The cunning PM communications plan

Yes to Twitter, no to jargon

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Project management Every new project begins as an idea in someone's head and pretty soon it becomes a conversation, a series of meetings and, if approved, a fully scoped project. The conversations continue throughout the project as part of the process.

Experts say a communications plan should be formulated within the overall project. Such a plan must take into account who needs to receive communications, what level of information they need, how often they need it and so on.

The plan itself is project-managed. What resources are required, when must actions be taken, can the plan be measured and reviewed? Most of the plan concerns communicating with staff and with sponsors (if any), but in larger projects a PR and marketing plan also needs to be scheduled into the overall timing.

A more structured element of the communications plan is reporting, and this depends on the functionality of the systems in place. Web access may allow some reporting to be user driven, thus obviating the need for central control.

Finally, potential problems and risks must be identified. How secure is the data? How will the plan cope with changes of personnel or contractors? Will the right amount of information be shared with the right people? Will accessibility present a danger to marketing or PR activities?

Today's project manager has the potential to use a wider range of communication methods than ever before: meetings, e-meetings, email, blogs, web sites, social media such as Twitter, Facebook or Wikis. Each has to be considered in terms of cost, immediacy, privacy and accessibility.

Welcome to wikis

Wikis are a form of online discussion noted for being low-cost, easily accessible and highly flexible, with good security options. But they are also relatively new in the project management space.

Bob Walker, technical solutions professional, EPM, Microsoft Project, believes that although there is growing use of blogging, wikis are a step too far for some firms. "Many of our customers use the blogging services on Sharepoint, but although we are proactive about wikis we don't evangelise. Some customers are keen on wikis, some are not. We let that come, they will look at it when they feel it fits their culture,” he says.

"What is more of a hot issue is 'search' – the ability to search for knowledge, people and information within the organisation and specific to the project. There is concern that skills and knowledge are lost as people leave or retire. The hunt is on for the best ways to make that information available through simple search functions."

The way in which information is stored and archived has implications for its usage as a knowledge repository or in internal investigations. There may also be legal requirements or guidelines to be observed.

Not surprisingly, the real buzz is around the use of social media, with zealots and detractors dug in for battle. Discussions about the use of the micro-blogging service Twitter typify the issues involved. "I like the idea of Twitter. It is an amazing way of communicating but I don't think we are there yet. It doesn't have the level of privacy that many need and I don't think we really understand the implications yet," says Lawrence Clark, head of consultancy services, at Siftgroups.

However a cursory glance reveals that hundreds of project managers (PMs) are already using the service informally to share knowledge and ideas. New users can search on keywords like #PM and #PMOT to access the tweets of hundreds of PMs. Twitter is a unique database of informal knowledge, already showing how its incredible functionality might be harnessed in the future.

Meetings are us

Management gurus will happily run a two-day course on meeting techniques but five key points about meetings best practice quickly bubble to the surface: Make them frequent and short - Arm attendees with relevant collateral in advance so they can hit the ground running - Do not indulge the obsessives who waste time by digging too deep or dwelling on non-urgent matters - Use meetings and peer review as much as possible to enforce quality standards.

Rocking with Bill

For many years Microsoft set the gold standard, and Bill Gates was famous for being hands-on in software review meetings. He insisted on the highest quality and attendees knew that they would need to be at their best to pass inspection.

The final word on meetings is "Watch your language!". It is easy to slip into PMspeak and lose half your audience. Peter Taylor, author and PM at Siemens, offers a word of caution: "I think we are all in love with jargon and PMs are no different. The biggest issue is that 70 to 80 per cent of a project manager’s time should be spent communicating.

"So use jargon for sure, but please make sure that the full project team and all stakeholders are in on the jargon and it is not just an alien language.”

Comms plans laid bare

Communications plans are often known only to a handful of stakeholders. Experts say this is a lost opportunity and that one of the first stages of a project should be the process of outlining the nature and aims of communications to all interested parties. Their feedback will help ensure that the plan performs as intended and transparency will allow them to evaluate how best to use it.

PMs are hired as much as anything for their communications skills. The communications plan is a framework for all to see and from which all can benefit. ®

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