Email or Phone Conference? Making the Most of Communication Technologies in Each Project Phase

A Project Management Article by Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, CEO, Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI-REP®)

Many projects team members do not work in the same location any longer - even those working in the government sector. And even if they are in the same location, team members rely extensively on virtual communication tools rather than face to face communication. Using communication and collaboration technology tools is the norm - and we’re not even addressing all the cool software tools designed specifically to manage projects.

Effective use of the appropriate technologies during different project phases is crucial to the success of “global project teams” or, really, any team in which team members regularly collaborate virtually. In my own experience leading a project team collaborating between two continents, I’ve found that the use of multiple communication technologies - carefully chosen depending on the current project phase - is needed to keep global project teams collaborating effectively and on schedule. Deciding which communication technologies project teams use to collaborate during each of the project phases, and learning to use them most effectively, is key to project success.

The Planning Phase

Face-to-face meeting is key in early phases as it helps virtual communication in later phases. When leading a team split up between Germany and Connecticut, I found that bringing the team physically together for the planning phase of the project was essential for the project’s success in two major ways. First, it encouraged ongoing dialogue among team members - essential to generating new ideas. In his research on workplace communication, Steve Whittaker found that, “physical proximity supports frequent opportunistic conversations which are vital to the planning and definitional phases of projects” (1994). This proved true for our team, which generated a wealth of new ideas during the project initiation conference.

The team also took advantage of being together at this time to create the proposals and establish the norms of performance for the team. Second, having the team work together in the same physical location facilitated virtual communication in later phases by establishing the teaming relationship; the team members’ shared experience of the planning phase led naturally into continuing conversations via email and web conferencing.

With a solid face-to-face kick off, projects get off to a much better start and this prevents having to meet face-to-face later to fix things. It reminds me of that adage: “if you don’t have time to do it right the first time, do you really have time to do it over?”

Figure 1: Communication Technology Use by Project Phase
Figure 1: Communication Technology Use by Project Phase

The Implementation Phase

During the implementation phase, the communication protocols were daily email updates and frequent phone calls (every 1-2 days). Due to the significant time zone difference between the two locations, team members had to adjust their schedules to follow non-traditional hours; team members in the US would start work as early as 6 a.m., while team members in Germany would work as late as 11 p.m.

Each location’s team had its own communication advantages and disadvantages. Team members in the headquarters office in the US had the advantage of daily face-to-face interaction with their co-workers - important not only for team morale, but for keeping the creative process alive and dynamic. The smaller satellite office, in contrast, did not allow for as much in-person socialization, but the office’s strategic location allowed that team greater access to valuable external resources. Leveraging the strengths of these two locations and understanding the limitations of each was crucial to the project’s success, as it minimized the competition issues that plague many geographically dispersed project teams.

Even across continents, the team’s communication grew naturally out of their work together during the planning phase. Team members had informal and spontaneous conversations over chat, which brought together the immediate feedback of phone or face-to-face conversations with the recordability of email. Use of a chat program allowed team members to share information, problem-solve, and make decisions more quickly than either phone or email communication. Table 1, below shows the frequency of my team’s use of different communication technologies for the duration of our project.

Table 1: Frequency of Communication Technology Use

Table 1: Frequency of Communication Technology Use

Project Review

During reviews of the project progress where people outside the team participated, the team found video conferencing to be the best fit. This medium provided a “formal,” presentation-like setting that avoided the expense and inconvenience of arranging a face-to-face meeting, while still allowing participants to see each other and share electronic documents.

Unlike chat, video conferencing provides a more structured communication environment; one or several participants can be designated as “presenters,” allowing them to share their computer screens with the group. Presenters can also choose to enable or disable other participants’ microphones during the meeting. Finally, many video conferencing programs allow users to record meetings - useful for sharing with stakeholders not present at the meeting and assuring the accuracy of meeting minutes.

Deliverables

The final deliverables phase of the project calls for non-interactive communication technologies - a sharp contrast from the other phases. By this phase, all parties have contributed their input and no further changes can be made. Thus, to prevent anyone from piping up with a “new idea” at the last minute, the final deliverables of the project should be distributed via mail or fax.

Not all communication technologies are created equal when collaborating with a project team spread out across several locations. Highly interactive communication technologies that facilitate informal, fast-paced collaboration (such as chat and email) work well for the project planning phase, while less interactive technologies that simulate a formal meeting (such as video and audio conferences) are most appropriate for later project stages.

None of these technologies, however, can substitute for a team’s face-to-face interactions at the start of a new project. Project Managers leading geographically dispersed teams must not lose sight of the importance of the teaming relationship and the socialization aspects of different communication technologies. Bringing the team together for a face-to-face conference for the project’s initiation may not seem the most economical decision, but will ultimately lead to much more dynamic, creative, and effective communication among team members.

About the Author

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP, CEO, Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI-REP®)

Michelle LaBrosseMichelle LaBrosse, PMP, is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun and fast.  She is the founder of Cheetah Learning, the author of the Cheetah Success Series, and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring Project Management to the masses.

Cheetah Learning is a virtual company with 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide. To date, more than 50,000 people have become “Cheetahs” using Cheetah Learning’s innovative Project Management and accelerated learning techniques.

Honored by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), Cheetah Learning was named Professional Development Provider of the Year at the 2008 PMI® Global Congress. A dynamic keynote speaker and industry thought leader, Michelle was previously recognized by PMI as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the world.

Michelle’s articles have appeared in over 100 publications and web sites around the world. Her monthly column, the Know How Network is carried by over 400 publications.

She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Manager’s (OPM) program and also holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton.

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