The push and pull of project communication
Everyone in business today is buried under an avalanche of data; adding routine reports to the data mountain may no longer be useful. Is it time to bury traditional project reports?
Project reports originated in the days of typewriters and carbon paper. Information was painstakingly compiled, copy-typed and distributed to inform managers of the situation several days ago. Today, although the process usually involves word processors, PDF files and email, the information structure of a report fundamentally has not changed. Maybe it is time for a new approach. Most of us expect instant access to our bank account details, why should project information be any different?
Intranets and cloud computing make real-time on-demand information a reality. All that is needed is the willingness to drag 19th century communication into the 21st century and easier-to-access, better information can be at everyone’s fingertips when needed.
By linking the various project information sources to an effective shared data environment with a simple to use dashboard for executives, you can remove out of date reports from the data overload. Instead of pushing out old information, everyone can ‘pull’ the information they need on demand and with a well designed system drill down to the level of detail appropriate to their requirements.
Changing to a ‘pull’ environment will subtly change many roles for the better.
- The project manager will need to keep the project information up to date as it changes. Issues should be opened, escalated and closed as their status changes. The weekly schedule updates need to processed, checked and uploaded to the project portal regularly. Monthly cost data imported and reconciled as it is released by finance, etc. Good project portals maintain an audit trail of updates and changes so everyone can see what information has changed when.
- Project team members and contractors will need training to access to update their information and read other relevant data. By accessing current data in real time, the possibility of people working on out-of-date design data and other communication failures are eliminated.
- The role of the PMO shifts to real time validation and oversight plus providing training and support, particularly setting up filters and reports so that key executives get access to the specific information they need to do their jobs. A key feature of a well designed project information system is the ability to set automatic alerts for individuals at all levels if a defined event or condition occurs, for example alerting team members if a design change has been made to documents they are using.
Moving project information to a ‘pull’ environment—where all of the relevant stakeholders can access the most up to date information they need, when they want it—requires a well designed system, support and training but has enormous advantages including:
- Less unwanted data in managers’ inboxes.
- Greater visibility and accountability (although some project managers may not like this).
- The ability to identify and resolve problems sooner, particularly in virtual teams.
Death of the project report?
The primary advantage for project managers is in the time saved by not having to compile monthly reports focused on out of date information. Their day to day work of managing the project is the report.
Also, by shifting the bulk of the project information into an on-demand ‘pull’ environment, the organisations communication bandwidth is opened up for effective ‘push’ communication. Important messages can now be sent to stakeholders when necessary, either standalone or linking to key information in the project portal. The clearer communication channel means the message is more likely to be noticed and acted upon.
However sensible this change, expect opposition: some people simply like getting reports, so dropping those people off your distribution list may make them more upset than you realise. This also applies to cutting content. As a rule of thumb, by the third month it’s probably too late to remove sections or drop recipients without encountering some issues.
Moving to a ‘pull’ environment does not necessarily mean reports are dead but if they survive, their use and value will change. Well designed reports contain large amounts of useful information in a time series, making them a valuable data repository. And if the report covers the right questions, the process of gathering the information can generate valuable insights for the project team to act upon, the time series also allows stakeholders to extract trends and status from the stored information. The challenge is creating well designed reports that ask the right questions; developing these reports is an art form, and it’s one that every PMO manager needs to master.
Another benefit of reports is only starting to be recognised. Jon Whitty of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia has been measuring the emotional effect of project artefacts. Based on his work it seems a well formatted report will in itself increase positive emotions.
The project manager feels comfortable because she or he has a ‘proper’ report that is part of the ‘clothing’ every project manager wears along with their Gantt charts and other expected artefacts. And senior managers experience positive emotions because the existence of a well presented report suggests control, order and capability.
The challenge is to design reports that are relatively easy to produce, ask the right questions, are well structured and well formatted, and contain needed data. And if you deliver them in person or attach a note to highlight specific issues or messages, reports can form the basis of a targeted, purposeful communication: the one challenge with a ‘pull’ approach is knowing the right people have accessed and understood the right information.
The technologies exist to make these ideas a reality; the challenge is breaking the management reporting habits of a century. The UK government is moving to make these ideas a reality in the construction industry: it is now UK law that all new major government projects will use BIM (Building Information Modelling) within a few months, and new forms of contracts are being developed to support this requirement. I suspect the trend will spread across industries and across nations.
However, moving to an effective project information portal does leave one question unanswered, with effective real-time communication, what is everyone going to do in those boring monthly meetings? Perhaps we could save even more time for useful work!