(Excerpt from my latest book)
Understanding is a topic in epistemology which is the study of knowledge. Don’t worry; I will keep the philosophy brief and to the point. Even though the study of knowledge is ancient, the study of understanding is relatively new (just like the study of project management communication). According to philosophers, there three main ways of understanding.
There is know-what in which I have an understanding of some concept, physical object, or process. For example, I know what a work-breakdown-structure (WBS) is in the sense of it being a tool in project management. I may have a simple understanding of what a WBS is because I recognize a WBS when I see it. Or my know-what may be that I know WBS exist but, that is all I know. In contrast, I may thoroughly understand WBS including the history of the concept. Know-what is often the first step in creating understanding.
When I can construct a WBS, I have know-how. As you can see, know-how is more involved than know-what. For me to have know-how, I must possess these six attributes:
1. Ability to follow the explanation of the concept, physical object, or process.
2. Ability to explain the concept, physical object, or process.
3. Ability to draw conclusions from the concept, physical object, or process.
4. Ability to conclude opposing conclusions from the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.
5. Ability to conclude the correct ideas when given the concept, physical object, or process.
6. Ability to conclude the correct opposite ideas when given the opposite of the concept, physical object, or process.
The third way of understanding is know-why. You may know what a WBS is and how to construct the WBS. However, your understanding is incomplete if you don’t know why you need to use a WBS. Know-why may seem the same as know-what, but there is a significant difference. For example, I may be an expert on Monte Carlo simulations in risk management. I can explain the concept and even create a spreadsheet that uses Monte Carlo simulations for risk management. However, I may not be able to explain why you need a Monte Carlo simulation in your project. I just want to use a Monte Carlo simulation in your simple weekend project to build a deck just because I like building Monte Carlo simulations. I know-what and I know-how but I don’t know-why we shouldn’t use the Monte Carlo simulation in your particular project.
It is unnecessary to have three ways of understanding to be effective. For example, your senior sponsor may only need to know why your project needs a risk register but, has only a partial understanding of what a risk register is. The senior sponsor doesn’t need to understand how to create a risk register. And the senior sponsor needs only a cursory understanding of why a risk register is needed. Just enough know-what and know-why to reassure the sponsor that the project’s chances for success will increase if you use a risk register.
An important decision for a communicator is to determine the level of understanding that his or her audience needs for successful communication. That is why communication is more than information transfer. The communicator and the receiver must use feedback to determine how the message was received and if the communicator created the intended level of understanding in the receiver for the communication to succeed.
Around the early 1980s, communication theory transitioned from the “information transmission” paradigm to the “linguistic turn.” In organizational communication, the “communicative constitution of organization” (CCO) perspective arose to explain how organizations continually reinvent themselves through communication. CCO scholars argue that organizations are created as members use language and texts to co-create the organization’s social reality.
Using the CCO perspective, scholars and practitioners can understand how organizations are formed, why organizations behave in certain ways, and how the organization will evolve. CCO is a relatively new field and still has many questions such as exactly how communication constitutes organization and the mechanisms that members use to create the shared organizational reality.
While researching CCO, I realized that the same concepts that helped communication to create organizations could also help create projects. Organizational theory and project management share much in common. Both organizations and projects deal with aligning people, processes, and tasks around a common vision to achieve goals. Organizations and projects primarily use communication to coordinate activities and members.
A major difference between projects and organizations is that projects have a defined end while organizations can theoretically last indefinitely. According to the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM), people use communication to create a shared reality. CMM and CCO share much in common, especially how organizational reality is created by the organizational members’ interactions. The same tools in CMM can be used to understand how people in projects create a shared reality despite the limited lifespan of projects. In fact, the project realities could be subcomponents of the organization’s overall communication reality.
In future postings, I will examine how communication constitutes projects (CCP) in light of CCO and CMM. CCO and CMM have much to offer the field of project management including better ways to manage project management communication.
In the last three years, I have undertaken an intensive study of project management communication as it is portrayed in academic research. Using two complementary research methods, deductive qualitative analysis and qualitative content analysis, I examined 272 journal articles published between 1970 and 2016 to determine how academic researchers defined and investigated project management communication.
I found that many researchers conceived of project management communication as "information transfer" (the "transmission model"). The transmission model was and is still the dominant perspective. However, since 2010, there have arisen new project management communication models that build upon the transmission model by adding the emergent dimension of understanding (the "emergent model").
In the research, my research partner and I have demonstrated how deductive qualitative analysis paired with qualitative content analysis can cast new light on the academic research into project management communication that indicates how the evolution of project management can influence the evolution of communication practices in managing projects. It is our hope that our research will inform and benefit both the project management academics and practitioners.
Our next research project is to study practitioner-initiated research into project management communication. We hypothesize that practitioners will have adopted the emergent model of project management communication to help them to better manage today's projects.
"What does research reveal about how project managers can communicate with their teams more effectively?" My latest work is a feature article in The Public Manager.
One-hundred and forty-one years ago, a charismatic but, vain leader made a bad decision that cost him his life and (almost) all the lives of the people who served under him. General Armstrong Custer decided to fight a force of 2,500+ Indian warriors with only 210 men under his command. John Hollon, well-known HR guru, has argued that we should memorialize June 25th as a cautionary warning of the perils of bad management.
What made Custer's decision so wrong? According to Hollon, five factors:
Personally, I am not sure that the fifth factor wasn't just a natural result of the first four factors. Even so, when I've seen projects go off track and even ultimately fail, I bet you could trace one or more reasons back to one or more these factors.
As a project manager, take time on Saturday to reflect on Custer's Last Stand and think of how you can prevent your current project from being your last stand.