Project Management Institute

State government virtual project and PMO collaboration guided discussion


A virtual project team (VPT) expands an organization’s options when there is not enough qualified in-house, co-located staff, or expertise to complete a project. A virtual project management office (VPMO) expands the organization’s organizational project management process assets when the project management office (PMO) is dispersed and not co-located.

This guided discussion engages the participants in the virtual collaboration and accountability issue decisions of two state government departments dealing with VPTs and VPMOs. The situations from these departments provide problem-solving background, discovery support, collaboration constraints and assumptions, strategies to engage department resources in a solution, and iterative cycles of continued improvement for virtual project collaboration and accountability.


VPT and VPMO collaboration and accountability handle communication, dynamics, and productivity differently than their traditional counterparts. Productive virtual collaboration and accountability demand knowledge and activity improvement for project engagement, appropriate governance, working within financial constraints, change transition of organizational culture, and supportive technology infrastructure. The resultant project and portfolio success demand focused outcomes, management involvement, inclusion over compliance, sensible tools with standardized practices, simplified processes, and change reinforcement.

Virtual Collaboration Compounds Troubled Projects

Projects are designated “troubled” when they are behind schedule, over budget, and/or are not meeting customer satisfaction for a myriad of reasons. One of the largest issues when projects go awry is communication. Virtual collaboration and use of information collaboration technology (ICT) compounds communication. ICT includes: information access, enterprise content management, meeting management, demand management, and accountability (work, resource, cost, and schedule) management.

“Among the various aspects of how team members should better ‘work together’ are issues regarding communication and, more specifically, communication regarding tasks and coordination. More and more project managers are realizing that measuring and controlling how communication flows during a project positively affects its status and progress ... Communication technology can influence performance because it provides an impetus for people to think in new ways, pay attention to different things, communicate and work together differently as well as to do completely new things.” (Chioccio, 2007, pp 97–98)

Project management communication planning assesses the needs, objectives, infrastructure, constraints, and assumptions for ICT. Projects require managed solutions for implementing and utilizing ICT. Trigger assessment for ICT issues is imperative for either a VPT or VPMO.

Triggers that impede ICT for either VPT or VPMO include:

  • External influence to the team
  • Tool inadequacies
  • Mistrust and relationship breakdowns
  • Group structure interference
  • Member knowledge

External influence includes restrictive ICT choice, restrictive ICT configuration, or pressure exerted by higher management. Tool inadequacies include missing features, information overload, or inadequate accessibility and reliability. Mistrust involves team members refusing to get along with each other or respond in the information and feedback loop. Interference of group structure involves team turnover, culture change, physical distance, and time-zone issues. Member knowledge entails team members not knowing enough of how to use an ICT effectively. (Thomas, Bostrom, Gouge, 2007, p 89)

Backgrounds of Two Troubled Projects

The ALEXware AGIA Reporting for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (AKDOLWD) experienced external influence, mistrust, and group interference. Application of prior ICT lessons learned by the assigned project manager and newly hired team lead did not occur. The project team also did not have a full awareness of the need for managed collaboration, which compounded the other issues of the project being over budget and behind schedule.

Trust had broken down even between team members located in the same building. A project management mentor was brought in to reassess the deliverables, scope, environment, and funding needed to complete the project. She was given a project duration constraint of eight months, use of existing department ICT (not located at the main site), and was provided with the only department staff available.

Trails of e-mail threads, multiple file directories, anger, resignations, and multiple document copies and versions exposed issues in communication planning and information distribution. Assessment of the existing technology included Polycom, NetMeeting, MS Word, Excel, MS Project, Outlook, LAN File Directories, Citrix, and SourceSafe. Continuation of the project was complicated because the staff was now distributed outside the main building. Exhibit 1 provides the ICT assessment.


Exhibit 1 – AKDOLWD ALEXware VPT Root Cause

The VPMO for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (AKDHSS) eGrants project presented the other end of the ICT spectrum in which multiple subprojects had multiple options for collaboration. ICT included Polycom, NetMeeting, MS Word, Excel, MS Project, Outlook, SharePoint, MS Groove, Neos jabber, VPNs, GOTO Meeting, discussion threads, Blogs, and USendit. No structured communication and information distribution processes had been instituted by either the VPT or the VPMO. No consistent virtual accountability of action items, decisions, document management, and information distribution existed. (The VPMO was just being instituted and eGrants was one of the first troubled projects being used to institute an accountable project process.) Exhibit 2 provides the ICT assessment.

AKDHSS VPMO Root Cause using eGrants

Exhibit 2 – AKDHSS VPMO Root Cause using eGrants

VPT and VPMO Collaboration Challenges

Project management communication accountability requires stakeholder identification for information distribution of performance reporting as to what the information is and when and how to acquire it.

Virtual accountability uses ICT to take defined roles and responsibilities and communication requirements and expectations, and configures a method to clarify communications, establish trust, employ consistent processes, facilitate organizational support, and manage outcomes (Anatatmula, 2008, p 42).

For ALEXware, the roles and responsibilities needed to be refined and the expectations clarified. For eGrants, the team responsibilities needed to alleviate the “what I want to do” versus “what I am responsible for” (Exhibit 3). Support and coach roles for assisting the responsible party need to be defined as well as who the responsible party is to keep informed about the status of the activity.

eGRants SharePoint RASCI

Exhibit 3 – eGRants SharePoint RASCI

Accountability necessitates being proactive in a virtual environment. The team must handle both content and social interaction. Problem solving and information handling are interdependent and require supported processes. Knowledge management is not the same as ICT. ICT is a toolbox utilized with techniques of project communication management strategy to assist in the conversion of information into knowledge. Not all project teams process the same information the same way regardless of whether or not they are using the same tools (Anatatmula, 2008, p 36).

Good virtual communication and collaboration are adaptable, keep people informed, allow tracking of goals by all, and keep the team focused on real work. Assessment and ranking of collaboration and accountability needs should answer the following questions: “1. What’s happening right now? 2. What do we anticipate happening? 3. What needs to change?” (DeCarlo, 2004, p 418) Managing project processes virtually requires project management maturity from both the organization and individual project managers. Exhibit 4, based on the DeCarlo Table for Information and Collaboration Needs of Various Stakeholders (DeCarlo, 2004, p 419), helped assess what information was needed for eGrants ICT configuration.

eGrants Adaptation of DeCarlo Information and Collaboration Needs of Various Stakeholders

Exhibit 4 – eGrants Adaptation of DeCarlo Information and Collaboration Needs of Various Stakeholders

Virtual Collaboration Infrastructure

VPT and VPMO require addressing ICT infrastructure, stakeholder communication requirements, and security requirements as parts of project communication management planning. Available options for ICT infrastructure are dependent on whether the project environment is staff, process, or technology driven.

Staff-driven environments use project management strategy to determine which ICT to use or use ICT to drive decisions about which project management strategy to employ. Process-driven environments use project management strategy to determine which ICT to use and then forces the choice of staff based on this. Alternatively, this process may try to provide a one-size-fits all project strategy that dictates the ICT based on what capabilities the staff can handle (Exhibit 5). ICT-driven environments dictate choice of staff and project management strategy (Wysocki, 2006, p 29).

Although both troubled projects encountered similar dysfunctional collaboration issues, their ICT infrastructure was different. The ALEXware project fell into a technology-driven environment in which the original project manager tried to enforce project management strategy and was constrained by an environment he didn’t understand; he thought he was in a process-driven environment and tried to apply a “one-size-fits all PM strategy.” The virtual PM mentor needed to make some PM strategy adaptations due to ICT restrictions and provide reinforcement training and support to the team.

The VPMO environment for eGrants fell into a more flexible staff-driven environment for accountability options, but had problems because they did not follow either a project strategy or enforce a specific ICT option. The corrective action implemented an adaptive PM strategy and standardized the ICT tools and processes to be used.

Choice of Environment Decisions based on Wysocki Environments

Exhibit 5 – Choice of Environment Decisions based on Wysocki Environments

Project Management Infrastructure

The three most relevant challenges of VPTs and VPMOs are communication, process structure, and task support. The ICT decision must use integrated and flexible tools and methods for communication, organizing, and structuring their workflow processes and supporting the analysis and performance of their tasks (Khazanchi and Zigurs, 2007, p 6). “A lack of awareness of other team members’ working processes is one of the drawbacks that a virtual team may face while attempting to collaborate on a shared task.” (Leinonen, Jarvela, Hakkinen, 2005, p 301)

Established ICT ground rules, individual team member roles, stakeholder interests, and the decision-making process must be shared openly. Ideal audio and video facilitation must be defined to prevent multitasking during times when dialog and active listening should be engaged. Meeting, concern, and conflict management processes must be defined and re-enforced. Electronic sharing of calendars must be implemented for scheduling meetings and determining if vacation and holiday schedules are interfering with answers and delays of workflow (Combs and Peacocke, 2007, p 27).

Types of Information Views of eGrants Stakeholders

Exhibit 6 – Types of Information Views of eGrants Stakeholders

eGrants required capturing stakeholder roles, interests, and responsibilities in such a way that different views of the stakeholder information could be provided for clarification (Exhibit 6).


VPT and VPMO meeting management and etiquette establish a focused environment. Agendas, minutes/discussion summaries, decisions, action items, parking lot items, issues, and roadblocks are considerations for ICT engagement and enforcement. Agile PM increases the number of meetings but limits the scope of the meeting as well as the invitee list. The number and level of meeting management are proportionate to the level of uncertainty of the project at that stage of engagement. Meeting preparedness requires the agenda be known prior to the meeting and attendees know what is expected of them (Chin, 2004, p 169).

Virtual meeting etiquette requires logging in for online products prior to the meeting to ensure connects and downloads are installed. Unless the meeting has video, vocal queues and voice recognition are essential and must follow the agenda for discussion points. Multi-tasking, texting, and answering cell phones, and e-mails detract from full engagement and participation. ALEXware established a procedure for meetings to e-mail the agenda to attendees prior to the day of the meeting as well as store the agenda and minutes in a specified directory folder. eGrants established a procedure to link the agenda and minutes documents from the prior meeting to the calendar event and provided an Outlook alert message.

The final result for both ALEXware and eGrants agendas was hyperlinks of the agenda to the action items, issues, decisions, and tasks. The difference between the two programs was that ALEXware’s hyperlinks went to Word and Excel documents, whereas the eGrants hyperlinks went to SharePoint Lists. Using NetMeeting or GOTO Meeting allowed the facilitator to bring up the various areas of discussion and fill in the linked lists or documents at the time of the meeting to facilitate capturing the meeting information.

Knowledge Management

Project documents must be organized for easy retrieval and storage. Both ALEXware and eGrants had documents and versions sprinkled throughout the team members’ home drives, various directories, but no central organization.

Virtual accountability requires task analysis, performance evaluation, and structuring the information to allow decision analysis, problem modeling, brainstorming, idea evaluation, and progress. Task support provides the methods and processes for organizing, communication of discovery, and brainstorming. ALEXware used MS Project but needed to provide the information to the team, resource managers, and senior management in different formats. The eGrants process the logged tasks but did not provide estimates, durations, dependencies, or show which tasks were happening in parallel.

ICT requires defining who has access to what information. ALEXware LAN directories used NT Authentication groups for the folders and Citrix remote access for contractors. AKDHSS also used NT Authentication groups and permission levels for SharePoint sites and access, with VPN and remote access for contractors, but in addition needed to use USendit for added security for e-mails containing personnel information that needed to be encrypted.

Trust, Change Acceptance, Reinforcement

VPT and VPMO demand trust. Team members may not know each other and their remote distribution challenges trust building.

“There are many definitions of trust. Trust is the individual’s (or group’s) belief that another individual (or group) makes good faith efforts to behave in accordance with any commitments both explicit and implicit.... Trust is generally influenced by:

(a) familiarity of the individuals in the relationship over a significant period of time;

(b) shared experiences and goals;

(c) reciprocal disclosure between individuals over time; and

(d) demonstration of non-exploitation expressed over time.”

(Dani, Burns, Blackhouse, and Kochhar, 2005, p 952)

Low trust management of teams causes general mistrust and suspicion of team members and degenerates to continuous behavior surveillance, resulting in escalating degrees of regulation. The four relationship types based on levels of trust and regulation are depicted in Exhibit 7. High trust and low regulation is the most desirable situation. Employee alienation is caused by low trust and high regulation. (Dani, Burns, Blackhouse, and Kochhar, 2005, p 952). VPT and VPMO require high trust.

Relationship types based on trust and regulation

Exhibit 7 – Relationship types based on trust and regulation

“Reality, like a child, is disobedient” (DeCarlo, 2004, p 55). As a project manager your role is to remind, train, identify pockets of resistance, and be a catalyst for change. “The common denominator is that people resist change, no matter how elegant and well planned the new idea is. Moreover, those of us who would initiate change often don’t really understand how change works.” (DeCarlo, 2004, p 209)

Problem Definition and Objectives

The problem definition for virtual collaboration and accountability requires an assessment, as shown in Exhibit 8 for AKDHSS VPMO.

AKDHSS VPMO Collaboration and Accountability Assessment

Exhibit 8 – AKDHSS VPMO Collaboration and Accountability Assessment

From assessing the environment and the make or buy questions, the AKDHSS VPMO came up with a speculative collective vision for eGrants, which wound up being tied to a larger vision for the department for the VPMO. The “immediate needs” objectives needed to be answered for eGrants sooner than other virtual collaboration and accountability requirements for the department as a whole; this required the department goals to be iterative, especially because the long-term goals were still fuzzy.

The AKDOLWD ALEXware VPT problem definition and objective were immediate, there was no additional funding, and the environment required assessment, but the make or buy decision was dictated to be a combination of utilizing existing tools and establishing processes.

Collaboration Security

AKDHSS VPMO had an added requirement for HIPAA that was not a factor for eGrants or for AKDOLWD ALEXware. “The general requirements of the HIPAA Security Rule establish that covered entities must do the following:

  1. Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all electronic protected health information (ePHI) the covered entity creates, receives, maintains, or transmits.
  2. Protect against any reasonably anticipated threats or hazards to the security or integrity of such information.
  3. Protect against any reasonably anticipated uses or disclosures of such information that are not permitted or required.
  4. Ensure compliance by the workforce.” (HIPAA, 2008, p 1)

Collaboration security is a critical success measure and more difficult to retrofit in a VPMO and VPT infrastructure. Privacy, security, and permissions should be taken into consideration prior to implementing tools or procedures.

“Privacy protection is not just a technical problem; it also involves issues such as educating and training government officials in privacy and limiting access to personally identifiable information and not automatically allowing employees to tap into databases that hold such information.” (Ezz, Papazafeiropoulou, and Serrano, 2009, p 211)

Stakeholder Engagement Process

Engaging stakeholders of VPT or VPMO requires assessing need, strategy, process, capabilities, and commitment, as shown in Exhibit 9. “Not all information is equally important to everyone. Those doing the work will want more detail and different slices than interested parties.” (Decarlo, 2004, p 420).

Performance Prism (Neely and Adams, 2010, p 8)

Exhibit 9 – Performance Prism (Neely and Adams, 2010, p 8)

Understanding the relationship of the stakeholders’ wants and needs, as well as what they are willing to contribute to VPTs and VPMOs, dictates how to approach an ICT framework supported by strategies, processes, and capabilities. Complexity and over-engineering of processes and tools will have a negative impact on stakeholder satisfaction and what they are willing to contribute.

In addressing the root cause diagram for the VPT of ALEXware, the immediate trust and relationship breakdown required addressing visibility and perceptions of task accountability and getting timely and consistent information. The engagement approach first established a simplified protocol for accountability and notifications and second standardized knowledge management procedures using existing tools. The buy-in from stakeholders for ALEXware required follow-ups with resource managers and training of not only the project team staff, but also of the interdependent team members. The process was not complex, but re-enforcement to put into practice was necessary.

In addressing the root cause diagram for the VPMO for eGrants, the immediate concerns were establishing and enforcing visible standardized work management, knowledge management, and virtual meeting etiquette. Relationships improved as these areas were resolved; however, the buy-in from the stakeholders for eGrants required facilitating trust issues not only at the team level, but also at the sponsor and senior management levels. Change re-enforcement, and training of both the project team and interdependent team members occurred, as well as an operational level agreement that the project sponsor requested between units.

Four Quadrant Assessment for a PM Strategy to Go Forward

The breakdown of trust, communication, and accountability experienced by many VPTs and VPMOs occurs when they immediately start using ICT (a solution) without having a defined goal or strategy for their virtual communication and accountability process. A value-driven approach reflects the process as well as the flexibility to adjust and embrace a better solution. Both ALEXware and eGrants addressed the immediate needs and then adapted and modified their strategies using iterations of value-driven improvement, which were based on the feedback from stakeholders.

Wysocki’s 4-Quadrant Assessment of project management flexibility is on the percentage of the project goal and solution that is clear and understood, as well as which project life cycle process is being followed. This assessment helps explain the best virtual communication and accountability process for selecting the right ICT, processes, or staff.

Quadrant 1 – embraces traditional project management (TPM) strategies with linear, incremental, and iterative project life cycles for low complexity-low uncertainty plan driven projects implementing clear goals and clear solutions.
Quadrant 2 – embraces agile project management (APM) strategies for iterative and adaptive project life cycles for high uncertainty-low complexity value driven plans where the known is implemented while prototyping and closing in on the unknown feature gaps (clear goal, but unclear solution).
Quadrant 3 – embraces extreme project management (xPM) strategies with adaptive and extreme project life cycles for high complexity-high uncertainty that discover, probe, and research to narrow down feasible goals in which both goals and solutions are fuzzy.
Quadrant 4 – embraces “emertxe” project management (PMx) strategy for linear, incremental, and iterative project life cycles that implement a solution already available. The key of this strategy is to find someone with a business need that embraces the existing solution. (Wysocki, 2006, pp 8–13 and Wysocki, 2010, p 300)

Most ICT custom-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions are Quadrant 4 solutions for implementation; however, the problem with these solutions is not the implementation of the ICT application but in solving the communications and accountability needs of Quadrants 1, 2, and 3 projects. Flexibility of ICT, the virtual communication processes, and staff increases requirements for timely and clear communication as project life cycles go from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 3 (Exhibits 10 and 11).

Project Life Cycles 4 Quadrant Complexity-Uncertainty (Wysocki, 2006, p 37)

Exhibit 10 – Project Life Cycles 4 Quadrant Complexity-Uncertainty (Wysocki, 2006, p 37)

Project Management Strategies 4 Quadrant Goal and Solution (Wysocki, 2006, p 19)

Exhibit 11 – Project Management Strategies 4 Quadrant Goal and Solution (Wysocki, 2006, p 19)

“Lack of timely and clear people-to-people communications has been shown to be the single most frequent reason for project failure... .As you move in the direction of increased complexity and heightened uncertainty, communication requirements increase and change.” (Wysocki, 2006, p 19)

A pitfall in the beginning of both ALEXware and eGrants approaches was that the previous project managers were trying to establish their project communication and accountability processes using TPM while they were APM projects. But, even in using TPM, they did not have a clearly defined plan for information distribution. Compounding this, the dispersed teams needed a communication and knowledge management process to meet their velocity needs, which APM better supports.

ALEXware was using an adaptive software development (ASD) model and eGrants was using an evolutionary waterfall model. Bi-weekly iteration cycles for both of these projects were used to move forward with the deliverables identified for the product as well as learning and discovery items for communication and accountability.

Options for Tools, Policies, and Procedures

A value assessment was initiated to review options based on an available technical infrastructure similar to the one shown in Exhibit 12. Areas that are already in place for GAPs and considerations as to whether technology or the process impedes or enhances the value of implementation must be assessed. The issues addressed deal with performance, appropriate corrective actions, establishing a process, training, or re-enforcement of an existing process. The GAP/Issue was then MoSCoW prioritized. Each cycle addressed the ones assigned an item or issue and prioritized for the next cycle or later cycles.

Value Assessment

Exhibit 12 – Value Assessment


Both ALEXware and eGrants needed to leverage what was in place and accommodate changes for virtual team improvement in their projects. Project deliverables were separate and had their specified milestones but were dependent on improvement of ICT and virtual strategies.

Incorporating change during each cycle as part of the leveraging, learning, and discovery process was incorporated as part of the change control or corrective action effort for the project. Lessons learned were applied to each cycle for productive virtual collaboration and accountability, while working within financial constraints and the established milestones for the identified project milestones.

Change transition of organizational culture required relationship facilitation (in the case of eGrants), training of both project team and interrelated teams, focused outcomes, management support, and simplified processes with standardized practices.

Anatatmula, V. S. (2008, March). The role of technology in the project manager performance model, Project Management Journal, 39(1), 34–48.

Chin, G. (2004). Agile Project Management. San Francisco. AMACOM, 169.

Chioccio, F. (2007, March). Project team performance: A study of electronic task and coordination communication, Project Management Journal, 38(1), 97–98.

Combs, W. & Peacocke, S. (2007, February). Leading Virtual Teams, Training & Development 61(2), 27-28.

Dani, S.S, Burns, N.D, Backhouse; C. J., & Kochhar, A. K. (2006) “The Implications of Organisational Culture and Trust in the Working of Virtual Teams”— Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part B: Journal of Engineering Manufacture, 220(B6), p 952.

DeCarlo, D. (2004). eXtreme Project Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA, pp 55, 209, 415–432.

Ezz, I., Papazafeiropoulou, A., & Serrano, A., (2009, June). Challenges of interorganizational collaboration for information technology adoption: Insights from a governmental financial decision-making process in Egypt, Information Technology for Development. 15(9), 211.

Henrie, M., & Sousa-Posa, A. (2005). Project management: A cultural literary review. Project Management Journal, 36(2), 5.

HIPAA Security Rule Overview as downloaded from the web 5/8/2010

Kendra, K., & Taplin, L., (2004). Project success: A cultural frame work. Project Management Journal, 35(1), 34–41.

Khazanchi, D., & Zigurs, I., (2007). Patterns of effective management of virtual projects: An exploratory study, Project Management Institute. Newtown Square, PA, 6–13.

Lienonen, P., Jarvela, S., & Hakkinen, P. (2005). Conceptualizing the awareness of collaboration: A qualitative study of a global virtual team. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 14, 301.

Neely, A., & Adams, C., (2010). Perspectives on Performance: The Performance Prism as downloaded from the web 5/15/2010 .

Okkenen, J., (2010), Performance of Virtual Organisations, BRC From Ida to Knowledge. Tampere University of Technology, p 274, as downloaded from the web 5/15/2010,

Thomas, D.M., Bostrom, R.P., & Gouge, M., (2007, November). Making knowledge work in virtual teams, Communications of the ACM, 50(11) 89.

Tools for Collaboration and Communities of Practice as downloaded from the web 5/15/2010

Why Good Collaboration Tools are Worth Every Penny as downloaded from the web 5/15/2010

Wysocki, R. K., (2006). Effective Software Project Management. Wiley Publishing, Inc., Indianapolis, IN. p 26-33.

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 or any listed author.

© 2010, Joyce Douglas and Jang Ra
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC.



Related Content