Requirements for effective project communications

differences and similiarities in virtual and traditional project environments

 

Introduction

The primary mission of the project manager working with either a virtual team or a traditional team is the delivery of the desired product or the facilitation of the required service. To that end, the team's efforts are focused on the activities and measures that would produce the deliverable of the project in a cost-effective and efficient manner. The team must plan the delivery of the product or service through best practices, policies, and procedures. Effective communication within the team and with the project's internal and external stakeholders is required.

Communication is defined as the transfer of some type of message that contains one or more pieces of information. The information that is conveyed can be either through formal channels or informal channels. Today's project manager is both blessed and cursed by the quantity of communication tools available in the workplace. Formats for communication are extensive and include individual meetings, staff meetings, conference calls, e-mails, videoconferences, messages, and faxes. What each of these formats has in common is that all communication is interpersonal and goes from the sender to the receiver or receivers.

The project manager, as a communicator, must have correct tools and skills to reach all of the different types of individuals on the project team effectively. If the communication is predictable and effective, it will help maintain trust and momentum among team members. Communication techniques to assure team member involvement throughout all aspects of the project, therefore, are required.

This paper discusses similarities and differences in virtual and traditional project environments in terms of effective communication strategies and presents ideas, strategies, and guidelines for consideration and possible use on both types of project teams.

Open and Effective Communication

Effective communication among project team members and stakeholders is important on any project team. Miscommunication can create hard feelings that might remain undetected for a long time, undermining team success. Open communication in all directions, without fear of reprisal, must be encouraged so that every team member feels comfortable contributing to discussions and debates. Project debates are exceptionally useful because it is during these debates that team members provide useful and important information to others. Improving communication involves identifying information needs and ways to best share information among the team. Predictable and effective communication will help maintain trust and momentum. The team's policies should provide an environment that assures that the information shared is valuable to the project.

Many different communications tools can be used. A common data interchange format should be available. In order to assure that the flow of information among the team is unencumbered, the team should be given the opportunity to draft protocols as to when each tool should be used. Early involvement of team members sets the stage for encouraging them to work with one another to develop effective ways to communicate project information. Team meetings, either face to face or virtual, should be viewed as results oriented and as a useful way to spend time. Each team member should participate actively in team meetings in whatever format, taking responsibility for being heard and being understood. Agreed-upon methods to stay in contact with team members throughout the project life cycle also are useful and can then serve as starting points to discuss ideas, issues, insights, and information. A communications schedule, as detailed in the communications management plan, should be established that is flexible and can be adjusted if required to changing conditions. Team members should be willing to modify their availability standards to best fit those of the team.

Communication Challenges with Virtual Teams

In traditional and virtual teams alike, one of the beneficial side effects of regular communication is that it imparts to the project team members the comfort of being physically and emotionally connected with other members of the team. The image depicted by regular face-to-face communication between employees of the same department in the same organization typifies a traditional, co-located team. It is commonly accepted that working in a traditional project environment, in physical proximity with other team members, will reinforce social similarity, shared values, and expectations. Another subtle advantage of proximity is that collocation increases the anxiety pressure resulting from the possibility of failing to meet commitments (Latane, et al., 1994). Presumably this anxiety increases the likelihood of success. Research further has shown that collocation practices increase the opportunities for communication (Allen, 1977) and that distance inhibits communication. Allen's research showed that people sitting 40 meters apart had only a 5% probability of communicating at least once a week. The percentage did not increase until the distance between the parties decreased to eight meters. Then, team members were found to be more likely to communicate and collaborate.

This research demonstrates the challenges faced in communicating on virtual project teams, particularly because the distances are such that face-to-face communication is nonexistent, a rarity at best. Additionally, communication inadequacies are more damaging in virtual team because of reduced personal access and because of a natural tendency to rely on nonverbal communication clues, which are not readily available in the virtual environment (Guss, 1977).

Diminished Informal Communications

Informal communication in some forms tends to be eliminated when the team is geographically dispersed, or virtual, such as the type of communication that would take place around a water cooler or a coffee pot. Such casual communication is reduced since the team members will rarely, if ever, see one another. On a virtual team, new or modified team processes and procedures may need to be formulated in order to maintain a healthy flow of communication within the team in spite of the significant physical separation.

After the team forms, team members must be continually aware of and sensitive to the fact that conventional human interaction is scarce in virtual teams. That is not to say that people do not make personal connections, but that modified or new venues must be used to achieve personal connections. The virtual team also may require more frequent communication so that team members continue to feel connected, especially since many of the virtual team interactions are asynchronous. Attention to people's feelings, priorities, and perceptions, however, is equally important and becomes more challenging in the virtual environment in conveying information. Communication processes and procedures may need modification to assure cohesiveness and commitment of team members.

Fewer Nonverbal Communication Clues

If clarification or additional information is required during a communication of a collocated team, often the sender can sense that requirement from nonverbal clues. And, the receiver can easily ask for clarification or additional information when required. Even if the receiver does not say something, the sender is able to observe how he or she reacts to what was said, and the nonverbal reaction may convey significant meaning. Both parties in the traditional environment then can take responsibility for content transference and can pay attention to feedback at the time communication occurs. By analyzing feedback in either direction, adjustments can be made. This is critical, as according to the literature (Meharabian, 1968), words only comprise 7% of the total impact of a message, with vocal tones representing 38% and facial expressions comprising 55%.

Increased Reliance on Asynchronous Communications

While face-to-face communication of a collocated team is usually sender controlled, distance communication of a virtual team is primarily receiver controlled. One cannot assume that because a message was sent that it actually was received and understood. Since the virtual environment relies primarily on asynchronous communication, the receiver is left to his or her own devices to interpret the material, thus creating another level of complexity for virtual communications. The traditional process of walking someone through the comprehension of a topic obviously does not exist in the virtual mode, at least not in that exact form. The impact of errors is magnified because there is no opportunity for a continuous stream of questions and answers as there is with traditional teams. Consequently, there is extraordinary pressure, as compared to the traditional teams, to be accurate, succinct, clear, and direct in all items of information that are transmitted to other team members. It then goes without saying that the communication is ineffective if the intended message takes on different meanings.

Increased Impact of Cultural Implications

Cultural differences are another key consideration as they can alter communication symbols and meanings, thus resulting in other misunderstandings. On any project team, it is important to recognize that different people react differently to the contents of phone calls, e-mail, and voice mail. This disparity in comprehension and in subsequent behavior is almost inevitable in virtual teams because larger geographical spans lead to greater cultural interpretations of the messages of the communication. For example, common misunderstandings that might easily occur in phone conversations can be the result of different interpretations of the significance of silence and the meaning of pauses in different cultures. Another example can come from differences in presentation and comprehension. Some startifrom the abstract and then move to the specific, which might not be accepted by others.

Raising and Resolving Conflicts

Conflicts are considered inevitable on projects. On any type of project, if minor issues are left unresolved, they might grow into major conflicts for which resolution is difficult. The earlier an issue is identified, the sooner it will be resolved. Early recognition of issues can result in fewer surprises, which in turn will promote open and constructive discussion among team members. Early detection and resolution of issues also can reduce the uncertainty in the work environment, which may be unsettling especially for virtual team members.

In the virtual team environment, one's mood and morale are less apparent than they would be in a traditional team. It is difficult to express displeasure and frustration in the virtual environment unless someone makes an effort to send a curt e-mail that cannot be misinterpreted. If such virtual team conflicts are allowed to remain and fester, they may result in decreased motivation and negative behavior, which may be more difficult to resolve in the asynchronous environment. Those conflicts that might rise to the surface when two people see each other on a day-to-day basis might remain hidden in the virtual environment. When there is a conflict between two members of a traditional team, the project manager can easily assemble the parties in a room and work with them to resolve differences. By comparison, when such a conflict arises in a virtual team, such a direct resolution is not available, at least not by using the same techniques and procedures. Therefore, on a virtual team, conflicts should be addressed in a proactive fashion with ample forethought in planning and more commitment in monitoring.

Guidelines for Consideration to Promote Effective Communications

Use of English as a Link Language

Since a global, virtual project normally consists of people from different nationalities, the project team should select a common language for the official project business. Research has suggested the use of English as the link language for international projects even though there are three times as many native speakers of Chinese as there are of English (Crystal, 1997). Simple and direct communications will help reduce the risk of distorted messages, which in turn can help reduce the probability of misunderstanding. If English is selected as the common language for the project, communications should be based on a vocabulary that is limited to essential and unambiguous words. The official project language, with the abbreviated English vocabulary, could easily serve as a common language for the project team. One approach to consider is to adopt an international English vocabulary, which contains the approximately 4,000 words in the English dictionary that are commonly used in order to promote a simple and clear communications tool (Chaney and Martin, 1995). Adoption of such a project language then will require that even those team members whose native language is English be more careful in their choice of words.

Establish a System of Regular Communications

A system of regular communications should be established for the team members and stakeholders, including regular reporting and reviews. Project managers of a collocated team in the traditional environment can easily call a meeting on a semi-regular basis. It is easy to take advantage of the physical proximity of team members and avoid the need for extensive meeting preparation, monitoring, and reporting. On a virtual team, however, project managers must be more proactive and organized, since meetings and information exchanges cannot be arranged in a quick and easy fashion. Preparation for a virtual team meeting then tends to be more complex than its traditional counterpart because there are more variables involved in planning and conducting team meetings. More lead time is required to set up the meetings, and they might involve different time zones and native languages. A specific and clear agenda for meetings is required as well as ways to assure full participation. Methods are needed to check for understanding. Contingency plans are required in case the technology to be used cannot be accessed by all team members. Time limits should be established to respond to ideas and to make suggestions. It is therefore recommended that topics to cover in the virtual meeting should be ones that are narrower in scope than in traditional collocated meetings.

Effective Use of Information Technology

If it were not for the ease of use and rapid developments in information technology, virtual projects would not be pursued as regularly and routinely. Its components facilitate the collaboration of the virtual team members. Common technologies include Internet portals, e-mail, videoconferencing, and group decision support systems. These tools enable facilitation of task-specific feedback, notification of upcoming tasks and priorities, and collection of day-to-day progress information about the project. Information technology assists the virtual team to overcome some of the barriers crated by time, distance, complexity, and diversity of participants (Tuman & McMakin, 1997). Information technology can become an instrument through which project team members can make personal human connections.

In a virtual environment, trust is the key ingredient necessary in preventing the geographical and organizational distances of team members from becoming psychological distances (O'Hara-Deveraux & Johansen, 1994). Since the vast majority of virtual teams communicate over the computer and asynchronously, they lack face time to build rapport. One notable skill for developing trust is the proper use of what is known as “trained respect” in that one trains oneself to suspend judgment, temporarily or permanently, in order to truly listen to a different point of view (Bauhaus et al., 1996). Another requirement for a cohesive team is that team members must adopt a policy of not stereotyping others.

For better or for worse, on-line interaction strips away many of the clues and signs that are part of face-to-face interaction, thus making identity and organizational status more ambiguous. But while this lack of identity clues is often considered a disadvantage, it may be an opportunity for virtual team process improvement. The advantage is under the asynchronous mode of communication, people are judged more by the value of the ideas they have to contribute rather than by gender, race, religion, national origin, class, or age. Traditional chain-of-command hierarchies are less evident, which may result in team members being more willing to speak up and offer ideas and insights. Team members may become accustomed to the advantages of conducting specific communication without any knowledge of or reference to one's status in the organization. Communication can be more based on mutual respect. It is incumbent, however, that the project manager put measures in place so that communications among team members are equitable, regular, and predictable. Substantive responses must be solicited from team members to keep everyone involved in project team issues.

While technology serves as the enabler of the virtual project, the specific nature of technology, however, could become a source of conflict rather than collaboration. Team members must strive to reach agreement as to the purpose of each tool and the procedures for its use. Otherwise, the lack of common norms can lead to conflict that could damage working relationships. For example, one team member might feel that e-mail is a tool to be used for urgent business, while another might feel e-mail is to be used for documentation of information, with urgent business to be conducted by phone.

Promote Communications Consistency

Consistency in communications will further be enhanced if the team subscribes to predefined formats, a unifying and distinguishable logo, and operational templates. Standards should be established for format, language, and nomenclature for project management processes and technical components. It may be appropriate, for example to use “lean” technologies, such as e-mail for information exchange, with videoconferencing reserved for brainstorming sessions or conflict resolutions (Leonard et al, 1998). Specific guidelines for e-mail also are recommended on the virtual team since group dynamics are more difficult to manage in the asynchronous environment. The ability to write concise and effective e-mail becomes a skill for virtual team members. Team members then need to exercise due diligence in complying with the guidelines that are established and agreed-upon.

The Importance of a Team Charter

The importance of a project charter has long been recognized to set forth the justification for the project, its business needs, and the project manager's authority and responsibility. Similarly, a team charter is equally important and especially so on a virtual team. It can help to formalize the internal member-to-member behavior of the team in planning and delivering results.

This team charter should be more specific than the project charter as it establishes the roles and responsibilities of team members, ground rules for the team's operation, and team development policies. It describes the practices and procedures that the team members should use to perform the project work. Additionally, it can encourage team members to set forth a vision of the project based on a common purpose, shared ownership, and collective commitment.

In terms of project communications, the charter should include guidelines and ground rules for the use of e-mail and other communications modes. It should prescribe the times at which conference calls should be scheduled so that people in a certain time frame are not always unnecessarily burdened or surprised. Points of contact and modes of contact should be specified for interfaces with other groups and with key stakeholders.

The team charter should set forth formal procedures that describe how to raise a conflict, what specific decision-making processes to use, and how responses are to be provided. The charter should also describe how one should extract a resolution from a conflict and how to escalate a conflict directly to upper management outside of the team when required. It should include guidelines for reviewing conflicts, resolving conflicts, appealing the resolutions, and tracking actions during the review and resolution process. Embedded in these procedures should be safeguards to ensure fairness and confidentiality. The goal of conflict resolution should not be to create a situation where one individual team member declares victory over another.

Furthermore, one of the attractive features of advanced technology communications tools is that a team member can transfer information to other team members easily and quickly. Since virtual teams make extensive use of information technology, they can transmit a much larger volume of information compared to the traditional information exchange modes. In addition to addressing items such as how team members should collectively plan their work, share information, participate in making decisions, and perform their work in concert with one another, a virtual team charter must explicitly address the prudent transfer of project/company information. The team charter must include procedures to guard again infringement of intellectual property rights, propriety information, copyrighted information, trademarks, and service marks.

Summary

Today's projects are increasingly complex. Many projects involve creative and innovative products and services. In order to meet project challenges, team members must coordinate their efforts, share their ideas, and discuss their insights. Project teams are expected to produce results, and performance is hindered if the team members do not work together and communicate effectively.

References

Allen, T.J. (1977) Managing the flow of technology. Cambridge: MIT Press..

Chaney, L. and Martin, J. (1995) Intercultural business communication. Upper Saddle River:. Prentice-Hall

Crystal, D. (1997) English as a global language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Guss, C. L. (1997) Virtual project management: tools and the trade in Proceedings of the 28th Annual Project Management Institute 1997 Seminars and Symposia, Project Management Institute: Chicago.

Latane, B., Nowak, A. & Liu, H.H. (1994) Measuring emergent social phenomena: dynamics, polarization, and clustering as order parameters of social systems. Behavioral Science, 30, 1-24.

Leonard, D., Brands, P.A., Edmonson, A., & Fenwick, J. (1998). Virtual teams: using communications technology to manage geographically dispersed development groups, in Sense & Respond: Capturing Value in the Network Era, Bradley, S.P. and Nolan, R.L. Eds. Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Meharabian, A. (1968) Communication without words. Psychology Today, September 1968, 53-55.

O'Hara-Devereaux, M. and Johansen, R. (1994) Global work: bridging distance, culture, and time. San Francisco:. Jossey-Bass

Rad, P.F. and Levin, G. (2003) Achieving project management success using virtual teams. Boca Raton: J. Ross Publishing

Turman, J. and McMakin, P. (1997) Project management for the twenty-first century: the Internet-based cybernetic project team in Proceedings of the 28th Annual Project Management Institute 1997 Seminars and Symposia Project Management Institute: Chicago.

©Ginger Levin and Parviz F. Rad
Originally Published as part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California

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