MARKET | May 30, 2017

Social Project Management: the importance of unstructured data

How much should project decisions be reliant on data?

Management choices can and should always be supported by information obtained from the data.
In theory, we all agree, in practice a little less.

How many decisions do we take in our professional and personal life based on feelings and suggestions rather than on data and information? How often do we try to give rational ex-post justifications to choices that we have made based on emotion? We do it every time, when in the face of incontrovertible statistics, we feel safer travelling in a car than an aeroplane. Or when we declare in a project IPC that we are confident that we can recuperate “those 2 weeks delay” on the work plan by “boosting the team with additional resources” (a classic draft note) when instead an in-depth analysis of the KPI of timetables and costs with the Earned Value method would give us a more likely prediction of a further week’s delay on delivery times.

So let me repeat, once again, the mantra of the Data-driven Project Manager:you must first define the metrics you need to keep in mind, then have an efficient project data collection system, then produce information through analytical data processing (Project Management Analytics) and finally use that information to take decisions as Project Managers with an up-to-date aware of the facts.

The application of machine and deep learning techniques will soon support you with the use of artificial intelligence algorithms that will be enable management decisions to be taken on your behalf or even just suggest specific courses of action.

In fact, all this emphasis on the collection of granular and structured project data, or work performance information, and the push to at least partially automate decisions with rule systems or artificial intelligence  bots has only one purpose: to free up some of your time to enable you to concentrate on non-repetitive and difficult-to-automate tasks, in particular communication with stakeholders, via the various channels where this takes place.

According to the PMBOK 5th Edition (Project Management Body of Knowledge, PMI), a Project Manager spends up to 90% of his time communicating with stakeholders and of this up to 50% communicating with the team. There are two consequences resulting from this:

  1. the Project Manager dedicates just 10% of his working day to the management of aspects that are normally considered as core to any project (triple constraint: scope, time, cost)
  2. the majority of the information content produced by a project is made up of unstructured data and information and a substantial slice, that related to face-to-face conversations, is not even traced (except in the minutes produced during official meetings).

So how many project decisions are taken based on what survives as an oral tradition in the stakeholders’ memory? A lot. Probably the majority.

It is always the data and information that drives decisions, but we must leave the secure enclosure of structured data, easily manipulated by machines and algorithms, to embrace a data-driven open minded concept, including all the data and information available within the perimeter without precluding any, even if it is pseudo or unstructured and fragmentary.

Social Project Management

The overwhelming preponderance of unstructured vocal and textual streams within a project is the logical consequence of an evolution in Project Management, determined by two key factors of change.

The first factor is the delocalisation of activities. Project teams are becoming increasingly virtual; distributed across the territory and often in mobile operation. This, on the one hand, tends to increase the “verbal” component of communication flows, specifically conversational and text-based exchanges, both asynchronous (emails, blogs and forums, audio notes via messaging apps like Telegram or WhatsApp) and synchronous (audio and video calls, chat systems). On the other hand, this makes the use of collaborative software platforms indispensable in providing team members with a single point of access to information and project conversations.

The second factor, resulting from the growing adoption of Agile Project Management methods and techniques, is a profound change in the characteristics of the work team, in particular the role of the Project Manager. He/she remains ultimately responsible for results and the achievement of goals, but management activities are increasingly participated and shared; the structure of the team is level and the management style takes on the features of so-called servant leadership. The Agile Project Manager more than being a hierarchical leader is a facilitator who removes obstacles, enabling a team of cross-sectional and partly superimposable professionals to organise themselves independently in the operational management of project tasks.

Agile methods and techniques emphasise informal and “scant or unstructured” communication, multiplying incidents of interaction with and active involvement of stakeholders, through the use of low-tech, high-visibility tools.

Traditionally, the day-by-day project-status view is held within an MS Project file on the Project Manager’s PC and in the slides that are periodically produced for IPC interim progress meetings. In the agile world, a kanban board, such as the one shown on a 1 x 2 metre board attached to the wall or on open-plan panels, acts as an information disseminator for anyone who goes to consult it, instantly showing what has been done, what is in progress, what has yet to be started and what is completed, simply by moving post-it notes.

Where, due to delocalisation and team virtualisation, project participants are not all in the same physical location, the kanban can be in digital form and there are numerous software platforms, almost all cloud-based, which today provide collaborative environments and views of this type.

Fundamentally, a project team is increasingly similar to a community where typical social networking tools and paradigms can be applied to come up with a new project management procedure: Social Project Management.

New Project Management support platforms are already evolving in this direction, borrowing new interface paradigms from social networks. In traditional Project Management tools, the main project view is focused on activities and their scheduling (WBS + Gantt diagram).

In a Social Project Management tool, the main view is a synthetic dashboard that shows the project status using a few key indicators (e.g. traditional CPIs and SPIs calculated using the Earned Value method or perhaps CFD and burndown-charts in agile management contexts) and where the central element is a feed that collects and traces all the vocal and text streams produced by the project, possibly also visible in a controlled manner to other stakeholders.

The aim is to make the majority of those unstructured communication flows, to which each Project Manager devotes most of his energy and time, explicit and visible.

So, is the main project view more or less like a Facebook page? Why not? Do not however say that to those companies that still see social networks just as a time-wasting exercise for bored employees, and have yet to fully explore their business potential.

It is at this stage acknowledged that collaboration with tools that leverage environments and interaction procedures from social platforms is more inspirational for those who work on a project, including the Project Manager, than compiling Excel spreadsheets or any Gantt chart editor.

In the future, applying algorithms, machine learning and data mining techniques to this project feed could make it much more than just a log of conversations and activities, but a type of knowledge base that is constantly updated to support decisions, alongside structured work performance information.

In conclusion…

Structured project data, properly processed, provides an indispensable base for supporting decisions. It is however necessary to look at things from a data-driven open minded perspective, also including unstructured information and content, resulting from communication flows between stakeholders to whom the Project Manager devotes up to 90% of his time.

Modern project management, which is increasingly participatory and collaborative, thanks to the diffusion of agile approaches added to the push for delocalisation and virtualisation of work teams, determines the multiplicity of occasions for interaction with and active involvement of, stakeholders.

Project decisions must continue to be based on data, but these can no longer be limited to the contents of a WBS or a Gantt diagram. They should rather include and consider all feeds and textual and vocal streams produced by the project, according to a Social Project Management paradigm. This entails the progressive evolution of software support tools, which in the future will be increasingly similar to real social platforms, rather than mere project task, time and cost-control applications.

Marco Caressa