The Detrimental Effect of Technology on Project Communication
“The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry” – Brooks, Shawshank Redemption
Two and a half decades ago, communication technology was revolutionized with the introduction of the brick phone. Early adopters of this technological coup flocked to the stores to immediately purchase these wondrous pieces of technology. Instantaneously, the shackles had been removed and humans were free to communicate on the go. Lucky individuals who first owned this revolutionary technology could connect with anyone they wanted from anywhere in the world. Well, at least within the service range of 20 miles, for the 30 minute duration of the battery, at $2 a minute plus subscription fees and only if the person you were calling was near a telephone. It truly was the best purchase I ever made!!!
The thing about the brick phone wasn’t that it really revolutionized communications, because it didn’t. What the brick phone did was open Pandora’s proverbial box and changed the perception of what was possible with communication technology. All of a sudden the race was on to develop the newest communication technology that was not only mobile, but quick and with the ability to reach the masses. Now in 2010, between the incessant dings alerting me of new texts, emails and phone calls, I am trying to reach the masses with a blog about how communication technologies have all but ruined the art of effective communication in project management.
Now to be fair, it is not the existence of these communication technologies that is creating ineffective project communication. To think, twenty five years ago the idea of communicating with anyone you wanted anywhere in the world was an arduous process. Now email, conference calls, webcasts and a host of other communication mediums make this type of communication an afterthought. In fact, communication technology is a game changer that opens the door for everything from instant online project collaboration to the globalization of business as a whole. When used properly, technology can be a projects greatest asset resulting in everything from decreased time to market to minimized project costs.
The issue with project communication isn’t technology’s existence but rather the misuse of communication technology and the lack of adequate planning that goes along with its effective use. With so many mediums of communication available, communication much like water, often takes the path of least resistance. If you know a person’s cell phone number, text him/her; if you have their email address, send them an email. The problem with the path of least resistance is that it eliminates the thought that should go into communications. Take for instance the technology designer who sends an instant message to a requirements writer to clarify a requirement. Their chat leads to some interesting dialogue and results in some changes to the requirements. After the chat ends, both individuals go about their daily business with no documentation of this conversation. The documented requirements are now inaccurate and the product manager never signed off. Later when the product is implemented, there are questions about this functionality, but no one can clearly articulate why or even if these decisions were ever made. In this case, maybe it would have been best to schedule a conference call, ensure the right parties were involved and make sure vital documentation gets updated.
Another example of improper use of communication might be attempting to send a release communication via email to selected groups. Now in this scenario, release communications are very important and while the content is crucial, if it doesn’t reach the correct audiences, there is a high likelihood that product support will be inundated with communications from end users. So instead of trying to pick and choose the right audiences for a release note, it might make more sense to post these communications via a portal news center or use a combination of both the email and a news center. In the above scenario, over-communicating can save your project significant time and support. These are just a few of an endless number of improper uses and abuses of communication technology.
While the abuse of communication technology is all too common, on an individual level the solution is as simple as taking the time to think about the proper communication channel. Instead of using the communication channel that is most accessible, take your time and think about your message, the goal of the communication and expected outcomes. For example, if the outcome of your communication will need to be shared with others, email might be a better vehicle than instant message. Or if the goal of a communication is to collaborate on a scope document with a group of individuals overseas, instead of a conference call it might be beneficial to schedule a webcast that will allow all participants to view the same document real time. Once you have taken the time to think through the message, the goal and the expected outcomes, selecting the ideal communication vehicle should be easy.
At a project level, communication and the use of communication technology is slightly more complex as meetings, communication and general interaction can span the globe as well as the project organizational chart. At the project level, it is important to ensure that the proper communication channels are in place and that the right audiences are being reached with the right frequency. To aid in the planning and management of communication, it is a beneficial practice to create and manage a detailed communication plan.
The first step in creating an adequate communication plan should be to define all of the key project teams/groups and their role in the overall project (e.g. Executive Steering Committee, Subject Matter Expert Group, Change Control Group). This exercise will help to ensure that necessary groups are receiving the right level of communication and have the right level of interaction with the project team.
The second step will be to create a detail project matrix that lays out all of a project’s recurring meetings and important communication (e.g. Change Control Meetings, Release Communication, Training Sessions and Corporate Communications). It is a good practice to tie your communication matrix back to the project plan, this will help to ensure that the proper communications are being created and disseminated in line with all major project milestones. A properly laid out communication matrix will help to determine timing for important communications and which groups if any are being neglected. All communication matrices are created differently, but all good matrices will layout the goal of the message, the target audience and the appropriate communication vehicle. It is also important to note that while communication plans are important no matter the project, they are particularly important when dealing with the implementation of revolutionary technology as communication plans are tremendously effective during the change management phase of a project.
The final step in effective communication planning is implementation and maintenance. Track all meetings and communications and update the plan with new groups that might come into the project during different phases. As the dates for key project milestones move, so should the corresponding communications. What you will begin to see is that successful communication planning not only mitigates the risks that are brought on by an endless number of communication technologies, but helps to embrace these technologies and use them to their greatest potential.
Project Communication is an integral part of a successful project, but with technology making communication so effortless, communication often becomes an afterthought. Take the time to think about the adequate medium and do in-depth planning for your project communication. Doing this will allow you to embrace technology and ensure that you are using technology with a purpose and not because it is available. If you take these steps, your personal and project communication problems will go the way of my brick phone.