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Communication Innovation

Project managers are being increasingly challenged to communicate effectively as more and more of their project teams are de-centralized. The goal of every project manager should be to achieve a team that performs at peak efficiency and delivers project results on or ahead of schedule and at or below budget. There are several skills a project manager must have to accomplish this: they must be expert planners, they must have excellent organizational skills, and they must be able to build high performing teams. All these skills will be for naught however, without communication skills. Just like the ability of a hockey player to use their stick will contribute to their hockey skills, the ability of a project manager to make effective use of the communications tools available to them will enhance their project management skills. In particular, it will build their ability to communicate effectively.

In the early days of distributed work forces, project managers (or any manager for that matter) were challenged to overcome the barriers posed by physical distance. The tools available to overcome those barriers were very few. There was the site visit, but those were very time consuming and expensive. There was mail but mail is better suited to information delivery rather than communication. e-mail offered a marginal improvement on royal mail but still lacked a real time feedback loop. The telephone offers a feedback loop but still lacks the face-to-face element that a collocated environment offers. In more recent times technology has provided us with audio/video conferencing which does offer a type of face-to-face element but, as anyone who has used this technology will attest, it is still far from perfect due to the stationary position of the camera.

A story in the Wednesday, September 8, 2010 Toronto Star by staff reporter Amy Dempsey describes perhaps the latest step on the path towards effective virtual teams. Amy writes about "Robo-boss" in her article. Robo-boss is a robot which is actually called Texai by its creators at Willow Garage in Menlo Park, California. It was created to address the need for a team member in Seymore Indiana to engage the team in Menlo Park and consists of a mobile robot which with a camera, screen, and speakers to simulate the remote team member. The Texai is capable of navigating through a work area to meet with remote team members face to face.

Mike Beltzner, who is the Firefox product director for Mozilla, seized on this technology to overcome the challenges that communicating with his team in California from his Toronto office present. His team have re-named the robot "Robo-Beltzner" in his honour. When Mike organizes a meeting in California he is represented by Robo-Beltzner. The robot presents his image on the LCD monitor, and reproduces his speech on the speakers. Cameras on the robot allow Beltzner to view his team, or individual members of the team. So far this is pretty standard stuff, Mike hasn't done anything he couldn't accomplish with an audio/video conference. What makes this technology new and desirable is the robot's mobilization. The robot is on wheels and is motorized, allowing it to move about the office. The robot is operated from the remote user's (Mike's) computer and navigation is aided by two cameras, one pointed forward and one pointed downward. These cameras can be pivoted so that Mike can see where Robo-Beltzner is going. The monitor can swivel so that Robo-Beltzner is looking at the person he is speaking to. The forward looking camera can also zoom in for white board presentations. Mike finds that the team in California have gotten used to Robo-Beltzner and have begun to speak with the robot just as they would if he were on site. When they wish to speak with him, they will approach the robot for a face-to-face conversation just as they would if they were speaking to him in person. The robot not only allows Mike to attend meetings and fully participate, it also allows him to perform "walk abouts" which add yet another dimension to his managerial skills. About the only things Robo-Beltzner is not capable of doing are writing on white boards and climbing stairs.

The robot is a prototype which Mozilla has borrowed from its developers, Willow Garage, a California based robot maker. The robot is the brainchild of Willow Garage engineers Dallas Goecker and Curt Meyers who were looking for a solution to their remote communications problems. They insist that this is a "remote presence system" and not a robot, the difference being that a robot is an autonomous machine that replaces a human while their machine is intended to be an extension of a human. They have produced 25 of their remote presence systems and have these at various alpha and beta testing sites, including Mozilla. Although Willow Garage is not currently offering the systems for sale, they appear to be gearing up for that eventuality.

There seem to be 2 trends in the world of projects: the first is the geographical dispersion of project teams. Whether its outsourcing software development to an Indian firm or having business owners in New York and developers in California, the ability to engage resources wherever they may be available and have them perform as a productive team is necessary for many companies to be competitive. The second trend is the rapid development of technology. Technological advances in the area of computing and telecommunications create a wide variety of solutions to communications problems. Mike Beltzner is to be commended for his fore-sight and imagination in seizing the opportunity that Willow Garage provided to overcome his communications barriers. Even though Mike did nothing more than use a solution that was already available "off the shelf", his ingenuity in finding the technology and applying it to his situation helped move his team forward.

The message for today's project managers is that there are a wide variety of technical solutions out there with which to overcome your communications problems. Facebook and Twitter are two social networking tools that some have used to enhance project communications. There are also numerous platforms designed to enhance communications as well as provide other project services such as JIRA and Confluence. With the wide variety of solutions available and the wide range of prices, there is a communications solution to meet every project's needs at a budget that every project can afford, all you have to do is be diligent in your search and creative in your thinking.

One of the project management Knowledge Areas isCommunications Management, according to the PMBOK®, the PMI's bible on the discipline. One of the key tools described in the planning process for communications is "communication methods". The PMBOK® approach to planning communications is to identify the stakeholders you will be communicating with, analyze their information needs and select the appropriate communications methods. Successful project managers will distinguish themselves by thinking "outside the box" when it comes to planning their project communications. Most of us tend to stick with what we're used to and not leave the safety of our comfort zones. For project managers to be successful in today's environment, they must be prepared to examine new and exotic approaches that they would not have considered on their last project, maybe because they were not available at that time. If you have achieved your PMP® certification, look for opportunities to combine your knowledge of project communications with a willingness to explore new gizmos and tools to provide your project with superior communications. If you haven't, your first step on the path to excellence in projects communications should be PMP® Exam preparation training or a PMP® course and then get yourself certified, you'll find the certification will open doors for you and prepare you for the next step in advancing your communications skills.