Projects rely on effective communications – a project is no place for individuals to decide what, when and how, without reference to anyone else. We have already touched on this topic in related sections on stakeholder management and reporting and meetings.
The basic functions of communication and collaboration in projects are:
- Giving information to those who need it
- Co-ordinating, stimulating and facilitating of action
- Supporting change and influencing the attitudes and behaviour of stakeholder groups
- Encouraging and facilitating feedback and two-way information flow
The main audiences for communication in projects are:
- Members of the project team and others directly involved in project activities
- Members of the project board and others (eg programme manager/office) involved in managing, steering, co-ordinating, controlling funds or involved in changing business processes
- The remainder of the organisation’s management and workforce (including end-users and anyone affected by the outputs from the project)
- External stakeholders such as students, suppliers, partners, funding bodies, regulatory bodies etc.
Communication management is a proactive attempt to manage the expectations and requirements of all stakeholder groups including the project itself. It must address the fundamental questions:
- What information needs to flow both into and out of the project?
- Who needs what information?
- When will the information be required?
- In what format and by which channel will the information be provided?
- Who will be responsible for ensuring the information is provided?
Collaboration is something that is less actively managed as a matter of routine but is an area that is of critical importance to the kinds of projects we undertake in the sector.
During the project start up and initiation phases consideration should be given to communication and information flow needs. By conducting a communication needs analysis you will be able to prepare a communication plan as a subsidiary to the main project plan.
The plan will reflect the specific needs and complexity of the project and therefore may be formal or informal, highly detailed or broadly structured. As with all other planning documents prepared at the start of the project, the communication plan is a live document and should be subject to regular review and revised when necessary to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the project and its stakeholders.
How communication is planned and managed will inevitably be influenced by the broader organisational structure and existing communication channels. Every organisation has its own preferred methods of communication and it is important to understand them. It is not a good idea to send out formal memoranda in an organisation that has long since moved from paper to email communications.
Likewise, the use of emails may be less than effective with people such as porters or cleaners who may not have regular access to the organisation’s email system or with people who cannot be relied upon to read their email (you probably already know who they are in your organisation).
In the education sector our activities are underpinned by mature and long established frameworks of committees and scheduled meetings. This will have a major effect on the project’s communication requirements.
With any kind of regular report it is worth thinking about, and specifying, the level of detail required. This might be ‘six bullet points’ or ’20 pages with detail’ or ‘an email to let me know it’s finished’. People are much happier to undertake something they know will be what is expected.
Actively involving stakeholders in projects is quite different from simply informing them about what is going on. There are lots of ways you can engage people with your project. A few suggestions are given below.
To develop buy-in, team spirit and to spread positive messages. Bring people together to look at plans, architectural drawings, presentations from those who have done it before etc. A glass of wine and a few nibbles are inexpensive and can help persuade people to stay half an hour after normal office hours.
Workshops and training events
Good for collaborative approaches as well as for imparting skills and information. Stakeholders feel less threatened at being asked to attend a staff development event than a meeting or an interview. By keeping the number of delegates down to around 15-20 you can stimulate lots of interaction with delegates. People feel engaged and valued if you allow them a say or want them to give an opinion.
FAQ or Q&A
This can be an effective tool which can be designed with responses targeted for particular stakeholder groups. Helps build engagement and makes people feel involved. You may be tempted to make up the questions you feel people might want to ask but if possible build in as many real questions as possible, as those who ask them will recognise them and spread the word on your behalf. You could create a specific email account for FAQs.
Wikis are one way of letting people collaborate either with or within the project. The use of a wiki for the project team is well worth thinking about, particularly if the project is a collaborative project with many organisational partners. It provides a platform for sharing documents, images, plans and logs of what might happen, what needs to happen and what has happened.
It can have pages where the content is locked, pages that anyone can add to or amend and the facility for members to create their own new pages.