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Communications Plan Structure

A project communications plan must be structured. It must include several elements that need to interact with each other, and it must provide information to all affected users. It should contain the following elements:

  • Audience identification
  • Division of the plan into project phases
  • Communications plan objectives
  • Message structure
  • Message delivery times
  • Message delivery mechanisms
  • Communications plan delivery rules
  • A communications team
  • A sample communications plan

Sidebar Image 1

This image illustrates the structure of a project communications plan.

These elements are described in the sections that follow.

Audience Identification

The first objective of a project communications plan is to identify its audiences. Different audiences require different messages, and different messages require different delivery mechanisms. The project scope will also have an impact on audiences and delivery mechanisms. It is important for the communications planning team to quickly develop a sound understanding of the project's content, its objectives, and the user base it will affect.

For example, a Windows 2000/XP deployment on both servers and PCs will affect everyone in the enterprise, but its specific audiences would include the following:

  • Project sponsor

  • Project director

  • Project manager

  • IT project team, including

    • Technicians/integrators

    • Administrators for systems, security, performance, printers, inventories, data, and communications

    • User/problem support

    • System developers

    • Planners

    • Architects

    • Software owners

  • Human resources and communications personnel, including

    • Team leader

    • Trainers

    • Team communications coordinator

    • Message delivery personnel

  • Localized teams,1 including

    • Localized developers

    • Trainers

    • Local support personnel

    • Local technicians

  • Team action owners

  • End users

Audiences also include committees because committees regroup audience representatives. In fact, committees provide a multiplication factor for the communications process, enabling message delivery personnel to deliver their message once to key representatives who in turn can rebroadcast it to other members of the organization.

Committees should include

  • Management: Key representatives of management at all levels of the organization should be included in this committee. It may be necessary to create two management committees, one for upper management and one for middle management, depending on the size of the organization.

  • Training coordinators: Large organizations often tend to perform training internally. In these cases, they will require a committee of training coordinators. More on this subject is covered in Chapter 9.

  • Technical staff: A change such as a move to Windows 2000 or Windows XP directly affects technical personnel. They should definitely be a targeted audience.

  • Change management: This committee is made of key representatives of the user base at all levels. This committee should include personnel that play each of the different IT roles in the organization.

  • Union representatives: If your organization includes unions, you should ensure that all changes that will affect the way people work within the organization are communicated to official union representatives.

Change Management Committee

Identification of the members of the change management committee can be performed in two ways.

  • First, this committee should include representatives of each one of the IT roles identified during role categorization (see Chapter 5).

  • Second, the committee should include representatives from each of the key job functions identified in the organization. These should include management, administrative assistance, technical personnel, production personnel, and so on.

This committee is the one with which you sound out all of your solutions. It must be representative of the organization.

The communications plan should reach each and every one of the audiences in the preceding list. The same message should be broadcast to each audience with variations on audience requirements. For example, management will be interested in budgets and deadlines as well as operation disruptions, while end users will be interested in changes that affect them personally.

The Project Introduction Guide

One of the first objectives of the communications team is to create a project introduction manual. Such a manual is often the most overlooked facet of communications in any project. Yet, if the project has a scope of several months or even years, such as would be the case for the deployment of Windows 2000/XP in medium to large organizations, it is certain that team members will change during the course of the project.

Participating in Meetings

One of the first messages you must deliver to any committee member, especially if he or she has never participated in such a process before, is that the member must express his or her opinion. There is no point in including people in a committee if they do not express themselves, even if they think what they have to say may not be appropriate. Sometimes the best project ideas come from the most incongruous sources.

It is thus essential for the project to have a special introductory process for new team members. This process should be supplemented with a project introduction guide. The guide should include

  • Initial project presentations
  • Project scope manual
  • Project status report
  • Project organization chart
  • Contact list for team members
  • Team member roles and responsibilities
  • Specific team member activity list

An introductory process for each new team member should support this manual. This process alone will save considerable time and expense for the project and will ensure that team members know precisely what their responsibilities are as soon as they become members of the project.

Dividing the Plan into Project Phases

Because the purpose of a project communications plan is to provide information to all audiences during all phases of the project, the best way to attack the project is to divide it into the same phases as the project itself.

Once again, this means using the QUOTE System for the communications plan. The plan will be divided into five phases:

  • Question: This is the planning phase for the project. Communications must focus on planning activities and begin preparing the user base for the changes to come.

  • Understand: This is the preparation phase. In this phase, the initial solutions are tested and prepared for the rollout. Communications must focus on preparation activities while continuing to identify benefits to users.

  • Organize: This is the pilot phase. This may well include a pre-pilot program or a proof of concept. Then it follows with the pilot project itself. A pilot is defined as a complete delivery to a limited group of users who represent as many aspects of the organization's diverse user population as possible. At the end of the pilot, participants provide their comments on the overall delivery process. Communications must begin direct activities with users and communicate to users any positive comments provided by pilot participants.

  • Transfer: This is the massive deployment phase. In this phase, the repetitive delivery of the solution begins and moves into full production. Communications must focus on the rate of delivery, project advances, and status updates. Any positive comments from users and managers must be communicated to the user base.

  • Evaluate: The evaluation process begins during the massive deployment and continues after deployment is complete. Communications must focus on project status, relationship to project milestones and objectives, and overall project performance. In addition, a project review must be completed and its results communicated to all interested parties.

The communications content of each phase is described in more detail in the last section of this chapter.

Defining Clear Objectives for the Plan

First and foremost, the communications team needs to define the objectives of the communications plan. Just like the project plan, the communications plan has a purpose that must be clearly defined and must meet specific goals.

The Five W's of Communication

When designing communications plans, remember the five W's.

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • HoW
  • Why

If you ensure that your plan and its messages answer these five questions, you will have a sound communications program.

Examples of the objectives of a project communications plan include the following:

  • Communicate information between the teams within the project.

  • Communicate information between members of the internal project teams and associated organizational teams.

  • Inform the affected user base with the proper message at the right time.

  • Minimize impacts on the user base.

  • Ensure the harmonious deployment of the new tools associated with the project.

  • Minimize impacts on business operations (communicate with partners, clients, and other external audiences if required).

Each project will have its own specific objectives. When you design the objectives of your communications plan, remember that the plan's goal first and foremost is to perform change management and minimize the impacts of change.

Message Structure

Communication is performed through messages. Each message must meet one of the plan's specific objectives. To facilitate the communications process, each message must be structured in a similar fashion by the communications team. This will greatly assist the team in the preparation of the specific content of the message. It will also facilitate interpretation of the message by its readers.

Messages should be structured in the following manner:

  • Identification of the phase of the project

  • Goal of the message

  • Generic content of the message (summary)

  • Identification of the specific audiences for the message

  • Flowchart demonstrating the message source and the delivery times to specific audiences

  • Message timing (when to start the communications process for this message, which audience is targeted first, which is second, and so on)

  • Delivery mechanism for the message for each audience

  • Specific content of the message for each audience

  • Additional comments about the message

Being Heard

In large organizations, people are sometimes swamped with information. In this type of situation, how can you get them to hear your message among the myriad messages they receive each day?

Structure is important: A good logo and a well-designed message go a long way toward distinguishing your message from the masses. Also, a powerful communicator who knows how to direct readers' eyes toward your message and capture their interest is definitely a plus. It also helps if your communicator is familiar with the audience; thus there is an argument for an internal person to play the role.

In fact, it is a good idea for the communications team to create a message boilerplate they can reuse each time a message must be delivered. This boilerplate provides an underlying structure to the process of managing the impact of change within the organization.

Message Delivery Timings

Communication is a flow of information from one person or group to another. In large organizations, communications teams will have to use multiplication agents—project team members who carry messages to other audiences within the organization. In this case, proper identification of the flow of a message becomes crucial. This is why messages must be divided into delivery timings.

Delivery timings help communicators identify when the message process begins, who its initiator is, who the audience is, and who performs the delivery of the message to this audience.

Figure 8.4 illustrates the use of timings in a flowchart demonstrating message flows.

The notion of timings (1, 2, 3, 4, and so on) helps create a generic communications plan. This enables organizations to create a specific communications project plan with specific dates as they are defined by the overall project. The organization has two tools to define specific dates for the communications plan: the project phase and the message timings. Each tool can be tied to specific phases of the project itself.

Communications Plan Delivery Rules

The communications plan operates according to a given set of rules and guidelines that affect both the general and the specific operation of the communications plan. Communication timings and message flows are illustrated in Figure 8.4.

FIGURE 8.4 Message Timings. This diagram illustrates the communications process for an IT project. Every communications event must follow this process. Every communication within this diagram is bidirectional. Dotted arrows indicate that the audiences (project sponsor and team action owners) are not always involved in the process.

General Rules

  • A communications initiator is defined as a person or a group that has information to broadcast. For example, architects are initiators of the information on the operating system and application configurations, technicians initiate information regarding staging approaches, trainers cover the training strategy, and so on.

  • Information that is to be broadcast must cover project activities, plans, approaches, and any other items that will impact either the project or a specific group. This includes information that may be of a technical, budgetary, operational, or temporal nature, especially if it can impact the project as a whole.

  • The broadcast agent is responsible for delivering the message. There may be several broadcast agents. For example, for technical committees, the broadcast agent should be someone from IT; for management groups, the agent must be a manager; for users, the agent should be a trainer or someone from human resources; and so on.

  • The communications agent is the person who receives messages from the communications initiators. This agent is the center of the communications system. He or she is in a direct relationship with the project manager. The agent can call upon assistance from the IT, human resources, or communications department to broadcast messages. He or she is in direct relationship with all broadcast agents.

  • The communications plan should identify the scope of the audience for each message. The general message delivery flows are illustrated in Figure 8.4, but this does not mean that every message covers all audiences. For example, during the preparation phase, it is not necessary to communicate the specific status of the project to users because they still have months to go before they are directly impacted.

  • Message content is modified for each audience. Generic message content must be the same for everyone, but specific message content will vary according to audience. For example, managers will want information that is pertinent to their operations and budgets, while users will want information that is pertinent to their own personal situations.

  • Unexpected messages must still follow the generic communications process. It will be the communications agent's responsibility to identify specific audiences for these messages.

  • Each committee is composed of information relaters. Committee members are responsible for relaying information to their own specific groups. They assist the communications agent by providing a multiplication factor.

Operational Rules

  • The communications agent is always the first point of interaction—the point of entry for all messages.

  • The project manager is always the second point of interaction. The communications agent must always discuss upcoming messages with the project manager.

  • The project director is always the third point of interaction. The project manager must always keep the project director abreast of the messages to be broadcast and the status of the project. It is at this stage that the project director will identify if the project sponsor is to be involved in the message.

  • The project sponsor is always the fourth point of interaction. The project director must communicate with the project sponsor on an as-needed basis during the course of the project. If this communication is necessary, it should be at the fourth point of interaction.

  • The project team is always the fifth point of interaction. The project manager must communicate the message to them, especially if they are required to take action on the message.

  • Team action owners are always the sixth point of interaction if direct action is required by the nature of the message. Team leaders manage these communications.

  • Message delivery agents are always the seventh point of interaction. The communications agent is responsible for coordinating message delivery with these agents.

  • Management committees are always the eighth point of interaction. The project director is often responsible for this message delivery with the assistance of the communications agent and/or the project manager.

  • Other committees are always the ninth point of interaction. The communications team is responsible for this delivery.

  • Users are always the final point of interaction. Once again, the communications team is responsible for message delivery.

The Communications Team

The communications team is composed of two types of personnel: the communications agent and message delivery personnel.

The Communications Agent

The communications agent is responsible for all communications activities within the project. This person is a journalist, a reporter who must search for and identify the nature of each message. Ideally, this agent is a member of the communications department specifically assigned to project-support activities.

This agent uses a communications plan to identify message delivery timings, specific message content, and information sources, as well as targeted audiences to simplify and assist the change management process.

This agent must work in close relationship with the project manager.

Message Delivery Personnel

Message delivery personnel are responsible for the specific delivery of a message and the means of delivery. They work in close relationship with the communications agent to prepare each message before delivery. Depending on the size of the project, a delivery agent may sometimes actually be the communications agent, but in larger projects, delivery personnel or agents are communications relaters that have a particular affinity to their audience.

For example, the project manager is the relater to the project team, the project director is the relater to the management committee, team leaders are the relaters to their team members, and so on.

Each message will have a specific delivery mechanism that is often related to message type and content.

Message Delivery Mechanisms

Organizations have several delivery mechanisms available to them. Each of these falls into one of three categories.

  • Paper-based mechanisms: Bulletins, newsletters, posters, and so on.

  • Electronic mechanisms: E-mail, presentations, the intranet, bulletin boards, and so on.

  • Word of mouth: The importance of this factor in communications cannot be overlooked.

What is important to keep in mind is that each mechanism has its own purpose. For example, e-mail is often used to deliver short messages to large audiences. Bulletins are used to deliver messages that may take some time for the audience to absorb—a paper format requires the audience to take the time to stop what they are doing, pick up the paper bulletin, and give it more attention than they would a simple e-mail. Posters are used to foster anticipation, especially if their message is designed to "shock" the audience.

Poster Example

Posters are a very powerful way to create anticipation, especially if your project aims to repair long-term problems that users may have had to face.

For example, in a situation where users had little or no stability, you might create a poster with the following message: "Zero percent downtime! That's our goal. Believe it!"

There is no doubt that this message will get people talking about your project. Though their reactions may not always be positive, people will be anxious to see if you live up to your message.

Think about message content before you decide which delivery mechanism to use (see Figure 8.5).

FIGURE 8.5 Message Delivery Interactions. Communications mechanisms support the communications process. Different messages need to be delivered during different phases of the QUOTE System.

The Intranet

The intranet has a special place within the delivery mechanisms. As we are all learning through the use of the Internet, a well-designed Web site can provide a world of information to users. So can an advanced e-mail system. Both are used to support the intranet project site.

Microsoft Project Central

In addition to being a very strong project management tool, Microsoft Project 2000 enables you to link everything and everyone through your company intranet. Remember to save a special place on the intranet site for your very own Project Central.

An intranet project site can include several different types of information such as

  • The purpose of the project

  • A layperson's description of the project objectives

  • What the project proposes to change

    • At the user level

    • At the functional level

    • Tools to be changed

    • Other affected areas such as IT management and administration

  • Training and deployment information, including

    • Deployment phases

    • Content of the training program

    • Deployment and training calendars

  • Preparatory information

    • What users need to do beforehand

    • Time frames describing when the project team will contact them

  • A project "goodwill" section

    • Chronicles describing a typical user experience

    • Comments and acclaims by users, managers, and IT personnel

    • Project performance and achievements

    Project Goodwill Messages

    It is important for a project to generate goodwill toward the changes it brings. A special element of the communications program must focus on this goodwill. Milestones such as "1,000 users served!", personal commentaries by users and others that have already been through the program, and a clear description of what people can expect will go a long way toward fostering positive change management.

  • Project frequently asked questions (FAQs)

  • Tips and tricks for the use of the new products

  • Project contact area

    • Identification of all user representatives including descriptions of their roles within the project

    • Identification of key project personnel

    • Help line for the project

    • Additional information sources

  • Finally, as the project advances, use the intranet site to cater to specific audiences. To do this, you will need to apply specific security settings to each area because the messages they contain are for a certain audience's eyes only. These areas could include

    • Project management and administration information (Microsoft Project Central)

    • Committee communications, such as PowerPoint presentations2

    • Special groups and/or committee exchange areas

  • A project glossary to enable everyone to establish a common vocabulary

The intranet is a new communications tool that can provide valuable assistance during the change management process. Make sure you use it as thoroughly as you can.

Information Sources

All of the messages that you need to deliver during the project communications program must originate somewhere. Following is a list of sources that most any project will require.

  • Project deliverables, including

    • Current situation review

    • Needs analysis and problem identification

    • Project scoping document

    • Project organization manual

    • Project plan

    • Architectural objectives and guidelines

    • Global Architecture

    • Technical configuration documents

    • Security architecture

    • Transition and change management strategies

    • Laboratory and testing strategies

    • Deployment plan

    • Deployment calendar

    • Training and support plan

    • User needs analysis results3

    • User activity guides

    • Application testing and compatibility lists including conversion programs for application replacements

    • Risk management approaches

    • External information sources, such as

    • Manufacturer's information sources

    • Industry best practices

    • Industry evaluations of the products

    • Consulting firm analyses (from Gartner Group, Giga Information Group, META Group, and so on)

    • Commercial training guides

    • Related books and other technical papers

These information sources will assist communicators in putting together the messages required during the different phases of the project. They will also greatly assist in the evaluation of the impact of the change on the organization and the identification of the approaches required to manage it.

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