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Push -v- Pull Communication

Everyone in business today is buried under an avalanche of data, adding routine reports to the data mountain may no longer be useful! Is it time to bury traditional reports?

Project reports originated in the days of typewriters and carbon paper. Information was painstakingly compiled, copy-typed and distributed to inform managers of the situation several days ago. Whilst today, the process usually involves word processors, PDF files and email, the information structure of a report fundamentally has not changed. Maybe it time for a new approach. Most of us expect instant access to our bank account details why should project information be any different?

Intranets and ‘cloud’ computing make real-time information on-demand a reality. All that is needed is the willingness to drag 19th century communication into the 21st century and easier to access, better information can be at everyone’s fingertips when needed.

By linking the various project information sources to an effective shared data environment with a simple-to-use dashboard for executives, you can remove out of date reports from the data overload. Instead of pushing out, out-of-date information, everyone can ‘pull’ the information they need ‘now’ and with a well designed system drill down to the level of detail appropriate to their requirements.

Changing to a ‘pull’ environment will subtly change many roles for the better.

  • The project manager will need to keep the project information up to date as it changes. Issues should be opened, escalated and closed as their status changes. The weekly schedule updates need to processed, checked and uploaded to the project portal quickly. Monthly cost data imported and reconciled as it is released by finance, etc. Good project portals maintain an audit trail of updates and changes so everyone can see what information has changed when.
  • Project team members and contractors will need training to access to update their information and read other relevant data. By accessing current data in real time, the possibility of people working on out-of-date design data and other communication failures are eliminated.
  • Traditional systems use manual interventions to extract information from project work; but there is no reason why well designed systems cannot be far more directly integrated so that doing work updates project control systems. It is not done well yet but collaboration tools and systems such as BIM (Building Information Modelling ) in construction and engineering have a lot of potential to directly link doing the work to updating the project management information systems.
  • The role of the PMO shifts to real time validation and oversight plus providing training and support, particularly setting up filters and reports so that key executives get access to the specific information they need to do their jobs. A key feature of a well designed project information system is the ability to set automatic alerts for individuals at all levels if a defined event or condition occurs; eg, alerting team members if a design change has been made to documents they are using.

By moving project information to a ‘pull’ environment where all of the relevant stakeholders can access the most up to date information they need, when they want it, requires a well designed system, support and training but has enormous advantages including:

  • Less unwanted data in managers ‘in-boxes’.
  • Greater visibility and accountability (although some project managers may not like this).
  • The ability to identify and resolve problems sooner, particularly in virtual teams.

The primary advantage for project managers is in the time saved by not having to compile monthly reports focused on out of date information. Their day to day work of managing the project is the report.

Also, by shifting the bulk of the project information into an on-demand ‘pull’ environment, the organisations communication bandwidth is opened up for effective ‘push’ communication. Important messages can now be sent to stakeholders when necessary either stand alone or linking to key information in the project portal. The clearer communication channel means the message is more likely to be noticed and acted upon.

However sensible this change, expect opposition, some people simply like getting reports, dropping those people off your distribution list may make them more upset than you realise. This also applies to cutting content. As a rule of thumb, by the third month it’s probably too late to remove sections or drop recipients without encountering some issues. And, the key challenge with a ‘pull’ approach is knowing if the right people have accessed and understood the right information.

The Changed Use of Reports

Moving to a ‘pull’ environment does not necessarily mean reports are dead – but if they survive, their use and value will change. Progress data will be published as soon as it is available (preferably using automated real-time reporting), and smaller, specific end-date period reporting will use this information to analyse variance, trends and/or compare projects using benchmarking and performance standards. Some of the key residual functions of reports include:

  • Well-designed historical reports contain large amounts of useful information in a time series, making them a valuable data repository. And if the report covers the right questions, the process of gathering the information can generate valuable insights for the project team to act upon, the time-series also allows stakeholders to extract trends and status from the stored information.
  • Another benefit of reports is only starting to be recognized. Jon Whitty of the University of Southern Queensland here in Australia has been measuring the emotional effect of project artefacts. Based on Jon’s work it seems a well-formatted report will in itself increase positive emotions. The project manager feels comfortable because she or he has a “proper report” that is part of the “clothing” every project manager wears along with their Gantt charts and other expected artefacts. And senior managers experience positive emotions because the existence of a well-presented report suggests control, order and capability.
  • If you deliver the reports in person or attach a note to highlight specific issues or messages, reports can form the basis of a targeted, purposeful communication.
  • The need for prediction based on reflective analysis and communicating the developed ideas also remains. This is likely to be a much smaller report each month that contains the explanation and proposed recovery actions associated with identified variances, forecasts, assessments and other insights derived from the project data.

The challenge will be to design reports that are relatively easy to produce, ask the right questions, are well-structured, well-formatted, and contain needed information; developing these reports is an art form, and it’s one that every PMO manager needs to master

The technologies exist to make these ideas a reality; the challenge is breaking the management reporting habits of a century. The UK government is moving to make these ideas a reality in the construction industry – it is now UK law that all new major government projects will use BIM within a relatively few months, and new forms of contract are being developed to support this requirement. I suspect the trend will spread across industries and across nations.

However, moving to an effective project information portal does leave one question unanswered, with effective real-time communication, what is everyone going to do in those boring monthly meetings?? Perhaps we could save even more time for useful work!!

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