Project management of a global virtual IT project

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Introduction

Historically successful project management teams have been composed of employees who have previously worked together on projects and have proven communication skills both within and outside the project team. Whether the project is performed in an office or at a field location, the project team is generally in one location most, if not all, of the time so communicating with other team members is a part of the normal work process. A majority of the communication is face to face between individual members of the project team or as a group at project team meetings. There may be some initial cultural differences, but they are quickly overcome by being in close proximity to each other every day for long periods of time and by being able to observe and react to the body language of the listener. In many cases a family type of relationship develops where all types of communication are practiced which enhances team performance.

The makeup of project management teams is changing and is no longer restricted by location so the opportunity exists to combine the talents of people with very differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds on the same project team while they perform the project work from numerous locations. Some of the advantages to utilizing global and/or virtual project management teams are lowering costs by outsourcing certain types of work and also reducing the costs and turmoil of constantly relocating project management personnel. IT projects have been a prime target for these types of project management teams due in part to the nature of the work performed which is primarily electronic. Having these projects composed of individuals who have not worked together previously, who have different cultural backgrounds and who are in multiple locations increases the chances of ineffective communication and poor team performance. Individuals do not know the cultural, family or other background details of the other team members thus depriving them of the understanding that comes with face to face communication. In some countries individuals exhibit an overwhelming willingness to please, do not want to bother anybody with unimportant questions, may be unfamiliar with the English language and are used to working as a group not as individuals. These traits result in questions not being asked which may result in work being performed that may not be necessary or that may not meet client expectations due to a lack of understanding. There is also a reluctance for any individual to take the initiative and lead the group to coordinate the work effort and centralize the communication with other entities on the project. Project management personnel assigned to these projects have not been exposed to the challenges and opportunities created with this type of project and are not prepared to successfully address the resulting communication, team performance and cultural situations.

Cultural differences are not limited to project management teams comprised of individuals from other countries as differences also exist between various locations within the United States. The pressure to succeed, the pace of the work and the importance of materialistic items are important considerations in an urban environment where a slower pace with more attention detail, a willingness to help others and more focus on a healthy environment are more important in a rural environment. Most companies have multiple office locations in both urban and rural locations and when individuals with these varying backgrounds who have not worked together, and may never physically see each other are placed on the same management team there are cultural and communication differences that must be overcome.

The Project

The organization chart for an actual project management team for a recent global and virtual IT project with the location of each of the key team members is shown in Exhibit 1.

Organization Chart with Locations

Exhibit. 1 Organization Chart with Locations

Over time most different office locations have created their own work processes to satisfy the overall company requirements for reporting or complying with standard operating procedures (SOP‘s). Each location involved with the project would like to have their work processes and documentation become the standard for the project. For IT projects where typical project management processes are just starting to be utilized there may be some instances where necessary documentation does not exist and must be created. It is difficult to communicate how these documents or work processes will function, why they are required and that it will take some effort on the individual's part to maintain these documents and follow these work processes. The majority of the project team may not be using documents they are familiar with nor work processes they have previously utilized so their performance, particularly at the beginning of the project, will be lower than expected and communication may be disjointed.

Pre-Design Phase

During the initial phase of an IT project, which is commonly called the pre-design phase, the means of communication for scope of work, schedule, budget, desired functionality and performance metrics are established that will be utilized throughout the duration of the project. On typical projects there are weekly project status meetings with the project team members and monthly status review meetings with management in the office where the project is being performed. Both of these regularly held meetings have face to face communication which is the most effective type of communication. On virtual and/or global projects regular meetings can still be held but the weekly project status meeting may be done by conference call and the monthly meeting is often replaced with just the submittal of a written status report. The typical communication on a virtual project is via e-mail and/or by phone call which is a less effective and less timely type and thus more communication is usually required to achieve the same results. As a result more than one meeting per week with the project team or portions of the project team may be required possibly including a higher level of management in one of the weekly meetings rather than just relying on the written monthly report. An example of a document that was used successfully on the example project is shown in Exhibit 2.

Example Topics of Weekly Conference Call Report

Exhibit 2: Example Topics of Weekly Conference Call Report

All of the topics noted were covered each week and the minutes published to the project team members, the management advisory committee and to the client project manager. This allowed management and all team members to develop a closer relationship as well as stay informed of all key project issues and avoid surprises when the program was unveiled. These meetings can be as simple as a conference call or can be a combination of a conference call and video review of screens as they are being created and before they are hard coded into the system. All of this demands a change in the culture as it currently exists where developers normally do not talk to users and with a global project the developers may also be in a different country which further expands this communication gap. A possible solution is to have a key user community representative and a key IT technical person team together and provide the coordination, communication and direction needed to meld these two parties into a successful project team.

A critical item of communication at this time is the functionality desired by the user community (the client). It is difficult to provide enough detail and direction on the functional requirements of a program when all parties are located in close proximity to each other. With the project team spread around the world the communication is hindered by location, time difference and cultural differences. If the developers do not clearly understand the requirements then their performance to attain this required functionality will be severely affected especially when they feel that they are not able to please their client(s). A functional specification is usually prepared by the client users which will define the requirements to a very detailed level. With a global project the face to face communication used to explain the details is missing which will most likely necessitate one or more trips to the developers location to interpret the requirements. These trips to provide the additional communication should be considered when preparing the budget for the project.

Design (Programming) Phase

The next phase of an IT project is the design or programming phase which is the most critical phase and at the same time is one of the most difficult to effectively communicate requirements, measure progress and complete. During this phase the developers (programmers) are creating code which normally only they understand. This code is intended to implement the functionality that has been defined by the clients who are typically experienced users of an existing system that is being modified or of a system similar to that which is being created. A step that is commonly missed at this point is involving representatives of the user community early in the program development process. The temptation at this phase is to say the developers are going to create this black box and we will look at it later. Later is too late. With the project team spread around the world more attention must be paid to this process and the technological tools must be made available and utilized by the project team to enhance the communication in this phase. Waiting until the programming is nearing completion to look at what is being developed will almost certainly lengthen the schedule as the programmers scramble to try and adjust what they have created as well as impact the cost due to reduced productivity. Having the project documents in one location and providing access to the members of the user community is a way to encourage the necessary communication. NetMeeting is another tool that can be utilized to good advantage once the user interfaces start to be developed which also encourages user participation and communication and clarification of requests at an early stage when redirection has less impact on cost and schedule performance. Having separate meetings to address the technical aspects of the program and issuing minutes from those meetings can promote required communication with the developers as well as keep the less technically inclined team members informed of project progress.

Tracking the productivity for the program development and communicating the results to the project team is key to maintaining progress against the schedule and preventing cost overruns in this area. The means to do this must be simple and straight forward as the results must cross time zones as well as cultural differences and still be understood. A very simple spreadsheet may be more effective than a very complicated cost report even though both may give the same results. An example of a simple spreadsheet is shown in Exhibit 3.

Exhibit 3: Productivity Tracking

Productivity Tracking

Communication must be stressed during this phase to the point of over communicating to insure the client requirements are understood and the necessary productivity is maintained to support the schedule and budget requirements.

Testing Phase

When there is sufficient progress on the program development then the next phase, which is the testing, will commence. This phase can be very dynamic especially if this is the first time representatives of the user community are actually seeing the developer's progress toward meeting the requirements established for the functionality of the program. Constant communication using the available electronic tools is essential to prevent this phase from being a total surprise to the users. Again the teaming of the user and technical community representatives can bridge the cultural gaps and keep the developers proceeding in a productive manner. Some cursory training may be required at this point and a viable means of providing this testing must be provided since the testers will probably be in multiple locations and most likely will not be familiar with the new program. NetMeeting is a good tool to use for this purpose and one which the developers or their representative can also use to participate. Detailed cookbook testing plans can be very helpful and serve a dual purpose of providing the necessary testing requirements as well as the system training to accomplish this testing.

Another important communication issue to be faced during the testing phase is the collection, categorization and tracking of the numerous comments, suggestions and issues. A central repository for this information is necessary to control the flow of information as well as make assignments to address the issues that need to be resolved. This is particularly important now that the user community is submitting the requests and there may have to be some translation to bridge the cultural gap so that the developers understand the desired results of the request. There are commercially available systems that allow users to submit requests/issues which are logged in and tracked within the system. An assignment can then be made to a developer to act upon a certain request and the status can be updated and when completed the user who submitted the request notified that the request has been completed. Another good means of communication is to have a message appear when the user signs on to the application that briefly identifies the changes/updates that have occurred. Providing support for the testing that covers all necessary time zones must be addressed and may mean having personnel in several key locations during this phase rather than just one.

Deployment Phase

The requirements for the program are driven by the client and have been defined and communicated during the earlier phases of the project. There is very little difference between the communication issues and cultural impacts of a product developed by a “local team” or a product developed by a “global team”.

Summary

Performing IT projects in today's world has changed dramatically and is still in the process of evolving. The IT community is just starting to embrace the use of project management tools that have been used successfully on design and construction projects and global and virtual projects are presenting new challenges in the communication and performance areas. Two key lessons learned from the particular example given are:

  • Over communicate

The necessity to communicate is increased greatly with a global and/or virtual project but at the same time the ability to accomplish the necessary communication is hindered by physical barriers such as time zone differences and by non-physical barriers such as cultural differences. Solutions must be found and implemented to remove these barriers if global and/or virtual projects are to be successful. The means to remove these barriers may include some initial costs such as extra team travel but the overall savings by the increased productivity of the project team that understands the needs of its clients and works together toward that goal will far outweigh the initial travel costs. Meeting time is always nonproductive for team members and on “local team” projects an effort is made to lessen the amount of meeting time and utilize face to face communication. On virtual projects meetings are a necessity as face to face communication is the exception rather than the rule and more meetings will be required to provide the same level of communication as that by face to face communication. This factor must also be taken into account when creating and then progressing the project schedule.

  • Have a key representative from the user community team up with a key representative from the IT community to bridge the communication and cultural gaps between the two groups

In the example given a successful way of bridging both the communication gaps and the cultural gaps was the teaming of a key representative in the IT organization with a key representative from the user community. This provided a focal point in each major component of the company organization to facilitate communication of information, address any cultural situations that developed, resolve issues and provide coordination within their component of the organization. An ideal situation is for one of these individuals to be the project/program manager so that decisions can be made and direction given in a timely manner. Implementing these lessons with the correct personnel will enhance your chances for having successful global and virtual IT projects.

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.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003

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