By Howard Birnberg
The key function of a project manager is to communicate. He or she serves as the primary link between members of the project team. Each design consultant, contractor, and client should be represented by a project manager able to communicate their needs, questions, and status to other team members. To accomplish this function, project managers must be skilled communicators. How does a project manager communicate? With drawings, sketches, letters, memos, emails, reports, verbally, face-to-face, on the telephone, with gestures, through demonstrations, with presentations, and through dozens of other ways. Public speaking skills must be learned and polished through extensive practice or with formal training. Writing skills must be developed to a high degree. Project managers should attend university or community college writing courses to learn fundamentals, technical writing, and persuasive writing. The focus on these soft skills should not be treated as an afterthought and given lower priority in the discussion of the role of project managers. These skills are of great importance and no project manager can be effective without mastering them.
Computer software is an assist, not a substitute for effective communications. Everyone today uses widely available software such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel, AutoCAD, and many other packages. These are valuable tools, but are just that--tools. It is the person using them that is most important and they need to know how to communicate effectively. While software such as Word has spell check and grammar tools, they still require a human to generate the material they are checking. And, the software is often flawed in its ability to provide a correct answer. Fore, for, and four are all spelled correctly, but have very different meanings. Microsoft's grammar check is often nearly useless in providing guidance.
All engineering and architectural offices are flooded with information. Emails, drawings, text messages, telephone calls, snail mail, job notes and many other sources inundate everyone. Without a system to manage these, you may be quickly overwhelmed. Drawings change daily and it is nearly impossible to keep a handle on the latest update and coordination among consultants can suffer. However, failure to do so can result in costly jobsite problems, the need to redo drawings or revise onsite construction, cause disputes and litigation, damage your reputation, and have many other consequences. There are software products developed to assist in managing the process. One widely used product is NewForma software that focuses on project information management, construction collaboration and construction administration. The product has existed for a number of years and has its antecedents in web-based project management software developed in the late 1990's and early 2000's to take advantage of the development of Internet-based tools. As noted above, these type of products are an assist to project managers, not a substitute for strong communications skills.
I recently was contacted by an associate partner at a large Atlanta, Georgia-based A/E firm. She was interested in my conducting project management training for some of their staff. During the course of the telephone conversation, I mentioned that I normally focus on the importance of developing strong communications skills in project managers. She quickly denigrated this as important since the firm had software they relied on to communicate and manage information and didn't need any additional training in communications skills. To my view, she completely missed the point.
As I also noted in a previous article: "Construction industry project management is an extremely broad subject ranging from detailed technical areas to intuitive people skills. Project managers must be effective in dozens of skills if they are to successfully lead a project from conception to occupancy and beyond. Unfortunately, few individuals enter the design and construction professions to become project managers. Most professionals are interested in the creativity, challenge and rewards of the design and construction process. Few engineering or architectural academic programs offer training in communications skills and project management. As a result, most project managers have learned their skills on-the-job and achieve their current position more by accident than by plan."
In a relatively few decades, the education and role of engineers and architects has evolved into one based almost entirely upon the use of computers. Old skills have been neglected or lost. Drawings are now prepared on CAD software, project specs and reports are all prepared electronically, schedules are developed on tools such as Microsoft Project, and data is transmitted via email or other electronic systems. Older architects and engineers learned how to draw freehand; develop critical path charts/schedules manually; do their own "coding" using primitive computer languages like Fortran IV ("do loops"); draw on velum; and depend on other old 20th century methods and/or tools. Not that any of this was better, but sometimes even today these skills are needed and often not available.
Across from my office is a medium-sized architectural firm and I became friendly with one of the senior staff. He's a man in his late 50's and has an "old school" background. It's always interesting to talk with him as he's the oldest person in the office. He calls the younger staff, "CADD monkeys" as he sometimes notes that he could train a monkey to do what they do (his comment, not mine!). He also notes that none of them have any effective drawing skills and when sketches are needed, he has to step in to do this free-hand work.
Ours is a very diverse industry, one dependent on strong communication skills and the appropriate use of computer software to support project managers in their very challenging job. Fundamentally, project managers must know how to write well and speak well if they are to succeed and avoid the dangers of miscommunications.
Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers. He may be reached at 312-664-2300 (office); 312-560-6651 (direct), firstname.lastname@example.org; website apminfo.com