PMPs on FB? OMG!
Project managers are all over social media, but is it really helping them get the job done?
by Chauncey Hollingsworth illustration by Otto Steininger
Project managers are always on the hunt for tools and techniques that can help them tighten timelines and ratchet up resources. As the buzz surrounding social media has worked its way onto the project management scene, many in the profession are wondering just what's in it for them. Sure, that wiki is really cool, but is it truly helping keep your team on task?
So while posting, tweeting and blogging have gone viral, there remains the question of how it all plays out in the real business world. The rather mundane answer is that it's starting to look like just another weapon in the business arsenal. A report released in September 2009 by consulting giant McKinsey & Co. revealed that 69 percent of the 1,700 executives surveyed reported having “gained measurable business benefits” from social media tools. Median gains include a 10 percent improvement in operational costs and a 30 percent increase in the speed with which employees connect with outside experts.
Depending on how they're used, social networking sites, blogs and wikis can be powerful tools for intra-team collaboration. Then again, they can also become vacuous digital timesinks that lure projects off track.
“The problem is that [social media] is so young that there's really not much information about practical use out there,” says independent consultant Bas de Baar, who writes The Project Shrink, a blog for IT project managers.
The Zandvoort, Netherlands-based author says he hasn't seen much in the way of case studies. “I think the serious discussion about social media is just starting now,” says Mr. de Baar, a member of the PMI New Media Council.
Peter Mello, PMI-SP, PMP, doesn't like what he sees so far.
Social media fundamentally alters project management—for the worse, says Mr. Mello, director of the São Paulo, Brazil branch of Spider Project Team, a Russian company specializing in project and portfolio management.
“Depending on how you set your social media package, you stop planning and you start reporting,” he says. “The biggest problem with these collaboration spaces is that you have so many issues open that you don't actually do project management anymore—you do issue management.”
Driving a project with social media alone is a mistake, warns Mr. Mello. “Web-based tools are helpful for very small projects, but when you're dealing with the complex development of projects, you still have to trust full-size software tools to conduct your planning,” he says.
GET USED TO IT
Despite the critics and skeptics, social media isn't going away.
“In the next three to 10 years, you're definitely going to see more and more project managers using those tools,” says Ryan Endres, PMP, lead program manager, Fundus Photograph Reading Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
One prime area for social media? The much-needed yet often-neglected project status update.
“Team members could give weekly updates by simply putting them on a blog so everybody could see everybody else's updates,” Mr. Endres says. “I could also see projects using a Twitter-like function, where if there was, say, a milestone reached, a task or a timeline completed, they can then tweet that out.”
For example, on a construction project, someone onsite could simply take a picture with a camera phone and send it to an e-mail address that blasts it to the entire team. At the same time, that person could post the photo onto a shared workspace site, so the team could have a visual update of the project's status.
Too embarrassed to ask just what the heck a tweet is? Here's a social media primer:
TWITTER is a site where users post 140-character-or-less updates known as “tweets” and follow others' tweets. Think: “Project one day ahead of schedule, boarding plane to Mumbai.”
BLOGS (from “web logs”) and WIKIS (from the Hawaiian word for “quick”) are collaborative forums where registered users create and edit content. The best-known wiki is, of course, Wikipedia.
LINKEDIN has become the business social network. The site has more than 53 million users worldwide, about half of whom are in the United States. It's popular in Europe as well, and India is experiencing the fastest membership growth.
QZONE is one of the largest social networks in the world. With Facebook and Twitter blocked in China, QZone has become the go-to option there, attracting over 200 million registered users.
FRIENDSTER fell from favor in the Western world but remains popular in Southeast Asia.
Owned by Google, ORKUT is especially popular in Brazil and India, with more than 70 percent of its users from those countries.
VK is Russia's preferred social network, while Europeans join BADOO, and MIXI is big in Japan.
Mr. Endres recently used online discussion boards to manage the flow of information on a prosaic but essential project: relocating his company's office. Only one month in, he was already seeing the benefits of keeping everyone up to date—namely by stopping the chatter of the rumor mill.
“We can simply put your question on [the site] for everyone to see, and within a week the management group can answer that question,” he says.
Many project managers see applications for social media not on a local level but in defining the big picture for teams that span oceans and continents. Everyone has seen team members firing off instant messages to someone sitting right next to them, but that misses the point.
“It doesn't make much sense if you're working in the same room,” argues Mr. de Baar.
After all, the beauty of the World Wide Web is that it covers the whole wide world.
“There will always remain some things that are done better with a local team. But the arguments for distributed teams are increasing,” Mr. de Baar says. “You now can locate someone within your organization with some obscure expertise and work with them.”
What are the security risks of social media and other web-based collaboration tools?
Mark Lobel, a principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers, discusses this and other IT security issues in a new podcast exclusively on PMI.org/pmnetwork.
Make it personal. Along with all the assistance managing projects, social media can also help you develop your skill set and build yourself as a brand.
“Project managers are using social media for their own purposes,” says Bas de Baar, a Zandvoort, Netherlands-based independent consultant and blogger. “Personal development is a big one. They're also using it for self-promotion, to promote what they're doing outside the boundaries of the company.”
In that case, social media can also help in ironing out different approaches to work.
“If you take communication styles and direction styles that you use for a co-located team and you try to use them on a distributed team, they don't always work,” Mr. de Baar says. “It's a different ballgame.”
That's where social media comes in, offering instant collaboration and information exchange—no matter where people happened to be.
Social media has a very low threshold for entry, too. “You can ask almost any junior manager to write a blog post, so in that sense it's also a great mechanism to get your sponsor involved or draw in other people and stakeholders,” he says.
There is one rather large caveat: Project managers unaccustomed to open-information work environments may have a difficult time adjusting to a data flow that goes up, down and sideways.
“There are a gazillion reasons why people would not like transparency, from office politics to having no experience in it or just because it's a change,” says Mr. de Baar. “You have to start thinking about working with colleagues on the same page, literally—in a wiki, on discussion boards—to get more in-depth knowledge on a subject.”
THE RELUCTANT SOCIAL NETWORKER
Budget-wise, using social media seems like a no-brainer. The cost benefits are certainly cheaper than flying everyone to corporate headquarters for a meet and greet. And implementation is often more a matter of time than budget.
Of course, you still have to convince the naysayers, says Kimberly Wiefling, founder and president of Wiefling Consulting LLC, Redwood City, California, USA.
“Some of my buddies are working with more traditional businesses that think social media is just for teenagers to keep track of their friends,” she says.
And that sentiment wasn't uncommon —until very recently, when Ms. Wiefling says she spotted a shift. Organizations are being forced to take note of social networks because, like it or not, they're already involved.
“Some of these companies are totally unaware that they are being mentioned in the social media, whether they participate or not. I show them examples of where their people have profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook, and there are even ‘official' Twitter sites that various branches have set up that headquarters doesn't know about,” Ms. Wiefling says. “My clients are frequently surprised because their official policies have been, ‘We don't participate in those sites.’”'
There are ways to slowly introduce stakeholders and team members to the wonders of social media. One option is to get them into interactive workshops designed to provide “the experience of a social media interaction” without fully taking the plunge.
The trick is to show them that social media only seems to be cutting-edge.
“They've been doing this all along, collaborating and working with different sorts of people,” Ms. Wiefling says. “It's not hugely new—it's just enabled with a new tool.”
The relevance of social media to project management is similar to You-Tube's relation to broadcast television: It's just another medium for delivering the direction and communication that good project managers have always excelled at.
Don't dismiss social networks as just something for teens. It turns out only 20 percent of Facebook users and 10 percent of Twitter users are between the ages of 13 and 17, according to Quantcast, a digital marketing research company.
Wikis, for example, are simply a virtual version of lessons learned.
“A wiki makes team members' lives easier,” Ms. Wiefling says. “It's an extended memory base. You don't have to be picking through your e-mail to figure out what to do with last year's project that was lost on some computer disc that crashed. You can look at the record of last year's project so next time it's easier than the last time.”
Some project practitioners have found the tools to be downright addictive.
“After reading Wikinomics [Portfolio, 2006], I got obsessed with the power of collaboration and I started using wikis for everything, from the home repair list to just about everything else,” Ms. Wiefling says.
That includes her projects. In one case, she was working with a team of about 15 in Japan, Europe and the United States, so she set up a wiki to keep them all up to date—except no one was checking it. Team members would send her e-mail after e-mail asking questions she'd already posted answers to online.
After six months, Ms. Wiefling was ready to give up the wiki but decided to find an ally. Approaching the project manager responsible for business process, Ms. Wiefling told her that social media is “a treasure chest of information, a recipe for how your business runs and what we do. If I delete this [wiki], you're losing hundreds or thousands of hours of knowledge capture. But I'll delete it if no one uses it because I can't collaborate if I use it by myself.”
Ms. Wiefling wanted to make a point that organizations have to keep pace with technology. “If you want to use Stone Age tools to try to launch the space shuttle, it's just not going to work.”
Her argument was convincing. The project manager dictated that everyone use the wiki. And they did.
Even if you manage to get team members tweeting and posting, you still may have to contend with the deadly combo of technophobic executives and IT department pushback.
“All the people I work with are not allowed to use Skype. It's blocked at their corporations because it's considered an IT security risk. I tell them, ‘It's a phone. Do you use phones at work? That's a risk, too!’”
—Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting LLC, Redwood City, California, USA.
Often more interested in being safe than sorry, executives are putting more pressure than ever before on control-oriented IT managers to maintain robust networks and security with budgets that can't keep pace with demand.
Online social networks are considered trouble because of their decentralized nature and open flow of information, along with the extra bandwidth demanded by a team filled with Facebook addicts.
If you're going to be visiting these types of sites, you have to assure management and information security staff that you have protective measures in place, says Mr. Endres.
On social networking sites, for example, tailor your privacy settings to only reveal your updates to colleagues.
One way to assuage skittish executives and IT managers is by easing into social media within the confines of the corporate firewall.
“That has the least amount of risk and you'll probably get quicker buy-in from your execs,” says Mr. Endres.
He also predicts in the next three to 10 years, “you're probably going to see more apps that are built like Facebook and Twitter for project management—whether you're going to log into a secure website or you're going to simply buy applications and install them on your server.”
In the meantime, IT departments may actually be risking more by not accommodating their project managers—some of whom might use these tools whether or not they have the official blessing of their organization, says Ms. Wiefling.
“All the people I work with are not allowed to use Skype,” she says. “It's blocked at their corporations because it's considered an IT security risk. I tell them, ‘It's a phone. Do you use phones at work? That's a risk, too!'”
She says employees often will just go to a coffee shop on their breaks and make their calls using Skype at a wireless hotspot. “Which is worse?” Ms. Wiefling asks.
Even with all the issues, organizations and project managers that shun social media could be losing out.
“If you're ignoring it, your competitors and customers are using it or looking at ways to use it against you,” she says. “It's just self-defense to know what's going on out there.”
Then you can tweet the news to your team. PM
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