The dispersed projects sharpen the tools for any project
New ways to communicate over the Internet have clearly improved the way project teams can work with its members geographically dispersed. This paper on electronic collaboration and best practises for geographically dispersed projects addresses two key questions:
- How can we improve our ability to find and secure motivated project members?
- How can we improve our ability to interact with project members?
The paper begins with a survey of what the literature says about geographically dispersed projects: success factors, competence criteria and use of electronic tools. The subsequent analysis is based on a survey and interviews with project managers at TeliaSonera. The focus is on the two key issues above, i.e. securing project members for the project and communicating with them. The paper concludes with a set of recommendations for the project manager as well as for the enterprise that wants to stay at the forefront of project management in the era of Facebook, On-line dating and Skype video conferencing.
Theme of paper
The theme of the paper is that the electronic tools that are indispensible for management of geographically dispersed projects will improve the efficiency in any project, also the ones with many co-located project members. The focus of the paper is on securing project members and communicating with them – not on project administration tools like MS project for Gantt schemes, etc.
What can better tools do for distributed meetings?
Building a high-performance team is challenging even when everyone is in the same place. There are at least three challenges – can we turn them into an advantage with electronic collaboration?
- In face-to-face meetings Project Managers use post-it notes, white boards, wall-papers, etc as means to stimulate the creativity of the group. It’s a challenge to maintain creativity and productivity when we are limited to phone conferences and shared software applications.
- Participants are not focused in the meeting. Every project manager has experienced participants that don’t pay attention or even vanish from the meeting without notice.
- Distance reduces collaboration and so trust among members builds more slowly.
Skilled professionals need tools that are up to date
When we need surgery or visit the dentist we wish to meet a professional that has an up to date education and a good portion of experience. We also want the tools to be used to be modern and efficient. In project management literature (Duarte & Snyder, 2006) the importance of engaging in communication is unanimously repeated. With the communications technology so rapidly developing, there is a risk that our project owners feel as uncomfortable as they would do going to a dentist using an obsolete drill?
Paper focuses on two challenges for dispersed projects
The paper focuses on two challenges that we see in all projects, but that are especially pronounced in projects with geographically dispersed projects:
- How can we improve our ability to find and secure motivated project members?
To find and secure adequate human resources is a major challenge for every project manager. For dispersed projects the situation is even more challenging, since it’s more difficult to know where the right expertise can be found and as the literature (Duarte & Snyder, 2006; Goodbody, J, 2005; LaBrosse, M, 2008) suggests - dispersed project members need certain qualities, such as being passionate and self-controlled. The process to staff a project is today usually manual and founded on personal networking. Is this the most efficient way to find new “friends” in the age of Facebook and on-line dating?
- How can we improve our ability to interact with project members?
Once the project members are on board we need to have the tools to interact. Preferably, the tools should enhance the result so that the efficiency and engagement is higher than for face-to-face meetings.
Delimitation – NOT project administration
Tools and practices that a project manager uses to administrate a project are not included. The paper does NOT cover challenges for a project manager like:
- How to make project administration simpler with a complex tool like MS Project?
- How to store and later find documents efficiently?
- How to collect correct information for time reports?
- How to collect correct information for cost reports?
Trend to work in geographically dispersed teams
There is a global trend to work in geographically dispersed teams. The trend is strongly pronounced in TeliaSonera (a telecom provider) where the author works as a project manager. Projects as well as line organization units are geographically distributed to whatever location the experts reside. The interest in electronic communications is propelled by an increased interest to reduce travelling due to environmental and cost considerations.
What does the literature say about geographically dispersed projects
Why geographically dispersed projects?
Most of the literature agrees that there are benefits to be gained from geographically dispersed projects (from now on only called dispersed projects). The use of electronic collaboration technology and other techniques today allow us to leverage the best talent where they might reside, lower travel and facility costs, reduce project schedules, and improve decision –making time and communication (Boutellier, R., Gassmann, O., Macho, H., & Roux, M.,1998).
A recent publication (LaBrosse, M., 2008) summarizes the pros to be gained under seven headings:
- Access to talent
- Offer more flexibility
- Increase productivity
- Tap into globalization
- Reduce expenses
- Be easier on environment
- Become more inclusive (workers with physical challenges get more opportunities)
Different phases in the project require different tools
Different phases in a project might require different collaboration tools (Boutellier, R., Gassmann, O., Macho, H., & Roux, M., 1998) Early phases require closer interaction than later phases. In the initial phases face-to-face meetings or high quality meetings are important. Later details can be settled with non-visual communication media like e-mail and phone meetings.
Challenges for dispersed projects
The literature unanimously acknowledges the challenges associated with dispersed teams. “Building a high-performance team is challenging even when everyone is in the same place.” . “Distance reduces collaboration so trust among members builds more slowly. Not only difficult but also 20 – 100 % more costly” (Crowley, E., 2005).
In addition to the team building challenges, there is considerable cost for travels, especially if indirect costs are included (Boutellier, R., Gassmann, O., Macho, H., & Roux, M., 1998):
- cost for being absent from family
- cost for being absent from colleagues
“Conflicts can remain unidentified and so take longer to resolve. This is especially true of teams relying on non-visual communication media like e-mail and phone meetings”. (Crowley, E.,2005
Exhibit 1 Crowly's list of top success strategies
Success factors for dispersed teams
Several researchers have formulated strategies for dispersed teams. Crowly  has a list of top success strategies for distributed teams (right):
Three of the strategies from this and other sources sources (Goodbody, J., 2005; Hart, R K & McLeod, P L., 2002) I find of extra interest and novelty:
➔ Share info prior to a meeting is more important
For meetings where the members can not meet face-to-face to share info prior to a meeting is invaluable. Each member prepares a 6-10 bullet-point overview of progress, issues and action plans (Goodbody, J., 2005).
➔ Focus on the task first – before team-building
Hart and McLeod (2002) present an interesting idea to invert the team-building process. They suggest starting with intensive task-related communication at a distance, and following up with face-to-face opportunities for team buildings before returning to distant locations for more work. Other papers (Boutellier, R., Gassmann, O., Macho, H., & Roux, M., 1998) though emphasize the need for face-to-face interaction and socializing before it’s possible to get down to business.
➔ Form pairs of shared responsibilities
Attempt to strengthen weakened team relationships by giving pairs shared responsibilities, and getting them to interact more frequently (Hart, R K & McLeod, P L., 2002)
Competence criteria for dispersed team members
Some papers (Goodbody, J., 2005; LaBrosse, M., 2008) point out that some people are more suitable for dispersed teams than others. In a virtual team, members must be self-starters, able to manage their own time and priorities without too much overseeing (Goodbody, J., 2005). Being highly technically literate is a primary criterion for success (LaBrosse, M., 2008).
People who love what they are doing work well virtually, so we shall look for passion [(La Brosse, M., 2008). Or, as proposed later in the thesis – can we establish tools and practices that enable people to find the project of their passion?
On tools to support dispersed projects
The PMBOK Guide® clearly states that the knowledge, skills and processes it describes are not a how-to for project success: “Rather, skilled project managers decide what aspects of the PMBOK Guide® to apply to any given project – including which tools are appropriate where” (PMI, 2008; Bolwerk, T. G., 2006, p 1)..
A project needs to produce not only explicit knowledge but also tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is intuitive, experimental and based on heuristics, whereas explicit knowledge is structured and coded in some formal way. Audio/video digital systems, such as MSN Messenger, Office Groove, and Skype support socialization and tacit knowledge (El-Teyeh, A. & Gil N., 2007).
A Mind Map can represent complex information in an organized, easy-to-understand visual format. The Mindjet MindManger  is promoted as the basis for creation of scope statement, WBS, risk analysis or other activities where information from a brain-storm session needs to be collected and organized.
What tools can be used for collaboration? LaBrosse (2008) writes that they started a Wiki to reduce the e-mail and to better capture initiatives and decisions. A Wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser.
Contact points, such as coffee machines and copiers, are an advantage in any project (Richtnér, A. Rognes. J. (2008). How can we establish a virtual café as an informal contact point for dispersed projects?
Unified Communications – the next big thing
Unified Communications represents the next big thing in networking. Unified communications integrates real-time communication services (instant messaging, presence information, telephony, video conferencing, call control and speech recognition) with non real-time communication services (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax) on an IP-based platform. It holds a promise to improve customer/sales support, general business communications and not the least, team building.
Team building can take advantage of the possibility for an individual to send a message on one medium and receive on another. The presence application gives real-time information about a person’s availability. Managers and co-workers can find each other in time without having to waste time on searching for people. The trend is towards a set of collaboration applications that are intuitive, easy to use and often automated. The point is that communications support is constantly evolving and dispersed teams have and will continue to benefit from the learning how to use the new unified communications tool box.
Conditions to be in place for successful dispersed teams
The role of technology in dispersed teams is one of overcoming the complexities of time and distance in communication and collaboration. Introducing the electronic communication and collaboration technology needed for virtual networks requires, according to Duarte & Snyder (2006) four primary organizational conditions to be in place:
- Established information systems staff that support electronic collaboration technology in many different locations.
- There is a commitment by the organization to keep personal computer systems up-to-date, regardless of a person’s title or duties.
- A well-maintained corporate network that has room to expand to meet the needs of more complex systems and users.
- The organization has a set of leaders who are willing to model the use of advanced forms of electronic collaboration and communication technology.
Analysis of resource allocation tools
The analysis is an extract of results from a survey answered by project managers at TeliaSonera:
Project managers agree that resource allocation needs to be quicker
The survey confirms that resource allocation is a major challenge for project managers that significantly prolongs the project duration.
No tool alone can secure resources
The studied literature  emphasized the opportunity for dispersed projects to “tap the globalization” and find the right or best resources. For this we need better tools than we have today and the third respondent presented plans for improvement. None of the respondents in the interviews believed that a job site or resource web site could secure resources in a fully automated way - the resource allocation process will need support from the project office and line managers.
A radical approach to find the best and most committed resources
For dispersed projects, where the project manager needs to find resources in parts of the organization where he/she is not familiar, is more difficult than for a local project. How can we find the members with the passion for the project goal, that La Brosse (2008) claim to be decisive for success?
One way to direct the motivation towards project members could be to reverse the resource allocation process - to let the project participants find the project instead of the project finding them. A reversed allocation process would force project owners and project managers to describe goals and tasks very well – a good thing for any new project. To allow employees to look for a project job has the potential to solve two dilemmas that are especially challenging for distributed teams:
- How can we find the best (least used, highest expertise etc.) resource when we are no longer restricted to look only within our own office? Can we exploit that the project member knows what is best for her/him rather than a manager that has 20 more people to think about.
- How can we maximize the commitment for tasks that are not directly visible to their line manager? A project member that has signed up at his/her own initiative is more committed than someone that has been assigned.
An example when a reversed resource allocation process has been successful is provided by Google. As an interesting motivation technique (usually called Innovation Time Off), all Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time (one day per week) on projects that interest them. In a talk called “License to Pursue Dreams” (Mayer M., 2006), at Stanford University, Marissa Mayer Google’s Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, stated that her analysis showed that half of the new product launches originated from the 20% time.
As pointed out by Christensen, C. M. (2002, p 95) we must be aware that middle management usually protects the existing structure and are seldom keen on new methods suggested by neither top management nor employees. In conclusion, to introduce a motivation technique directed towards project members it seems that we need to start with small scale trials, see next section on recommendation.
Analysis of project communication tools
The analysis is an extract of results from a survey answered by project managers at TeliaSonera:
Project managers agree that communication in dispersed projects is difficult
The survey confirms that communication in a dispersed project is a major challenge for project managers.
Large enterprises usually have the right conditions for dispersed projects
It’s my experience that TeliaSonera comply with the four technical and organizational prerequisites for successful dispersed projects formulated by Duarte & Snyder (2006). The challenge for large enterprises is often primarily to go beyond the introductory phase and improve the already established information platform.
We need training in tools and best practices
We often have access to adequate tools but what is important is to improve the way we use them. As pointed out by La Brosse, M. (2008) the technical literacy is a success factor for dispersed teams. It takes time and effort to learn the tools we have in the best way. Therefore project managers need to get support and encouragement to learn new tools.
Recommendations to project managers in the literature are often centred on establishing practices. Also several of the respondents spontaneously saw shortcomings in practices used in dispersed projects rather than limitations with the tools. Some of the recommendations in the next section therefore include also practices for communication.
No strong support for video or need to improve phone conferences
In the survey project managers were asked: “Video pictures at the desktop would improve the quality of phone conferences. There was also a question suggesting that Skype video conferencing is now so widely spread for private use that we will soon demand the same function for professional use.
Why was not the support for the statement stronger than it was - as many agreed as disagreed? One explanation, suggested in discussion with project managers, is that many project managers are not interested or motivated in new technology. This suggests that we should use the best communication technology, but upgrades should be infrequent and only introduced when user friendly and simple to use.
Various opinions on the need for face-to-face meetings
In some of the literature (Boutellier, R., Gassmann, O., Macho, H., & Roux, M., 1998) the importance of face-to-face meetings at the early phases was emphasized. In other literature (Hart, R. K. & McLeod, P. L., 2002) the recommendation was to focus on tasks first and face-to-face team building later. Respondents in my interviews expressed their sympathy for face-to-face meetings at regular or strategic points in time. The way we have changed the way we work over remote distances could not have happened without the ease that we now set up web conferences and share information.
What a project manager can do to improve resource allocation
The analysis emphasizes the importance of best practices to secure the ever changing resource need, leading to two recommendations:
Embrace new tools that help to find and secure resources!
To use only personal networking is slow and with the risk that best resources are never identified and line management is uncommitted.
Invest time in securing the resource!
Invest time in talking to the resource owner and ensure that other tasks are removed.
Invest time in ensuring that the project members really want to participate. If the commitment is low one option is of course to try to find a new resource. This is often not possible so the challenge is to change the attitude – the key is then often to learn the project member’s way of working and to show interest in the results.
What a project manager can do to improve communication
The analysis points towards that the tools available are adequate and that the success of a dispersed project can be influenced a lot with the way the tools are used. Below are two recommendations on electronic collaboration complemented with a related recommendation on best practices:
Make the project portal a place where things happen!
Try to use has all the bells and whistles your project portal offers. The project portal can be structured into two parts: An open part that all intranet users can read. The purpose is to be an entry point to the project with contents like:
- A short summary of the project
- Names of steering group members
- Start and end dates
- Passed and future decision points
- ”Documents published on the intranet” – a list of links to approved deliverables where they are permanently stored
A secluded part for project members and other authorized stakeholders. The purpose is to efficiently share information within the project and to keep stakeholders informed through information such as:
- Weekly newsletters
- Action Points – project members should see only their own APs
- Announcements, e.g. new directives from steering groups, plans for workshop etc.
- Working documents, presentations and excel sheets
- E-mails important to the project
- Time reporting (if not handled in another way)
Upgrade your conference tool kit!
Equip every project member with a camera (but for the next laptop the camera should be built in). Exploit the features that your web conferencing service should offer:
- Show a video picture of yourself and project members to improve the presence in the meeting
- Use the phone bridge to be able to see who is online and who that might have dropped out.
- Use the white board to draw on documents or PowerPoints
- Let project members record introductions of themselves – when a new member is invited he/she can watch the recorded presentations prior to the meeting and focus on presenting him/herself.
Establish communication rules for dispersed projects!
At face-to-face kick-off the project manager should establish the rules for communication, e.g.:
- Participation in meetings is voluntary – the agenda must motivate participation
- Meetings are structured in time slots so that not everyone have to participate/be active all the time
- Everyone uses MSN for quick questions – but don’t be obliged to answer if you are busy
- Group SMS is used to call all members for urgent problem resolution
- A portal is used according to best practices above
- Complement with meetings in video conference rooms and face-to-face meetings.
What the enterprise needs to do for resource allocation
All projects, and especially the dispersed projects where we want to tap into globalization and access the best talent , need support to find and secure project resources. For dispersed projects it’s even more important that members are passionate and motivated. These recommendations are directed towards finding project members motivated to participate in a dispersed project:
- Establish a data base of employees that would like to be contacted for projects. Portfolio/project managers would use the database to match the employees’ CVs with upcoming projects – an Internet based dating service can be the model.
- Make the emerging resource allocation tools open for all employees. Employees would then get an opportunity to influence and act according to their motivation. An open site would have the extra benefit to stimulate to produce better descriptions of the project goal as well as the tasks at hand.
- Let employees apply for participation in a new key project in order to evaluate if there are sufficient benefits in giving the initiative to future project members.
What the enterprise needs to do to stay at the forefront of communications
The tools for electronic collaboration develop rapidly. To stay at the forefront we need training in both tools and best practices for dispersed projects. Recommendations are:
➔ Improve the tools for electronic collaboration
Find pathfinders that are ready to exploit new tools in their project work: a new type of wiki, use of mindmap in conference calls, ways to exploit video to the desktop and more.
➔ Improve the training of communication and collaborations skills
Being highly technically literate is a primary criterion for success . Train project managers and project members so that they have the skills for advanced communication. With a focus on leading dispersed projects the training should include best practices for communication.
Recent research on dispersed teams has been analyzed and compared with experience from TeliaSonera project managers. The analysis leads to a set of recommendations that project managers of dispersed teams can apply already today:
- Invest time in securing resources
- Embrace emerging tools/web sites that coordinate resource allocation
- Make the project portal a place where things happen
- Upgrade your conference tool kit
- Establish communication rules for dispersed projects
Part of the recommendation is directed towards Corporate Control and Organizational Development within the large enterprise that needs to stay at the forefront of management of dispersed projects:
- Improve the systems for project resource allocation
- Improve the tools for electronic collaboration
- Improve the training of communication and collaborations skills
The tools that are indispensible for successful management of dispersed teams will sharpen the tool box for any project, be it a local or a dispersed project!
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© 2010, Nils Björkman
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy