External communication as an integral part of project planning
Here's how to make sure your project communications are as well-planned as any other project activity.
Everyone understands the need for communications in Modern Project Management. I doubt that anyone would disagree that good communication is a key success factor in any project. The more complex the project is, the more important communication becomes. Communication comes in four main forms: formal, informal, verbal, non-verbal. Most projects will require communications using each one of these forms, and in many cases the same information will need to be communicated using multiple methods to make sure all involved have a good understanding.
Increasing experience and abilities in the use of communication channels and knowing when to use each form will improve the chances of successfully completing projects. Being able to communicate on an interpersonal level, to small groups, or to a large audience, and knowing when to use each type of communication is essential to becoming an effective project manager, but even being expert in all types of communication is not enough.
Unfortunately, communication is too often a reactive function. The need to communicate is exposed by someone requesting information or a key group of people pleading ignorance to the status and/or scope of your project. Every project manager has heard statements like: “You should have told me you were doing that …” “We haven't planned for and aren't ready to handle those changes.” “If I knew what was going on I could have helped …” “I‘ve already researched that problem and could have provided the answer if only I knew you were working on it.” Every time you hear one of those statements, or one of many similar statements that all project managers have heard, an opportunity has been missed or a problem has been created because of insufficient or ineffective communications.
Instead of communicating in a reactive mode, why not plan external communication (based on project phase) in a structured fashion that will have the correct communication, to the correct audience, at the correct point in the project? Each project phase (concept, development, implementation, and termination) of every project has unique needs regarding communication. My first exposure to structured planning for external communication (communicating to those individuals not directly involved in working on the project) came while working as a project manager at US West. Steve Tarr, the program manager, encouraged the use of a tool he used in his doctoral program  on integrating a technology into a business. Since most projects create changes and often introduce technology changes, this tool lends itself quite well to project management communication. Use of this tool for structured planning in the project management process will enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of future project communications.
The communication planning tool is known as the AMF Process . AMF is an acronym for Awareness, Motivation, and Functioning Capability. The AMF process involves building a communication matrix that relates specific groups of people to specific stages of communication. Each recipient group is mapped to each stage with information on when and how information will be communicated (see Figure 1).
The three phases of communication (column headings in the matrix) are Awareness, Motivation and Functioning Capability. Awareness involves introducing impacted and involved parties to your project about goals, timing, impacts, benefits, and results at least at a high level. Awareness communication should begin in the concept phase and span into the development phase. While there is a tendency to limit communication in the concept phase of a project due to the uncertainties inherent in this phase, it is important that Awareness communication begin at this time. The sooner the better. This not only makes people aware of what is happening, it allows them to voice any concerns they have that may have an impact later down the road. It also helps to minimize the feeling of being “steamrolled” by a project that is in the implementation phase before anyone hears about it.
The Motivation stage of communication should begin in the development phase and span into the implementation phase. Motivation communication involves stressing the end results, benefits (both short- and long-term), and impacts associated with project completion. Project goals should be matched to associated problems or the needed changes that prompted the project in the first place. In many cases there may not be direct benefits to one or more of the parties being communicated to. In fact, one or more of the groups may have costs associated with your project but not be the beneficiary of the end product. It may be a matter of communicating the strategic or corporate benefits. In any case, the Motivation stage of communication is extremely important in that it sets the stage for and affects the success of the final stage of communication: Functioning Capability. Having been made aware of the changes and motivated to engage the new environment creates the desire to expend the resources needed to obtain functioning capability. Simply stated, the Motivation stage shows people what is in it for them. If done well, they will want to do the work.
Functioning Capability communications involves making sure that all parties understand their roles in the new environment and are capable of functioning independently within the new environment. Projects, by definition, have a distinct ending point, and it is imperative that whoever is going to work under the changes created by the project be in a position to function successfully. If not, the effect may be that a successful project ends up as a failure in the long run. The Functioning Capability stage of communication should span the implementation and termination phases of the project. In some cases it may be necessary to put plans in place to make sure that this communication is available after the end of the project. Documentation, manuals, or even formal training, depending on the scope of the project, may need to be available for some time after the project terminates and the project team disbands.
Each one of these communication stages may involve using any or all the forms of communication mentioned above. The benefit of using this structure to plan communications is that the best form or forms can be decided and planned in advance. This approach forces a project manager to plan communication in a proactive fashion. Obviously, it will not eliminate the need to do ad hoc communication, but if executed properly it can reduce the need for such communication.
The other part of the AMF matrix is the recipient parties involved in the communications. The row headings are labeled: All, Target, Sponsor, Stakeholder, Expert, and Change Agent. The first step is to identify who is in each group. This process alone offers benefit to the project manager in that it provides a road map to the obstacles that may be ahead. Identifying the members of these groups in advance instead of having them emerge as the project develops gives the project manager an edge. The recipients are defined as:
- Target – individual(s) or group(s) with the problem or need.
- Sponsor – individual(s) or group(s) that can provide resources.
- Stakeholder – individual(s) or group(s) that will be affected by the project.
- Expert – individual(s) or group(s) that can provide expertise needed in the project.
- Change agent – individual(s) or group(s) that can influence others to support the project.
These are not necessarily five separate and distinct groups or individuals. Individuals or groups may and probably will be in more than one category.
The boxes created by the matrix should contain information on when and how the communication should take place. When refers to the time period in the stage of communication. Possible entries under when would be early, mid, late, or mixed (mix). How refers to the specific method or communication that will be used. Examples of entries under “how” are newsletter, group presentation, one-on-one discussions, conference calls, display, banners, promotional events, training, etc. See Figure 2 for an example of a completed matrix.
The information in the completed matrix can be used to design, develop, and schedule external project communications. Basically, the communication events in the matrix become formal tasks in your project plan. Normal Work Breakdown Structure processes can be used to convert the events to work packages in the project plan (see Figure 3). The event is broken down into executable tasks, given time estimates, input into the plan, assigned resources and scheduled.
Depending on the complexity and duration of the project, the matrix could be much more detailed than the example in Figure 2, with more varied communications types for each stage. Developing this matrix can (and should) be a project team exercise. Involving as many members of the team as possible increases the quality of the product and increases the awareness of team members about the need to constantly communicate externally as well as within the team.
1. Tarr, Steven C. 1991. Multiple Perspectives Analysis for Integrating a Technology Into a Business. Technological Forecasting & Social Change, vol. 40, 165–182.
2. Mahler. E.G. September 1989. Advanced Issues in Managing Knowledge-Based Systems, 19–20. Cambridge, MA: Decision Support Systems.
PM Network • February 1995