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Jane McTaggart, Aurecon
Expectations of our capacity to communicate are greater than ever before — both internally and externally.
With the advent of social media, and the unprecedented spread and availability of information on the internet, communities and stakeholders have more access to information about the world than ever before.
If a business or a project team does not communicate effectively and with intent, the information that stakeholders have access to can be diluted, irrelevant, incorrect or even wrong to the point where unnecessary risk is introduced to a project.
“People sometimes ask me why we undertake consultation throughout the duration of a major project’s life cycle,” says Jane McTaggart, Community and Communications Team Leader, Aurecon. “Put simply, communities expect it, government requires it and our clients are requesting it.”
“As consultants, we have a professional imperative to talk to the people whose communities we affect,” adds McTaggart.
A constant process of learning and refining
Relating to the community and all stakeholders
The internal communication process on projects is also becoming more complex. People receive hundreds of emails a day and with major projects, often operating in alliance, joint venture or integrated team structures, it’s difficult to know what is important when.
“At the beginning of a project, we recommend developing a simple matrix that shows who needs to be part of the communication process and when critical communications need to occur,” comments McTaggart. “By assessing and setting benchmark criteria, it is possible to determine what communication tool(s) best suit the project’s ongoing needs.”
While a monthly report might work for board members, a weekly email may satisfy project management teams or key clients — the key is to know who needs what and when they need it.
McTaggart suggests asking critical people or clients, both internally or externally, how they like to receive their information and then deliver it that way. If a five minute phone call twice a week makes people feel confident and comfortable with how the project is progressing, that’s a far better investment than a daily email that no one will read.
Another important part of project communication is developing an email protocol for the whole project to use — and making sure that everyone sticks to it. Simple things like using the subject line to identify if the email contains something that requires a decision — and by what date — is an effective communications management protocol. Using an email protocol helps everyone to become more disciplined about their communication, in a way that can only add value to our projects.
When sharing general project information, consider using another way to disseminate this, such as an HTML newsletter, with links on an internal website to key pieces of information. By doing this, project communications can send one email, once a week, instead of five per day.
Don’t discount the value of informal communication, something that comes from face-to-face contact with colleagues, clients or others involved on the project. This opportunity is sometimes the best part of working in integrated project offices. It allows relationships to be built and via the information shared, greater project understanding is developed. Successful projects are generally characterised by successful relationships within project teams.
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We all know that sometimes project communication goes badly wrong, whether this is the result of poor messaging, a relationship breakdown or a difficult stakeholder or community meeting.
“After over 20 years of project and stakeholder communications, I’ve seen the best and worst of these interactions,” says McTaggart. “Sometimes internal communications can be more problematic than external ones. Clarifying project and organisational roles and responsibilities, talking about communication expectations and understanding each other’s communication styles and techniques is just as important for us internally as it is with external stakeholders.
“If people need a break, take time out. Make sure you state your personal boundaries clearly and stick to them.”
Finally, and this is something McTaggart stresses, while we are rightfully proud of the projects we work on, we need to understand that there are always going to be people who are not happy with the outcomes.
Amelia Visagie, Project Co-Ordinator, Aurecon’s South African Value Education (SAVE), stresses that when working in Indigenous communities, there are clear protocols to follow, articulated at all the appropriate levels of government traditional leaders and community interactions. Don’t enter communities without permission, listen to elders and individuals with respect, recognise the consultation fatigue that these communities experience, and understand the history behind the key stakeholder engagements with them. “It is important to articulate not only immediate win-win benefits for the community, but also strategic, sustainable solutions that will, over time, effectively reduce poverty and create further opportunities for the extractive community industry,” says Visagie. This involves an integrated, participatory approach which should be flexible and adapted to suit the unique needs of every client or community to guarantee the sustainability of projects in the long term.
The traditional techno-centric approach to implementing projects is no longer acceptable to the communities and is frequently the underlying reason for project failure today.
To combat this, it is critical to involve all stakeholders in project design by:
Good participatory processes involve sharing perspectives and negotiating differences. Stakeholders can be involved in many ways, including comprehensive participatory appraisal processes, informal discussions and planning workshops.
In addition, when we work with any stakeholder, it’s important to be clear about their capacity for input into the decision-making process.
“If the project team is simply sharing information, it’s important to discuss how to best share information, post updates or communicate changes from the beginning,” says McTaggart. “If you are consulting with people, they will want to see your proposals to address their specific issues and how the project team plans to resolve the issues. This being the case, it’s critical not to raise expectations that the project isn't able to meet.”
A significant risk to any project is that of inconsistent messages or inequitable information sharing. If a project team is going to tell anyone within a community about the project, tell everyone the same thing at the same time.
Do not set up or exacerbate existing power and information inequities within a community by giving some people privileged information.
“There are always some things that are commercially confidential, covered by client privilege or are politically sensitive, and these things need to be kept confidential,” says McTaggart.
“However, information sharing is now so simple, cost-effective and instant that there is no reason not to make your agreed key messages and openly available information consistent and (relatively) universal to access.”
While there is still a place for newsletters and direct mail, the huge spread of social media and smart phones mean that other powerful and responsive tools are available to project managers. Different options include using weekly emails to communicate with road users in country towns, SMSs, Facebook and even Twitter, if appropriate.
Good websites, with options for both quick text downloads as well as complex fly-throughs, publications and interactive surveys are becoming more and more popular. During the floods in Queensland, Australia earlier in 2011, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) Facebook page was a hugely successful grass roots communication tool.
The reason that the QPS Facebook page worked so well was because the organisation understood the value of this tool and had a project champion who drove it through the internal approval processes. Added to this, QPS had well-informed, dedicated resources, with a marketing manager whose job it was to keep the Facebook page updated, relevant and useful for all concerned.
In some instances, traditional tools such as newspaper advertisements, radio advertisements and standard print media still have a place, particularly if broadband services are limited or slow. However, these need to be augmented with a range of other communication and consultation tools, including the use of existing community networks.
On every successful major project, excellence in communication delivers excellence in project results. A successful project is underpinned by open and responsive communication channels, disseminating information around project strategies at all levels and throughout the life cycle of the project.
Good communication allows senior management groups to deliver consistent messages. It fosters buy-in at stakeholder level and empowers project groups to share information critical for project success.
If communication issues cannot be resolved, it may be necessary to undertake formal intervention, such as a relationship workshop. This can result in the development of codes of conduct and relationship charters, the involvement of communication champions and the introduction of more formal protocols of information sharing.
The importance of pre-planning at the start of the project is paramount. Trying to address issues six months in, when people are already under stress from the work that needs to be done and when relationships can be strained past breaking point, is far too late to be useful or practical.
Think early on about how teams can best work together. Identify shared philosophies. Strong leaders and managers can make a huge difference to communication (and project) outcomes.
Similarly, there are clear tools and techniques for use with external stakeholders at critical times. Sometimes, involving a neutral party, engaging a trained facilitator to run community meetings or seeking the involvement of community or stakeholder champions can turn a tense and difficult situation into something more manageable.
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