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Social Media: Delivering for Project Management?

Last week, I was fortunate enough to present to PMA Focus, a project management conference organised by Projekt Management Austria. My talk was on whether social media could really deliver for project management, and is above. I have included my planned transcript below.

Social media offers us new communication tools. Project management, by its very nature, requires effective communication to be successful. On the surface, then, it would appear that social media is able to offer us new possibilities to deliver our projects. But is this really the case? Are the different philosophies behind the two areas compatible?

Social media is an ill-defined term, and there are multiple technologies that are covered by it. To begin with, I’d like to take a quick overview of the tools that social media offers us, and my own view of the ethos behind each of them.

Arguably the earliest form of social media is that of blogs. We are all aware of blogs, being web sites that enable an author or authors to publish their own articles for viewing by others. From an early hobbyist use, they have developed into a powerful publishing platform for everyone. A measure of their success can be seen in the use of blogs by a wide variety of traditional media outlets, and by other companies who are now able to use them to better communicate directly with customers and other interested parties.

But the truly disruptive effect of blogs came about because of the low barrier to entry for everyone. The early blogging sites, such as Blogspot allowed an explosion of blogs run by anyone with access to the internet. As time has moved on, dedicated blogging sites have grown, so as well as Blogspot we have, for example, WordPress.com, Tumblr, Posterous, and so on. Each of these have their own different implementation details, but the core element remains the same.

(In addition, of course, it has become steadily easier to implement a full blogging site on your own server, using a variety of tools, such as a personal implementation of the WordPress system, or technologies such as Sharepoint.)

Of course, if blogs were only about publishing, they would be very little different from traditional websites, providing only a different front end to a content management system. However, the significant change came about with the use of comment systems. This enabled the readers of the blog to also chip in, and provide their own insights or counter-arguments to the original article.

In this way, blogs were able to incubate conversations between the author and readers – in essence, the commenting systems are what make this a social media technology, as the crowd are able to participate.

In the early days, communities could grow up around particular blogs, and this is still a feature of blogs today. However, it was obvious that there were other ways to capitalise on the growth of these communities, which is where the archetypal social media technology, social networking, came in.

Social networking has been with us for a long time now, though the early pioneers have mostly fallen by the wayside. Friendster and MySpace popularised the web-based social networking model, by allowing users to simply and easily create a core ‘profile’ and, importantly, link in with other users. Facebook built on this model, initially through a restricted user base, but ultimately becoming open to all.

A major difference between the social networking sites and the blogging sites is what they choose to focus on. With blogs, the focus tended to be on an issue or an interest area, and a community would grow up around that. In contrast, social networking sites explicitly focussed on the individual, and connections were made through that individual. Initially, they would replicate real-world social networks, before expanding out from there.

(There are now sites which are essentially a hybrid of this model. Tumblr, for example, allows following of users, and also encourages the creation of individual blog posts, but these are often essentially very long Facebook-style status updates. By allowing easy interaction between people that follow that user, connections can then be made that fortify the social network. In this way a community can be built around those interactions. It is unlikely that a blog focussed purely on one person could build a community around it – none of us are as interesting as we may like to believe…)

Clearly, the range of social networking sites is broad. While the largest aim to attract anyone and everyone, such as Facebook, others target themselves more narrowly, such as LinkedIn for business networking.

While these sites were developing, one of the most famous social media sites took off. Twitter is an odd mixture of features – on the surface, it would seem to be incredibly restrictive, limiting posts to 140 characters. And yet it has quickly grown into a site that is integrated into many aspects of our world, ranging from delivering breaking news, allowing fans to comment to television executives as programmes are broadcast, or even to letting you know when the toast is done.

Twitter also brought in the idea of non-reciprocal social connections. It is possible for a twitter user to follow hundreds of people that do not follow them, and in turn not follow users who do follow them. This is in direct contrast to the position of the majority of large social networking sites, which require confirmation of some sort of relationship or connection on both sides. (Google+ is the notable exception to this convention.)

In this way, Twitter is similar to where we started, the world of blogs. Indeed, Twitter was initially described as a “micro-blogging” platform.

However, Twitter users found ways to enable communication outside of the follow lists, through the emergent use of @replies, later incorporated into the system, which allow a user to alert another user they are talking to them, and the use of hashtags, which allows all users interested in a certain topic access to tweets about it.

These introductions allowed Twitter to become a powerful tool for conversations. The limited space available means simple points and questions can be made, and the @replies and hashtags mean many other people, beyond your own followers, can also take part.

The important points to take away from the way these technologies are set up is that they are by their very nature non-hierarchical. They are designed and work best by allowing the organic creation of networks and connections. Anyone can join, and anyone can contribute.

I would like to compare this to the traditional communication routes that are used in project management. Traditional project management is a hierarchical system. A project creates within it a command and control structure that relies upon defined communication routes, and a hierarchy of people who are communicated with. For example, there will be a project executive or project board, to which the project manager is answerable. He or she communicates with the board through formal and informal reports, and they do the same. In turn, the project manager issues instructions, such as work packages, down to the project team, who report back on progress, risks, and issues that are encountered.

This, then, is the essential difference between the two communication methods: on the one hand, ad-hoc, self-organising networks that are created by people who share interests or social connections, versus formal, externally organised teams that are created to deliver a specific business need.

It is clear, then, that there is a tension between the way that social media enables communication, and the way that traditional project management systems are set up to handle communication. So is it possible for social media to deliver for project management?

There are two broad areas which projects need to make use of communication tools – communications external to the project, and those internal to the project. I would like to briefly examine the external side, before moving to look at more detail at internal communications.

External communications are those between the project team and the outside world. This communication is the easier to deal with using social media. As we have already seen, large commercial organisations are already taking advantage of the new communication tools to gather feedback from customers, and to send out messages directly. So, for example, a company can run a corporate blog that promotes new products, and offers special offers. At the same time, they could use twitter accounts as another line of customer support, and respond to issues and queries customers may have.

In a similar way, project teams can use these tools to ensure they understand the environment they are delivering their project into. Blogs can be set up to keep staff within the wider business up to speed on what the project is delivering, which could reduce resistance to change when it comes time to implement, for example, a new computer system. Representatives of the project’s target audience, their customers, can use twitter-like tools to gather feedback, perhaps highlighting issues that had not originally been captured at the design stage. In this way, there can be a two -way flow of information, which can keep both the business and the project better informed, and able to, ultimately, allow the benefits of the project to be greater or more easily achieved than without.

This style of usage of social media is relatively well understood – it is essentially replicating the systems that many organisations already have in place to communicate with the outside world on a smaller scale, and use them within a project. More difficult, in my view, is how to effectively use social media tools in the day to day project management of a project, to make use of the different communications routes internally. How these can be implemented depends on what type of project we are trying to deliver, and the best project organisation to deliver that.

At this point, I would like to consider the different types of projects that we now deliver. Each of these have differing preferred models of project management, and so have differing ways of taking advantage of social media. I have divided them into three broad areas:

1. Projects to deliver significant physical objects – buildings, ships, etc.

2. Projects to deliver virtual objects – software, process change, etc.

3. Projects to deliver hybrid solutions – upgraded IT infrastructure and new systems, consumer electronics, etc.

These areas are broad and, I admit, ill-defined. However, they give us a sensible framework to begin to examine the use of social media, due to the different ways we have developed to deliver these projects.

To take these types of project in order, I will first look at physical projects.

Traditional project management was developed to enable an industrial society to be better at delivering big, physical projects. As we know, this is what our profession developed to be able to do – deliver very large, complicated physical objects.

Now, in these projects, the traditional, formal, hierarchical approach works very well. The specifications for what each individual team has to deliver are very tightly defined at the design phase, and cannot be significantly altered. The object as a whole, for example, a building, relies on each of the individual components matching correctly to all other components – a building which uses different materials for construction on one floor compared to all the others is not a successful building. (Unless, of course, that’s what the design originally called for…)

There is therefore very little scope for an individual team to make decisions about what they do. The project manager in this type of project is very much the traditional dictatorial leader – what he or she says must go, and if there are any changes needed, they can only be made following an exhaustive change control procedure.

Because of this, there is limited scope to make use of social media – but on the other hand, where social media can be used, it can fairly easily be implemented. In these types of projects, blog tools can be very useful, ensuring that the correct design documents and quality standards are available to all, and providing a simple method for requests to change to be presented, and then dealt with, through the commenting system, and any further updates to the original documents.

It is hard, however, to see how social networking, or twitter-style tools can be of practical use. There is, as there is in all project types, some value in them being used in a, for want of a better term, social manner, as this can build a stronger team, but its direct application to this style of project management is limited.

Moving on to virtual projects, we can see that there is a much wider application of social media tools.

In these projects, there can be many individual components that make them up. What is important in these projects is that the interfaces between this components are clearly defined and followed. What actually happens inside the components, however, is much more flexible.

In a way, this is a black box approach – we care about the input into the box, we care about the output of the box, but the internal workings of it are not important to the project as a whole. This means that the teams that are at work creating the internal functions are much more free to develop their own solutions.

This means that project management can set much looser parameters for the teams working on these areas. In software development, for example, we can encourage the use of programming best practice, but the actual nuts and bolts (if you’ll forgive the term when talking about virtual products) can be left to the best judgement of the team.

The team performing the work, then, has the advantage of much greater autonomy. There must be a high level of trust between the project manager and the team, but the relationship between the two should be significantly different to that of traditional project management. Instead of the project manager as leader, there is more usefully a role for the project manager as a servant to the team, who works by being informed of problems and obstacles that are preventing the team progressing, and working to remove or reduce these as much as possible.

Additionally, it can be seen that communication within the team is even more important. If they are trying to create new and novel solutions, they need to be in regular and effective contact which each other, so that they can collaborate quickly, and find the best solutions to the various little puzzles that arise as they try to implement the inner workings of the black box.

In this style of project management, then there is a need for simple, clear, and quick communication. Twitter-like solutions enable the team to carry out conversations that everyone can pitch in to. While these conversations are best carried out face to face – because face to face communication remains the best way for a small group of people to share information – this may not always be possible.

For example, some teams are geographically dispersed. It is not uncommon for the project manager to be in a completely different location, and even country, from the developers working on the problem. By using a system that enables conversational communication over a wide area, the project manager can be included in team discussions, and help to nudge the team in the right direction if they begin to go off track. Equally, some members of the team may be elsewhere, even if only because they are working from home, and need to use online collaboration tools to enable them to contribute effectively to the work that is going on.

Software project management in particular has grasped these new needs and started to develop new project management techniques and tools to address these issues. The rise of new methods of project management have enabled the work we do to adapt to the new demands. Many online project management tools exist that not only support the control and check-in of source-code, but also enable this kind of social media-like communications with in them.

Additionally, the use of blogging tools, as with traditional physical projects, enabled those documents that must be adhered to – for example, the definition of inputs and outputs of the components each team is working on – to be available to all, in a clear, simple way.

Our final style of projects are those which are a hybrid, those which require some elements of the traditional project management, and some of the newer techniques being developed primarily in the software project management world.

It is much more difficult to decide how much these projects can benefit from social media. Where possible, it would make sense to split the different aspects of these projects into the two styles we have already looked at. So, for example, a project to put in place an entirely new IT infrastructure for a business could use traditional project management for the provision of WAN and LAN links, purchase, delivery and physical installation of servers, etc., but allow the teams that are working on implementing and adapting software systems to be managed in a more flexible manner.

In this case, it becomes a matter of judgement about when to use social media. If you are working in these hybrid projects, a mixture of physical and virtual, you will have an understanding of which elements will work best with each style. However, it is important to note that these types of projects will require a project manager who is able to be flexible, and adapt his or her project management style to the different parts of the project.

In looking at these three different styles, I have tried to understand how the tools social media offers can be used to make what we currently do better. But there is another side to social media. It is, at its heart, a disruptive technology. By this I mean that in many cases it is not only an improvement of what has gone before, but different enough that it can enable, or force, new ways of working.

The clearest example of this is in software project management, We all know about the new approaches to project management that have been developed to try to gain a better handle on these projects, and deliver higher rate of successful projects. But with the rate of change of technology being what it is, sometimes social media tools come along that can disrupt techniques which were developed recently, effective for a while, but now already obsolete.

Sometimes it may just be that these techniques need to be adapted. For example, the use of Kanban techniques in software development is a powerful way of helping to deliver better projects. But with the rise in more geographically dispersed teams, the central concept of Kanban – that of a physical board where the work in progress can be seen by all – obviously becomes unsustainable. However, through the use of new tools such as Trello, the physical board can be replaced with a virtual representation of it.

Are we then looking at a new way of organising projects? If so, the first steps would be the creation of a decentralised manner to access resources, who would deliver to certain criteria – and in fact this is already in place. There are already a number of websites which offer access to freelancers or contractors around the globe to do pieces of work to an agreed specification. With the addition of effective social media communication tools, it should be possible for entire software projects to be delivered without any of the developers or project management staff ever meeting.

Companies could simply assign a project budget, and allow a project manager to first hire analysts to examine the problem and create a specification, then more staff to break that specification down into sensible pieces of work, and then developers to deliver each of those pieces of work. The final job for the project manager would be to deliver quality assurance of the components, and integrate the end product.

Is this really possible, though? Could a project really be delivered in this way? A useful insight could be found by examining the way the free software movement developed. Through the use of mailing lists, newsgroups, and other electronic communication methods – the forerunners of the web-based social media tools we all know – this ‘project’ recruited many developers all over the globe, created an organic structure to provide something akin to management oversight and direction over various parts of it, and worked together to develop an operating system and suite of tools that offer powerful computing to all for free. Of course, they had an advantage which enabled them to get away with very loose project management – people were volunteering their time for free, and there was no fixed deadline.

Case study – Sharepoint in UK Local Government

Finally, I would like to take a quick look at the way social media can assist us as project managers, rather than as we do project management. There are a vast number of project management blogs out there which we can turn to for guidance, information, advice, or even just to blow off some steam after a particularly troublesome day! Social networks around project management exist, whether that be around forums of project management associations, or more wider dedicated communities. Twitter accounts of various project management luminaries allow us to gain access to their insights, or jokes, and to share our own. Generic business social networks also allows us to connect, and possibly even to secure our next role.

In conclusion, social media can deliver for project management. All projects could make use of blogging tools, even if it is initially only used as a different way of creating a project library. Beyond physical projects, other technologies are now showing their worth. I fully expect there to be greater disruptive effects in the future, but by their nature they are difficult to predict – so we need to make sure we are ready to recognise them, and take advantage of them when they come.

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Dansette