Communication challenges

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on August 11, 2009 in: Project Management, Tools & Resources

There was a time in project management history when the challenge was getting in touch with people and keeping the lines of communication open. Phone and fax were pretty much the only options. But now, with desk phones, cell phones, SMS, fax, email, IM, Twitter, webinars; plus the internal “quasi-email-like” systems of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Basecamp; and let’s not forget about collaborative documents available through Zoho and Google… (and I’m sure I’ve missed a half dozen others)… we have quite the opposite problem today.

Today’s project management communication challenge is: An abundance of communication options that go to different places, some of which reside outside of the project management context.

I saw it in a project I worked on earlier this year: We were emailing back and forth and my email application was doing a nice job of keeping the thread of the conversation quite clear. But then someone chimed into the conversation with a Direct Message to me on Twitter. And someone else, whose email was momentarily unavailable, jumped onto their LinkedIn account to send me a message through the LinkedIn Inbox. After that, for a brief period of time, it turned into chaos. Questions asked via email were answered in several ways by people who weren’t seeing the entire question or any of the other answers! At one point, two or three people started a side-debate in IM that should have included everyone but didn’t.

Not good. And if we ever had to go back and track through the communications to back up project decisions, it would have been impossible. (Fortunately we didn’t, but it does happen). I put a stop to it as soon as I could.

Since then I’ve instituted a communication policy in projects right from the very beginning. In general, my policy is this: one-to-one communications can be through any means available (IM, phone, email) but communication to the group and/or to me (as the project manager) must be through email. That keeps it trackable and in one place. (And I should clarify: It doesn’t have to be email, although that’s generally what I use. If a client has an equivalent, trackable communication system in place already, I’m fine using that). It’s not that I like being the “tough guy” on projects. I don’t like to tell people how to communicate. But I do know that communication keeps a project on track and needs to be part of the project archive in case project decisions ever need to be revisited.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any great solutions that resolve this problem. Gmail and Yahoo capture email and chat in a single place, which is handy. Meebo is a good tool to pull together IM into one place (and you can create group rooms). Google Groups is helpful, too. But even these do not cover all of the options.

Someday, we’ll have a single communication dashboard that allows us to drive messages out to any of our communication points and which also collects from all of our communication points to contribute to a single conversation. Until then, we’re stuck with a few options like the ones above and with some pre-project policies to keep people on track. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we have right now… and I think a single communication dashboard will blow the doors of connectivity wide open.

Happy Blogging!

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