Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

Project Management, Social Media, and Defining "Community"

By Dennis D. McDonald

INTRODUCTION

As a continuation of our Conversation about Project Management and Social Media, Lee White in his recent post Project Community states the following:

The point here is not that Social Media, as discussed in earlier posts, directly drives efficiencies, but that it can create a community of project stakeholders that are passionate about the successful completion of a project.

This blog post is a response to Lee’s statement. 

DEFINING “COMMUNITY”

I agree with Lee. Adoption and use of social media can help “drive” efficiencies. An example is what happens in a shift from total reliance on inefficient email based communication to more collaborative technologies. This was mentioned by several of my survey respondents last year when I asked about project management and blogging.

Experienced project managers will also appreciate how the concept of “community” relates to staff morale and project success. But we need to be careful how we use the word “community.”

The simplest meaning of “community” is “a group of people who share some common goal or interest.”  You could say that, by this definition, the staff members of any project are a “community” simply because they share the project’s goal in common.

“Community” also has a more complex and subtle meaning that refers not only to group members’ sharing a common goal but also to their internalization of the community’s goals at a more fundamental level than simple agreement or disagreement.

The phrase “sense of community” begins to get at this meaning. It refers to a sharing of common beliefs that involves a connection at a more personal or emotional level. Words like “passion,” “devotion,” and “commitment” also come to mind when discussing the concept “sense of community.”

A key component of this more fundamental concept of community is the existence of relationships among the members of the group that go beyond accidental shared interests. Good project managers, for example, may want their project staff members to be “passionate” about a project for the simple reason that the more committed one is to a project’s success, the more likely the project will be a success.

This goes hand in hand with the desire one has to make all the members of a team successful. The likelihood that project staff members experience a sense of group commitment to the project also increases as the social bonds among project staff members are strengthened.

The stronger the social, professional, and emotional relationships are among team members, the more likely each will go “the extra mile” to make the project a success. This is one of the reasons that some project managers engage in “team building exercises” in an attempt to establish and solidify relationships among project staff members.

STRENGTHENING RELATIONSHIPS

A legitimate question is whether social media and social networking can actually strengthen the relationships among project team members so that the overall goals of the project are advanced. I personally believe this can be the case, partly because I believe that anything that helps people in a project group communication is a good thing.

There are two areas of uncertainty regarding the relationship between social media and project management. The first has to do with the nature of the role that technology plays in helping to “create” a sense of community among a group of people. The second concerns the blurring of traditional distinctions between formal and informal organizations that social media and social networking can cause.

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Concerning the role of technology, there are two instances that need to be considered: the role of existing communities, and the development of new communities.

1. Social media and existing communities

In the first instance, where a group or “community” already exists, technology may actually strengthen and speed up communications, but it may not necessarily “create” new relationships. For an existing group with existing relationships the role of social media and online social networks can be, at minimum, to enhance the speed with which communication occurs and decisions are made.

2. Social media and formation of new communities

But consider the second case, where a project brings together groups of people who may not know each other or who may not have worked together before. An example would be a large corporate project or a project to unify the operations of two merging companies

When this is the case, social media and social networking systems not only can aid in collaboration and communication; they can also bring people together and help establish relationships despite organizational and geographic distances.

In the context of a temporary time-bounded project this is not at all unusual, especially when projects are large and involve multiple teams that span organizational or departmental boundaries. Making it easy for people to communicate and to establish both professional and social relationships can make eminently good sense.

I am not suggesting that creating work products collaboratively, sharing information, or creating problem solving discussion forums, blogs, or wikis removes the need for leadership and direction. The exact opposite may actually be the case because of the independent way many social media and networking tools can be employed. Collaboration is no substitute for leadership, especially when deadlines loom.

BLURRING TRADITIONAL ROLES

Let’s return to Lee’s use of the term “community.”

In any organization we will find both formal and informal groups with much overlap among members and member interests. Formal hierarchical reporting structures may or may not reflect the actual social and professional relationships among staff members in the organization, but there will always be legitimate reasons for referring to and maintaining the formal structure.

The same is true of projects, especially large projects. On paper a pyramidal or hierarchical structure may exist, but in practice the actual flow of work and work processes is impacted not only by formal organizational definitions but also by the social and professional relationships that already exist or are formed among project staff.

If that is the case, a communications and information management infrastructure that reflects the actual working relationships among the project staff makes good sense.  In fact, a good project manager will encourage collaboration and communication in support of project objectives even if such collaboration bypasses job title and position descriptions that might discourage such collaboration.

CONCLUSION

“Project community” is an important concept that can reflect not only how a project is organized but also how personal and social relationships impact how the work is actually performed. It is up to project management to understand the roles of project communities and to support their development and operation while at the same time ensuring that all project participants understand and act upon project goals and priorities.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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