Can social networking help ALLEVIATE some of our project complexity issues?

Paul Naybour

The social media revolution
The last ten years have see an explosion in social media with an estimated 307.4million unique visitors to social network sites in December 2009, an increase on 82% on the previous year (Nielsen Company, 2010). Many dozens of sites exist but the most recognisable and relevant to project managers are probably LinkedIn and Twitter, but these goliaths of the cyber world are not alone.

Social networking sites abound, the growth of easy to use ‘blogging’ sites and the availability of open source software (such as WordPress) means that just about anyone armed with very little technical knowledge can express and exchange ideas in an interactive way with many thousands of others in a matter of days. The combined social networks and blogs are now the most popular form of online activity, according to the market research company Nielsen.

Social networks do not need to be external to an organisation like LinkedIn. An internal social network is a closed or private community that consists of a group or people within a company, association, society, education provider or other selected list. These facilities are often created for specific groups to support the real social networks within an organisation to help establish communities of practice to share knowledge, information and experience about a particular area or business interest.

The project management community have been part of this revolution with 2.8million project managers registered on LinkedIn alone. Resourceful project managers are always looking for tools to help them manage projects more effectively but are these social networking tools a help or an unwanted diversion with the potential to detract from delivery focus? In this article we will look at how social networks could be one part of the solution to the management demands of our increasingly complex projects.

The Growing Complexity of Global Project Management?

Projects have not escaped the globalisation trends. Modern technologies enable teams to work around the world with apparent ease. But in so doing they introduce for themselves a whole raft of new problems than did not emerge when teams were all co-located in a single geography or even office.

This dispersal is a one of the key factors in the nature of the projects complexity.  The problems created as a result stem from several factors all of which have their roots in ambiguity and uncertainty. Research in the Australian Commonwealth Defence Department identified seven themes which contribute to this increased complexity (Remington, 11-13 October 2009) which can be summarised as:

  • Our ability to achieve goals including lack of clarity, incomplete or inadequate requirements or earlier decisions which are no longer valid.
  • Management of stakeholders including multiple and diverse stakeholder groups, changes in senior stakeholders, varying, unclear, unrealistic or ambiguous stakeholder requirements or multi sponsor projects in which no one sponsor is able to set clear direction.
  • Increased interfaces and interdependencies results in a lack of control due to multiple owners with different philosophies, interfaces between different projects, problems in retrofitting or upgrading existing systems due to lack of information, cross-organisation interdependencies and quality integration issues.
  • Technology including innovation, cutting edge and changing technology.
  • Management processes due to varying contractual arrangements which increase the challenge of getting alignment between the client and the supplier.
  • Working practices including different cultural attitudes between participating nations, time-zones, language differences and the inappropriate use of project methods
  • Time, including changes in requirements during the project duration, changes in decision making and the requirements to frequently re-shape the plan.

These complexity factors put our traditional classical assumptions of project management under strain. We assume that we can reduce the complexity by de-composing the project into ever more tightly defined and simpler compartments. Paradoxically it has been shown that these reductionist approaches in fact lead to increased complexity within the project as each further level of breakdown generates just more interfaces that need to be managed and controlled.

A “clockwork universe” in which the future is predictable and repeatable with the outcomes proportional to the inputs does not exist for anything other than relatively simple projects. As the complexity increases these rules of predictability become even less reliable. We work in vain to increase formal control over workers activity to obtain more predictable outcomes whereas in reality this merely leads to more bureaucracy and less control in the real world of the project.

We also assume we can eliminate all major risks through identification, assessment planning and management but fail to recognise the dramatic effect of the ‘unknown unknowns’ associated with projects involving diverse and geographically distributed project teams.

In reality, apart from very simple co-located projects these factors were never true but we never really faced up to the fact. As teams become more diverse these paradigms are stretched to breaking point and now demand a re-think.

The Management of Complex Projects

The management of complexity is a topic of much debate (Whitty SJ, 2008) and a full discussion is beyond the scope of this article but although the guidance is still developing, current thinking would steer the project manger to consider a number of key areas;

  • In so far as possible they should design the complexity out of the project using work and organisation breakdown structures, methodologies and contracting strategies.
  • They must adapt project planning to include long term strategic and short term tactical approaches by adopting a flexible approach such as rolling wave techniques to only plan in detail what you can reasonably forecast.
  • Project managers should become familiar with ambiguity and uncertainly and seek to understand and explore the root causes and actively seek out the ‘unknown unknown’ risks by engaging a wide range of stakeholders.
  • Significantly, a key component of successfully managing complex projects has these days to include taking active steps to build a social network within the project thus supporting the flow of information and attempt to replace what would otherwise happen naturally in a co-located project team.

Each of these would justify a volume of work on their own. The social networking theme of this month’s magazine drives us to consider the last topic here, that being the contribution that a developed social networking facility can make to reducing complexity and making the project mangers efforts more effective.

Can a social network help?

Every project relies on an informal communications network to support the more structured approaches enshrined in communication plans, stakeholder management plans, reporting procedures and so on. These informal meetings used to happen in the corridor, at the ‘water cooler’, coffee shop, elevator, in the car park. They are a key component of the social glue which keeps the project team moving in the right direction, highlighting risks, resolving issues and cementing progress before they get anywhere near the more formal systematic project management umbrella.

This glue holds a project together. It represents the linkages between individuals and coalitions within the wider project team.  Each social network has a ‘social capital’ which forms from the sum of the knowledge in the network, the strengths of the links between members, the alignment of the actors objectives, the collaboration between them and the effectiveness of the team leadership. (Hanifan, 1920). The skill of the best project mangers has always been to balance the use of the formal project approach with empathy for the social network to build a high performing team. With increasingly divers geographic teams we have lost much of this social glue.

Social Networking in the Virtual Team

Recognising the importance of the project social network is the first step in understanding how fundamental it is to the successful delivery of project. In a virtual team it is not possible to bring groups together on a regular basis (if at all), individuals cannot be forced into interacting with people they have never met. Could it be that the use of the social network tools will allow us to replace the lost interaction of the co-located team with a surrogate version hosted in one of these systems? Could they offer a replacement for that chance corridor meeting, the informal conversation over the skinny latte with extra caramel, the beer after work?

It’s possible that as with a traditional co-located team, debates and discussion could take place outside the constraints of formal communication, with on-going discussion of project issues and risks using the informal networks between team members. It might just be that we do not need to provide a procedure so individuals can interact with each other. Now there’s a thought.

Would I put my project on facebook?

A public forum like Facebook or LinkedIn may not be the most appropriate place to build a project network for obvious security and confidentiality reasons. The technology is so cheap and available though that this functionally can be easily replicated on a company intranet (available only within the organization) of extranet (which is available to partners). Typically based on propriety or open source platforms they have the potential to support and facilitate this valuable informal communication and knowledge sharing across a geographically dispersed project team.

Many organistions already use internal discussion boards to provide technical support or project blog sites to keep a diversely distributed project team in touch with the latest project news. The extension of these approaches to develop a project social network is a relatively easy step.

If it’s such a good idea, why don’t we all do it?

We have been socially interacting for millions of years and arguably doing reasonably well as a result. As soon as a new mechanism, concept or idea comes along there is a natural human tendency to seek out opportunities from it but at the same time a reluctance on the part of the ‘establishment’ to change. Eventually we adapt but it can take a while. This cultural reticence stands in the way of an immediate and wholehearted adoption of things (like) social networking systems. This will over time wash out of the system as people reared and inculcated on these new and innovative techniques take their place amongst the traditionalists.

For now though there are a few things that need to be considered by an organization considering adopting such a system;

  • There is a fear that it is abused and merely becomes a faster mechanism for staff to build cabals and cliques and potentially drive negativity;
  • There will be staff who do not want to use the facility, take an adverse view and simply disenfranchise themselves from others;
  • Once a group has formed it is difficult to become a member later and this may alienate those late adopters and new recruits;
  • The real social network will still exist outside the virtual network;
  • The informal network may simply end up undermining the necessary hierarchical control and communication that project managers are taught to develop?
  • Systems, technology and time all cost money. Whilst the system itself can be inexpensive the moderating activities could be substantial;
  • Are we just facilitating a magnificent, authorized and subsidized opportunity to waste time?


Modern communication technology has enabled projects to become increasingly fragmented and multinational adding exponentially as they go to the complexity of trying to manage them using the traditional methods. The co-located social networks that used to support the development of a performing team are increasingly more difficult to develop and maintain. Social networking systems seem to offer one way of maintaining this loose, unstructured but essential contact so as to underpin a more diverse project team.

These tools are not without their dangers but rest assured that the downsides will not be solved through misguided attempts to regulate them. How effective will they be? It has taken thousands of years to become used to the written word, hundreds for telephones, tens for visual tools, perhaps the dawn of a new and more liberated way of interacting may be closer than any of us think. Ask a young adult just out of university, here’s a quote from one of them.

“I think social media, when used effectively, can be very useful for project management. Project teams are increasingly composed of young professionals. Rather than stifle their interest in social networking, why not utilize the creativity and initiative? Applications such as Twitter and Facebook can be effective tools for communicating in real time with project team members. Information sharing tools such as Digg, StumbleUpon, and Google Buzz are great ways to send relevant articles and research papers to the team as well as promote your project”

Watch this space!

Hanifan, L. J.-1. (1920). The Community Cente. Boston: Silver Burdett.
Nielsen Company. (2010, January 22). Led by Facebook, Twitter, Global Time Spent on Social Media Sites up 82% Year over Year. Retrieved March 2, 2010, from Nielsen Wire:
Remington, K. a. (11-13 October 2009). A model of project complexity :distinguishing dimensions of complexity from severity. Proceedings of the 9th International Research Network of Project Management. Berlin.
Whitty SJ, M. H. (2008). And then came Complex Project Management (revised), . Int J Project Management , doi:10.1016/j.ijproman.2008.03.004.

Parallel Project Training
John Bolton and Paul Naybour both co-founders of Parallel Project Training the newest APM accredited training provider are enthusiasts in the adoption of any mechanism to make learning more accessible and effective and are committed to the development of a profession of project managers. Parallel Project Training uses modern technology such as podcasts, e-learning, communities of practice, moderated forums and webinars to complement traditional printed study guides and training workshops. Join them at a free webinar on the 19th April to discuss project complexity, social networking and the issues raised in more detail. Visit to book your place.

2 thoughts on “Can social networking help ALLEVIATE some of our project complexity issues?”

  1. Tristan,
    Nice piece. Just to add, it’s my understanding that Whitty and Maylor (your 4th reference) have criticised the notion of a ‘complex project’ as well as the competency standards that have been created that relate to them. They don’t criticise the use or application of complexity science to the domain of projects.

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