Overcoming the computer-mediated communication (CMC) "hump" in project management teams

Carrie A. McCloud, BS

Weber State University

Abstract

To implement computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools and overcome issues of virtual teaming, project managers and their organizations need to employ tactics, rules, and methods that require a large amount of effort—the CMC “hump.” According to social information processing theory, CMC collaboration has the potential to be as successful as face-to-face, but it takes more time for participants to develop these relationships. It is possible that most organizations are not aware of the resources required to effectively implement project management CMC tools. For this investigative study, project management CMC tool users were surveyed to gather information about their use and perception of project management software. The study found those who received high levels of training and support rated their project management tool significantly higher for overall usability, as did users who had the ability to configure how their tool was used. However, most organizations are not investing the resources required to successfully implement CMC tools. Thematic analysis of project management software marketing materials, for the purpose of identifying major themes in software buying conversations, found that there is very little discussion about overcoming “hump” issues as part of organizational buying decisions for project management tools.

Project management can utilize a number of tools and techniques for project communication, both inside and outside of project teams (PMI, 2008). In the past few decades, companies have been able to manage projects through the employment of computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools such as email, video conferencing, and computer-based project management tools. The integration of information and communication technologies has created a technology-enabled workplace where both geographically dispersed and co-located project teams communicate in a virtual environment (Anantatmula, 2008). A study by El-Tayeh, Gil, and Freeman (2008) found that virtual project managers could actually perform better at certain outcomes such as total budget and building time. In addition, CMC enables more participation from all team members, not just team leaders, in project outcomes that may positively affect organizational performance (Dennis & Garfield, 2003).

Benefits of Using CMC for Virtual Teaming

There are many benefits to virtual team communication. The most obvious benefit is that work can be conducted remotely (Berry, 2006) allowing teams to perform without the need for travel. In addition, decisions and task components do not have to be performed in synchronous environments, which allows for team members to work independent of location and time (Baltes, Dickson, Sherman, Bauer, & LaGanke, 2002). This time pause is good for allowing all team members the opportunity to contribute to the discussion and allows permanent records to be archived (Berry, 2006).

Other benefits of CMC virtual teaming are related to how team members perform with one another. Team members from diverse backgrounds can overcome cultural distractions as well as reduce the need for posturing or power struggles between team members (Berry, 2006). It has been found that chat-based collaboration leveled perceptions of professional status and eased communication with team members for which English was their second language (El-Tayeh et al., 2008).

Disadvantages of Using CMC for Virtual Teaming

With the ability to implement geographically diverse project teams come difficulties due to the communication media. Virtual teams can encounter information issues and delays due to asynchronous communication (Watson, DeSanctis, & Poole, 1988). Messages take additional time to be read and processed compared to traditional face-to-face communication or synchronous telecommunication (Berry, 2006). Coding and decoding messages via CMC channels require more effort to prevent information loss due to channel noise (Henderson, 2008). Team outcomes sharply declined when CMC was the sole form of communication. “Members who used computer-mediated communication more than 90% of the time experienced significantly lower levels of positive mood, task effectiveness, non-task effectiveness, and affective commitment…” (Johnson, Bettenhausen, & Gibbons, 2009, p. 643).

Virtual teams can also suffer from trust issues due to lack of personal contact with team leaders and team members (Chen & Chen, 2009). In a study involving electronic meeting systems, Rains (2007) found that receivers tend to discount contributions made by anonymous senders due to lack of trust rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. The issues of trust formation in virtual environments can make it challenging for project managers to exercise authority (El-Tayeh et al., 2008).

Most CMC groups are rarely more effective, rarely more satisfied, and rarely take less time than face-to-face groups (Baltes et al., 2002). Studies have found that CMC tends to reduce face-to-face interpersonal communication (Watson et al., 1988), which can contribute to a sense of isolation and confusion (Kuruppuarachchi, 2009). Organizations often question if the savings that come from virtual teaming are offset by lower performance.

The CMC Hump

The challenge facing organizations is how to connect the IT investment in a CMC project management solution to improved project performance (Anantatmula, 2008). Adaptive structuration theory puts emphasis on the social interaction required between members of teams and management in the adaption process, in order to have satisfactory outcomes (Limayem, Banerjee, & Ma, 2006). The application of the theory helps explain the need for a focused effort in creating a supportive structure when a CMC solution is implemented. Based on adaptive structuration theory, teams tend to use technology differently depending on their personal approach to it (Poole, 2009). Business performance can only be improved by the use of CMC tools when organizations properly combine them with competent management, skilled resources, and the right behaviors and learned values (Marchand, Kettinger, & Rollins, 2000).

The first component of a successful implementation is a project manager who has advanced communication skills. Virtual teams can successfully collaborate if a skilled project manager leads and helps to overcome issues related to the lack of face-time (Kuruppuarachchi, 2009). Geographically dispersed teams perform better when their project manager has a higher message coding and decoding competency—good listener, pays attention to what others say, easy to talk to, and sensitive to other's needs (Henderson, 2008).

The second component of a successful implementation is recruiting or developing resources skilled in virtual teaming. Virtual teams perform better when all members are proficient users of the tools required and are aligned with the processes required to perform remotely (Barima, 2009). Virtual teams require considerable effort from top management in the form of training and support to get project management team members to accept the framework and its control mechanisms (Kuruppuarachchi, 2009).

The third component of a successful implementation is the establishment of unified rules and processes. Workman (2007) found that virtual teams that formalize their processes outperformed teams that focused on results in both quantity and quality. CMC implementation requires management of resources and the development of processes that will allow for trust formation; this will in turn facilitate information sharing and reduce information delays (Chen & Chen, 2009). However, team members have a difficult time learning new work processes and creating new team norms when CMC tools are implemented. Because of this, dissatisfaction and a loss in performance can be expected (Dennis & Garfield, 2003).

To be able to fully use CMC tools and overcome the observed issues of virtual teaming, project managers and their organization support structures need to use tactics, rules, and methods that require a large amount of effort. These rules and methods are based on social information processing (SIP) theory (Li, 2007), which proposes that virtual relationships can be created just as satisfactorily as face-to-face relationships, given time and support mechanisms (Walther & Bunz, 2005). Walther and Bunz (2005) conducted a study that found virtual teams that made a self-directed effort to adhere to SIP-based rules resulted in higher levels of (a) trust of other team members, (b) liking for each other, and (c) team performance.

Including the three components—a skilled project manager, resources, and unified rules and processes—requires a significant investment of time and effort at the beginning of a software implementation. This large investment can be referred to as a “hump” in the implementation life-cycle (Heijstek & Chaudron, 2008). It is possible that most organizations are either not aware or not prepared to invest the resources required to get over the hump required to implement project management CMC tools to a level that would allow the virtual project team to benefit at an equal cost of co-located teams (Anantatmula, 2008; Kuruppuarachchi, 2009).

As further exploration into the topic of virtual project management and the use of CMC tools, we have developed three research questions to investigate:

RQ 1: Are companies aware of the resources and time required (the “hump”) to implement project management CMC tools for virtual teaming?

RQ 2: Are companies giving their teams the support required during and after project management CMC implementations?

RQ 3: How much project management is being conducted using virtual project management CMC tools?

Method

This research examines two components of an organization, a collective organization as a software-buying entity and the individual software users within the organization. To study both of these we used two approaches to gather information. The first approach was a thematic analysis of the marketing materials of leading software providers to ascertain major themes about features and benefits of the project management software solutions.

Organizations are difficult to examine as decision-making entities. Other than the fact that most companies generally do not disclose their proprietary decision-making information, investigation is complicated by the manner in which companies make buying decisions. One reason for this is the complexity of the components that contribute to organizational buying behaviors (Webster & Wind, 1972). Purchase decisions can be influenced by needs and interpretations of multiple departments within the organization (Kauffman, 1996). Another reason is the difficulty in knowing what information an organization has or does not have during the decision-making window (Nobre, Tobias, & Walker, 2009). Organizations have to rely on information that is accessible and often make decisions with limited information (Kahneman, 2003). In order to answer RQ1—Are companies aware of the resources and time required (the “hump”) to implement project management CMC tools for virtual teaming?—we investigated how project management software is sold. The goal was to determine what messages are being accepted by companies during the initial phase of purchase investigation.

The second approach was a survey of project managers and project team members to gather information about how they use project management software and their perceptions of product usability. The hope was that we would gather enough data to answer RQ2. (Are companies giving their teams the support required during and after project management CMC implementations?) And RQ3: How much project management is being conducted using virtual project management CMC tools?

Thematic Analysis of CMC Project Solutions

The first step of the thematic analysis was the identification of leading project management software solution providers. Internet searches for “project management software,” “enterprise project management software,” and “project management collaboration tools” were performed and the first 10 results from each search were examined. Some of the result sites included discussion pages that listed or mentioned multiple project management solution providers. Each appearance of a software provider was recorded and the providers that were listed three or more times became the basis of the thematic study.

Both authors visited each of the vendor websites independently to document themes in the marketing content for features and benefits related to the software solution. Each vendor's website was examined as if interviewing a salesperson, with the purpose of answering the following questions: (1) What features does the product contain? (2) What is the benefit of using the product, or what will an organization gain from implementing the solution? (3) How much effort is required to implement the software in an organization? Each researcher took notes for each of the three questions and then reviewed their findings together. The results of the review were then compiled into a master list.

Survey of Project Professionals

The project management research survey was hosted by SurveyMonkey and was distributed to professionals who manage projects or work on project teams. Participants were recruited via email invitation, social media messaging, and social media posting. The anonymous survey was available between 18 and 28 November 2011. The survey invitation resulted in 51 responses. Thirty-eight of the 51 respondents were in a project management leadership role. The remaining 13 respondents were involved in projects as team members or in project support roles. Seventeen were Project Management Professionals (PMPs)®. All respondents used CMC project management tools to manage either co-located or geographically dispersed teams.

Questions on the survey included demographic questions to gauge the size and location of teams as well as gather information that would be useful to understanding their needs for virtual project management tools. Questions about their company project management tool were only made available to respondents that answered a qualifying question indicating that their organization provided project management software tools. Respondents were asked questions to determine if the use of the project management tool was mandated by the organization, the availability of training and support provided by the organization to use the tool, and the ability for them as users to modify how the project management tool is implemented or used by the organization. Participants were also asked to rate the quality of training and support as well as the overall usefulness of the organization provided project management tool. The results were compared using a chi-square test of independence with the level of significance set at 0.05. Questions about their personal or department project management tool were only made available to respondents that answered a qualifying question indicating that they used an independent project management software tool. Respondents were asked questions to determine the number of users in their department, project management tool features commonly used by their project teams, and the availability of support and training for the project management tool. Respondents were also asked to rate the overall usefulness of the department or personal project management tool.

To quantify the volume and media used for project communication that takes place during projects, respondents were asked to select how much of their project team communication by percentage is performed for each of the media in a list. The list included seven types of communication media: (1) face-to-face meetings; (2) features within a project management tool; (3) email; (4) chat or instant message; (5) phone or voice conference; (6) virtual meeting or desktop sharing; and (7) video conference. The results of the last two sections were used to quantify the type and amount of project communication being conducting in virtual and non-virtual media.

Results and Discussion

Organization Awareness of the Implementation Hump (RQ1)

Results. The online sales and marketing material of 11 project management software vendors were reviewed in a qualitative manner to answer three questions that a typical software buyer might ask. The results of the first question (What features does the product contain?) produced a list of common themes found on most vendors’ web marketing materials for product features. By examining the common features of project management tools, we are able to construct an understanding of the technical demands that sellers think contribute to the buying decisions of organizations.

The common themes identified for product features were: (1) project task management tools (project Gantt charts, task dependency); (2) time tracking (time sheet); (3) budgeting and costing (resource allocation); (4) project reporting (dashboard reporting, full project plan reporting); (5) customizable interface; (6) document management; (7) communication and/or collaboration, and (8) web delivery and mobile device integration.

The results of the second question (What is the benefit of using the product, or what will an organization gain from implementing the solution?) produced a list of common themes found on most vendors’ web marketing materials for advertised benefits. By examining the common benefits for using project management tools, we were able to construct an understanding of, at least from the marketers’ standpoint, the expected return on investment expectations that contribute to the buying decisions of organizations.

The common themes identified for advertised benefit: (1) process automation; (2) return on investment (ROI); (3) management visibility; and (4) integration with other systems.

The results of the third question (How much effort is required to implement the software in an organization?) produced a list of uncommon features and benefits. By uncommon, these either only appeared in one or two vendors’ materials or the method of delivery was different among all vendors. By examining the uncommon features and benefits we were able to begin constructing an understanding of factors that only a minority of organizations is interested in for making buying decisions.

The uncommon themes identified for product features: (1) method of communication; (2) proposed implementation plan or scope; and (3) method of document management. The uncommon themes identified for advertised benefit: (1) ability for current process improvement and (2) process for knowledge management and transfer.

Discussion. Common features show there is a universal understanding of what is required for a CMC project management tool to function. These features include task management, which allows project managers to break down units of work by resource, project document management, which is used for storing project artifacts, and communication and collaboration tools, which allow project team members the ability to communicate progress and issues during the progress of a project. From this, we can conclude companies have an understanding of their project tool needs.

Common benefits show that companies are primarily motivated to buy solutions based on needs of the company, making money and increases to top-level management efficiencies, rather than benefits for the end users of the software. There was little discussion about how the software solution decreased the workload or burden on the end users.

The uncommon features showed inconsistent methods for providing solutions for communication and for document or information management. This leads to the belief that companies are not sure as to the best practice, or best method for dealing with these requirements. Likewise, the uncommon benefits showed there is little discussion about changing current practices and the need for upfront time and effort for implementation. This leads to the belief that companies are not including the requirements for overcoming the “hump” in their preliminary decision-making discussions about large-scale software purchases.

Organization Support for CMC Implementations (RQ2)

Results. From the company/organization demographics section of the survey administered to project professionals, it was discovered that 51.1% of the respondents reported that they have an organization provided project management CMC tool; of these, 37.5% also use their own project management tool. Of all the respondents who reported that they had an organization provided project management tool, 75.0% rated the provided tool usefulness at a satisfactory or above level. Also, 79.2% responded that the tool was mandated by the company, and 79.2% were given some type of training or support for using the project management tool.

A chi-square test of independence was performed to examine the relation between the rating of the company software training and support and the overall usefulness of the company software tool. The relation between these variables was significant, X2 (4, N = 24) = 19.52, p =.001. People who perceived above satisfactory training and support rated their software tool above satisfactory in overall usefulness.

A chi-square test of independence was performed to examine the relation between the user's ability to change how the company software tool is used within the company and the overall usefulness of the company software tool. The relation between these variables was significant, X2 (2, N = 24) = 10.29, p =.006. People who were able to modify or change how the software was used rated their software tool above satisfactory in overall usefulness.

We found no significance in the relationship between companies that mandate the use of the company software tool and overall usefulness of the company software tool.

Discussion. Of the respondents in this study, only slightly over half had a company provided project management tool, leaving the remaining 48.9% to use a self-supported system, which means a large number of companies are unable or unwilling to implement and support a project management tool.

Of those with a company project management tool, the significance test indicates that users find the tools more useful when their company invests time and effort to provide support and training. There is also a significant relationship between the ability to change how the project management tool is configured and the usefulness of the tool. These two findings support what was found in the literature with regard to the application time and effort needed to support CMC implementations. Our findings concur with previous studies that show that the effort-to-support and effort-to-adapt pays off in product usefulness. This study indicates that a small number of companies are benefiting from the return on investment of support of their project management tools.

Use of Virtual PM CMC Tools (RQ 3)

Results. From the team demographics section of the survey it was discovered that for co-location and dispersion of teams that 66.0% of respondents have teams where members are independently located across the continental United States and 61.7% have some teams located in the same building or same campus or complex. It was also discovered that 50.0% of the respondents meet with their teams face to face one to two times a week with an average duration of 50.5 minutes, while 29.2% never meet with their team face to face. The average duration for all face-to-face meetings was 42.7 minutes; 58.3% of the respondents meet with their teams virtually one to two times a week with an average duration of 45.0 minutes, while 22.9% never meet with their teams virtually. The average duration for all virtual meetings was 43.8 minutes.

From the personal/department project management tool section of the survey it was discovered that 47.8% of all participants reported they use a tool not used or supported by their company. Of those participants, 81.8% rated the usefulness of the personal/department tool at a satisfactory or above level.

Table 1 reports results from the survey question of the company tool feature set and user adoption of the feature.

Table 1. Company tool feature set and user adoption of the feature.

Feature Company PM tool set Commonly used in the company Commonly used by my team(s)
Chat or instant messaging 9 12 11
Email or email integration 10 19 13
Virtual meeting tools 10 12 6
Document storage 15 14 12
Project planning 18 12 9
Project reporting 18 14 9
Resource capacity planning 12 10 6
Task status updates by team members 17 13 11
Wiki or knowledge sharing 6 6 7

Table 2 reports the results from the last section of the survey, which asked participants about their project management team communication.

Table 2. Project related communication by percent of total.

Communication method 0% 1-20% 21-40% 41-60% 61-80% 81-99% 100%
Face-to-face meetings 3 12 8 7 12 3 1
Features within a PM tool 14 16 5 5 1 3 0
Email 1 3 5 11 10 12 4
Chat/instant message 12 15 5 6 3 4 1
Phone/voice conference 2 13 7 9 5 5 3
Virtual meeting/desktop sharing 12 15 5 7 2 2 2
Video conference 26 14 2 1 0 0 2

Discussion. As 66% of those surveyed have project teams that are spread over the continental United States and their project teams are not co-located, the necessity of CMC for project teams is reinforced. While 50% of respondents still meet face to face one to two times a week, they report that they are doing more than half of their communication via email, with face-to-face meetings coming in second as their most used form of project communication. Very few respondents make use of the rich media available from video conferencing or virtual meeting/desktop sharing software solutions. Roughly 30% use instant messaging for work communication.

From these findings, it is apparent that project management professionals are using a mix of media both in and outside the features within their project management tools, with forms of communication that they are most comfortable with taking precedence. It is interesting to note that a large percentage is aware of certain features within their company tool, but many are not using them in their own project teams.

Limitations

Specific questions to ascertain the perception of CMC tools for productive project management vs. face to face are needed to assess whether or not companies truly recognize the “hump” and are aware of means to overcome it in order to cut down on travel costs for face-to-face meetings. It is unclear if companies know about the “hump,” whether they don't believe that virtual teams can be as productive, or are unwilling to invest the time necessary to reach productivity by this methodology. This study did not reach far enough into these questions to clearly answer RQ1.

This small sample size restricts the ability of this study to be generalized. A survey with an incentive to reimburse participants for their time would likely have produced not only more results, but better quality results.

Future Studies

Areas of further research should look into determining the level of understanding among project management teams and companies about the uses and limitations of CMC for project teams. An inquiry into the perceptions at the management level would be enlightening.

It would also be of interest to research and education professionals what the common educational background is of respondents and how much training they are receiving with regard to virtual team strategies.

Considering the significant relationship between training and user satisfaction, specifics about training programs would be of interest. Although many participants reported receiving training on the project management tools, the question still remains whether this is simplistic training on which buttons do what within the project management tool or whether it is true business process training. Social information processing theory would suggest that process change must occur for CMC tools to work effectively in virtual team environments.

Conclusion

To implement computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools and overcome issues of virtual teaming, project managers and their organizations need to employ tactics, rules, and methods that require a large amount of effort—the CMC “hump” according to social information processing theory. It has yet to be fully determined if the majority of projectized organizations are aware of the resources required to effectively implement project management CMC tools. It is apparent that project management professionals are using a combination of CMC tools in their practice of managing virtual teams, but not all of these tools are largely supported by their companies. It is also apparent that the discussion of the CMC “hump” is not part of the general discussions in many organizational buying decisions. Companies not properly providing the resources or preparing for the time necessary to properly implement and support CMC tools for project management will run the risk of low user adoption, which could put them in jeopardy of higher costs due to lower project performance. Companies also need to proactively work to design software implementations that address the formation of norms and standardized rules and best practices.

It is our conclusion that companies and professional educators need to be proactive in facilitating the forming of norms and rules as part of CMC virtual teaming implementations and CMC tool training and support.

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©2012 Project Management Institute

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