Every project manager knows that the art and science of their role has undergone many changes in recent years. Technology solutions are available to help meet some of the challenges—but they won’t solve everything and can raise new problems.
Leading a project with technology
One of the biggest challenges for the new generation of project managers is how to be a leader to a geographically diverse group of people, some of whom they may never meet in the flesh. Project managers don’t have the line-of-sight on their teams that existed 10 years ago. Keeping on top of the structure of responsibilities for the different aspects of the team becomes both more difficult and more important.
The two main reasons for teams being spread over different locations are first that many organisations are trying to save money, resulting in some roles being moved to lower cost locations. This process has particularly affected back-office functions over the past five years.
Secondly, the development of technologies at differing rates between areas means a more international blend of team members may be needed. The areas that house the skills required will change and flow. For example, 5-10 years ago the US and Asia had far more experience and expertise in mobile telephony because the technology was emerging faster in those locations. Nowadays, similarly regionally concentrated expertise can be used much more easily without requiring staff to move countries or having to meet the cost of frequent international travel.
Advances in technology have seen vast improvements in the level of communication, knowledge sharing and collaboration between people working across different locations. People are more mobile and can access data from almost anywhere. In the past, when people worked together in the same office, collaboration wasn’t something that required thought, effort or infrastructure; you could just walk over to Keith’s desk and instantly collaborate. Nowadays cloud-based services, like Dropbox, and video conferencing and instant messaging tools like Skype are part of the project manager’s arsenal.
A project manager can deliver leadership messages via video conferencing and ensure that instant messaging systems are in place for real-time updates. In addition, especially where there are no overlapping windows of work time posting information to virtual notice boards, makes participation over different locations or time zones much more manageable.
The use of cloud services is now near universal in large organisations. A key feature of cloud-based services is the central point of storage. Information is no longer kept individually—or at least it shouldn’t be. Project managers have to do more than just provide a central repository for text documents or spreadsheets. They have to guide the team on the best methods for using what is essentially just space. Sometimes, the best way to share information may be via podcasts or videos. This can allow members to quickly pass on progress reports or technical updates to the rest of the team. New services like Basecamp can make it a lot easier to have a central document repository, virtual notice board and task event tracking and communication.
Need for speed
Project managers are now often used on an as-required basis and in many fields have become more like subcontractors or consultants. Project managers therefore must now come into organisations which are new to them and familiarise themselves with a new team and structure. They now need to more quickly than ever get to a position where they can provide guidance to the team on how they’re going to move forward to meet their goals. Using tools such as the iPad app KnowMyTeam project managers can quickly capture and understand the responsibilities of the team’s members.
With staff spread over different locations or often on the move it can be difficult to keep them feeling connected to the team and motivated. Technology needs to be deployed that allows team members to take ownership of their responsibilities and become less reliant on micromanagement. The people who best understand the processes necessary for their sections of the project should guide new workflows. This allows project managers to keep a clearer focus on the bigger picture, at the same time creating an environment where necessary communication channels are open and where feedback and adaptation can become the norm.
Conflicts and disputes can be resolved with reference to the pre-determined responsibilities and structures that have been in place from the start. And, most importantly, potential problems can be identified and mitigated as early as possible.
The introduction of smartphones and tablets has enabled project managers to empower and involve their staff more than at any other time in history. In a survey conducted by LinkedIn, 62% of professionals ranked the tablet as the most important business tool today. But as with any new class of device it’s important to be pro-active in guiding how they are used to better meet the team’s goals. As with the introduction of computers those who fail to incorporate iPads into their workplaces will be irrelevant, probably by the end of this year.