Project Management Institute

New World Order needs old time religion

Rod Welch

In 400 B.C., Aristotle complained that youth lacked diligence and respect for their elders. I was reminded of this in 1994 when, driving back from PMI's Seminar/Symposium in Vancouver, I visited a museum in Salt Lake City, Utah. The curator explained how, in the late 1800s, a farmer untrained in the arts created a series of huge tapestries to tell the story of the Mormon trek across the continent. He was inspired by the elders' complaints that the younger generations did not know about or respect their grandparents' monumental effort. The farmer/artist traveled about the territory presenting the tapestries at schools, churches and community gatherings in order to sustain the value of hard-won experience.

Today we call this, “Getting everyone on the same page!” “Getting everyone on board!” “Communicating!” Yet despite constant calls, meetings, faxes, and e-mail, it seems to be just as hard to achieve effective communication today as it was in horse-and-buggy days.

Case in point: In a retrospective on the origins of the Project Management Institute (PM Network, January 1994), Eric Jenett recalled that he and the other PMI founders wanted to foster better communication among professionals about principles, methods and tools. A quarter century later, however, he reminds us, the heirs of those early visionaries, that more attention is needed to improve management productivity, particularly communications.

Like Aristotle and the farmer, we have to ask “What have we overlooked in building our culture of project management?” Why hasn't the quantum leap in information over the 25 years since the inception of PMI—more meetings, calls, documents, faxes and e-mail—improved communications? Why doesn't more information and longer hours result in better performance?

An article by John Bing in the February 1994 PM Network points to the answer. Bing found that PMI's “bible,” the 1987 version of the PMBOK, does not expressly state the fundamental principles of project management, principles like the need for a single leader, the need for support from informed management, the need for an integrated plan. How could the PMBOK have overlooked principles of the craft? What cultural forces could have caused PMI to lose track of its fundamental principles, indeed its very heredity? How do these forces influence productivity each day on the job?

Welcome to the New World Order

To see how these new forces impact individuals and organizations requires a critical look at the New World Order, an emerging culture based on information-intensive knowledge work. But first, a look back at the Old World Order.

Legends, pictures, sculpture, poetry and song, even clichés and homilies, are simple but enduring means by which each generation passes on the fundamental principles essential for survival. These principles, encoded in ritual and tradition, comprise the “order” that sustains culture. The evolution of writing provided another means to express and preserve crucial principles: The Commandments, the Magna Carta, constitutions, laws, regulations, guidelines, and contracts all instruct us on implementing first principles. Virtually the whole march of civilization is marked by the struggle for better ways to capture, preserve and apply our intellectual capital, i.e., our knowledge, ideas, and principles. Seemingly, from the beginning of time we have hungered for more and faster information.

But today, technology has opened an “Information Highway” that has become Pandora's Box, as the incessant flow of information overwhelms our capacity to understand and apply it effectively. As a result, individuals, organizations, entire communities lose perspective. We cannot see the gradual drift off-course as each day small deviations from the truth go unnoticed due to the hectic pace of modern life. We are all discovering that more information is not enough to keep us on the right course. The tapestry that shows the right course is in the museum. The law is in a book at the courthouse. The contract is on our desk, but we are in the CEO's office, or on a plane. The letter is in our files. The e-mail is in the computer. We don't have time right now to go to the museum, to check the law book, the contract, the files or the e-mail, but intend to do so later. When later comes we are too busy even to check our notes. We recall that no one at the meeting objected to our presentation. Just to be sure, we call a colleague and ask if he remembers anything different. The colleague says he will check his notes and call back. We go to another meeting. The colleague does not call back.

A week later the president asks if we are sure of key understandings. We have checked our notes, but they are not as clear as they seemed last week. The colleague says he did not call back because he could not find his notes. Still, no one has checked the law, the contract, the files. The president has forgotten his request for assurance because the customer who asked about it did not call back either. Everyone wants to be told about the tapestry of events that controls success, but nobody makes it to the museum. There is not enough time in the New World Order.

These scenarios, played out every day, create a kind of “knowledge creep,” which, over time, eventually blows up in a calamity that discloses the need for the original principles. Mistakes, losses, failures, recessions, wars, are some of the calamities by which each generation relearns the wisdom of its parents. Reality is the ultimate metric.

Aristotle also observed: The least initial deviation from the truth is later multiplied a thousandfold. So Bing's point about the missing original principles in the PMBOK is a critical one. It alerts us to the fact that small deviations from fundamentals, which go unnoticed due to the pace and turbulence of near-term events, can become major catastrophes.

In modern times, litigation substitutes for physical combat, adjusting performance that drifted off-course or did not measure up. Litigation requires a showing that first principles were followed; for example, the requirements of a contract. What did we say? What did we intend? What was considered? What did we do? Why? Often the “discovery” process exposes a critical mass of errors everyone had earlier attributed to “Murphy's Law.”

A lawsuit thus can be seen as a highly focused, very expensive “metric” of management quality. It usually shows that nobody followed the agreement because they lacked a process—an internal metric—to discover miscommunication before it impacted performance. Therefore, the law imposes an external metric to force a course correction.

This, it seems, is the wisdom of Bing's charge to write the basic steps into the PMBOK Guide. We need this within easy reach, like the family Bible that accompanied pioneers crossing the plains, so we can regularly check to be sure our efforts are linked back to the fundamentals for a successful project.

Why is it necessary to write down in a management guide what everybody knows and is already doing? Because people are unable to apply experience consistently, especially on the information highway.

The information highway makes it harder for us to check our original principles. Every day there is more to process and handle. We don't have time to look up original sources. Limited time forces reliance on what seems right at the moment. Shortcuts and fudging on principles allow deviations from the truth to take root.

Case studies at seminars, conferences, in books and periodicals are helpful. But, people mainly rely on personal experience because it is difficult to find an applicable study at the moment decisions are needed. It is easier and faster to rely on what we already “know.” This makes experienced project managers valuable because they have a lot of case studies “filed” in their heads.

Most of the time, of course, direct experience is not empirical. The “warm fuzzy” feeling that the literature says is the basis for most management decisions is simply a heuristic link to disparate events that seem to apply at the moment. At another moment, we may feel less confident about the warmth and fuzziness of a key decision. But the next meeting, call, seminar, or plane trip crowds out careful consideration of the painful prospect that a decision deviates from original sources such as law, regulation, contract, policy, a meeting with the customer, or professional guidelines like the PMBOK Guide.

A heavy schedule makes it easy to believe that the next meeting is more important than fixing mistakes from the last meeting. Speeding on the information highway steepens the slippery slope of “feel good” management. Mistakes are overlooked, then ignored, followed by cover-ups, losses, reengineering, recessions.

This is fertile ground for improving management productivity. Projects and organizations are a “community” of skills, interests, capacities and perspectives, shaped by genetics, education and culture. Communication focuses this diversity through leadership on common objectives by creating and maintaining shared meaning over time so people can work together effectively. Like sunlight focused through a prism, skills and efforts are magnified through the synergy of effective communications. What then is the missing ingredient that can make the information highway a source of effective communications?

What breakthroughs in tools, methods and culture are needed to empower the busy project manager to stay on course by discovering those little deviations that lead to difficulties? The answer is a combination of automation and integration of traditional management practice, plus some new ideas that I call Communication Metrics. Communication Metrics is a powerful nexus of modern technology and sound fundamentals that forms a new management science. Just as we have done with cost and schedule control, we can add a “metric” to ensure understanding and follow-up and leverage the dominant force of leadership: effective communications.

Why is Communication Metrics needed?

Oh, My Aching Head: Information Technology Outpaces Biology

The need for Communication Metrics comes from two fundamentals: (1) the biology of the human mind innately summarizes complexity, and (2) human life is becoming more complex. This conflict between the impulse to summarize and the expanding complexity of life is the central challenge of the New World Order.

The genetic capacity of the mind, constant over thousands of years, has become less able to deal with the accelerating pace of its own creations. There simply is more to think about than ever before. In effect, the human mind is creating a world for which it is not well suited. The mind is numbed and overwhelmed by a steady diet of information. There is no time to think. Therefore, we must either slow the pace of information or increase our capacity to think. Standing still means being run over on the information highway.

Recent work in biology indicates that real “thinking” occurs beneath the conscious mind. This is where information is linked to objectives, history, documents, people and time. These linkages settle into patterns of understanding, called “knowledge,” that are compared with innate paradigms comprised of deep personal values, needs, and cultural influences. Meaning is given to everything we experience, and information organized, rightly or wrongly, for action.

Once we settle on what information means, once we “understand” it within our framework of paradigms, then we have “knowledge.” If we make the wrong connections, then we are mistaken about what we “know.” Since the capacity to think remains constant, the exponential increase in the demand for thinking to create the connections that convert information into useful knowledge means that more mistakes will occur with less time to recover. Drifting off-course is both easier and more harmful in the New World Order.

As time and distance are compressed by technology, geography no longer contains the impact of error. A mis-machined part in Hamburg causes disaster in Tuscaloosa. A $4 billion error in Hong Kong harms investors in New York, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and points in between—Orange County, California, for example. When harm can strike quickly and widely, the value of being correct, of avoiding error, of making the right connections, quickly skyrockets.

To meet this challenge, entrepreneurs create faster and cheaper ways to create information, and managers try Total Quality Management, Management by Objectives, Modern Project Management, fax, cellular phones, e-mail, hoping to reduce mistakes by “improving” communications. These efforts, however, overlook a key biological fact: evolution is slow. Therefore, merely increasing the information flow does not improve communications; instead, shoving more information at people in the same 24-hour day is the root cause of the insidious knowledge creep that Aristotle warned us about.

Managers, burdened by the growing avalanche of information, nevertheless seek technology that produces more pictures (e.g., fax, CPM) and adopt practices that require more dialogue (TQM, MPM). But since more information causes more false impressions, lawyers grow rich and Murphy becomes famous as management implodes on itself, frantically acquiring tools of self-destruction.

Clearly, more information reduces productivity unless a faster way is found to convert information into knowledge. This requires nothing less than a new technology to lift human capacity to think, remember and communicate. Instead of simply absorbing information going from one meeting to the next, and hoping our mind will convert it into knowledge, we need a way to make sure that the “bottom line” and the “big picture” are linked back to the correct details.

Managers need tools that convert information into knowledge faster and more accurately; they need “automated thinking”—or what might be called “automated religion.”

Back to the Future: “Religion” as a Management Tool

Religion? Isn't that going to church, prayer, faith in a transcendent existence? Yes, but it was also the world's first management technology: a system for linking current experience and information back to original sources. The term “religion” derives from a word meaning “to bind back.” The ancients found that, while the human mind is well-suited to deal swiftly with the vagaries of nature, it needs assistance with the complexity of civilization. They discovered that once hard-won experience showed the best approach, it was necessary to provide a path back to that information to ensure that at a future time passions of the day would not lead them down the wrong path, or let them drift off-course.

Creating and preserving the right “path” is the process of converting information into knowledge. This was the seminal recognition of the interplay between time and information, where a correct decision may be hidden in faded memories; or is known, but seems incorrect, because interceding events create new paradigms from which the mind's inherent need to summarize produces false knowledge. This original meaning of “religion,” to link back to original sources, reflects the idea of knowledge as information linked to history and objectives. The practice of religion thus evolved to provide humankind with a way to consistently apply perceived truths.

If we look closely at the practice of formal religion and a related branch, the law, we see the continuing power of this original idea of “aligning communications” or “traceability” and its corollary, “continual learning,” which only recently have been recognized in the PMBOK Guide and ISO 10006 as critical management standards. The power of these new standards can be understood by exploring their roots.

Attending church and reading religious texts reveal a generous use of references to other sources that support assertions of meaning. The clear message from this tradition is that, to understand what is before us today, we must consider its genesis—its cause, its source, its support. This tradition is applied in the law, which emanates from religious tenets; for example, the Ten Commandments. Legal decisions link back to related cases, called “precedents,” to ensure consistent application of sound reasoning. Legal precedents recycle human experience in a more careful way than managers apply case studies to reach daily decisions. A similar process is used in publications, where a bibliography links text to original sources.

Linking to original sources gives credence to new information through corroboration. What is less apparent to the reader is the benefit to the writer of creating the links (citations). The process forces greater consideration of critical points than occur in the absence of linking back. In other words, the exercise of linking itself lifts understanding, which is another form of the idea that “religion” brings “enlightenment.”

Not being writers or scholars, most of us miss out on the experience of being enlightened by looking up related sources. It takes time to check sources. It is easier to passively accept what is printed—to swallow information whole without checking the sources. Integrating and connecting a constant flow of new information with experience and original sources to produce knowledge takes time and directed thought. In addition, traceability in the modern era is impaired because visual and auditory perception from dialogue and pictures occur instantly without an intervening analysis of competing information and values, as occurs in processing alphabetic symbols through reading and writing. This creates a bias for more meetings and pictures that summarize complexity in simplistic understandings that are comforting to a busy mind. Sight and sound seem to impart instant knowledge, but instead impart emotional impressions that lead to precipitous actions because there is no fast and easy means to apply the metric of checking original sources. In effect, the information highway vitiates traceability and continual learning by continually drowning us in new information faster than we can process its value—or lack thereof.

The traditional practice of relying on innate mental capacity to convert information into knowledge worked well when the flow of information and the rate of decision making was low, so that the preponderance of time was devoted to implementing decisions, i.e., applying knowledge. Applying the same knowledge over and over develops skill, as in hunting, shaping a spear, throwing a rock or doing an interview on television. The mind has time to settle on the right connections and to give an alert when links seem to fail. So, if we do not understand, our mind can report being “confused.” That is the environment that, over millions of years, shaped the evolution of the human mind.

Confusion is the best state for project managers. When confused, they are alerted to obtain more information and analysis to make the connections needed to remove the confusion. Savvy managers realize that when frustrated it is essential to think more carefully, to check sources and premises. They know it is critical to slow down in order to succeed faster. Others, however, lash out with the demand: Tell me what I need to know in 25 words or 30 seconds! This extreme, often heard, demand for summary evolved from historical notions of “leadership,” when it was critical to convey orders quickly to “expedite” response.

Today things are different. Physical labor has been automated to the point that management makes up a much greater share of labor cost. This means managers, i.e., decision makers, are the “workers.” Raw materials are detailed information and the product is knowledge, comprising the connections from endless meetings, calls, documents, e-mail. Service industries are labor-intensive, yet even here there is greater emphasis on information in sales, insurance, law, engineering, medicine, government. The main product is knowledge rather than actual “stuff.” Giving orders does not work well for figuring out what to do, when, methods, materials, coordination, safety, fairness and the thousands of regulations impacting the modern workday. Plus, today's democratic mores encourage us to persuade, rather than to direct.

Therefore, better productivity now requires better information management. Since information is only of value after it is converted to knowledge, and since this occurs only in the human mind, it seems axiomatic that the New World Order portends a new vision of knowledge work, and a new practice of Communication Metrics to optimize it.

But individual managers and managements alike wonder “Do managers have time for research—for converting information into knowledge?” Historically, managers have been paid to get things done, to expedite the work, not to look up dusty recollections of yesteryear and create CYA memos showing all the whys and wherefores.

Communication Metrics argues that “management” is mainly a process of creating and applying knowledge, i.e., investing intellectual capital. What should be done, by whom, when; who is paying for it; how will it be done; what laws, policies contracts, commitments, guide performance; has the proposed action been tried, when, in whole or in part, with what results? This is the daily diet of management that requires connections to correct sources. How can we ensure the right connections when the information stream is constant?

New standards like the PMBOK Guide and ISO 10006 spread awareness through risk management criteria that processes for traceability and continual learning are critical in a faster world. However, tools to accomplish these tasks quickly are also critical to ensure consistent use of these standards. What seems startling is the prospect that such tools may have the effect of leveraging the capacity to think, remember and communicate.

Automated Thinking: Leveraging the Capacity of the Mind

Since it occurs innately, “thinking” is considered an immutable trait that cannot be improved. So, instead, managers strive to improve the externals of information creation and transfer, for example, using fax, e-mail, cellular phones.

How can “thinking” itself be improved? We have to consider time and information as an integrated process in the human mind. The mind remembers by drawing on similar parts of disparate events, rather than assembling all elements of each event. Its only rule is to assemble a consistent “story.” Thus, we feel confused when the mental story we conjure up seems inconsistent. “Confusion” is a function of time. If there is enough time for reflection, the mind can recognize confusion, and respond cautiously to avoid the harm of error. However, the mind is equipped to function without complete accuracy by summarizing complexity through paradigms. When time is short, it forces a best-fit understanding in order to react immediately.

Although crucial at times of personal peril, this summary understanding causes failure in management. When there is a lot going on, the mind overlooks mistakes rather than recognize confusion. Like an actor on stage, we feel a rush of adrenaline charged by accolades from colleagues for handling a lot of difficulties with confidence and dispatch. We make the wrong connections and speedy, confident implementation conceals the error. The New World Order of more meetings, calls, e-mail, documents, budgets and schedules only means less time to feel confused and more chances for error.

Cultural hierarchy further impedes knowledge. If we feel we should understand, then social pressure urges overlooking slight deviations. “Just do [this]” is the precursor of “Just do [that]” in an endless cycle of “correcting corrections” spawned by the need to summarize and supported by fear of authority. Organization and technology are evolving to impair the key component of success: creating and retrieving knowledge!

POIMS: Timely Integration of Information and Principles

Because communications—telephones, mail, forms, reports, meetings, discussions, fax and e-mail—takes up most of a manager's time, it offers a major opportunity to improve productivity by applying the concept of automated integration to communications.

Integration in simplest terms means “killing two birds with one stone.” If we can figure out how to accomplish several management tasks by doing one, then we have more time for traceability and continual learning. Automated integration, then, should increase productivity, depending upon what we are trying to produce. Let's aim to produce fewer meetings and better results. Let's automate “communications” so misunderstandings are caught and corrected before erroneous, costly action is taken.

In Management, Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (HarperBusiness, 1993), Peter Drucker says that, for knowledge workers, productivity is mainly a question of quality. That idea, combined with the ISO 10006 quality standard, points to another powerful but seldom-considered purpose of communications: connecting or tracing back information to original sources to measure accuracy, consistency, context and implications.

Thus, another purpose of communications is discovering connections that ensure the correctness of understanding before telling others what we “know.” If Drucker is correct, it seems to follow that a bigger investment in discovering connections and avoiding miscommunications will produce better results than waiting until the end of the month to measure the impact on schedule and cost. In other words, communication control, which is proactive, may be more valuable than cost and schedule control, which are reactive, measuring after-the-fact results of failed communications.

Implementation requires a new information technology and new tools, but as with most fundamental advances, the main hurdle is cultural. Communication methods and management practice have evolved together over 5,000 years. Such deeply ingrained notions are not easily changed. Two things are needed to fulfill this vision: management science and information technology.

  • Management science in this context can be defined as a set of related practices and responsibilities designed to accomplish a specific business purpose; in this case, converting information to knowledge via Communication Metrics.
  • Information technology encompasses computer hardware and software that creates, stores, processes and retrieves information. CPM, spreadsheets, word processing, contact managers, calendars, notebooks—all are examples of information technologies. But since information technology does not integrate the traditionally separate business practices needed for Communication Metrics, a new criterion is offered: POIMS —personal and organizational integrated management support.

POIMS automates the common management tasks of planning, organization, integration and measurement. It was introduced in the 1994 Proceedings (p. 493) of PMI's 25th Annual Seminar/ Symposium.

POIMS—if you'll forgive the pun—pays homage to the original use of poetry, which was to preserve historic events and complex ideas through rhyme and meter. Technological advances like written language and the printing press displaced this function, yet today the power of poems is still evident in our respect for those gifted few able to inspire us with songs of love and hope. POIMS fulfills our hopes for a better future by using automated integration to leverage the capacity to think, remember, link us to sources, and communicate.

Only within the past several years has it become possible to automate this linking process. Now POIMS implementation software is emerging in the marketplace, and experience shows it is even more helpful than expected. The Schedule Diary System, for example, has been used at Pacific Gas & Electric to integrate time, information, people, documents and objectives. Using the program reveals the “knowledge creep” that otherwise causes failed communications. Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, and similar programs implement POIMS to some degree. They offer a range of “human-centered” design criteria to make computers more useful to managers. Improvements on the Internet applying hypertext links also show growing awareness of POIMS criteria and movement toward the integrated tools needed for Communication Metrics.

Of course, introducing change into a mature culture is a major effort. Many who have been disappointed by earlier efforts to automate management are now wary of the idea that automation can help managers think, remember and communicate. They properly ask, “How can we use a computer to manage? Management is talking and dealing with people, setting objectives, scheduling our time.” These views make clear that computers alone cannot get the job done. Only an integrated strategy of management science and information technology can do the job.

Some resist the idea that communication “skills” can be automated. This overlooks the distinction between leadership, which persuades, and understanding, which needs connections and follow-up. Without a metric—connections to ensure accuracy and consistency with prior events, laws, contracts, commitments, organizational objectives—and without follow-up, leadership soon finds the team is falling behind. Communication Metrics can be seen as an “automated experience machine” to create and smoothly integrate new knowledge and ideas into the daily work flow so that traceability and continual learning are a practical reality.

In the same way that cost and schedule engineers supplement accounting, a new class of knowledge worker can bridge the gap between existing methods and the New World Order. Communication managers, skilled in writing things down, linking them up and using automated connections, can immediately improve organizational performance.

Since an executive's primary role is communicating, why is another person needed? The answer is to get results. Although leadership—setting objectives, gaining acceptance and getting people to perform—remains unchanged in the New World Order, understanding and follow-up need a new metric. We must use Communication Metrics to build and maintain shared meaning over time, and create connections that ensure traceability to original sources and continual learning. The exigencies of the information highway also require someone to bring the “museum” to the people; and to apply a metric to ensure correct understanding and timely follow-up. Scribe, poet, communication engineer, assistant, aide, by whatever name—organizations need to dig the right connections out of the system (traceability) and they need to be proactive in order to maintain shared meaning (continual learning). In the search for new skills to improve earnings and avoid downsizing, Communication Metrics offers a simple, direct means to reengineer the practice of management.

A future increasingly less forgiving of error will not wait. Each day it rushes toward us with greater speed and increased risk.

Automated integration of communication empowers leaders and teams to invest intellectual capital beyond the power of the alphabet, which has been the core means of creating knowledge for the past 5,000 years. It provides a quantum leap in the capacity to get the right things done correctly the first time. Like a gifted poet who can always summon the right connections, it penetrates like a laser to assemble and connect only relevant information from the pof details that pile up over days, weeks and years, concealing the best course of action.

After 5,000 years, the tapestries, legends and writing used for knowledge work in the Old World Order now need a boost. Project management can lead the way with another powerful idea, fulfilling the vision of PMI's founders: automated integration of cost, schedule and communications. Project management has greatly advanced cost and schedule control in the modern era. It is now positioned to offer a quantum leap in productivity, using automation to usher in a new management science of Communication Metrics. The power and elegance of this methodology can be seen from the conceptual lineage going back thousands of years to the original meaning of religion. “Old Time Religion” melded with the New World Order can lift the human capacity to think, remember and communicate. The resulting “automated religion” may be the lever that Archimedes sought to lift the world. img

Rod Welch spent most of his career as a general contractor on public works projects. In 1983 he began work on automated tools to improve management. He now works with organizations on implementing POIMS and Communication Metrics.

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.

PM Network • May 1996

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