Choosing the right communication network for your project
Written by Emilie Lewis Laurberg
This topic is relevant to project managers in the people perspective
The aim of this article is to highlight the importance of selecting an appropriate communication network for an organization. There are several communication network structures and hierarchies to choose from, and to make the right decision, it is essential to comprehend the advantages and disadvantages of each type. These structures can vary in terms of actors, media used, centralization, density, complexity, and grouping, resulting in a vast amount of possible combinations.
Choosing the right communication network type is crucial for an organization to achieve its communication goals and avoid any adverse effects. The selection of the structure should align with the strategic plan for project/program/portfolio management. This can depend on factors such as the amount of innovation needed, the team work experience between actors, and the resources allocated to ensure effective communication.
This article emphasizes the importance of analyzing the network structure type in an organization and optimizing the flow of information according to the organizational structure and strategy. This approach ensures that the decisions, scope, and other critical aspects of communication are effectively transmitted to the actors involved.
Communication is an indispensable aspect of organizational structures as it is essential for decision-making and organizational learning. Communication happens when one or more individuals or groups exchange information. The number of communication methods have increased due to the development of new communication technologies, and the communication media utilized plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of communication, and with the evolution of communication media types, organizations have opened up to using different forms of content.
It is important to note that the language used during face-to-face interactions differs from that used in written reports or other communication media . This underscores the significance of using different communication media, which will be further discussed in the section on the richness of information.
In the communication process the actors involved can be labelled either sender, receiver or both, as seen in figure 1. Between the sender and the receiver the message will be moving throug a medium of a chosen type. Communication is either one-way or two-way depending on the possibility for the original receiver to send back a message to the original sender, which is called feedback. The model in figure 1 shows a two-way communication process, where feedback is allowed. The process of communicating follows the structure explained below:
- For one-way communication:
- The sender must encode the message
- The medium for transmitting the message must be chosen
- The receiver must decode and interpret the message from the medium
- For two-way communication the same procedure af for one-way occurs, but with additional steps:
- The receiver encodes a feedback message
- The medium for transmitting the feedback message must be chosen
- The original sender must decode and interpret the feedback message from the medium
In figure 1 it is also seen that the media "box" is not strictly defined. This symbolizes the noise that surrounds the specific message, and can be different things such as other people talking in the background, e-mails from other colleagues, body language of the sender etc.
Why the communication network is an important factor of project management
Every project is a temporary organization, in which a communication network will automatically happen. As stated in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide ), "Communication develops the relationships necessary for successful project and program outcomes", in which it is important to evaluate on. Emerged communication networks can reflect the hierarchy in the organization and vise vesa, thus it may be relevant to implement a formal communication network in terms of rules and structure.
To make the right decisions, to learn efficiently and to align the work tasks, it is important to coordinate internally. The more coordination that is necessary in an organization, the stronger the communication also has to be to avoid misunderstandings. These misunderstandings can e.g. be regarding crucial information in a project such as the deadline, the work load distribution in terms of who is responsible for what, and even the strategy can be skewed if the communication is not sufficient. The right use of communication can also prevent some amount of conflict associated with the internal organization culture. With more information traveling around the organization, the stronger the culture gets and the organization will be more resistant to conflicts. The whole basis of the decisions depends on the communication, which means it is important that the necessary information is accessible for the decision maker. 
|10 Critical functions of communication described in Hvordan organisationer fungerer |
The goal for good communication:
To ensure effective communication, the sender must make sure that the receiver understands the message as intended. This requires the sender to consider the receiver's perspective by taking different aspects into account. First of all, the language used must be familiar to both actors to ensure mutual understanding of the message's meaning. Secondly, the chosen communication medium should be one that the receiver is comfortable with to minimize any confusion or misinterpretation. Lastly, the sender must emphasize the significance of the given information to prevent it from being overlooked. In cases where the receiver is bombarded with too much information, such as numerous emails, phone calls, letters, or meetings, there is a risk of "information overload." This situation could cause the receiver to unintentionally or intentionally disregard some messages, as it's not possible to process all the information simultaneously .
Communication network structures
In many organizations there is in one way or another a resemblance between the communication network structure and the formal structure of the organization. Two concepts of communication structures that are often mentioned are vertical communication which is hierarchical and horizontal communication which occurs between equal actors.
- Vertical communication
- An example of a vertical communication structure is seen in figure 2 as the Chain network. A benefit of this type of communication is that the original message can be translated into something that is more understandable for the intended receiver. This is especially important when a message is coming from someone high up in the hierarchy who may not know what information is important to regular employees. Without this translation, the message could be misunderstood. However, one challenge of vertical communication is that the message can become distorted as it moves up and down the hierarchy. For instance, a manager may omit details that they feel are unnecessary, either intentionally or by accident, which can result in a misunderstanding of the original message. Additionally, the manager may have a different agenda or understanding of the strategy than the original sender. The more links a message has to pass through, each on a different hierarchical level, the greater the risk of distortion of the original message.
- Horizontal communication
- Examples of horizontal communication structures are seen in figure 2 as The circle and All channels, where all actors are equally important in their communication. One benefit of horizontal communication is that it fosters mutual respect between the sender and receiver. This respect can lead to a better understanding of each other, which in turn results in a better interpretation of the message as intended. However, a challenge with horizontal communication is that there is a higher possibility of information overload due to the many links between the actors.
When analysing communication network structures it is interesting to examine the following characteristics:
The characteristics of a network structure are based on the concepts of knots and links. A knot represents the point where information is received or sent. Usually, a knot is a person who receives information and can also send it to someone else, depending on the links in the structure. A link is the route through which information can travel, and it is only possible to share information between two knots if a link exists between them. When analyzing or structuring a network, it is important to distinguish between one-way and two-way links. One-way links are commonly found in vertical communication structures, while two-way links are more typical of horizontal communication structures. In figure 2 and 3, knots are represented by persons and links by lines or arrows.
|Centralized: An example of a centralized network is The wheel seen in figure 2. A centralized communication network is by Oxford Reference described as "A communication network in which one group member has access to more communication channels than any other and therefore tends to process more information than the peripheral group members" . A centralization is typically more hierarchical and can be beneficial when the work tasks are simple and can be routine based. Furthermore centralization can ensure every actor in the network has the same knowledge, but information will always have to pass one single knot. To centralize a communication structure a system such as a PMO system can be implemented (for more information see article Optimizing a company and it's PPM with a PMO system)
Decentralized: Examples of decentralized networks are The circle and All channels seen in figure 2. Decentralization invites to faster communication and can reduce the amount of mistakes and misunderstandings when the information is complex. Decentralization enables direct communication which is a benefit when working with a project without fixed procedures because this often leads to an increased amount of questions concerning different parts and actors. In decentralized networks the decision making process is usually out delegated, and furthermore this type of structure often requires a larger amount of self-management than centralization does. Decentralized networks makes it possible for employees to go directly to a leader in smaller groups. This is like in a centralized network, but with several smaller centers instead of just one.
| Strong links: Strong links require a large amount of resources allocated, thus it have to be considered if the value of strong links compensate this. An example of a network with strong links is seen in the model Centralized with strong links in figure 3. A few strong links can act as an internetwork and be very reliable in regards to receiving and understanding messages, but they can also result in a blindness for new information from the outside of this strong internetwork.
Weak links: With a great amount of weak links information can travel in any desired direction. A network with many weak links are seen in the model Decentralized with weak links in figure 3. This result in a larger amount of stimuli for the actors involved and a possible information overload. Weak links encourage to a more innovative work atmosphere, since every new idea can be presented for everyone in the network very easily. Granovetter writes about how a great amount of weak links are more efficient than few strong links, mainly based on the fact that stronger links require more recourses, which should be kept in mind if the organisation has chosen to allocate only a low amount of recources .
| Many links/knots: Distributed network structures makes it possible for all actors in the network to communicate directly with one another. An example of a distributed network with many links and knots are seen as the model Decentralized with weak links in figure 3. A benefit of a complex network is that the information from one peripheral actor does not have to go through a "central" actor as in the centralized or decentralized networks to get to another peripheral actor. A challenge with complexity is that if one peripheral actor has given a piece of information to another peripheral actor, the other actors will not neccessarily know. This means if a third actor, no matter the "status" in the network, has to find the exact same piece of information, he or she has to search for it to get it without knowing where it is to be found. This is a flat type of network where hierarchical status does not neccessarily matter. With a great complexity comes a larger risk of information overflow.
Few links/knots: With only a few links and knots the network structure is kept simple. Here the risk of information overload is smaller, but this structure type does not facilitate innovation as much as a complex network structure due to less unexpected inputs.
| Defined groups: Several smaller interconnected groups can exist within a single communication network. Each group has it's own set of rules and norms, making it crucial that the actors connecting the groups are on the same wavelenght to ensure a common understanding between the defined groups.
Undefined groups: With undefined groups a mass communication may occur, with a minimal connection between the sender and the possible many receivers.
" Project Communications Management includes the processes necessary to ensure that the information needs of the project and its stakeholders are met through development of artifacts and implementation of activities designed to achieve effective information exchange " says the sixth edition of the PMBOK © Guide. Communications management include the planning, managing and monitoring of the communication structure, which also involves considerations regarding what influence the structure will be under due to media types and modern virtuality.
Planning the structure
Elements that beneficially could be considered and elaborated on in a communication plan are the following :
- Transmitted information type in terms of content, language and level of detail
- Reason for importance
- Frequency of messages and feedback to be sent and received
- Responsibility distribution in matter of sending and receiving messages
- Recources allocated for communication activities in terms of time and budget
- Overview of the information flow in the project
Furthermore A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide ) states that what is important to define in effective communication management is:
- Communication structure models
- Media type
- Laguage and expression style
- Management of meetings and presentations
- Facilities for communication
|Rich information||Poor information|
|A lot of signals can be transmitted at the same time||Only a few signals can be transmitted at the same time|
|Fast feedback||Slow feedback|
|High possibility of using natural spoken language||Low possibility of using natural spoken language|
|Can be personalized in a high degree||Can only be personalized in a low degree|
Depending on the type of medium chosen, the information can be more or less “rich” . If the communicators know each other well, the message can be understood correctly with the use of poor information, since the communicators know how to interpret the few signals transmitted. On the other hand, if the communicators are not used to each other, rich information is needed to make sure the message is understood correctly, since the interpretation experience has not yet been built.
In one end of the richness scale we have face-to-face communication as the richest and formally written texts and documents as the poorest. Between the two ends of the richness scale we have Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Different media suits different types of messages. ICT corresponds the types of media where both the amount of signals sent, the possibility of a fast feedback, the possibility of using a natural language and the degree of personalization is more variable. ICT covers media such as e-mail, chat, common databases, online meetings and virtual conferences. ICT media are fast to use and can easily spread information out to a lot of actors, but this can also lead to an information overload as described above, which is not desirable. 
Further reading on the richness of a medium is found in the article Choosing the appropriate medium (oral – written – hybrids).
Virtual work groups:
The new ICT has made it possible for organizations to create virtual working groups, where the need of being physically in the same space and time is no longer required.
- Members of the working group does not have to be present, meaning it is possible to corporate with important people e.g. specialists in other countries or from other departments located far away
- If the members of the group are not used to working together, misunderstandings might appear easier
- If the work load distribution has not been clarified, conflicts may appear
- The group is naturally more fractured, creating a larger risk of conflicts
- Conflicts are more often suppressed since it is easier to neglect when not facing each other, resulting in larger and possibly escalated conflicts when finally dealt with
- The lack of social contact and personal interaction in e.g. coffee breaks result in a generally larger working dissatisfaction
Evaluation of communication network structure
To test if the chosen communication network is better or worse than previously, regular assessment methods such as KPIs (see article Potentials of Key Performance Indicators) can be used to evaluate on.
There is no final recipe on the perfect communication network structure, since a great comumnication network depends on the right combination of e.g. culture, available comunication media, facilities and other factors mentioned previously in this article. The chosen combination of the described characteristica for your communication network, in terms of centralisation, density, complexity and grouping, should therefore be revised every now and then, because smaller changes in the organizational structure, such as changes in the actors, politics or new technology can affect the efficiency of the communication network.
Constructive communication on how constructive communication is beneficial for dealing with conflics in project work.
Managing “emails” on how to avoid email and information overflow.
Perception filters on message interpretation.
Choosing the appropriate medium (oral – written – hybrids) on the differences between media and also on the richness of media.
- Jacobsen, D.I. & Thorsvik, J. (2014). Hvordan organisationer fungerer, Chapter 8. 3rd edition.
- This chapter investigates general communication in organizations. It why it is important to be aware of communication, clarifies the understanding of what is meant by communication, defines the communication process, evaluates on media types and structures. A general statement in this chapter is, that communication is crucial for the basis of information in organisation and communication is an important tool in management to ensure coordination and control.
- This chapter has partly inspired the figures 1, 2 and 3 in this article.
- Project Management Institute. 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Chapter 10 on Project Communications Management
- This PMBOK Guide states the standards in project communication management in three sections; Plan Communications Management, Manage Communications and Monitor Communications. Key koncepts in communication mechanisms such as language, media types and distance between actors are discussed. The chapter also elaborates on the communication process as seen in figure 1 and states commonly used communication artifacts (called media in this article). At last techniques and considerations for effective communications management are listed.
- Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties
- This paper argues that weak links between actors can be just as important as strong links in facilitating communication networks. It suggests that weak links, which are characterized by infrequent interactions and low intensity, can provide access to new information and opportunities that might not be available through strong links, which tend to be more redundant in terms of the information they provide in communication.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Jacobsen, D.I. & Thorsvik, J. (2014). Hvordan organisationer fungerer, Chapter 8. 3rd edition.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Project Management Institute. 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).
- ↑ Pedamkar, P. Types of Communication Network, https://www.educba.com/types-of-communication-network/
- ↑ https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095558631;jsessionid=57E896C5749F968F524AC78D3AC2A9C3
- ↑ Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties