Communication planning can dramatically affect the outcome of a project, especially considering the number of stakeholders that can be involved. A project manager must create and manage a communication plan that performs two principal functions:
- Gather the right data from the appropriate stakeholders
- Disseminate information to the correct stakeholders in a timely manner
Although a project manager typically creates a communication plan during the earliest phase of a project, the plan must be reviewed frequently to ensure continued applicability.
Establish communication plan
A project team communication plan must include tasks and time frames, and deadlines for accomplishing these tasks, as well as task ownership.
Although there are many tools for tracking communication tasks, a best practice is to use a project management tool, such as Microsoft Office Project Professional 2003, to track progress on all communication deliverables.
By using a project management tool, the project team can then visualize the communication milestones inserted into the project schedule. By using the filtering functionality of the chosen project management tool, project team members can also have a complete understanding of upcoming deadlines.
Identify the stakeholders
A stakeholder is defined as a person or group of people, internal or external to the organization, who are involved in or affected by the project. The objective of identifying the stakeholders is to assess the extent to which they are affected by or have influence over the project in an effort to involve them in building commitment to the project (see the section "Define communication strategy").
Identifying the stakeholders allows the project manager to:
- Assess the level of impact, commitment to change, and specific concerns of the stakeholders potentially affected by the project.
- Support continual project stakeholder relationship-building and buy-in.
- Analyze internal and external groups according to the degree to which they are affected, how critical they are to the success of the project, and their concerns about the project.
- Build organizational buy-in, commitment, and capacity for change.
After defining stakeholders, the project manager can define the communication strategy for each stakeholder group. (See the section "Define communication strategy.")
One step that a project manager can take to define all the contributors and stakeholders on a project is to create a Roles and Responsibility Matrix. The Roles and Responsibility Matrix contains a list of all the potential stakeholders, a description of their roles and responsibilities in relation to the project, and an assessment of their involvement, influence, and strategy concerning communication.
A key element of identifying individual stakeholders is to understand their individual priorities. Each stakeholder has specific characteristics, as well as unique communication needs. These communication needs can include:
The intent is to move stakeholders through the following stages with the ultimate goal of Advocacy for as many as them as possible. For example:
- Awareness — Stakeholders are aware the project is under way.
- Understanding — Stakeholders have a sound understanding of the purpose and the progress of the project.
- Commitment — Stakeholders support the project, believe it is worthwhile, and would act if prompted.
- Advocacy — Stakeholders proactively communicate and take action required in support of the project.
Define communication strategy
After clearly identifying stakeholders, it is necessary to determine the message to communicate to them, how often they should receive communication, and in what format to deliver the communication to them. How effectively information is communicated can be almost as important as the information itself.
First, it is crucial to understand the communication methods currently used within the organization. Understanding this can help to determine which method is most effective for each stakeholder by assessing the advantages and disadvantages of each method, the percentage of the stakeholders that can be reached through each method, and the ability to obtain feedback though each method.
There are various communication formats available for use, including meetings, e-mail and Web communications, and multimedia.
Meeting communications include project team meetings, brown-bag lunches, and focus groups. Meeting is a two-way communication format, because it provides the ability to provide information and to obtain feedback. It is best suited for specific targeted messages, such as project progress or critical issues.
The main advantage of meetings is the ability to reach a large number of stakeholders with focused and targeted messages. The main disadvantages of meetings are that they can be time-consuming, travel might be required, and they can sometimes be difficult to schedule for maximum attendance.
E-mail and Web communications
Electronic communications include e-mail, online portals, and digital dashboards. Electronic communication can be a two-way communication format. It is best suited for broad content, noncontroversial announcements, instructions, and updates to a focused group of stakeholders. The main advantage is that it is an inexpensive and a rapid communication method. The main disadvantage is that some people might not have access to this method.
Multimedia communications include presentations, demonstrations, and training sessions. The ability to obtain feedback is limited. It is best suited for specific, targeted messages, focused intervention, and critical issues. The main advantages are that it is a mass distribution method and that it has the ability to reach a large number of external stakeholders. The main disadvantage is that staff supporting this effort must be available.
After the current communication methods are understood, the project manager develops a Communication Matrix that integrates the "who, what, when, and how" of the communication process.
A communication matrix includes the type of communication being transmitted, the objective of the communication, the frequency that the communication is disseminated, and the method used to transmit the communication.
The project manager should take ownership of the Communication Matrix. The project manager is responsible for verifying that communication is taking place and that it is effective.
The communication strategy represented by the Communication Matrix needs to be flexible to allow for the resolution of issues that arise, as well as changes in process or policy that often occur after a major project is completed.
Create and support feedback mechanisms
Communication is a two-way mechanism and developing a feedback mechanism is a crucial function of the communication planning process.
The objective of developing a feedback mechanism is to provide the stakeholders with the means to communicate issues regarding project activities, functionality, or other issues. Portray feedback to ensure that action items are assigned to the appropriate individual or group. By completing the feedback loops, all stakeholders will more likely feel that that they are recognized for their communication effort.
Increase project success with communication planning
Communication planning is a major component of a successful project. Without effective communication planning, the likelihood of project success decreases, with key stakeholders missing out on vital information that they need to complete their tasks. It is the project manager's responsibility to set a communications strategy at the beginning of a project, to get buy-in on the communication plan from all key stakeholders, and to follow through with communicating the necessary information throughout the project life cycle.
About the author Pcubed is a global company that provides program management and project management solutions, as well as services in consulting, outsourcing, technology, and training.