Using Social Media as a Tool for Project Management

Posted on: February 1st, 2012 - Written by: Tom Metz

Social Media

Technology has changed the several ways in which we conduct business today or even the several different methods we can now use to talk to family and friends, with text messaging, Skype, Smart Phones, and several social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.  In the case of Project Management, social media has provided another set of tools that can be very useful when managing a project where team members may not all work under the same roof or even are in the same state or country. 

As a passive method of communication – instead of the more active forms of communication, such as instant messaging – social media can be used as a notification system for team members that points them to a more detailed document.

Here are some pros and cons of Social Media:

Pros

  • Communication channel that is typically very comfortable for younger team members
  • Can be configured to for communication with specific groups (rather than broadcast to everyone)
  • Open integration technology allows it to be custom integrated with many tools (though some custom configuration may be required)
  • Already built into most mobile technology

Cons

  • Typically a more passive form of communication, which carries a risk of recipient not getting the message in a timely manner
  • Blurring of line between personal and work communications could lead to more casual attitude toward the project
  • Potential exposer of sensitivity

Social Media Can Be an Agent of Change for Project Management

Using the example of Super Sonic Teams, Inc., we can illustrate how Social Media can change Project Management.

AU.S.company, Super Sonic Teams, Inc. acquired two rather big projects at one time. Both projects came from oversees clients (the first from London, the second from Barcelona) and implied the involvement of Super Sonic Teams’ three offices in San Francisco,Orlando and Dallas. The work on the two projects started simultaneously. The first one was led by Jake and the second by Simon. Both Jake and Simon are experienced project managers and know how to do their jobs well.

Jake’s Project

Jake is always busy. In the morning, he comes to his office and checks his e-mail for messages with project updates. He then spends hours calling his team members, e-mailing them or meeting them in person to collect all the information he needs and to make sure that everything is well and on track.  After that, Jake, as a manager, has to merge these updates into the project plan. Later, the updates also need to be communicated to the upper management. So Jake has to make reports and hand them in to the company’s executives to keep them aware of the project’s progress. Jake also has to follow up on the London client’s feedback or the partner’s actions. How? Via e-mail, phone calls and meetings, of course. He wishes he could see his client from London more often, as he knows the importance of personal relations in project management.

During the course of the day, he constantly has to resolve issues through another endless series of e-mails, phone calls and meetings. No doubt, Jake also has to handle matters, like confusion created by different versions of the same Word or Excel documents, and help his people to find where the project-related documents are stored.

Jake’s team members are also busy, as they get 50-100 e-mails per day that they need to check. They do not have direct access to the project plan, so if they want to report progress on their tasks, they need to e-mail Jake about that.  Sometimes they miss important items, but it’s not a big deal, as Jake always remembers to call them up and remind them to check their e-mail.

It sounds job, but Jake is an excellent manager who loves his job. He manages to keep everything on track, though he hardly ever has time to think about his project management strategy or his team’s motivation, and he often has to stay in the office late. But, nothing is easy, right?

Despite all the difficulties, it looks like Jake is going to complete the project successfully and on time. However, with this crazy schedule, he will probably feel overstressed and dead tired.

Simon’s Project

Simon sees project routine differently. In the morning, he opens his e-mail inbox, just like Jake, but the amount of messages is down to 10-15, so it doesn’t take him long to check them all and send his replies. He believes that e-mail is a great tool, as long as you don’t get overwhelmed with messages. Simon’s team doesn’t need to exchange dozens of e-mails, as they use a Web-based project management system, where everyone can check the project progress online, including the customers from Barcelonaand the corporate executives. Moreover, Simon’s team members can update their tasks online, so the project plan is always up-to-date.

At the very beginning of his project, Simon thought it would be neat to run an internal project blog, where he could publish his project development vision, and his team members from offices in San Francisco,Orlando and Dallas could give him their feedback online, instead of calling him on the phone, which is expensive and time-consuming. Later on, his team members also started to publish their ideas on how they can move the project forward faster. This project blog turned out to be a brilliant way to share project-relevant thoughts for the whole team. Everyone checks it as soon as they get an RSS update, and if someone wants to go back to an older post, it’s really easy to find it, thanks to tags and categories.

Simon doesn’t use his phone for project collaboration very often. He prefers Skype, as it has instant messaging, call and video conferencing features all in one place. He leads quick, 15-minute virtual meetings with his team and customers from Barcelona every day, and he doesn’t even have to leave his office.  Simon thinks that IM is a great tool, but it doesn’t always work well for team collaboration. This is where Simon finds a microblogging app very helpful. Simon’s team members use the app to report what they are working on at any given moment of day. They ask questions. They share links. They quickly share files they’re working on. They announce when issues turned up, and when they are stuck. They get tips and help from their peers immediately. Simon and all his team members check this microblog from their phones, as well, and can respond to an important request even on the go. Everyone will get their updates instantly. This is very convenient for a team that is distributed over 4 different time zones.

Simon doesn’t have to deal with issues like document version confusion, as his team uses a project wiki to create their project documentation. This wiki is a universal reference resource for Simon’s team members, and they love using it, as it’s easily searchable, editable and available online anytime they need it.

Just like Jake, Simon is a very busy man. He is busy thinking through the next step of project work and motivating his team members. In fact, he even made friends with his team and clients, as he knows that personal relations are the key for any project manager. He catches up with them on Facebook and LinkedIn, and he follows them on Twitter.

Simon also is successful with his project. Moreover, the project results and the journey to those results exceed the clients’ expectations. Why? The team collaborates seamlessly, has fewer communication issues and, therefore, makes fewer mistakes that need to be corrected. In addition, Simon managed to create a real project community, even with a distributed team of people who never saw each other. As a result, his team members are really passionate about their work and readily follow their project leader. The clients from Barcelona love the way Simon is handing the project and are going to bring another big project to Super Sonic Teams.

When Simon hears the phrase “social media,” he says that he doesn’t care for buzz words and never follows the hype. He simply keeps up with the latest tech trends and is not afraid to try new things. Some of them prove to be very useful for his project management practices.

When Simon’s project is over, he will immediately be ready to take on a new one – most likely the one from his clients in Barcelona.

Who do you think Super Sonic Teams’ executives will value more? Jake or Simon? The answer to these questions leads you to the earlier question and answers it: “Why should you care about social media?”

The Social Media Bandwagon

Smart project managers practiced the tenants of social networking long before the term was coined. Social networking can enhance project outcomes in terms of decreased risk, increased customer acceptance and drastic improvements in communications.

There are social networks all around us: our coworkers, customers, PMI chapter members, friends, professional organizations, Linkedin connections, etc. An important thing to remember is access to social networks does not always cost money. While many corporations spend heavily for access to certain social networks, everything related here is free.

What’s the big deal?

Suffice to say that Madison Avenue is spending billions on social networking. Microsoft is under attack from networked competitors such as Linux and Firefox. Why? Because social networks don’t play by the rules. They are often radically better at creating, organizing and predicting than are traditional organizations. Harnessing the power of social networks requires an understanding of when and where to use them and how they compliment traditional organizational structures.

Group Dynamics

The hidden secret behind the success of Firefox, Google and many other socially networked ventures lies in their superior approach to group dynamics. While corporations organize talent by job description and hierarchy, social networks are self-organizing, allowing people to take on tasks they feel comfortable with. Social networks better resemble the way people interact naturally, and that is why they move faster, make less mistakes, and deliver exactly what their customers want. Below are contrasting examples of how projects are viewed from the corporate perspective versus the social network perspective:

Cross-Pollination

Without departments or reporting structures, participants in social networks have nothing to loose when proposing new ideas. Some of the best ideas and solutions come from those outside the subject discipline, who simply looked at the problem from a different viewpoint. You would be surprised how good an HR department is at debugging an IT project.

Isolation from Competition

While companies traditionally develop products in secrecy, open source products draw skills across competitors and industries.

Isolation from Customers

Open source projects are often created by the very same people who use them. This “outsourcing to the customer” eliminates the gap between vendor and customer all together. Ask your customers if they would be willing to work on a project, most of the time they will say “yes”.

Strategies and Tactics Unique to One Organization

Organizations have slogans to celebrate their unique and proprietary methods; people are True Blue for IBM, GE has Work-Out. These programs can be great morale boosters but can also serve as barriers to collaboration. The PMI standards are a natural leveler allowing members to speak the same language across companies and countries. Social networks develop these same protocols, allowing for more seamless communication.

Failing to Consider All the Alternatives

Social networks are not shy; they throw everything up against the wall to see what sticks. Although a wasteful process, it is also an adaptive one that succeeds where fixed-expert models fail. Consider the following. USautomakers continue to make cars with poor gas mileage, long after the realization of a direct correlation between corporate average fuel economy and profit. Coke launched New Coke even after their customers told them not to. Ego can have devastating effects on a project. Vetting project concepts off trusted networks of experts, outside the corporate firewall can reduce this risk.

Starting With the Answer

Social networks, by their nature, exist without preconception. Imagine a hive of bees searching for honey. The hive has no idea where they will find nectar. Every day they canvass the landscape without any preconceptions. Once nectar is found, the hive optimizes its efforts to harvest the found resource. Social networks are similar to the hive in that it is not reliant on one individual or practice to achieve an outcome. A multitude of potential outcomes and approaches are considered within the efficient framework of the network before a decision is rendered.

Groupthink

We as humans have a basic need to be part of a larger group, to be accepted by those around us. The vestigial fragment of genetic code that causes people to not step off the curb first, face forward in the elevator, or look up when others look up, interferes with business decision making and no one is immune to it.

Social networks keep fresh blood and ideas in the decision making mix and can help reduce organizational elements that lead to groupthink: Hubris, ideas that fail the logic test, and most importantly, plans made in isolation that don’t represent customer needs. One of the striking characteristics of groupthink is the more gifted, intelligent and cohesive your team, the more susceptible you are.

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