The PMI process assumes that the primary purpose of communications is to ensure the project provides relevant, accurate, timely, and consistent project information to all the appropriate project stakeholders. This is a good starting point, but there are other reasons for communicating with our stakeholders. For communication to become purposeful, it is important that these are understood if we are to have any chance of formulating the right communications strategy. Aside from the four communication questions—what, when, who, and how—to truly understand the purpose of communication, we must, of course, ask one further overarching question: Why?
From our interviews with project managers, and the stories they tell us, we have identified six generic communication purposes.
The 6-whys of communications
Communication as information-giving
Most project managers will be familiar with communication as information-giving. This includes regular communication (such as status updates) as well as specific communications (such as project briefing sessions) required by the context of the project and the needs of the stakeholders.
Communication as information-giving must focus on the needs of the audience. These needs are not always apparent, particularly where the aim is simply to keep stakeholders informed. If regular communication becomes routine, then it is likely that its usefulness will reduce over time. Reviewing and re-checking the effectiveness of communication is always an important part of the communication process.
Communication as information-seeking
In information-seeking, the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘how’ questions are critical. Who should we be speaking to about what, and most importantly, who has the authority and expertise to answer the questions. This demands an excellent understanding of the stakeholders’ sources of power and careful thought on how to categorize and group stakeholders for the consultation process.
Communication as coordination
Projects must at all times ensure that members of the project are aware of what their role is and what is expected of them regarding decisions and actions. There are certain circumstances that arise in a project which results in the need for ultra-high levels of communication to ensure that actions and decisions are coordinated, for example:
- In very tightly time-bound projects
- In projects which have complex team structures, multiple suppliers, virtual teams, teams with little experience of working together
- During the intense activity parts of the life cycle such as transfer-to-operations.
Communication as marketing
Communication as marketing is not designed to create actions or to sell a specific solution, but to promote the project. Here the important questions are around what can we do that is likely to be well-received by those stakeholders that matter, and how will this support the long-term positive reception of the project and its outcomes?
Most projects benefit from positive positioning. However, in some projects, the power of certain stakeholder groups to influence the perceived success of the project demands more than normal attention.
Communication as persuasion
‘Communication as persuasion’ attempts to change the positions of stakeholders and align them with the aims of the project. In these projects, the resistance to the change is often high, and the agendas of the different stakeholder groups varied. Neither marketing nor ‘communication to inspire action’ is sufficient.
Changing people’s positions is not easy. The vision—where we need to get to—must be clearly defined and communicated, but that is not enough. The project must mount a sustained campaign designed to change the positions of stakeholder. If sufficient positive energy towards the project is not created, the project is likely to fail.
Communication to inspire action
Sometimes, communication is not about coordinating stakeholder action, but about inspiring stakeholders to take action of their own accord. This kind of communication is almost always about capturing hearts and minds—the mobilization and alignment of stakeholders with the achievement of the project outcomes. One of the key questions here is who is the right person, who is best positioned to influence and inspire action?