Program Communications In the World of Global, Virtual Teams

January 31, 2011 – 5:55 pm by Carolyn McDonald

The challenging economic climate has forced corporations serving the global marketplace to be more frugal. Advances in technology, such as the connected network and readily available web meetings, have increased the popularity of cutting costs by staffing programs with global, virtual project teams. However, as the distance between program team members and their stakeholders increases, communications can easily break down and put the ability of the program to deliver at risk.

This article looks as common virtual team challenges and provides program communications guidelines and best practices.

Global, Virtual Team Challenges

In addition to the inherent challenges a program faces in keeping multiple projects on target to deliver their respective business capabilities, virtual teams add the following additional challenges to program communications:

  • Time zone / Geographical Differences – Global programs with teams working across multiple continents present a challenge to PMOs in establishing the schedule of regular program meetings necessary to drive issue resolution and decision making. The PMO has to compete for time slots that fit a narrow window of overlap in the business day between teams on opposite sides of the globe with their own set of governance meetings. PMO burnout can occur when days stretch from early morning to late evening to accommodate time zone differences.
  • Team Cohesiveness – While geographical diversity within a program team ensures that regional needs are considered in program scope, team members who only talk by phone or web meeting have difficulty developing relationships and bonding with each other.
  • Cultural and Language Differences – Global teams also have to be sensitive to language usage and other cultural differences that can increase the difficulty of resolving issues that crop up – especially when the discussion has to be held via web conference instead of in person.

What Is Program Communications?

Before we look at how program communications can address the challenges of the global, virtual team, let us establish the definition of program communications for the purpose of this discussion:

Program Communications is a structured approach of “communicating” with every stakeholder group associated with a project, regardless of location, giving them a clear understanding of scope, status, issues, progress, direction and expectations, as it relates to them.

Why Program Communications Is Essential to Program Success

Effective program communications are needed across the full lifecycle of any program and contribute to success in the following ways:

  • Sustaining Executive Sponsorship – While there may be quick wins along the program journey to delivering new business capabilities, competing priorities and ever-changing context (client competition, the economy, corporate priorities, etc.) make it easy for busy executives to lose sight of the program objectives. 
  • Expectation Management – Frequent and targeted communications keep stakeholders apprised of program progress and help foster adoption and acceptance of the change the program seeks to implement
  • Program Alignment – Program communications help to maintain continued focus on program objectives and deliverables by providing the right information, at the appropriate level of detail, so that the program director and sponsors can make timely and informed decisions. This also fosters consistent messaging to all stakeholders.
  • Status and Issues Visibility – Program communications provide sponsors and steering committee executives with timely information regarding program progress and relevant issues. These communications can also facilitate sharing and discussion of critical program information (i.e. schedule, issues, risks, resources, financials) downward to the program tracks or participant project teams as well as upward to executive sponsors
  • Leadership and Motivation – Program communications can educate, motivate and promote sponsorship and team work. With globally distributed teams, communications become more important in motivating teams, particularly if the program has a long delivery roadmap.

Who should we communicate to?

There are several different stakeholder groups around any program, each with the ability to influence program direction, or whom program outcomes will ultimately impact:

  • Executive Sponsors
  • Influencing Executives
  • Resisters
  • Indirect Stakeholders
  • Adopters of Change
  • Program Members

What needs to be communicated?

The range of Program Communications includes the following:

  • Program objectives and scope
  • Benefits and end result
  • Roadmap / plan and key milestones
  • Progress and achievements
  • Management issues and risks
  • Changes / impacts and new / enhanced business capabilities

However, the specific content for different program communications may not always contain all of the above in a single message. Depending on the audience, program communications may be a combination of one or more of the above items where the message to each stakeholder will involve different emphasis and levels of detail.

For example, for each of the stakeholders on the client side, the focus of program communications will be:

  • Executive Sponsors – Communications should focus on high-level summary of progress, achievements, and benefits, (framed as revenue increase, cost savings or other measurable metrics and what they mean to the business)
  • Influencing Executives – This audience will want less detail, but should receive communications with more emphasis on achievements and benefits, enough to keep them informed.
  • Resisters – Program communications to this audience need to address their objections by emphasizing achievements and benefits in language they understand with a focus on the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me).
  • Program Director – Cares about program progress with an emphasis on issue and risk management, dependencies across tracks and across stakeholder groups
  • Program Members – Often overlooked, communications to the project teams within the program can contribute greatly to team satisfaction and overall team cohesiveness. Messages to this audience should focus on:
    • Big picture of entire program progress
    • Where they fit in the big picture and recognition of their contribution to the program’s overall progress
  • Adopters of Change – Program communications should explain how the change will affect them practically (e.g. what they will do differently, what behavior must change), why it is necessary, and the benefits. Also give them plenty of time to adjust to the coming change.

How Can We Best Manage Program Communications?

Develop a Communications Plan

First and foremost, every program should have a communications plan. The plan must consider all the stakeholder groups and different levels of detail as discussed above. Use available templates and tools to develop the plan. A typical program communications plan will include:

  • Key Messages – Summarizes key theme or content of the messages
  • Audience – Identifies which stakeholders (internal and external) should receive the messages
  • Timing – When should the program deliver the message
  • Frequency – Is the message an on-going recurring item, or a one-time event?
  • Medium – Indicates the message delivery vehicle: email, voicemail, presentation, web site, meetings. Consider audience or client preferences. For example, use a wiki site to post broad-based communications that must reach a large audience.
  • Owner – Indicates who is responsible for ensuring proper message content and delivery
  • Messenger – Person who should deliver the message
  • Localizaton – With programs impacting geographically dispersed audiences, you may need to factor in time for local communications teams to translate messages prior to delivery to their stakeholders

Establish a Feedback Mechanism

Determine how the program plans to measure the effectiveness of the communication, such as direct contact, survey, focus group, etc. Also provide an automated means for program stakeholders to provide feedback and suggestions. Programs frequently set up an email alias which the PMO monitors to respond to inquiries. Avoid excessive administrative overhead of such program feedback by directing stakeholders to a program wiki site which houses key program information (status dashboard, timeline, overview, frequently asked questions, access to training documents or job aids, etc.).

Program Communication Best Practices

  • Identify Key Stakeholders Early – Identify sponsors, influencers, and resisters at an early stage of project and manage their expectations. Never assume you have all the impacted stakeholders strictly on the basis of high level scope or program charter documents. The list of impacted stakeholders may expand and evolve as the change management team completes impact assessments. It is better to start with a larger cross section of business capabilities, business processes, organizations, as well as geographical groups impacted and narrow it down as scope is finalized, than to miss stakeholder groups and find a major pocket of resistors with undetected “show stoppers” close to a major release.
  • Involve, Not Inform  – A common mistake is to focus strictly on informing stakeholders of status, issue resolution, or key decisions. When appropriate, involve others in the resolution as well as in determining what content needs to be communicated to their audiences. (This is where change ambassadors and a change network can be very useful to the PMO). Be sure to include both an “outside in” (e.g. voice of customer, field, etc.) as well as “inside out” viewpoint to communications. Involving impacted stakeholders promotes ownership of the program and makes them feel like a necessary part of the program.
  • Use Trusted Messengers – The messengers of program communications should be persons in the client organization whom the impacted audiences trust and respect. The trusted messenger lends credibility to the message. In global environments, you may need to plan for localization of the messages and delivery from a trusted messenger for impacted geographies.
  • Ensure Consistent Messages – Inconsistent messaging not only confuses the target audiences but can also cause the program to lose credibility with the organization. Directing people to a program wiki site can assist in delivery of a consistent message.
  • “Pull” is better than “Push”’ – Provide information which audience wants, not just what you want to tell them, and make it readily available where people can consume the communication content when they want or need it (pull) versus strictly employing an outward only (push) approach. Many busy client managers and executives experience daily information overload, and too much information can lead to recipient confusion and irritation. Balance the message delivery vehicle, frequency, size and level of detail with the audience needs and criticality of the message content.
  • Repeat Messages and Vary Mechanisms – People often need to hear a message 2 to 3 times before they understand it. In addition, some people understand a message better in written form, while others comprehend more easily when they see the message as a graph or picture. In the global program and / or virtual team environment, Video on Demand (VoD) is an excellent way to use a trusted messenger to effectively get the word out. Back up a short VoD with a brief email communication which can then direct the audience to the program wiki site for further detail. In the case of large scale change or critical communications, employ traditional vehicles like town hall meetings supported by webcasts or telepresence to reach a global, virtual program team and stakeholders.
  • Plan Communications – Successful communication does not happen by accident. Fail to plan, and you plan to fail. Build, then execute a comprehensive program communications plan. This will increases the likelihood of success, and also provide a means to build audience adoption over time.

So What’s the Bottom Line?

  • Often ignored or underestimated, Program Communications is a critical aspect of Program Management
  • For large programs of 20 plus members, the stakeholder groups and outcomes are usually large – therefore, have a communications lead
  • As a program manager, oversee the creation of a clear, effective communications plan and the delivery of communications
  • With today’s globally distributed, virtual program teams and cross-functional and interdependent stakeholder groups, leverage technology like video, wikis, web sites, telepresence, and webinars in conjunction with the traditional program communication tools of email, newsletters, and face-to-face meetings, to deliver the message.
  1. One Response to “Program Communications In the World of Global, Virtual Teams”

  2. Carolyn, Hi! I just noticed I had a typo in my link… Here’s my comment again…

    Carolyn, Nice Article. I especially like the recognition of the role the Executive Sponsor plays to the success. If you would like to learn more about how we help organizations set up an Executive Sponsor Program, please visit our website at http://www.geehangroup.com/services/executive-sponsor.com

    By Karen Posey on Feb 11, 2011

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