A major, yet oft-overlooked factor when designing a large project, is the communication system, or the rules, procedures, and structures for information to flow within the team, and for team members to interact with one another.
Possible structures include:
- Centralized: All external communication comes to the team leader or a chief information officer, who processes and disseminates the information to team members on a need-to-know basis. Very often, such a structure also requires all official internal communication to flow from individual members to this central hub, who then disseminates it as required. The structure could also have unit-level leaders as mini hubs, and members of each unit as sub-spokes who send and receive information from the mini-hub. Such a structure has the advantage of the management being able to control the flow of information, and ensuring that everyone receives the messages they require. This structure however leaves too much power with the central spoke, which could create bottlenecks or delays, and leaves the scope open to manipulation.
- Decentralized: All external communication goes directly to the concerned team member, who then passes it on to others as required, and may also forward a copy to a central depository or the team leader (if he/she is not in the forward list) for information. Similarly, internal communication may start from any member and flow in any possible direction or combination. This structure remains the closest to the natural flow, and has the advantage of unmatched flexibility, freedom, and speed. On the flip side, it could lead to disorganization and chaos, with key people possibly left out of the loop; no one knowing who would have the required information, and the possibility of distortion as the message passes from one hand to another. Success of this structure depends on having highly skilled and competent employees who know how to process information they receive, and having a detailed system in place that stipulates who should receive what information.
- Nodal: Many organizations have a nodal structure, which is a mix between the centralized and decentralized types. Here, team members within a sub-unit or a process area, such as a marketing team, design team, operations team, or IT team for example, follow a decentralized form of internal communication, but receive and pass on external communication outside their unit from the team leader. Conversely, the team leader becomes the hub and team members the spoke, with all official communication coming and passing through the team leader. The team leaders among themselves may interact freely with one another, and receive external communication directly.
Another important element of organization communication is the medium. The forms are many, including emails, instant messenger chats, telephone calls, official letters and memos, notice board, public address system announcements, verbal transmissions during meetings, and more. The onus is on the management to specify the recommended medium for each type of message, define rules on the usage of such mediums, and provide team members with access to relevant mediums.
Policy manuals and handbooks are an underestimated form of communication, especially for large projects. Publishing detailed manuals and handbooks allows team members to clear their doubts without engaging the team leader, who could put such time to better use.
The best of structure and mediums notwithstanding, project communication falters without an effective policy that regulates and provides order to the flow. A good policy provides guidelines on:
- The preferred or required method of communication for various instances. For instance, the policy may require placing requests for materials in the stipulated form by email, and informing the team leader by telephone if the work is away from the workstation for more than 30 minutes for any reason
- Reports: the policy may require a daily work update report to the team leader or the project manager updating the day’s activities and major developments; team leaders to send out a list of deliverables for the day to individual members at the start of a day, filing an incident report when detecting problems or other issues.
- Whom to contact: guidelines on whom to contact or inform for specific cases. For instance, the daily report may need to go to the team leader with a copy to the project manager, an incident report may need to go directly to the project manager, etc.
- Authorizations to send external communication, to suppliers, media, and other stakeholders.
- Policy on filing, storing, deleting, and version control of emails, letters, and other documents.
- Rules regarding publication of employee handbooks, instructions manuals, and documentation of project activities.
A successful communication plan for large projects invariably requires a proactive role from the project leaders. The project and team leader have to implement the plans, and ensure smooth and seamless communication across the project team, with all employees having access to the latest and relevant information. They also need to resolve barriers to effective communication by:
- Identifying and removing bottlenecks in the chain.
- Working with individual team members with difficulty in comprehending messages, or expressing their thoughts and viewpoints clearly.
The fast-paced changes in the present business environment make it necessary to take quick decisions and act swiftly to seize the opportunity. A robust and seamless plan is a key step to this end, and contributes to success in a big way.
Source: Author’s experience
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