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Sat 9 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Let's talk

Good communication leads to project success, says Samer Mahdi, project manager at Jones Sweett International.

I never thought that Professor Garold Oberlender's lecture on communication management was as significant as he suggested when I heard it.

He was my project management mentor at Oklahoma State University and used to say that miscommunication was ‘one of the most frequent sources of errors and misunderstanding in the management of a project and working with people'.

He showed us a presentation of about six or seven slides, each with only the word ‘communication' on it. He concluded his lecture with: ‘Call when you really understand.

I just got off the phone to him.

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is considered one of the top-notch standards in the project management profession. It has dedicated a full chapter to communications management, and considered it one of the ‘knowledge areas and a pillar to successful project management practice'.

It defines it as the process required to ensure ‘proper generation, collection, distribution, storage, retrieval and ultimate disposition of project information'.

After being involved in several major projects in Dubai, the rationale behind ‘proper' communication became clear. When several specialist companies team up to produce a landmark project, the flow of information between all stakeholders before and during execution is enormous.

The proper distribution and sharing of information among the stakeholders is essential and critical to produce a quality result - and I stress the word quality, as it is the keyword that governs the continuous competition of the industry in the region.

The above diverts me to the team responsible for maintaining this massive information flow and that team's effect on the success of the project: the project management team.

The project manager (or team) should start off with a communication management plan to administer the anticipated data flow in advance before mail trays and inboxes are filled with piles and megabytes of information awaiting action.

PMBOK presents a process flow diagram of the communications process; the inputs, the outputs, and the relationship with other process areas. The processes are divided into:

1. Communication planning

2. Information distribution

3. Performance reporting

4. Stakeholders' management

Nowadays, exchanging information has several forms:

l Written: letters, faxes, e-mails;

l Verbal: telephone conversations, video (net) conference, and face-to-face conversations.

There is a debate whether digital communication (e-mails or video conferencing) are legally binding due to hacking and digital fraud; however, many courts of law already consider e-mails as legally binding documents.

By the time you finish reading this article, I guarantee your inbox will start flashing with ‘you've got mail!'; as a project manager or team member, you are responsible for validating the received correspondence, actioning it or delegating it to the responsible team member.

During the lifecycle of a project, a tremendous quantity of information, in all its possible forms, is exchanged between all the stakeholders (client, consultant, contractor and its subs) and it is the project manager's judgement to assess which correspondence has an effect on the project's triple constraint: scope, budget and time schedule, and with whom these should be coordinated.

According to statistics, a project manager spends about 90% of his time managing communications. The ‘what I said is not what I meant!' approach is not acceptable in this business as it is always the responsibility of the project manager to ensure that the information communicated is received and realised the same way it is sent and intended to be understood.

In a matrix job environment, any broken or closed communication channel will have a negative impact on the process and the information communicated is of absolutely no value.

A lot of work is accomplished when informal verbal meetings between team members take place. The key is to have any decisions that might affect other people's work, scope or budget recorded and circulated to all concerned parties (minutes).

Any phone conversations between parties which result in similar decisions should be followed up by an e-mail or a letter to formally record the conclusions and clarify any discrepancy that might arise at a later stage. In general, all communication should have some sort of reference or code for easy referral and filing. Losing a correspondence is not an option.

Communication management should be an ongoing process throughout all the four project management stages of planning, execution, control and closing.

The assigned project manager should take the leading role in planning and executing his communication plan and amend it to suit the specific project requirements.

It is not an easy job; yet, a proactive approach and accurate implementation contributes to the success of a quality project with fewer blames and changes.

If you would like to write for Construction Week in this column, please email angela.giuffrida@itp.com

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