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How to Improve Project Communications in an iPhone World
A Mini Case Study
I recently took on a project for an organization that I work with as a volunteer. The youth sports group is made up of volunteer coaches and board members. The project involved coordinating the group's annual end of season All Star tournament. I needed to get all of the coaches to fill out a ballot nominating a coach in their age division and five of their players for an All Star roster. From the ballot results, two coaches would be selected for each age division. They would then be given information on all the players nominated in their division and would then go through a process for selecting their teams. The coaches would need to complete a form that listed all of the players they selected, their coaching staff, and the uniform shirt sizes for the coaches. Simple right?
The ballots were Microsoft Word documents that were distributed via email. The ballots would be filled out and emailed back. Compiled player nomination data would be distributed to the elected coaches via a Microsoft Word document, accompanied by another form, also in Word, which the coaches would fill out and return via email. This information would then be transferred to an Excel spreadsheet which would be sent in to the league office. Instructions were straight forward: Fill out the forms, return them via email.
Do Your Project Teams Communicate Effectively?
When you are handling project communications, you need to look for common links between all the members of the project team. On an internal company project, you can make certain assumptions about standard methods of communication. For example, if your company's standard for email is Microsoft Outlook, then using Outlook to send email ensures that everyone who is following company procedures and standards will receive the email. If your company's standard for spreadsheet software is a specific version of Microsoft Excel, then distributing a spreadsheet to everyone in that format is the ideal scenario. Communicating across a project team made up of members from different companies requires a different approach. If your company uses excel for its spreadsheet software, Company B uses OpenOffice and Company C uses Lotus 1-2-3, you need to take a different approach and ensure that your document is in a common format that all users can open and manipulate if necessary, and return to you in a format that you can use. As complicated as that may sound, it is simple to do, as all of the applications mentioned have common formats that can be shared.
Communication becomes a challenge when smart phones like the iPhone and other devices come in to play. There are smart phone users who no longer use a computer for email, they get everything on their phones. There are iPad and tablet users who no longer have a computer because they can do everything they need to on their mobile device. While users of mobile devices such as these have access to the "apps" necessary to open and read files produced in the Office Suite, they do not always have the ability to edit and save them in a useable format. Dozens of possible devices, thousands of possible "apps" for those devices, there is no real way to ensure 100% compatibility across all the platforms. In the case of my project, each person on the distribution list was essentially a different company, with a different set of standards and different methods for communicating.
The first round of communication involved a Microsoft Word document that was to be completed and returned to me via email. Assuming not everyone would have the same version of Word that I do, the document was saved in the built in early version compatibility format. I received about 50% of the forms back properly completed according to the directions. The rest of the submissions came in various formats, most without the use of the original form at all. I received data via text message to my phone, I received emails with the information typed in, no form attached, I even had one person go through the trouble of filling out the form on their computer, printing it out, photographing it with their smart phone and sending it to me as an attachment in TIF format. (For those of you who don't know, TIF is a seldom used image file format.) I don't know if they were pulling my leg or really could not figure out how to properly return the document. I received files in PDF format, and I have a few who said they couldn't figure out how to open my attachment and were just going to send the info back to me "using their Yahoo". The second round of communication was no better than the first with about the same results.
The proliferation of these mobile devices has hindered cross platform integration and compatibility. But how do we get around this? There may be no real way to ensure 100% coverage. Here are a few tips to help mitigate problems:
- Have A Plan - Know in advance what you want to use as your standard. Be sure your choice is an accepted industry standard that most of your project team is likely to have access to.
- Drive The Process - While you need full cooperation of your team and you do not want to set a negative tone at the beginning of the project, you do need to drive the process and ensure that you and your team are doing whatever needs to be done to stay within the schedule. If this means dictating a particular application or device be required for use during the project, then make it so. Remember, delays impact more than just the schedule.
- Poll Your Team - Get a feel for what devices are in use and what your teams members are comfortable using. Try to find common ground.
- Get Consensus - It is important that everyone is on the same page. Make sure you get buy in and that everyone agrees to the process. This will help when you have to push back.
- Be Clear - When your choice is made, be clear on your instructions. Return submissions from project members who do not follow instructions and ask them to resubmit following the guidelines.
While you still may not succeed at getting 100% compliance, you should be able to greatly increase the chances of a smooth process. At the very least you will have information at your disposal that will help you deal with communication problems as they arise. When you are outside of the controlled environment of company standards, you have to be prepared for widely varying degrees of technological capabilities and competence. It's not reasonable for you to request everyone change to your standard, but it is reasonable for you to ask that everyone do what they can to adhere for the benefit of smooth communications.