Electronic project group meetings
taking advantage of technology
Liwana S. Bringelson, PMP, and Pariz F. Rad
Project management professionals have traditionally relied on computer hardware and software as tools to accomplish tracking and record-keeping tasks. Many software products are currently on the market that facilitate the breakdown and roll-up of task assignments, project budgets and time schedules. Such tools, the subject of many articles and advertisements, have been helpful in mastering some components of a manufacturing project: scope management, cost management and time management. However, another type of software technology is available to aid in a key element of project management: communication management .
This article briefly presents the types of electronic communication that are available, from a project management perspective. Two scenarios using this technology are also presented and discussed. Our objective is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of electronic communication in a large-scale project management environment, such as manufacturing, so that the benefits of these systems may be pursued and the disappointments reduced.
Electronic Communication Tools
Communication tools, whether electronic or not, aid in the management and dissemination of ideas and information. A project team must be in constant communication. Electronic communication can help project managers and members keep in touch, even though they may be in different locations and on different schedules. There are two basic types of electronic communication, as categorized by the time-frame of the interaction: asynchronous and synchronous (real-time).
The most common type of asynchronous electronic communication is electronic mail, or “e-mail.” Many companies have internal e-mail systems, as well as connections to the international information structure known as the Internet. This “information superhighway” provides an opportunity for a project manager to communicate right from the desk with project members, contractors and suppliers. Stakeholders can then review and respond to these e-mail messages when their schedules allow.
Real-time electronic communication occurs when each person receives the message from the other within milliseconds of it being sent. Communicating this way is like actually having an “electronic conversation.” There are software programs that enable project groups to communicate via computer systems. Such “electronic meeting software,” also known as Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS) or Groupware  has been developed to aid with a variety of tasks accomplished during group meetings. Parts of these meetings, which can be conducted from different rooms or locations via a computer network, include brainstorming, voting, ranking, and rating. These activities that are traditionally used in face-to-face meetings can be done in an electronic meeting.
Using this kind of technology, project members can participate in meetings even when they are at different locations. Software and hardware requirements for such systems range from local area networks and personal computers to engineering workstations connected via the Internet. Once the software is installed on the appropriate hardware, a project team may require some training to get acquainted with using this mode of communication for project meetings.
Now that we've given a brief overview of these communication technologies, we will describe two possible project scenarios. The implementation of electronic communication will be discussed.
Project Scenario I
As part of designing and installing a new assembly line for a product, it has become necessary to re-evaluate the selection of an optical shape-recognition device that will isolate defective products and eject such parts from the assembly line. Team members need to meet, electronically or otherwise, to select the most suitable device for this operation. The team membership is composed of the user/client organization, the design organization, and the construction/installation organization. The mission of the group during this meeting will be to:
- Identify the function of the device
- Brainstorm on possible modes of providing this function
- Select a short list of most likely candidates
- Perform a cost/benefit analysis on these candidates
- Select a candidate and authorize its implementation.
The success of this mission requires that each of the above stages receives input from all parties in a dynamic and synergistic fashion. Traditionally, a representative from each of the participating organizations would need to schedule a site visit to participate in a face-to-face meeting. Now, the field project manager has alternative methods of communication to complete these steps.
E-mail. If e-mail is the chosen mode of communication, the field project manager sends e-mail to all parties describing the problem and soliciting ideas. Each of the team members, in turn, generates ideas and forwards them to all other parties. This process is repeated several times for each of the phases outlined above. The field project manager, who serves as the moderator for this mission, periodically sends e-mail to all parties to clarify issues and/or make course adjustments for the discussion. Eventually, the field project manager compiles and tabulates any numerical or narrative data, reports the findings to the upper management for approval, and implements the final decision.
Electronic Discussion. To use an electronic meeting, the field manager has to communicate with representatives from each of the three involved organizations to identify a time when they can all meet. Once that time is identified, the field manager sets up the agenda for the electronic meeting. This includes identifying which type of action/discussion tool would be useful for each agenda item. For example, an electronic brain-storming tool would be used to generate ideas for possible methods for improving the function, while a rating tool would be used to evaluate the ideas that were generated. At the appointed meeting time, each representative connects to the electronic meeting and they proceed through the agenda. The field project manager, or another qualified facilitator, is responsible for managing the meeting and the meeting software. At the conclusion of the meeting, the field project manager has the information needed to proceed with the project, or schedules another to resolve any issues that need to be addressed after this meeting and before the next one.
Project Scenario II
As the construction of plant 56 of XYZ Corporation in Australia was nearing completion, an explosion destroyed a portion of the packaging segment of this plant. This plant was to begin operation within a month, and the product of this plant is the most profitable line of the company. The plant manager has been able to identify two options: put the redesign and re-construction of this part of the plant on a fast track or send un-packaged goods to another plant in Malaysia for packaging. There may be other options that have not yet occurred to the plant manager. The plant manager needs to assemble a task force in order to reach a resolution within the next 24 hours. Given that the design house is in Texas, the XYZ home office in Maine, and the divisional headquarters in California, it is impossible to physically collect all the project team members within the next 24 hours. Therefore, electronic communication is an appropriate medium for communication. The mission of the group during this meeting will be to:
- Assess the extent of the damage to the profit forecast.
- Brainstorm on possible solutions beyond what the plant manager has provided.
- Select a short list of most desirable olutions.
- Perform a cost/benefit analysis on these solutions.
- Select an option and authorize its implementation.
Similar to the situation presented in Project Scenario I (and many other project situations), this scenario requires input from all parties in a dynamic and synergistic fashion at each of the above stages to reach a logical solution at the lowest possible cost.
E-mail. This type of communication is used very similarly to the method discussed in Scenario I: mass mailing from the plant manager to all parties, with the plant manager acting as the collector and moderator of the discussion. Eventually, the plant manager compiles and tabulates any numerical or narrative data, and implements the final decision. No further approval is necessary because a representative of the XYZ headquarters is on this team.
Electronic Discussion. Since all members of this project team must be on-call for this project, an electronic discussion mode is the best choice. This mode of communication allows a speedy interchange among the members, allows dynamic brainstorming, and facilitates productive decision making. During an electronic problem-solving session, team members have the opportunity to build on each other's ideas. The team members can see the results of numeric and narrative data and are thereby able to fine-tune their decisions during the team discussion.
Compared to traditional meetings, the benefits of electronic media include time savings as well as the opportunity for improved communication for the project team. A shorter amount of time is required to schedule and assemble meeting participants. In the case of synchronous discussions, all parties need to be gathered around the appropriate computer systems instead of boardroom; therefore, travel time and cost is negligible. In the case of asynchronous communication, the team members study the incoming information at times that are most convenient to each of them, ponder over the issues on their own schedule, and respond whenever each has reached a satisfactory resolution. Additionally, electronic communication affects the interpersonal dynamics of communication. Communication barriers that might exist due to position, culture and appearance are eliminated when team members communicate electronically.
The major drawbacks of electronic communication are the high start-up costs, both in money and time. In order to establish an electronic meeting, team members must have access to the appropriate hardware and software, and have had enough training to be comfortable with the technology. If a company is willing to make these investments, their projects will benefit from efficient meetings and project managers can include technology in their communication management.
As close as some forms of electronic meetings come to emulating a face-to-face meeting, there may be occasions when there is no substitute for these traditional meetings. But once team members become comfortable with typing instead of talking, and reading instead of hearing, these types of communications may allow them to have the time to listen better to all of their team members. We can probably conduct a vast majority of daily communications through the electronic media, thus freeing up time and energy for the tasks that are more pressing and crucial to our careers and to our company's profitability and success.
1. Hollingsworth, S. 1987. Communication Management. Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Drexel Hill, PA: Project Management Institute.
2. Marca, D. and Bock, G. 1992. Groupware: Software for Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society Press.
Liwana S. Bringelson, PMP, is an assistant professor in the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering Department at Western Michigan University. She received her M.S. and Ph.D. from the School of Industrial Engineering at Purdue University.
Parviz F. Rad has an M.S. from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has 25 years of professional experience in a variety of fields, including software development, construction, and pharmaceutical research.
PM Network • August 1995