While the prevalence of social media is exponentially increasing, however, its use in a project sphere is still surprisingly constrained. Certainly, there have been numerous articles, presentations and even a book or two on the use of social media in project management, but on the whole these tend to view social media through a rather generic lens–and project management as a relatively fixed practice.
The result is that, while there are many applications and social media options, they tend to be used in relatively staid and predictable ways. For the most part, social media has become a new and more responsive (or more reactive) way of managing stakeholder communications. It is used to communicate project status, help maintain visibility around the project and support the overall change management effort of introducing the project results. While the implementation of social media has opened up communications to be more bi-directional in that stakeholders can comment, critique and engage, there is still a strong feeling of “publishing” and “dissemination” to how social media is used in many project environments.
The implications are that communication is still something that is managed, and while conversations may happen around the project or the resulting change to the organization, it isn’t much more than you would expect if you were to have a presentation, town hall meeting or question-and-answer session about your project–except that now its mediated via the internet.
Is this the best use of social media? Is this the most appropriate use for social media? Are there other, more effective, strategies that we could employ in managing our projects? Possibly not. But it might be the safest.
Three of the most significant challenges that social media presents to many organizations, not only in the sphere of project management, are: the ubiquity of the internet, the anonymity of the internet and what can be best referred to as the lack-of-politeness of the internet. While organizations feel compelled to be online and to open new channels of communication with their customers and stakeholders, there are few that do it exceptionally well–and many that arguably hurt themselves more than they help themselves.
On an individual level, the management of our online reputations is something that we are becoming increasingly aware of. Anything we post on the internet is there forever in some form or other; what we put out has potential consequences. Current and future friends, partners, employers and colleagues can and do search us out. Whether photos of a wedding (where we got a little out of hand at) posted by a friend or relative or the results of our own musings and ramblings, once it is posted it is difficult to get back.
For organizations, the situation is more complicated. Organizations are not people. As a result, there is little compunction by many about how they should be treated. What people might hesitate to say in person, they have little trouble posting online. And while some people may pull punches in posting about an individual, little of the same consideration is shown when posting about organizations. The result is that organizations can quickly find themselves in the crosshairs, the targets of hostile and scathing criticisms, with only the smallest of provocations.
Examples of this are widespread and nearly limitless. Virtually every news site allows comments, and–even allowing for editing or deletion of the most rude, indefensible and discourteous posts–what is considered appropriate public discourse is astonishing in its vitriol. Whether criticism of a government program, a company’s services or the launch of a new product, opinions are not lacking. One of the biggest challenges is, amongst all of the noise, gleaning some signal of the true opinions and reactions.
So what does that mean for projects? For the typical project manager, you have to be either awfully brave or hopelessly idealistic about the promise of social media to put your project out in the public eye. And yet, many of our projects have significant public impacts. This is true not only for the public sector, but also for private sector organizations. Whether new construction, an environmental remediation effort, the launch of a new service or the development of a new product, the impacts of many projects spread far and wide.
Imagine a project with a broad stakeholder impact. It could be a new program being developed by a state or provincial government, a new product being designed by a technology company or a new service being considered by a financial institution. The level of consultation that has traditionally been possible has required extensive investments in open houses, focus groups or the issuance and compilation of surveys. Response and participation rates for all of these vehicles are very difficult, and often participation is limited to those who feel most strongly–whether for or against. Those whose opinions are moderate or neutral are seldom heard. But what if consultation could be not just broad, but ongoing?
In a social media-enabled world, project teams have the potential to engage with the stakeholders that will be impacted on a project in a much more comprehensive, meaningful and ongoing way. Consultation no longer has to be limited to one discrete point in a project; it could be continuous and ongoing. Particularly in projects that are complex, novel or with very unclear requirements, if managed correctly there could be an opportunity to engage with stakeholders throughout the project, getting additional input and feedback at regular decision points throughout the project.
Similarly, projects that have significant technical complexity can gain from tapping into a much more broadly held level of expertise. As issues and problems arise, project teams could highlight the roadblocks they are encountering and the options they are seeing. “Crowd-sourcing” of possible solutions allows teams to tap into a much broader range of expertise and experience, at all times of the day and night, literally around the globe.
Equally significant are the potential gains in understanding in the project planning and project management itself. Imagine being able to get input into estimates and timelines. Team could consult on specifications and design options for their projects. Risk assessments and risk management planning could benefit from a far broader level of input and insight.
While the cost of this participation isn’t high in terms of actual outlay, there is still a very real investment–and liability–that needs to be understood and addressed. A caution that guides any form of consultation is, “Don’t ask questions that you do not want the answers to.” While stakeholder consultation can be much more comprehensive, ongoing and granular, there are also potential downsides. The effort of managing the consultation itself takes time and effort. Ongoing consultation and input, while meaningful, is also a recipe for potential ongoing scope change. What stakeholders may want might be tangential–or even counter–to the objectives of the organization in choosing to undertake the project. And asking for input creates expectations that it will be used; the consequences of asking for and then ignoring input can be severe.
At the same time, broad consultation in terms of risk management, issue management or estimation can be problematic or threatening. For all the benefits that a broad potential audience of expertise affords, there is the possibility that the advice or input that is received is wrong…or not relevant, or–at its worst–willfully malicious. Advertising issues may give away competitive positions. Organizations view projects as strategic and proprietary, and as a result don’t want the details out in the public domain. It would be all too easy, and all too tempting, for competitors to plant false or misleading information.
While social media has a lot to offer conceptually, the current capabilities offer as many threats as they do solutions. Many organizations are attempting to harness the benefits by replicating public toolsets internally through instant messaging, networking, document sharing and collaboration sites. Doing so reduces the competitive and social threats that are ever present in the public internet, but they limit input to within the corporate firewall. While the broader world might have something to say about our project, the current risks are too great for many of us to be willing to hear it.