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Thomas asked this question during the PMI Learning, Education and Development Community of Practice presentation I gave recently about Social Media for Project Managers. We were talking about using social media tools at work for communication and collaboration, and – of course – the topic of information overload came up.

Normally I’m asked how to deal with information overload, so it was interesting to get a question about what drives it and what happens as a result of it – it made me think!

Here’s my response.

What drives information overload:

  • An insistence that all communication goes through you
  • Lack of trust in the team
  • The team’s lack of trust in each other, so they include you in all communication
  • A failure to see what is relevant to the task being done
  • Being copied in to things ‘for information only’
  • Not managing your software tool alerts effectively and getting alerts for absolutely everything
  • Not managing interruptions effectively
  • Sleep deprivation

What results from information overload:

  • Stress
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Constant interruptions which dents productivity
  • A feeling that we are really important because people need us all the time (this isn’t good, by the way)
  • A full inbox, but normally full of stuff that isn’t really important
  • A project that slows down due to bottlenecks in communication
  • Difficulty archiving everything and therefore difficulty finding anything
  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of trust in the team (yes, it’s a virtuous circle)

What else would you add to these lists? Let us know in the comments below.

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Social Media for Project Managers: Q&A

I gave a presentation on social media for project managers at the PMI Learning, Education and Development Community of Practice at the end of last year. They run a successful online book club and they were discussing my book on the subject, so it was great to be asked to go along and round out some of the ideas.

There were about 350 people on the webinar and we didn’t have the chance to go through all the questions that were raised, so I thought I’d address some of them here. Let’s crack on…

Our company is pretty concerned about using social media due to the security implications. Thoughts on that? (Angela)

This was raised by a number of people and there were several comments along the lines of ‘my company won’t let me use social media tools at work’. This could be because of non-disclosure agreements (mentioned by someone) or other concerns about privacy. However, my view is that if employees are going to use Facebook or Twitter, they’ll do so whether the company lets them or not – these days most people have a smartphone with internet access, so unless you check your phones at the door you can access these tools when you go to get a coffee. It is far better for a company to monitor and control access through policies and education than let employees do and say whatever they want on social media sites.

When it comes to using social media tools for project work, you can address the security concerns and manage appropriately. For example:

  • Using tools that you can host in-house behind your firewall so they are not available to external audiences e.g. Yammer, wikis
  • Using tools that enable you to export your data when you need to or when the project is over.
  • Using tools that do not host data overseas when this is in breach of your local regulations or contracts.

The short answer to addressing security concerns is that if you can’t address them adequately, don’t use social media tools. You can manage a project perfectly well without instant messaging or a wiki; people have been doing that for years. So for all I’m an advocate of social collaboration tools, don’t use them when it doesn’t make any sense or puts you in breach of agreements or policies.

How do you define Organisational Instant Messaging? (Daniel)

Tools like Skype, Microsoft Office Communicator, Spark, Cisco Jabber and Lync are all examples of organisational video conferencing. Some of these are available free, some as part of other software. My recommendation is that you try out a couple (of free ones) and see what sort of features you use regularly. Then if you want to invest in a paid-for solution you know what you are looking for.

Younger employees are more comfortable with social media tools. (Iain)

Actually, I don’t agree. I don’t think technical literacy (which is what I call the ability to use these tools, and any other bits of tech) is defined by age. There’s a growing group of ‘silver surfers’ who are just as adept at using them as some young people. And I know people younger than me who have chosen not to be on Facebook or to use social media products for various reasons so don’t have a clue how to do it.

Having said that, I can’t cite any research at the moment that backs up my anecdotal opinion. What I would say is that don’t let the age of your team members lead you to make unfair assumptions about their ability to adopt new ways of working or manage with new tools.

How do you manage the information overload? (Various people asked this)

This came up as we were talking about instant messaging and making sure that you can cope with the archive trail that it produces by being able to manage that sort of information and file it somehow.

Too many communication tools can result in more interruptions and therefore more distractions, so you need to think about how to manage the various streams of information that social media tools open up to you in order to avoid information overload. Generally, I would say that you should trust your team enough to not need to monitor all the communication or to push all the communication through yourself, or you will drown in the data and slow the project down.

When it comes to instant messaging, you can store the output from chats. Your IM tool may have settings that sends the chat to you as an email after the session ends, so check if this is turned on and use it if it is available. These can then become project documents and can be stored and archived in the same way as meeting minutes.

Henrik also raised a good point: since e-mail (almost) can’t be avoided, multiple ways of communicating by also using other social media tools may result in multiple paths i.e. dilution and confusion in the project. Kumar pointed out that email can also do that, especially if you take people off the circulation list (or add them on halfway through the discussion).

It isn’t always easy to get the balance right but it’s good practice to ensure that your messages are always consistent. Sometimes people do need to hear the same thing several times before they believe it so using several channels to repeat the same (consistent) message is appropriate. Of course, if you say different things through different channels, expect total confusion!

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The future of social communications on projects

social media iconsSocial communications form a large part of life outside the office, and the connected project manager needs to incorporate those ways of out-of-the-office communications into working practices today. Many stakeholders already use publicly available, consumer-led social communication tools to manage their personal networks. In our drive to be easy to do business with, it is essential that project managers adopt relevant tools to ensure that the gap between home and office ways of working is not extreme to the point where stakeholders choose not to work with us.

The connected project manager can incorporate social communications in project reporting, for example by making the report available in multiple formats and accessible through multiple channels. Reports can also include multi-media elements, such as video, audio and photographs. This can be particularly useful if your project is constructing something tangible, such as a building.

Social communication tools also enable you to personalize the users’ experience through content filters and dashboards, so once a product is in place on the project, embedded and operational, you can look to adapt it further to ensure each stakeholder receives the relevant information in a format that suits them best. Content filters, such as behavioural-based advertising, are already in use on consumer-led websites, and while there is some discussion that marks these as intrusive it is likely that we will see more movement towards personalization in both consumer and corporate social communication tools.

There has also recently been a rise in the number of training companies incorporating digital learning into their offerings. Project managers and PMO teams are likely to see more and more of this: training courses being offered with digital material instead of print textbooks and incorporating online discussion forums and podcasts (online radio shows) to continue the learning after a classroom event.

The social project manager spends more time than ever before creating, building, planning and managing networks.

These types of learning can spill over into the project environment. The connected project manager can incorporate social communication channels and digital media as part of a structured change management approach for projects. This could include, for example, using podcasts and video to train staff on the deliverables of the project, such as new software.

Planning for accessibility

Disability discrimination laws, regulations and guidelines are different in every country. However, it is clear that as workforces are becoming more diverse, it is important to ensure that the tools you use for project management are suitable for everyone to use. This is even more essential if your project is delivering services to the general public and you have chosen to build in social communications as part of your wider community communications plan.

Consider the needs of all your users when adopting social communication tools, and if for any reason you have chosen to build these products in-house with the help of your IT team, get some advice about how to make them accessible for everyone. As this area develops, we will see the user interfaces and mobility options for tools increase. This is good for all members of the workforce and community – good, accessible design benefits everyone.

Planning for interoperability

Interoperability between social communication tools is in its infancy. Many of the more established products that are aimed at a consumer audience have the ability to link to other products, but normally to provide add-on services, such as being able to post photographs from one social media network to another. There is a growing interest in dashboard products that allow you to manage multiple accounts from a single platform: these are particularly useful for business users, but again are mostly aimed at consumer end users, not a corporate market.

For the social project manager, then, there are a number of tools to choose from to enhance communication and collaboration in the enterprise, but a limited number of ways to join these up and present a single view to the project team and stakeholders. This situation is likely to get better with time, but at present, the end result is that project managers and their teams are likely to have to use a number of tools, or to limit themselves to perhaps one that does not quite fulfil all their needs.

Planning for networks

hppm cover imageThe social project manager spends more time than ever before creating, building, planning and managing networks. There is no doubt an overhead that comes with adopting social communication tools, because the stakeholder communities are as yet not prepared to move away from the traditional communication and collaboration channels, and perhaps never will. As a result, there is an ongoing responsibility to link online and offline communities to ensure that each network has the same amount of project information and the same opportunity to collaborate. Balancing the complex, in-person links of a face-to-face network with that of an online, virtual, community is a skill that the social project manager has to excel at.

It is hard to predict future trends in a world that is constantly changing. There are new social communication tools released regularly, aimed at both consumers and business users. However, one thing is certain, social communications are here to stay. Regardless of the tools, platforms, data input methods or storage locales, we will be using social communications in the workplace and in our personal lives for years to come.

This is an edited excerpt, reprinted by permission of the publishers from ‘Managing Social Communications’ in The Gower Handbook of People in Project Management, edited by Dennis Lock and Lindsay Scott (Farnham, Gower, 2013).

Social media icons image credit: Alex Latimer

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Gamification in project management

Connect 4Last year, it was all about social media. This year’s hot new trend is gamification. What’s that, I hear you ask? It’s such a new word that my spellchecker flags it up as an error.

Gamification has been around for a while. It’s the art of making work seem less like, well, work. It’s about using techniques used in games in non-gaming contexts in order to increase engagement. Back in 1999 when I worked for American Express, we had a company-wide game. For every shop you reported that did not accept the Amex card, you received a game card with a picture on. It was a bit like Snap. If you matched the pictures on the cards you could cash them in for a prize. I remember collecting dozens of cards and being disappointed when they didn’t match and elated when they did. I must have got a few prizes that summer but I can’t even remember what they were. It’s playing the game that I remember, not the outcome.

APM have even set up a gamification in project management group this year. The Gamification Study Tour is funding a group of new project managers in the Thames Valley region to investigate innovative methods for improving engagement amongst project stakeholders through gamification.

So how does it work?

Gamification in practice

People like recognition, and they like to feel part of something. Gamification techniques tap into that – the idea of leaderboards, badges and levels. Games often include things to collect (like houses in Monopoly) or privileges if you hold a certain card (like The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game), or a way of collecting points (like Scrabble).

Putting these social triggers into the workplace is supposed to make people feel more engaged. We see it through:

  • Badges, awards and shields (like on projectmanagement.com)
  • Leaderboards (like the LinkedIn groups ‘top influencers this week’ feature)
  • Points (like RedCritter Tracker, an agile project management software tool)

The APM group identified 5 benefits to like this. They are:

  • Increasing productivity, as people stay at their tasks for longer because they are more fun
  • Improving morale, as people like social recognition, collecting ‘likes’ etc
  • Increasing quality, although I don’t know how this is related to gamification techniques
  • Increasing employee retention, because life at work is nicer
  • Creating an exciting work environment, because we all like to work somewhere exciting!

I’m also sure that some people would be very happy in a work environment that doesn’t encourage competition or too much excitement through leaderboards, so I think there are some people who would be very much left out of any project gamification activity. PropsToYou is a project management tool that doesn’t use leaderboards and instead encourages people towards their personal best. I think we’ll see more of this kind of use of game theory in the future as people get better at how to understand the practical aspects of motivational theory in a business environment.

Gamification for collecting data

Gamification makes sense from a business perspective as well as an employee engagement perspective. Better data leads to better decisions.

Of course, companies only build game-like features into their software or processes for a reason. Like the Amex game, it’s about collecting data. If you use gamification features on your online project management tool, you can encourage people to enter their project reports, task updates and so on. Anything that encourages people to use the product has to be a good thing, as often software implementations fail not because the software is no good but because people prefer to work outside it.

With consumer-led gaming, companies can get all sorts of data about customers. Starbucks is doing this at the moment with the 2012 Red Cup Challenge, a Facebook game that I’m sure shares your details with Starbucks behind the scenes and therefore gives them useful information on their customer base.

In short, gamification makes sense from a business perspective as well as an employee engagement perspective. Better data leads to better decisions.

The difference between gamification and behaviour shaping

In my latest book, Customer-Centric Project Management, I talk about gamification as one of the ways to address the challenge of needing to collaborate on project teams. I was lucky to have some insight from Mattias Hällström, Founder and Director of R&D at Projectplace. “One of the major reasons for Facebook’s success is the way the ‘like’ feature is implemented to encourage positive feedback,” he said. “Heavy Facebook users get addicted to positive feedback from their friends.”

Mattias explained that in behavioural science, the human reaction to positive feedback is explained as intermittent re-enforcement of behaviour by the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is intimately connected to human emotion. “It is a powerful social mechanism hard-wired into the human brain,” he said. “Positive feedback creates trust and reduces defensive behaviour, and it has evolved to enable humans to rapidly align their behaviour to each other to cooperate efficiently.”

Projectplace has tapped into this by including features that help the project manager to shape team member and stakeholder behaviour. They call this ‘behaviour shaping’ instead of gamification. “That’s why we have implemented a Facebook inspired ‘like’-feature in the Projectplace Conversations tool,” Mattias explained. “With this the project manager has a well-recognised and powerful usage model to encourage desired behaviour of team members and project stakeholders. We call this ‘Collaborative Planning’. Our goal is to help people involved in a project to coordinate and align their commitments with the project purpose to become more customer-centric.”

I think we’ll see more companies adopting gamification and behaviour shaping techniques in project management, and this will evolve as people realise that there is more to successful game-style features than leaderboards and setting up project team members to compete with each other.

However, I’m not aware of any research into this in the project management field particularly. It seems as if most of the academic work has been around driving consumer behaviour, so things like getting people to buy more stuff with Facebook games, which is not workplace-related. If anyone knows of any research into gamification specifically, please let me know in the comments! Equally, if you have any experience of using the game-like features of PropsToYou, RedCritter or ProjectPlace (or another tool), let us know what you thought of them and whether this kind of thing encourages and engages you at work.

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