Beyond reporting--the communication strategy

Introduction

Reporting and communicating are not the same! Every project, program, and PMO manager produces reports on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily basis, but these reports are not necessarily communication. Effective communication with key stakeholders requires sending messages that are received, understood, and, where appropriate, acted upon by the stakeholder. Communication is a two-way process, and for a communication to be complete, at the very least the sender needs to know that the message has been received and understood.

Communicating effectively with stakeholders is as much an art as a science. It starts with understanding who the important stakeholders are, the ones in whom the team must invest a greater communication effort (standard reports can be used for the rest). The next step is to determine the reason for communicating with the person or the expected result, and to design a communication strategy to achieve the desired outcome. Finally, as the communication strategy is implemented, processes need to be in place to measure the effectiveness of the communication and make sure it is working.

Effective communication with key stakeholders is a critical element in achieving a successful project outcome; simply producing reports is not enough. This paper will provide a framework for managers to use in order to plan, design, implement, and measure the effectiveness of their communication strategies with key stakeholders and help achieve successful outcomes for their projects and programs.

The paper will be structured as follows: first, I will present a description of the science of communication, defining communication and stakeholder theory, and a structured approach to understanding the nature and membership of the stakeholder community at any given time. The second section contains a review of the tools and techniques of communication, including project progress reports as part of the communication strategy. This will be followed by a discussion of the art of communication, including the concept of targeted communication—knowing who needs special attention and how to construct the most appropriate message and successfully deliver this message.

The Science of Communication

Communication Theory

Within communication theory, communication is both a process and an activity. The process is described in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008, p. 255) and shown in Exhibit 1. This is the sender/receiver model based on data communication developed to help in understanding and measuring the transmission of data from point to point and developed also to aid in determining whether it was received with the same content as was originally transmitted.

This basic sender/receiver model describes a process by which a message is encoded, sent through a medium such as wireless or cable, and decoded on receipt by the receiver. In the data communication context there is feedback, whereby the message is recoded and returned to the sender to confirm the accuracy of the message. This confirmation is achieved by noting any differences between the “checksum” of the original message and that of the message as it is decoded by the sender after the feedback loop is completed. An additional component—noise—may affect the receipt of the message (in either direction) or may reduce the accuracy of its receipt.

Basic sender/receiver model. Note. From A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition (p. 255), by the Project Management Institute, 2008, Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. Copyright 2008 by the Project Management Institute. Reprinted with permission

Exhibit 1: Basic sender/receiver model.
Note. From A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth
edition (p. 255), by the Project Management Institute, 2008, Newtown Square, PA: Project
Management Institute. Copyright 2008 by the Project Management Institute. Reprinted with
permission.

When applied to human communication, there are a number of considerations:

  • The message must be framed (encoded) in a way that is easily understood by the receiver:
    • It should use the same language
    • It should have a clear purpose
    • It should be formatted to suit needs of receiver
  • The medium for transmission should be appropriate to the content and purpose of the message
  • Noise should be minimized
  • Feedback in the form of “active listening” should be employed to increase the chances that the intent of the original message was received without distortion.

Stakeholder Theory

Stakeholders are defined as:

Individuals or groups who will be impacted by, or can influence the success or failure of an organisation's activities (Bourne, 2009, p. 50).

Stakeholders may be groups or individuals who supply critical resources, or place something of value at risk through their investment of funds, career, or time in pursuit of the organization's business strategies or goals. Alternatively, stakeholders may be groups or individuals opposed to the organization or some aspect of its activities. The team must understand who the stakeholders are for any phase of the project, and in particular who the important and key stakeholders are. Key stakeholders are defined as stakeholders who have power to damage the work or its outcomes significantly. Key stakeholders are distinct from important stakeholders who have been assessed as relatively important in the stakeholder community at this time, although key stakeholders are usually in the top 15 most important stakeholders as well (Bourne, 2009, p. 101).

Stakeholders are critical to project success because of the influence they can hold over the successful delivery of the outcomes or because they may become militant or antagonistic to the outcomes (to the detriment of the perception of the success of these outcomes). There are two main reasons why stakeholders are important to project success:

  • They are the source of scarce resources such as skilled people or funding
  • They have the ability to affect the outcomes either through action or inaction.

Research into project success or failure has shown that successful delivery is aligned to:

  • Strategic alignment of funded activities to the organization's strategies
  • Involvement by users and managers (also stakeholders) (KPMG, 2005)
  • Stakeholders' perceptions that the work has delivered the expected outcomes or benefits (Sauer, 1993; Lemon, Bowitz, Burn, & Hackney, 2002; Bourne & Walker, 2003)
  • Acknowledgement of behavioral aspects of risk (Murray-Webster & Hillson, 2008)

This means that the identification and engagement of the stakeholders of the project are essential for project success. It is essential that the team use a structured and consistent process to do this. There are many such processes and stakeholder management methodologies available in the market today: this paper will describe one of them—the Stakeholder Circle.

A Methodology for Engaging the Right Stakeholders

The Stakeholder Circle consists of five steps (Bourne, 2009):

  • Step 1: identify
  • Step 2: prioritize
  • Step 3: visualize (or map)
  • Step 4: engage
  • Step 5: monitor

An organization may use all of the steps in sequence or may utilize only those that meet its current needs. However, the current stakeholder community must be identified by some method, and key and important stakeholders must be recognized and their expectations understood, before any communication strategy can be developed. Step 4: engage will enable the team to understand where to focus their scarce resources to ensure maximum gain for their project.

Reporting vs. Communicating

Communication in its many forms is the only tool (or technique) for managing stakeholder relationships. Effectively planning and implementing the specific communication strategy tailored for the project's stakeholder community must be considered one of the most important roles of the team and the project manager, often consuming between 75% and 90% of the total time of the project manager. The various and diverse forms of communication to stakeholders include: face-to-face or technology-assisted meetings, telephone conversations, e-mail, “corridor” conversations (generally with peers), “elevator” conversations (generally with upwards stakeholders), and formal structured communication such as project documentation, progress reports, estimates and forecasts, issues logs, risk registers, and action lists. Often project teams do not recognize reports as communication. Alternatively, they believe that reports are sufficient for distribution of information to stakeholders and that no other form of communication is necessary to ensure that key and important stakeholders receive the information necessary to satisfy their expectations. Key and important stakeholders may require additional communication to engage them so that they are more willing to provide the necessary support for the work or outcomes of the project. The team must be able to augment the data in reports to ensure that the appropriate information is made available in the appropriate format, delivered in the most effective way.

The Role of Reports

As defined in the previous paragraph, reports are a formal, structured, and often standardized means of gathering and delivering data about the project, its progress against original estimates, and, often, items of interest such as current issues and priority risks. These data will be disseminated, usually electronically, to a preselected group of recipients. Whether or not the recipients read, act on, or otherwise “receive” the information is not certain, depending on the recipients' need for the information or their level of interest (a combination of level of support and receptiveness to information about the project).

One of the weaknesses of the report as the major (and often only) tool for disseminating information to stakeholders is that it is focused on the needs of the project and is a product of the project management information system (PMIS). This weakness is related to two essential points:

  • The report is usually broadcast—sent via e-mail to the selected recipients
  • The report is standardized so that the information contained is the organization's or the project team's view of what the stakeholders should receive rather than what is essential to meet the expectations and therefore to manage the perceptions of key and important stakeholders.

There are other impediments to the project's message being received by the intended recipients of this information. Two key impediments are the accuracy and timeliness of the data included in the reports. Accuracy is related to the complete and consistent provision of the essential information, and timeliness is related to the current or recent provision of the data. Many PMISs used in organizations today report after the event, often longer than a month afterwards, meaning that there is little opportunity for intervention or remediation, and instead only for issue management. Credibility is essential for the project manager and team; this is closely tied to the nature of the information received about the project. If essential information is inaccurate or received too late, it reflects on the perception of the project. It also reduces the ability of the project manager to have and maintain the necessary credibility to be “heard” when issues do arise that needing support or intervention from the project's senior stakeholders.

The formal structured nature of all forms of project reporting will provide essential information for continuous improvement within the project and the organization, provided that the organization has the ability and the will to manage this essential knowledge. Historical records in the form of easily accessible lessons learned are another means of communication—they are messages to future project teams or other groups in organizations who may be required to do similar work and encounter similar issues at a later date.

Reports, whatever their nature and intent, must be considered a subset of all of the other potential means of managing relationships between the project and its stakeholders, and while they fulfill an important role in a project's communication strategy, they are by no means the only tool available.

Communication

To be effective, communication must fulfill some essential guidelines:

  • It must be focused on the needs of the receiver as well as the needs of the project and the project team
  • The message must be tailored to these needs and the purpose of the communication regarding whether to:
    • Build or increase support (change attitudes)
    • Maintain or enhance existing relationships (build credibility for when support is needed)
    • Deliver information (and therefore manage stakeholders' perceptions)
  • The format and content of the message should be appropriate to the stakeholder's influence on the project (see Exhibit 2):
    • Upwards for senior management
    • Downwards for team members;
    • Outwards for stakeholders outside the project
    • Sidewards for peers of the project manager
  • Barriers to effective communication must be identified and managed. These barriers are the “noise” defined in the data communications model of communication as described above. They can include:
    • Level of interest of the recipient in the subject matter
    • Credibility of the sender
    • Power differences between sender and recipient
    • Cultural differences (nationality, gender, generational, professional)
    • Social issues (does the recipient “like” or respect the sender? What is the emotional state of the sender or recipient? (Goleman, 2006)
    • Physical environment (is it noisy?)
Directions of influence

Exhibit 2: Directions of influence.

Developing a Communication Strategy

The communication strategy must be developed from the identification and analysis of the stakeholder community:

  • Which stakeholders are key or important at this particular phase of the project?
  • What are their expectations?
  • Why are they stakeholders?
  • How supportive and receptive to information about the project are they? This is the current attitude. How does it compare to the attitude necessary for project success?
    • The wider the gap between current and target attitude the more the team must focus on developing a communication that augments regular reports
  • How effective is the communication strategy? Once implemented is it improving the gap between current and target attitude?

The information needed to build the communication strategy can be obtained through application of the five steps of the Stakeholder Circle (Bourne, 2009).

Implementing the Communication Strategy

A strategy or a plan has no use unless it is implemented. The bridge between the communication strategy and robust stakeholder relationships is the communication plan, which includes intention to action. Most project management methodologies include a communication plan, and generally a plan is developed at least in the early stages of the project. However, in practice it is rarely reviewed (and updated) or consistently followed. The final aspect of the science of communication is to define ways to ensure that the communication plan is implemented and its purposes met.

Ensuring that the communication plan is implemented can be achieved easily through ensuring that all important communication activities are included in the project schedule. This can also include the resources that have been identified as necessary to carry out the communication activity. Once these activities have been included in the schedule, they must be reported against at regular intervals, perhaps at project meetings. In this reporting environment, any issues raised or information gathered during these communication activities can be shared with the team and, where necessary, resolved or dealt with as appropriate. Measuring and monitoring the effectiveness of the communication can be achieved by regularly assessing the gap between the current and target attitude, as described earlier. If the gap is closing, it is likely that the communication is achieving its desired result; if there is no change or the gap is widening, this is evidence that the activity defined in the communication plan is not working and must be reviewed and modified or a new approach must be taken. Exhibit 3 shows how the data from step 4: engage can be used to measure the effectiveness of previous communication activities.

Monitoring communication effectiveness using engagement profiles

Exhibit 3: Monitoring communication effectiveness using engagement profiles.

The engagement profiles are developed by:

  • Assessing the actual attitude of selected stakeholders (using “X”)
  • Describing the optimal (or target) attitude of these stakeholders necessary for the success of the activity (using “O”)

The steps in this process are:

  • Identify the current level of support of the stakeholder(s) at five levels: from active support (committed—rated as 5), through neutral (rated as 3), to actively opposed (antagonistic—rated as 1). Table 1 summarizes these ratings.
  • Analyze the current level of receptiveness of each stakeholder to messages about the activity: from eager to receive information (direct personal contacts encouraged—rated as 5), through ambivalent (rated as 3), to completely uninterested (rated as 1).

Exhibit 3 depicts the change in attitude of a particular stakeholder over time. The first assessment forms the baseline, the second assessment shows that the target has been reached, and the third assessment indicates that the stakeholder has lost interest. In this case, it may be a failure of communication or something else—perhaps a personal issue.

The Art of Communication

The art of communication is the set of skills, experience, and willingness to engage, that project managers must develop to effectively implement the communication plan. All of the information about the stakeholder community gathered to date, the available tools, techniques, and processes at the disposal of the project team, and the skills and experience of the project team members are important inputs to the art of communication.

Essential components of the art of communication are:

  • Selecting the “best” messenger
  • Using influence networks if necessary (Exhibit 4 shows how stakeholders can have connections to the project but also outside the influence of the project, where “GL” is the project manager)
  • Defining the method for most effective delivery
  • Clarifying the purpose of the message
  • Considering special communication
    • Negotiation
    • Conflict resolution
    • Change management and issue resolution

Each of these aspects will now be discussed in more detail.

Selecting the Messenger

While communication and the development and maintenance of successful relationships with project stakeholders is the prime responsibility of the project manager, this does not mean that only the project manager should actually carry out all of the communication. It is important to consider the following factors when selecting the messenger for stakeholders requiring “heroic” communication: these are key or important stakeholders whose current attitude is far removed from the target attitude defined by the project team as necessary for success of the project. A situation may arise in which the stakeholder is not interested in any information about the project from anyone in the project team. In this event, it is important to select a stakeholder who is supportive of the work of the project and who is willing to deliver the information on behalf of the project. Often this supportive stakeholder will have been identified through an understanding of which individuals within the stakeholder community or outside it can influence the stakeholder's attitude and who will be “heard” by the key or important stakeholder. On other occasions, the project manager may select a team member to be assigned to communication responsibilities as part of the individual's growth and development. It is not possible for the project manager to carry out all of the communication, so the plan must reflect an allocation of these responsibilities according to the concepts discussed above.

Influence Networks

Exhibit 4 depicts a project's potential connections. Stakeholders can have connections to the project but also outside the influence of the project. Network structures such as these can assist the project manager and team to identify connections between stakeholders in the project stakeholder community who do not necessarily have connections through the project team or the project communication network. Using a simple device such as a simplified network analysis around one individual, the team selects a supportive stakeholder who has influence over the unsupportive stakeholder.

Example of an influence network

Exhibit 4: Example of an influence network.

Selecting the most appropriate stakeholder for this activity may result from information collected by asking the following questions:

  • With whom does the target stakeholder work? (an undirected relationship)
  • Whom does the target stakeholder ask for help? To whom does he or she give advice? (directed relationship)
  • Whom does the target stakeholder communicate with regularly or frequently? How often? (For example, never/monthly/weekly/daily?) (indicates the strength of the relationship)
  • Whom does the target stakeholder meet with outside work, in a social context? (multiplex relationships).

By reviewing the information collected in this way and comparing with the data collected from stakeholder analysis, it should be relatively easy to find an appropriate ambassador for the project.

Defining the Method

The method of communication should be considered in two different frames: first, as the mechanism for communication, and second, as the technique used to communicate. The PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008, p. 256) describes the mechanisms, while the techniques are defined by Thomsett (2009).

Mechanisms are categorized as:

  • Interactive: where the sender(s) and recipient(s) share information or make decisions together. The best mechanisms will be meetings, telephone calls, video-conference, and chat rooms.
  • Push: specially constructed messages to meet a specific purpose that must take into account the needs of the individual stakeholder as well as the project and possible other external bodies such as the organization, the country, or the government. Most effort needs to be expended on this type of communication delivery mechanism, the techniques of which are described in this paper. Push mechanisms include written documents, both formal and informal, including reports, delivered both electronically and in hard copy, but may also include elements of the interactive mechanisms.
  • Pull: large volumes of data or information (or content) made available to be selected at stakeholder discretion through intranet sites, libraries, and knowledge repositories.

Techniques are related to the purpose of the message (to be covered below), the messenger's personal style, and the communication preferences of the recipient of the communication. However, they are also categorized as:

  • Interactive: multidirectional exchange of information, conversations, and knowledge-sharing through conversations, to ensure common understanding by all participants on specific limited topics. The best technique to use for negotiation and conflict resolution.
  • Push: incorporates the concepts of goals reinforcement with “rewards and punishment,” also logical processes of persuasion (“if A occurs, then B will probably occur next”). A technique used in marketing to create consumer demand for a product, it incorporates “left-brain” modes of thinking and elements of control.
  • Pull: participation and trust, based on a shared vision and common goals. In marketing, the aim is to build up consumer demand for a product. It is applied to communication techniques in that the desired outcome depends on appeals to the common good.

Purpose of the message

When the method of communication is interactive or push, the purpose of the message must be clearly understood by the sender and usually by the recipient. There are at least four types of reasons for communication:

  • Call to action: the purpose of the communication is to seek a decision or support from stakeholders or to mobilize other stakeholders to do something to the benefit of the project
  • Concerning information (either disseminated or collected)
  • Changing viewpoints (influencing attitude)
  • Clarification of concerns or issues to raise awareness

Communication for Special Purposes

  • Negotiation: an interactive mode of communication in which usually two parties seek to come to a final resolution or agreement that satisfies the needs, expectations, or requirements of both parties. All techniques may be used in the process of arriving at a mutually acceptable result.
  • Conflict resolution: conflict cannot be ignored, and different approaches must be considered depending on whether a quick result is more important than maintaining the relationship. Generally the two are polar positions. The process will contain elements of interactive techniques as well as of the push and pull techniques.
  • Change management and issue resolution: require an understanding of the issue to be addressed, the best option for resolution, and the impact of all options. Options must always include “do nothing.”

Conclusion

Effective communication is central to building relationships through understanding and managing the expectations (unrealistic expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled) of stakeholders, especially those stakeholders who have been identified as key or important. Satisfied and supportive stakeholders result from delivering what they need (as defined by them) to meet their (managed) expectations. As the research has shown, project success is closely connected to understanding and managing relationships between the project and its stakeholder community.

This paper has described at a very high level why project reports are not always enough. Reports are only part of the necessary toolset for ensuring project success. The project team must not only manage within the constraints of schedule, budget, and scope as reflected in the reports, but also must recognize that successful stakeholder relationship management relies on both the science and art of communication to be effective. Developing and broadcasting reports are much easier than the other work that contributes to building and maintaining successful stakeholder relationships. But for all projects except the simplest, management of stakeholder expectations must not be ignored—the effort expended on developing and reviewing communication strategies and implementing the plans will pay off, with the reward being more supportive stakeholders, credibility, reputation, fewer “nasty surprises,” and reduced risk of project failure.

References

Bourne, L. (2009). Stakeholder relationship management: A maturity model for organisational implementation. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Gower.

Bourne, L., & Walker, D. H. T. (2003, June). Tapping into the power lines—A 3rd dimension of project management beyond leading and managing. Paper presented at 17th World Congress on Project Management, Moscow, Russia.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. London: Hutchinson.

KPMG. (2005). Global IT project management survey: How committed are you? Sydney, Australia: KPMG Information Risk Management Practice.

Lemon, W. F., Bowitz, J., Burns, J., & Hackney, R. (2002, April/June). Information systems project failure: A comparative study of two countries. Journal of Global Information Management 10(2) pp 28-39.

Murray-Webster, R., & Hillson, D. (2008). Managing group risk attitude. Aldershot, UK: Gower.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Sauer, C. (1993). Why information systems fail: A case study approach. Henley-on-Thames, UK: Alfred Waller.

Thomsett, R. (2009, August). Networking: Building your professional power. Proceedings of PMOZ, Canberra, Australia.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2010, Dr Lynda Bourne
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Melbourne Australia

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