with people from different organizations, each with its own culture and communication style, makes arriving at an acceptable plan exponentially more difficult. The project manager is the facilitator who must educate all participants (including herself) as to the critical nature of project communications, and ensure that there is a communications plan in place to make it all happen. ■

George Pitagorsky, PMP, has a background in Information Technology and is a management consultant specializing in project management, productivity and quality improvement. He is listed in Who's Who as an expert in Quality Operations and Quality Improvement.

Reader Service Number 5079

PM Network • August 1998



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