The communications pipeline--instrumentation, diagnosis, measures and maintenance

Robert Martin, PMP, Manager, Project Management Office, Entergy Corporation

Rajesh Gupta, PMP, Program Manager, Entergy Corporation


A well-known statistic is that effective project managers spend about 90% of their time or about seven hours in a typical workday, on communications. The logical deduction is that productive work is accomplished during this time, as there is not much time left in the rest of the workday.

Thus, evaluating the effectiveness of project managers requires a proper understanding of the specific project management activities that are linked to project communications. Moreover, the relationship among daily project management tasks such as change management, risk and issue management, earned value and project status reporting must be understood.

This paper will present guidelines on measures that could be used to assess the effectiveness of project management communications. Using the pipeline analogy, direct and surrogate measures that could be used for predictive diagnostics on the effectiveness of project communications will be presented. Emphasis will be placed on the type of communications, frequency of communications, completeness of information and the accuracy and availability of data to project team members. Techniques that could be used to maintain communications flow through the analogous information pipeline will be discussed.

The Role of the Project Manager

The key role of the project manager is to ensure that the project goals are met and are to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders. Specifically, this role may be defined as one to ensure that the project is completed within budget and schedule and that the goals of the project are satisfactorily met. To assist in meeting the forgoing objectives, the project manager has to ensure that the nine knowledge areas outlined in the Project Management Institute's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®Guide) are being effectively deployed on the project. These knowledge areas are listed below.

  1. 1, Project Integration Management
  2. 2. Project Scope Management
  3. 3. Project Time Management
  4. 4. Project Cost Management
  5. 5. Project Quality Management
  6. 6. Project Human Resource Management
  7. 7. Project Communications Management
  8. 8. Project Risk Management
  9. 9. Project Procurement Management

It should be noted that in practice these nine tasks are not performed in a serial manner but performed simultaneously. Thus the ability to multi-task becomes of paramount importance in order to perform all nine functions effectively. Indeed, the caricature shown in Exhibit 1 is quite apt in describing the challenges faced by project managers. Dropping the “ball” can often lead to adverse consequences. Keeping abreast of all of the tasks on the projects and implementing the nine knowledge areas can be quite daunting. A major concern is how the status of these nine functions are effectively communicated to stakeholders, project team members, customers, vendors and contractors.

It should also be noted that, although project managers have the ability to control the use of resources on their projects, they generally do not hire and supervise the work of project team members. Project team members generally report to functional managers who provide technical direction to them. In this scenario, the communication skills of the project manager are further challenged, as functional managers constantly need to be updated on the status of projects. A variety of media are available to the project manager to meet these communication challenges. Some of these media are described in the following sections.

Multi-Tasking Responsibilities of the Project Manager

Exhibit 1: Multi-Tasking Responsibilities of the Project Manager

Face to Face Meetings

Face to face meetings are a traditional communications medium on projects. This type of project communications works well when the project team is collocated in the same physical area. Face to face meetings provide participants with opportunity to observe and participate in non-verbal communications. Eye contact and body language are the most common form of non-verbal communications. The potential of combining non-verbal communications with the synergistic benefits of meeting in a team environment makes face to face meetings one of the most effective form of project communications that is available to the project manager.

However, in today's project environment it is not unusual to have project teams located in different parts of the country, and sometimes, different parts of the world (Noor, Gupta & Hudgens, 2003). This logistical challenge rules out the possibility of face-to-face meetings. In cases where it is impossible to meet face to face on a regular basis, reconfirmation and reinforcement of the message through other communication media can reduce the potential for miscommunication.

An informal survey of fifteen project managers working on electrical substations and transmission lines for a major US electric utility reveal some interesting results regarding face to face meetings. According to the survey, project managers spend on average four to five hours per day on face-to-face meetings. These meetings were either with individuals or groups. From the forgoing data, it is evident that the majority of the time in a typical workday is spent on face-to-face project communications.

In order to ensure that the time spent on face-to-face meetings is used efficiently a number of perquisites need to be satisfied. For planned meetings, a meeting agenda is crucial to ensure that the subject matter and timetable are adhered to during each meeting. Communications in face-to-face meetings can be aided by the use of Parking Lot and Action Items mechanism to address issues that could not be resolved in meetings. There is a wealth of published literature on running effective meetings (Kerzner, 2001; Frame, 1994).

Electronic Project Communications

Electronic data management and communication tools assist the project manager in disseminating project information. The use of electronic media for file storage and data retrieval is slowly replacing hard copy file cabinets. Project information including contracts, vendor data and technical information can be stored in databases using commercially available software. In addition, web-based reporting tools can be used to convey project information to a variety of audiences. An example of a project reporting tool is shown in Exhibit 2.

Example of a Summary Level Web Based Report

Exhibit 2: Example of a Summary Level Web Based Report

It should be noted that the data shown in Figure 2 is at a summary level. This data view provides a general overview of the status of projects. Note that the information in some columns can be color coded to highlight the presented data. A three-color scheme is suggested for simplicity. For example, cells in Figure 2 that are shaded green would represent a status that is tracking as planned. A yellow color would indicate a status that is cautionary. In these instances there is an opportunity for corrective action before an established limit is breached. A red color could be used to designate when a threshold criterion has been breached.

More detailed information on a project could be made available by clicking on the unique project identifier on the first column. This feature allows an individual to get more information on a project or to investigate the reason for a particular color code in a cell. This type of web based project reporting greatly assists the project manager in communicating to stakeholders and team members. Most the data shown in Figure 2 can be obtained directly from the project scheduling tools.

Electronic Mail

Electronic mail has become a common project communication tool. This method of communication can serve to provide general project information. It can also be used to solicit specific information. In these cases, time is spent on formulating a response and gathering supporting data. This time could be reduced if electronic files are available that could be easily referenced. Ignoring a request for data submitted via electronic mail can damage project communications. In these cases, by copying the request to other parties on the electronic mail, the number of communication channels increases making a response mandatory and extending the communication process. It is important for parties copied on an electronic mail for information purposes only to be aware of some basic etiquette. If they need more information or further clarification, this can be facilitated by follow-up discussion or in some cases, a short telephone call. An all-day electronic mail dialogue can be counter-productive and hamper project communications.

Virtual Team Meetings

Virtual team meetings can be used instead of face to face meetings. Affordable and reliable technologies are now available for conducting virtual team meetings. Webinars and the use of Internet technologies offer additional project communications tools for the project manager. It should be noted that virtual team meetings should follow the same meeting rules as face to face meetings. Since participants may be residing in different time zones, the time of the meeting needs to be coordinated with all the participants. In addition, meeting materials should be available electronically so that all participants can access the information.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Project Communications

Despite the variety of project communication media that are available to the project manager, there are a few empirical measures that could be used to assess the effectiveness of project communications. One logical measure of the effectiveness of project communications is to determine how well the project manager is addressing the different project management tasks shown in Exhibit 1. For simplicity, the nine functions described in Figure 1 can be broken into two main areas. The first is the Planning and Definition phase of the project and the second is the Executing and Controlling phase. This simplification of the process is pragmatic and maps closely to the manner in which projects are executed. The logical sequence is that you define the scope and the project plan and then track and control the project to the end.

In the Planning and Definition phase of a project, the project scope needs to be defined and the appropriate project budget and schedule determined. A possible measure of effective project communications during this project phase could be a check on how well the scope and requirements of the project are defined. The project manager has to ensure that the project requirements are clearly articulated. In addition, for requirements to be confirmed and accepted as part of a project they must be able to be tested and then independently verified by endusers and customers.

This situation is best described by the illustration shown in Exhibit 3. The situation shown in Exhibit 3, is common on Information Systems and Software Development projects. Project requirements can only be accepted when all three key conditions shown in the Venn Diagram are met. Thus, a surrogate measure of effective project communications in the Planning and Definition Phase lies in the monitoring of events such as requirements gathering meetings, process modeling sessions, development of testing plans and facilities, and enduser participation in the overall process.

Other key deliverables in the Planning and Definition Phase are a project budget and schedule. The schedule must take into consideration resource constraints and any project milestones. The budget, which is tied to the schedule, must have contingency provisions for risks that may occur on the project. The concept of risk-weighted cost estimates is not new (Noor & Rye, 2000). There are some key steps involved in this process.

Approach for Determining Acceptable Project Requirements

Figure 3: Approach for Determining Acceptable Project Requirements

The first step in determining a risk-weighted cost estimate for a project is conducting a review of the cost estimate. The cost estimate, together with the Basis of Estimate (BOE) documentation, must be examined in order to conduct an estimate review. The intent of the cost estimate review is to ensure that the estimate matches the scope of work, and that that there are no obvious errors and omissions. This “sanity check” on the cost estimate is important in understanding what were the assumptions in the cost estimate and thus what risks are likely to affect the project budget.

It is recommended that the cost estimate review be performed with the project team and a team of external subject matter experts. These experts are usually senior technical leads who have work experience on similar projects. Another surrogate measure of the effectiveness of project communications is the total cost adjustment and revisions to the original cost estimate that occur as result of the estimate being reviewed. It should be noted that the cost estimate ideally should not contain any hidden costs or contingencies. The estimate should represent the most likely costs based on the available data. This lean cost estimate is used to establish a baseline estimate from which the impacts of risks can be analyzed.

Once the baseline cost estimate is established, a risk ranging session (Noor &Rye, 2000), can then be conducted to determine the major risks on the project and how much contingency should be placed in the project budget. This method of arriving at contingency is risk based and it allows the project manager to develop contingency drawdown plots that show when the contingency will be used. An example of a drawdown plot is shown in Exhibit 4. It should be noted that in the example shown in Exhibit 4, the full contingency sum of $629,701 is needed at the start of the project. However, as the impact dates for risks are safely passed, the appropriate contingency sum for that risk can be withdrawn if the risk does not occur. This approach to contingency management allows for the most efficient use of project funds as monies are not needlessly tied up for the entire duration of the project.

Example of a Contingency Drawdown Plot

Exhibit 4: Example of a Contingency Drawdown Plot

In the Planning and Definition Phase of a project, measures can be placed on the activities involved in defining project requirements, defining a baseline schedule and in developing a project budget. In the Executing and Controlling Phase of a project, the key function of the project manager can be summarized as the management of issues and risks. Risks are defined to be any event that has a likelihood of occurrence, which could impact the budget, schedule, or the quality of project deliverables. Metrics to measure project communications during the Executing and Controlling Phase of a project should ideally be based around the activities associated with continuous issue and risk management.

The Continuous Risk and Issue Management (CRIM) Process

Risk and Issue management is not a one-time event that is performed at the start of a project, but is a continuous process that takes place throughout the life of a project (Noor, 2001). As the project is executed, risks and issues are closed out and new ones are continuously identified. The emphasis has to be on constant vigilance to ensure that they are identified in a timely manner and prudent decisions are made at the appropriate levels to address them. The advantage of preparing risk-weighted cost estimates in the Planning and Definition Phase is that it provides the contingency funds needed to manage risks. In order to understand how the effectiveness of project communications can be measured through CIRM a review of some basic risk management concepts is required.

CIRM Definitions

At this juncture, it is prudent to define what is an issue and what is a risk from the standpoint of this paper. An Issue is defined as any point of contention that may result in a risk if it is not resolved in a timely manner. An example of an issue could be a concern by a project team member about the resource allocation on a particular task. The resolution of the Issue would generally involve an investigation into the matter with the appropriate actions taken before the task is scheduled to begin. Generally, the Issue resolution process does not require monies to be spent from the contingency fund in the budget. Instead, phone calls, memoranda, electronic mail and other communication tools could be used to arrive at a resolution.

A measure of the effectiveness of project communications could be found by an examination of the churn rate of issues on the project. An example of the issue churn rate on a project is shown in Exhibit 6. As the project is being executed, the number of open issues should steadily decrease. Various measures including the ratio of open issues to unresolved issues could be tracked on a monthly basis.

Example of Issue Churn Rate during a Project

Exhibit 6: Example of Issue Churn Rate during a Project

Risks, on the other hand, refer to any event for which a probability of occurrence can be ascribed and which, if it occurs, can adversely impact the budget, schedule or quality of deliverables on a project. The link between an issue and a risk is that, if the issue is not successfully resolved it, could evolve into a risk thereby jeopardizing the project's schedule, budget or quality of its deliverables.

To properly document a risk, its three major components must be defined. These components include a clear succinct statement of the risk event. In addition, the probability of occurrence of the event needs to be defined. The third component is the impact of the risk. If a risk is not successfully resolved before its impact date then it becomes a problem. In this context, a problem relates to an event, situation or matter that has occurred or is occurring on the project and which is having an adverse effect on the project's budget, schedule or the quality of project deliverables. Consequently, problems need to be addressed expeditiously.

Thus, it is prudent for project team members to identify and resolve issues before they become risks. In situations where risks are identified, it is important that they are addressed before they become problems. Thus the essence of the Issue and Risk Management program is to ensure that effective strategies are implemented on projects to ensure that issues are resolved and risks are successfully addressed, thus avoiding the costly consequences of dealing with problems.

There are various steps in the risk management process as shown in Exhibit 7.

Continuous Risk and Issue Management (CRIM) Model

Exhibit 7: Continuous Risk and Issue Management (CRIM) Model

These steps include risk identification, analysis, planning, tracking and control. As can be seen from Exhibit7, project communications plays an integral role in the CIRM process. As risks are being mitigated new ones are identified and the project manager has to ensure that the contingency funds are used in the most efficient manner. To assist with the prioritization of risks, a plot of probability versus risk impacts could be made. An example of this plot is shown in Exhibit 8. The risk mitigation goal is to reduce the probability and impact of risks to an acceptable level. The contingency funds spent for risk mitigation could be compared to the impact of the risks to determine the Return on Investment (ROI) of the risk mitigation plan. One measure of effective project communications could be the obtained from tracking the ROI on mitigated risks throughout the project.

Plot of Probability Versus Impact

Exhibit 8: Plot of Probability Versus Impact


As organizations continue to recognize the need for formal project management processes to help them better manage their projects, the role of the project manager will remain under close scrutiny. Since project managers spend about ninety percent of their time on project communications, measures should be established to assess the effectiveness of project communications. There are a lot of direct and surrogate measures that could be used to measure the effectiveness of project communications. These measures should be tied to the tasks that are required during the different phases of a project. Some of these tasks include preparation of the project budget and schedule and scope definition. A suggested measure is the monitoring of the issue and risk management process during the execution of a project.


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© 2004, Iqbal Noor, Robert Martin and Rajesh Gupta
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Prague, Czech Republic



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