New Tools, Same Problems on IT Projects

Collaborative applications can vastly improve project management. So why don't they?

Collaborative tools such as Microsoft’s SharePoint hold enormous promise on all sorts of IT projects. Wikis and their ilk contain amazing features. Going back a few years to the pre-SharePoint era, I can remember using different intranet sites to do the following:

  • Facilitate document sharing and updating
  • Improve communication among team members
  • Rid the organization of its dependency on e-mail

Collectively, these collaborative tools can improve project management better than stalwarts like Microsoft Project.

Through their successful and consistent usage, the organization can improve its chances of achieving its goal: a smoothly run project.

Theory vs. Practice

Sounds good in theory, right? Unfortunately, many times the promise of these tools is far greater than their actual benefits. (This is also true of Enterprise 2.0 in general.)

But why is this the case? I’d offer two simple and related reasons. First, collaborative tools are only as good as the people who use them, major point in Message Not Received. Second, old habits (read: e-mail) die hard.

E-mail may be the Internet’s first killer app. That’s certainly true in the business world, as project-related messages convey important information about tasks, dates, and news. From a collaborative standpoint, though, there are a few major problems with e-mail:

  • E-mails can easily make the content on a wiki dated or even irrelevant
  • E-mails tend to be much less easier to find and search than content posted on wikis
  • People constantly forget to copy others on e-mail
  • Most e-mails are downloaded to individual PCs, making them suboptimal for future reference

Collaborative tools are only as good as the people who use them.

To be certain, wikis will never obviate the need for e-mails. What’s more, not every piece of information on a project should be posted on a wiki. “Hey Vince, didn’t you think that Nikki sounded like an idiot during the meeting today?” However, e-mails should constantly reference collaborative sites to reinforce the notion that the wiki governs the project, not 100 disparate e-mails.

Simon Says: Embrace collaborative tools.

Organizations should take the following steps to ensure the optimal use of collaborative tools:

  • Start at the top. The PM or project leader sets the tone for the entire group. It’s hard to expect individual end-users to move from e-mails to wikis when the PM doesn’t lead by example. This type of leadership also includes making gentle suggestions to those who rely on e-mail or—perish the thought—don’t update their documents anywhere.
  • Hold team members accountable for updates on wikis. Individual end-users must use collaborative tools consistently throughout the project. This goes beyond updating their own availability or progress. If the organization uses SharePoint, for example, then it needs to be the epicenter of the project. Unless the material is confidential or politically sensitive, all project plans, test scripts, requirements, and training materials need to go on the wiki. Period.
  • Cross-reference wikis in e-mails. Today, many people now routinely read e-mail via BlackBerrys, iPhones, and other mobile devices. This isn’t changing anytime soon. To that extent, expecting everyone to abandon e-mail simply is folly. However, e-mails should contain URLs to the same content on wikis. Doing so will help minimize conflicting or missing information.

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3 Comments

  1. John Henley

    As you imply, email is ubiquitious, which is why it’s still the de facto collaboration tool. For instance, since I bounce around amongst various clients, I’m not connected to their sites in a lot of cases, and can’t keep my documents updated on their wiki/shared sites. But I can send the project team an email with attachments. It’s really a losing battle, assuming they keep the sites within their private network. We will likely see some progress with cloud-based sites, like Google Apps and Central Desktop, but those are hard to adopt for most organizations, and open up a ton of security and privacy questions.

    Reply
  2. Phil Simon

    Good points, John. I suppose that I’m holding clients up to a higher standard. As consultants, we absolutely bounce around, not that we should be held to a different standard. I just expect more from those who don’t bounce as much.

    Reply
  3. Martin Wildam

    EMail is for messages of temporary interest. I think this is the core issue that many are not aware of.

    Every information that is business related or of longer interest than until next week should go into the appropriate location – whether it is a Wiki, DMS/ECM, Forum or whatever (a Wiki is also not the all-in-one system suitable for every purpose).

    In general I notice that there were better times. Nowadays in nearly every company there are multiple systems containing information: At least one Wiki, one Forum, some CMS or/and DMS, file shares and so on.

    In these days it is important to specify what information should go where. Under the hype word “ECM” people try to have one single container where they can drop everyting into. I think this can be dangerous because some end up with a big pot of everything and nobody knows what stuff is in there because nobody wants to maintain meta information either.

    I think the best way is to have one Wiki, one Forum and one DMS/ECM like system and there must be a simple and clear spec what should go where. All the DMS and ECM systems I have seen lately do lack drastically in either the Wiki, Forum or DMS features, so I don’t think there is a good all-in-one product available yet.

    Reply

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