Project communications--new century new tools

Frank P. Saladis, PMP, Program Manager, Cisco Systems Inc

Project communications has been and will continue be an important ingredient in the formula for project success. The ever-changing technology available to project managers and the demand for instant information has driven the need for better, faster, and more easily accessible project information. The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, which will be referred to as the PMBOK® Guide, defines Communications Planning as: Defining the information and communications needs of the project stakeholders. It further explains that Communications Management includes the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information. This brings up several questions: What are the processes in place within your project or projects (or maybe even your project office) to collect project information? What is the best method for generating the information? What method of distribution will ensure that all project stakeholders (not the negative ones! See page 15 of the PMBOK ® Guide) receive the appropriate information? What is the most convenient and accessible method for storing project information? Storage of information is important because projects usually generate large amounts of information such as meeting minutes, change documents, action items and solutions, project reviews, statements of work, responsibility matrix, Work Breakdown Structures, just for starters. When a project is complete, how long should the information be stored and where? Another important communications question is related to language. There is the language or “lingo” of the project—acronyms will probably account for most of projects unique language and there will probably be some terms that are associated with the company, the technology and the industry in which the project is involved. The other issue of language is associated with the nature of the project and its relationship to the rest of the world. We use the terms “global” or “international” to describe many of the projects we work on. Those terms may have different meanings depending on where the project stakeholders are located or their origins. The question is, what language should be used, is one language (English) acceptable to your entire project team and stakeholders or should project documentation be provided in several languages. If other languages should be offered to the project team, which ones should be provided and why?

The size and complexity of the project will impact the communications needs and the methods for collecting and distributing project information. The physical location project team may present even more challenges. It is pretty safe to say that most project teams operate in a virtual environment. The team members and stakeholders are spread across multiple geographic areas and probably several continents. The virtual project environment and the geographic/global characteristics of the project will affect the needs of each team member and the technology in use may also be very diverse.

If we consider one of the important components of successful communication, The Sender-Receiver Model, we know that feedback loops are essential to the successful exchange of project information. The question then becomes, how can we ensure that we, as project managers, have an effective method of collecting and distributing project information to meet our stakeholder and client needs? We are in an environment of global teams and virtual teams, multicultural issues, fast paced action, demanding customers and changing technology. How can we provide a process and mechanism or tool for receiving feedback about the information distributed to the stakeholders? Using the PMBOK® Guide as our guide we can develop an effective communications management plan and utilize the technology available today to ensure effective project communications. It is understood that technology changes rapidly and the tools and techniques discussed in this paper may be replaced or enhanced considerably in a very short period of time. Hopefully, the concepts and ideas will remain valid for a greater period of time and will encourage some additional thought and creativity for developing project communications that not only informs, but also excites, educates, and even entertains the reader or receiver of the information.

Getting Started

Using the PMBOK® Guide as our model we must begin by identifying the communications requirements of the project stakeholders. How do we determine those requirements? The best place to start is during the project planning phase. In the planning phase the project team will begin gathering information about the project and the project team. Most projects, especially the ones that include multiple technologies, complex designs and moderate to high risk, will have project kickoff meetings. These meetings are designed to present information about the project, identify the project team members and stakeholders, collect information from the team about their concerns and establish monitoring and control procedures. It is an ideal time to gather information about communications requirements. Since most project teams are comprised of representatives from various technical specialty or skill groups and probably don’t share the same work location it is important to establish an agreed upon method of communications that will be convenient for the project team and stakeholders. Email is one the most widely used means of communication. During the kickoff meeting the project manager obtains contact information from each team member. In addition to e-mail addresses, the project team provides phone numbers, pager numbers, fax numbers, office addresses, immediate supervisor and management contact information, even home telephone numbers. This information is collected to ensure that information can be provided to the team members quickly and to provide alternative vehicles in case one or more communications methods or technology is not working or not available. The tools used for delivering communication include: The ever-present laptop, desktop PCs, the phone system, fax machines, and assorted personal communications devices have become standards in the project manager communications toolbox. As technology changes and reduces the size of the tools it will soon be possible to carry one’s entire office in a case about the size of a business card holder.

Exhibit 1


Obtaining Communications Requirements

When the team has been identified and contact information has been documented, the project manager must determine the requirements of the team. Many organizations have established standards for project communication such as: Meeting minutes must be distributed within 24 hours of a meeting, A standard format for project status or a reporting process for project jeopardy situations. Considering the logistics of the project team there are a number of items that must be reviewed before an effective communications process can be implemented. Time zones are probably one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. Working with project team members who are located in different countries or at opposite coastlines requires careful planning of conference calls to be sensitive to each team members needs. Another item to consider is the frequency of communications. How often will project information be required? What types of information must be available to the team at a moment’s notice? What can be distributed through regular channels? What are the regular channels of communication within the organization? Will they be effective for your current project? How mobile is your project team? Do they have access to the technology they need to stay in contact or obtain information when they need it? These are all important questions and sometimes finding the answer or providing the solution to effective communications is difficult and could be expensive. The PMBOK® Guide provides project managers with additional factors to consider: These factors include the immediacy of the need for information, the available technology, the experience of the project team and the project staffing requirements and the estimated duration of the project. To put communications requirements in perspective the project manager must actually develop requirements gathering plan. Consider the checklist in Exhibit 1 when developing a communications plan.

New Tools for Effective Project Communications

As stated before, technology is changing rapidly. We are using tools and techniques today that were not available just a few years ago. Statistics tell us that technology undergoes a significant change every 18 months. Many of us put off the purchase of much needed equipment in anticipation of the introduction of some newer, faster, smaller, and less expensive tool. This may be OK for some projects but the urgency of most projects requires us to be creative and super efficient with the tools we have available now. The Internet has opened an entire new universe of tools and techniques for effective project communication. In fact, the Internet has become a major source for research, transmission of data, purchasing of equipment and resources, even for voice communication. How we communicate has been drastically changed by the Internet and the constant changes and enhancements in communications technology.

The introduction of enterprisewide project management tools now makes it possible to establish standard tools for managing project portfolios across an entire organization. Not only can a project manager manage multiple projects more effectively, but also he or she can now arrange to share information basically at the speed of the Internet. Time reporting, status reporting, changes in scope, problems, solutions, personnel updates, budgets and any other type of information required by the project team or stakeholders can be provided electronically. Most enterprisewide project management tools include a feature for establishing a project home page or intranet for immediate information access. The home pages can be customized to meet the needs of the team. If you are not using an enterprisewide software application but do have a company intranet available, a home page can be developed using software available from many technology and computer retailers. You can establish a project intranet to manage multiple projects, time tracking for project team members, resource planning and estimating, integration of business initiatives, relationships between projects and project financials at the individual level and summary levels. A good source of information about what is available in enterprisewide software is PM Network, Project Management Institute’s monthly magazine. The magazine is a great source of product information and should be considered a tool itself. You will find product reviews, handy practical tips, and a product information card to assist you in obtaining information about the tools you need. I recommend obtaining the sample software and demo CDs provided on request by most software vendors. This will help you and your team decide what tools will best meet the needs of your project or organization.

The PMBOK® Guide states that projects are unique. I think that most project managers will agree that even projects that use the same technology, same project teams, and same resources (sometimes referred to as “cookie cutter projects”), have differences. The schedule, the customer, the locations, and personnel may be different and therefore the project becomes unique. Another item to consider is that if your project is unique it has the potential to be a “WOW Project.” An article in Fast Company (Oct. 1999) provided some interesting thoughts about how you can turn your ordinary, cookie cutter project into a “wow project.” The article is worth reading. It will change how you think about the project you are working on. So, if we have a unique project, we need a unique and powerful method to communicate about it and to keep everyone updated. If we think in terms of “old world” and “new world” it is important to look back at what we have been using for project communication and what is available now. The creativity of the project manager and project team is also a key element in communications. “ Old World” refers to the way it “used to be.” We tend to manage the future by looking at the past. Suppose we manage the future by looking further ahead. Ask questions like “What do we need to effectively communicate information?” Instead of “What have we used in the past?” or “what is available now?” Consider things like the shelf life of the software you are using, the user friendliness of the information systems you have in place, the efficiency of the communications process you are using. Ask your stakeholders what they really need (not the “nice to haves” but the real needs). Do they travel a lot? Will they be assigned to remote areas? Do they speak a different language or use a different technology? What tools would be universally accepted by the team and actually used? If you introduce a new tool, how will it affect your organization’s operating process? Will there be any interruptions? How receptive is your organization or project team to change and new ideas? These are all very important questions.

Exhibit 2


Every organization is different and therefore, the communications needs will be different. The project manager should plan the communications process and tools requirements based on the needs of the organization and stakeholders. Things to consider:

Is there justification for developing a new tool or process for communications?

Look at the big picture: What is the culture of the organization? What are the dynamics of the project team and its relationship to the organization?

What are the customer’s expectations?

What are the desired ends or objectives associated with project communications?

What are your limitations regarding technology?

What is the cost estimate for implementing a new tool?

Will the new tool facilitate communications or complicate the process?

How much time will you, as the project manager have to invest in the developing and implementing the new tool or tools?

Most people think that communication is a “no brainer.” There is no need to establish a cumbersome process to get information out. It’s simple; just tell people what is going on and issue regular status reports. Experience has demonstrated that most project communication is either ignored or simply scanned. This is mainly because we use e-mail as our method of distribution. I do not know of any project manager or team member who does not get enough e-mail. We are in a major email information overload state. We need a process that is convenient for obtaining and distributing information that will not add to the inbox. A look at the keyboard of many laptops and desktops will probably show a well-worn delete key. The philosophy being adopted is “delete and wait.” If it comes back again or somebody calls, it’s probably important. So, what can we do? An approach to consider is the use of today’s and future technology to reduce the volume of e-mail while making critical information available upon request. There are several options for accomplishing this but it is import to make sure you get the buy-in from your team or management, preferably both. One other very important item to consider is to avoid making things too complicated. If it’s a short duration project, don’t spend valuable time developing processes or buying tools that won’t be used. Observe other projects. Those teams may already have a process in place. Use it if you can. It’s great to create but sometimes its better to borrow.

A Tools Checklist

There are lots of resources and software available to use as models or to develop the communications tools you need to effectively support your project and teams. There is no single formula that works for everyone. It’s a matter of style, culture, urgency, convenience, and availability. Exhibit 2 may assist in the development of your customized communications tools to meet the demands of this new century or project management.


The list of things to include on a project intranet or web page can go far longer than this paper. The important issue is to determine what the needs are for your project team and the stakeholders involved. There are numerous tools to use and the creativity of the project team is virtually unlimited. You want the tool to work for you, not the other way around. Find out what’s convenient, what is most helpful to your team and your organization. Obtain sample and demos from companies who offer enterprise solutions. Compare the features and match them against your needs. Keep your home page or intranet exciting, informative, and attractive. Change it on a regular basis. Keep the information fresh and accurate. Provide a vehicle for customer feedback and supplier communications. If possible, find a way to make your communications tools fun, interactive, and entertaining. It’s a new century and a New World. Go exploring. Update your existing tools or put them aside and go for the latest items. Streamline the communications process and squeeze out everything you can from the tools you have. Experiment with the tools. You’ll probably find that they can do more than their intended purposes. Be creative, use your imagination. Update your existing project management toolbox. When you communicate about your project, tell the story of the project, not just the status. Have people that are interested in the project actually live it with you. Use the tools available or create new one to coordinate your teams, communicate to your stakeholders, and collaborate on new ideas and methods for improvement.


PM Network. Project Management Institute.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). (1996). Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

Fast Company. (1999, October).

Jenkins, George. Information Systems Policies and Procedures Manual. Prentice Hall.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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