Project Management Institute

Virtually connected

how to avoid communication hang-ups

Introduction

The familiar words, “Houston, we have a problem,” drift across a room filled with seasoned project managers pouring over their tools and techniques for a solution to the latest project crises. The intensity of the moment negates all opportunities for real learning—project managers respond involuntarily, developing associations with any action that disarms the external environmental trigger. The process of communicating itself becomes paramount in a time-pressured environment. However, project managers tend to dismiss essential internal processes like communication as something they do well as innately as breathing. Communication then becomes confused with the rewards of communication. Similarly, the term communications becomes synonymous with the media used to do the communication (Trevino, Klebe, Lengel, & Daft, 1987). Research tends to feed this technical view by focusing on identifying the one best or richest media for communication, often ignoring the process of communication itself.

The concept of open communication originating in the 1930s (Rogers, 1987) has matured somewhat, although science tends to “pretty much beat the same old dead horse” (Field, 1999). Research proceeds on the assumption that an individual, like a computer, has a hard drive or mental space set aside to send and receive communications. However, the principles of Field's (1999) Corporeal Field Theory dispute this notion. Field suggests that communication does not expand into a space that's already there; rather, the space itself expands (perhaps in different dimensions) to carry the communication forth. Thus, the deep level of communication that may occur on other dimensions remains hidden from the view of conventional scientific inquiry.

This paper challenges the conventional thinking about communication within the context of virtual project teams. The paper presents preliminary results from the third phase of a multiyear cross-sectional research project exploring the nature of communication by identifying the level of communication, media use for different types of communications, and the impact of anticipating future interaction. This paper presents findings about the nature of how virtual project teams communicate. The theoretical and practical viewpoints provide value in their direct application to virtual project teams who are committed to adopting communication behaviors that promote success and avoid hang-ups.

Background

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) specifically addresses the topic of communication in Section 10. However, treatment of communication focuses on what it does rather than why it exists. For example, Section 10.1 of the PMBOK® Guide states that “Project Communications Management includes the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information.” The narrow focus on communication relates to its function as an input—[application of tools and techniques] output mechanism (PMI®, 1999). As well, traditional communication studies often report the number of messages sent or received or the time spent communicating as measures of open communication (Rogers, 1987; Trevino, Klebe, Lengel, & Daft, 1987). The foundation of these principles lie in acceptance of a restrictive theory of media choice that offers sender-receiver models as if communication exists without the critical reflection of the participants. A broader view of communication encompasses critical social, holographic and quantum principles that account for the reciprocal conscious and unconscious influence individuals when communicating.

A more holistic view of communication sees individuals as more than passive receptacles of information that happens to experience communication hang-ups when they do not follow a process protocol. Taken from a broader viewpoint, many project failures stem from interpersonal communication breakdowns at an unconscious level as root causes (Thomas, 2000). Typically, project managers respond to the perceived communication breakdown by referencing previous experiences or “know how” with the intent of implementing tighter controls on costing and scheduling. The theme of insufficiency—not enough control, not enough communication binds the threads of the team's project fabric. Gathering the team around for a “water cooler” type of open chat may be more effective in stimulating the art of real communication that encourages learning rather than the formation of shallow associations gleaned from past experiences (usually negative).

The need for immediate and open communication seems particularly salient in time-constrained environments where project teams do not, if ever, meet face to face. Virtual project teams appear temporary in nature; may never or seldom meet face to face; and they use communication technology to deliver a product/service or experience (Hartman & Guss, 1996). This phenomenon appears to have gained momentum over the last five years, spurred by an information technology boom. This in turn produces a radical shift in how people understand communication (Dejgaard, 1999; Hartman & Guss, 1996; Kocian & Scheer, 1997). Project organizations respond to competitive pressures by streamlining their physical structure and reorganizing personnel. In doing so, they often recognize the high cost of their organized and permanent labor force. Thus, shifting to temporary labor or “virtual” project teams seems financially attractive. However, successfully restructuring to virtual teams that may seldom or never meet means a corresponding deep level shift in value and attitudes toward communication.

Conventional Thinking

Traditional project teams led by a project manager typically experience much of the communication flow from the top down. Researchers traditionally measure the internal communication infrastructure by the number of communication paths (N2–N)/N where N = number of persons on a project (Carter & Baker, 1992). According to this formula, more communication paths require more technological infrastructure to successfully carry or transfer information about a project to the appropriate receivers (Carter & Baker, 1992). In contrast, virtual project teams communicate by sharing of leadership and power so that the direction of communication resembles more of a fluid semipermeable matrix than a rigid one or two-way arrow. Sharing of leadership fundamentally changes the intent and tone of communication to one of collaboration from interpersonal competition. Regardless of the context, the adage “that more communication is better” has not lessened the presence of communication hang-ups. Therefore, virtual project teams continue to learn how to challenge conventional thinking by accepting that communication has a multidimensional nature. Essentially, communication goes beyond treating sender-receiver pairs because they do not exist in a vacuum. In reality, communicators themselves challenge the validity of each communication as well as question the context or norms that contain rather than control the communication. This central tenant of critical social theory reinforces the idea that communicating parties acts critically to shape and reshape the communication quality, content, and intensity.

Communication quality, content, and intensity have typically been studied from a cognitive perspective (what we think about). Walther (1996) suggests that viewing the problem through a cognitive lens may over emphasize the importance of computation and information processing. Consequently, Frankel (1999) purports that although an individual's cognition plays a role in elaborating and refining a repertoire of skills that are adaptive, emotions underlie the continuous estimation of values of urgency, opportunity, risk and uncertainty that help an individual to make sense of their circumstances. Unfortunately, the dominant media use and media richness theory focus heavily on the syntax of language. Cognition overrules emotions in terms of the western science fixation with communication as a rational learned task much like the function of a computer neural net learning how to process bits of information (Yu, 1997).

Another major limitation in media use and richness theories lies in the naive assumption that face-to-face communication means optimal communication (Yu, 1997). Typically, virtual project teams meet face to face at least once during the conceptual or planning phase. This initial physical connection seems very important in building trust within the team and creating a web to enable open communication. The dynamics of these meetings tend to differ from regular business meetings because they provide a forum for the team to share stories and analogies that make sense to their project. Meetings in a virtual environment seem less about turn taking and control and more about establishing meaningful connections. Chen (1997) makes a strong argument that the opportunity of being in constant face-to-face communication or conducting personal meetings over email discussion matters less than the situational awareness of what other group members do. These rare moments of physical connectedness allow the team to see the emotional and intellectual fabric of the team develop through sharing of stories, key understandings, or symbols. This allows them to make a common sense of activities and events without being physically connected.

Gaps in Understanding

Current understanding of communication runs deeper than just the physical absence or presence or communication technology. Dance (1999) asserts that communication acts on a continuum of intervals of energy. Communication has an essentially digital quality where communication from one person to another goes beyond a simple one-to-one relationship (Dance, 1999). For example, project teams have the ability to fill in missing information (analysis by synthesis) by internally generating or “shadowing” what members say (or do) making predictions of what people say more probable. Walther (1996) suggests that the communication may even be hyper-personal (better than face to face) on virtual project teams because of anticipation of future interaction. He found that anticipation of future interaction (a team knew if it would work with a client or each other again) leveled the playing field between virtual communication and face-to-face interaction on “the immediacy, similarity, composure and receptivity of group members” (1996, pg. 12).

The issue of when communication occurs also needs to be addressed. Communication may be constantly occurring, but may limit connectivity due to the dissipative nature of the brain in storing temporal and spatial information where the energy to connect becomes too diffuse to focus on understanding each other. Alternately, Chen (1997) sees synchronicity in communication being analog not binary. Thus, communication can be differentiated on a temporal continuum where the team directs the type and depth of communication continuum by shifting its level of awareness. However, neither explains instantaneous or synchronous communication that may occur in teams separated by geographic distance. For example, one team member has a “thought” or “feeling” and dials to call the other who makes the same call at the same time.

Communication Beyond Convention

The literature review clearly identified that communication does not occur as a flat pitch. Lessons from the physical science (physics and math) provide a broader perspective about crucial aspects of communication that remain untapped by western science. A flaw exists in the notion that communication fulfills its trajectory by converting kinetic energy into potential energy (Chiao, Kwiat, & Steinberg, 1993). For example, the energy generated by team members superficial talking does not simply progress to deep level communication. Instead, virtual project teams communicate through each other, rather than through media to each other along predetermined lines of communication. Exhibit 1 shows the relationship between communication energy.

Angle α and β may theoretically relate to steepness of the angle or breadth of communication between two sources (lines) (γ). However, the depth of the communication energy as depicted by Ψ only becomes knowable as the relationship emerges over time. Thus, communication cannot be described as a precise mathematical point where it occurred or did not occur (Chiao, Kwiat, & Steinberg, 1993). Communication behaves more like a wave in terms of quantum explanations. The height of the wave indicates the potential for communication to occur within a given context whereas the width (depth) (Ψ) represents the uncertain, intrinsic nature of communication that may not be known if we do not move outside conventional thinking.

Method

This paper presents the results of the pilot study (20 participants) of the third phase of a larger study conducted as part of a multiyear three-phase project. The research began with a literature review of the following theories: media use, media consequence, structuration, quantum mechanics, and holographic theory as each pertains to human communication. Gaps in understanding communication served as a launch to design the questionnaire. This part of the study investigated the nature of communication in the context of virtual projects and their teams. The random sample for survey three consisted of 250 randomly selected and randomly assigned subjects from a population of the top 500 Zdnet-Fortune 500 companies. Zdnet uses a fast-track approach entailing selection of nine indicators that signify innovative enterprises who use Internet-oriented technologies. Zdnet attached weightings to each indicator to show its relative importance and awarded points to each enterprise in the ZD Market Intelligence database based on the presence of the identified Internet technologies. The enterprises with the top 500 scores were then identified and ranked. Full details about the indicators used in fast-track methodology are presented at http://zdnet.com/pcweek/fasttrack98/methodology.html. Data from the larger sample will be analyzed by Summer 2000.

Exhibit 1. Communication Fabric

Communication Fabric

This process ensured the draw of a random sample (including equal opportunity regardless of gender) enabling the adoption of a confidence level of 95% (95 times out of 100, the mean of the sample appears near the mean of its population). To reduce bias and capture potential responder effects, the survey was available by postal mail and e-mail. The Number Cruncher Statistical System (NCSS) served as the data analysis software. The rules for nonparametric tests applied to the pilot whereas parametric tests will be used to analyze results from the total sample.

Findings

This paper provides a summary of relevant findings related to the nature of communication and its relationship to success in virtual projects and their teams. The results will not be compared to traditional teams because the larger study seeks to make sense of virtual teams themselves before meaningful comparisons may be made.

Level of Communication

The results show a strong correlation r = .87, p<.05 between project managers or leaders suggesting new ideas to the team and the team's willingness to listen to these ideas. A positive correlation (r =.67, p<.05) exists between team members asking for each other's suggestions and ideas and their willingness to listen to the outcomes. The strength of the correlation may depend in part on the team members meeting face to face or having a previously established relationship. Overall, the results suggest that project managers can most readily facilitate open communication by asking for suggestions from the team, acting on criticism, listening to complaints, and receiving bad news gracefully.

Media Use

The literature validates that no one media provides a solution to keeping communication open. However, subjects report that virtual project teams have a preference for conventional media. These media include: phone for primary use; phone for secondary use; and phone and face to face as an optimal solution. However, virtual project teams have access to a use a wide range of media as it suits their schedule and purpose. The respondents listed having access to the telephone, face-to-face meetings, email, teleconference, pager and group decision support systems. Overall, there appears to be a gap between the use of one familiar media and the availability of a much broader range of communication tools. Change in communication media may not be accompanied by the appropriate training. However, the complexity of this line of questioning makes it very difficult to determine if one or more media are involved in any one full communication action (i.e., to send a document, a person may have used e-mail to alert the receiver, a courier to send the material, and a telephone call to confirm receipt). The more deeply rooted problem stems from conventional media choice theory failing to address communication beyond the selection of media (Walther, 1996).

Strength of Relationship and Anticipation of Future Interaction

The results show a strong correlation between the strength of relationships and the anticipation of future interaction with different parties connected to the virtual project team. The strongest correlation (r = .83, p<.05) existed between senior managers and clients. A strong correlation (r = .78, p<.05) also exists between peers (project teams) and senior managers. From a social information processing perspective, people strive to develop relationships. Based on impressions of those we relate to, assumptions about others are tested over time (Walther, 1996). Thus, the rate rather than the amount of information exchanged distinguishes virtual teams from their traditional counterparts. Although less information exists in an electronic interaction, Walther suggests that anticipation of future interaction accounts for the differences between use of virtual communication media and face-to-face interaction. Walther and Burgoon (1992) also noted that over time, virtual teams appeared more socially oriented than face-to-face or traditional teams.

Dimensions of Communication

Respondents reported whether they believed that communication occurs in a dimension beyond their immediate and rational (cognitive) perception. The results suggest that just over half believe this statement to be true. One respondent reported that it was a “gut feel/vibes that someone was in trouble with their part of the project on the other side of the world.” Another wrote that “an employee remembered the thoughts we shared weeks ago…on his own volition, he sent a planning document at the immediate moment I needed it. He could not have done this without anticipating my individual interpretation of the original communication.”

Success and Communication

The results show a strong positive correlation between communication and success. The respondents rated the degree of success of the virtual project, the virtual project team, and the overall communication of the team. The correlation between the overall communication and the success of the virtual project (r = .70, p<.05) suggests that communication plays a key role in delivery of a successful project. However, a weaker correlation (r = .40) existed between communication and the success of the virtual project team itself. This suggests a more complex relationship of factors influences the overall success of the virtual project team.

Conclusions

Research recognizes communication as crucial to project success in traditional teams. In virtual teams, communication not only acts as a vehicle to pass information, but it also suggests a unique way of working. Communication becomes exponentially important in this setting. We set out to do three things in this paper. First, we explored the gaps in the conventional understanding of communication and introduce some new theoretical frameworks that may prove useful for project managers attempting to work in a virtual world. Second, we presented the preliminary findings from a survey designed to explore the nature of communication and its relationship to success in virtual projects and their teams. Third, we provide some practical tips for those attempting to understand and enable open communication within virtual teams.

Reviewing the literature on communication in general and that work on communication that project managers use to learn, we found a serious time lag in the adoption of newer or less conventional and potentially useful communication theories. The results of this research suggest a need to broaden the scope of our current understanding of communication. Theoretical presumptions seem strong, and the literature consistently points out the pitfalls of electronic communication compared to its superior (perceived as) alternative, face-to-face communication. These presumptions however, have not been tested from the perspectives put forth by this paper. The reality of virtual teams makes it crucial that we rethink communication. This paper provides an introduction to communication theories that may impact how we manage in a virtually connected world.

Historic concepts of communication seem useful in revealing the complexity in studying and understanding communications. Existing formulas to calculate the breadth of communication still play an important role in helping shape our understanding of communication in the past and present. For example, a virtual project in this sample population has, on average, 350 communication pathways. Although the concept may be too simplistic to convey deep meaning, the approach shows the potential for miscommunication to be staggering. This in turn magnifies the need for project managers to understand communication in a comprehensive way, and to apply sophisticated analysis to its operation on projects. Preliminary research in this area, as presented in this paper provides insights that can be applied now and studied for further application in the future.

Preliminary findings from the large-scale survey suggest the following:

• A strong correlation exists between team members asking for each other's suggestions and ideas and their willingness to listen to the outcomes.

• Subjects report a preference for face-to-face communication, but in practice they have access to a wide variety of media.

• The evidence points to a strong relationship between strength of relationship and anticipation of future interaction.

• Virtual project teams seem to acquire a sixth sense in that team members often develop a commonality of sensemaking that allows them to separated in time and geography, they can often come to the same conclusions. How this develops may be an area important for further study.

• As expected, a strong correlation exists between overall project success and communication. This important finding validates other work that has only assumed it to be true.

Finally, the practical assistance provided to practitioners becomes the ultimate aim of research. Although we consider the results presented here as preliminary, we feel comfortable providing the following practical tips for practicing project managers. Bear in mind that while our interest falls within the virtual team environment, most of these suggestions may enhance communication on traditional teams as well.

Practical Tips

• To spark creativity, determine who on the team conceptually stimulates communication. Allow them to freely express conceptual ideas to the team without discounting or rationalizing their input. As well, determine which members synthesize this information so that it may be digested on mass.

• Media use should reflect the level of comfort of the team members, not hype from the information technology marketers. Allow for the team to choose the most comfortable media for communication and agree what kind of media suites the type of communication activity. Plan at least one face-to-face gathering near the start of the project to introduce all the players.

• Build a strong relationship with the client, in anticipation that there will be future interaction. Extend this relationship to the team and include them in meetings between the clients and senior managers.

Virtual team leaders (project managers) need to listen openly to bad news brought forth by the team. An open chat space may encourage team members to provide ideas, comments and opinions on how to handle bad news gracefully. Discuss this openly in the team as a way of diffusing conflict.

• Virtual team leaders should also act on criticism of their own style of communication and accept that they contribute to misunderstandings as much as the team members. Establish review processes for each milestone met on the project—the entire team must be responsible for their actions.

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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.

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

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