Mitigating Social Media Risks

By Frank Schettini & Brian Weiss  |  Posted 10-03-2011

Social Media: A Growing Factor in Project Success

Social media tools are fast becoming a ubiquitous part of the project management toolkit. According to the survey Social Media in a Project Environment, conducted in early 2011 by Elizabeth Harrin, an author and Project Management Institute (PMI) member and volunteer, more than two thirds of 181 project managers surveyed in 32 countries believe that social media is a key issue for their industry.

Most respondents see collaboration, communication and networking opportunities as social media's biggest potential benefits. But they also expect financial benefits, principally from lowering the cost of meetings, although these savings are not yet as important as the efficiency advantages.

Other research supports this trend as well. LinkedIn currently features more than 3,000 groups related to project management, serving more than 3 million people who list project management in their professional profiles. There are more than 123,000 members in LinkedIn's Project Manager Networking Group -- an increase of 45 percent in the past year -- in addition to nearly 7,000 YouTube videos about project management and a rapidly growing member base in other social media outlets such as the Project Management Institute's online Communities of Practice, Yahoo's PMP® Best group and Google's PMHUB group.

And, according to PMI's 2010 Pulse of the Profession Survey, 76 percent of organizations polled already use online networking/collaboration tools for managing projects. The survey polled 1,157 non-trainer/non-consultant PMI members/credential holders in North America, Europe, Middle East/Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin American and the Caribbean.

Among the collaboration tools in use by survey respondents are:

  • SharePoint
  • IM (multiple platforms)
  • NetMeeting
  • Microsoft Project Server
  • LinkedIn
  • GoToMeeting

According to the Harrin survey, 36 percent of respondents said that they use social media tools to communicate with their project teams, with 24 percent reporting that they communicate with the project stakeholders in this way. In addition, 25 percent of respondents said they actively use these tools for managing their teams, and 27 percent reported using them for project status updates. Nearly half of all respondents (48 percent) reported using social media tools for document sharing.

Aside from communication, the Harrin survey reveals that social media tools are used for the day-to-day work of project management. Respondents reported using them for collaborating on tasks (34 percent), task tracking (19 percent) and hosting online meetings (32 percent). This research showed that nearly all PMI members have networked online in the past 12 months (90 percent) and most belong to an online project management community (71 percent). Additionally, most indicated that they are active in chatting and blogging (67 percent) and that they have contributed to social media or other online communities (62 percent).

So, the use of social media by project managers is evident and unchallenged. But two key questions remain for some organizations:

  1. What are the true benefits of social media for project managers?
  2. How can organizations leverage these benefits without falling victim to the risks that social media introduces to a company?

How Social Media Benefit Project Management

First, the benefits. From an operational standpoint, the adoption of social media tools within the context of project management makes sense, particularly as organizations evolve to accommodate market conditions and economic realities. With cost constraints, tight deadlines and shareholder concerns, companies are looking for innovative -- and efficient -- ways to achieve organizational goals.

Knowledge sharing and project visibility are critical as organizations look to project management as a strategic competency that drives new ideas and achieves business results. Social media provides companies with the ability to quickly identify, organize and deploy teams, collaborate across borders and between departments, and see an immediate measurable organizational benefit. It also provides a means for project managers to meet the demands of the 24-hour workday, which requires the ability to provide real-time information to stakeholders from any location at any time.

It makes sense from a fiscal standpoint as well. Social media tools not only foster communication and availability but they allow for financial savings within an organization. The cost of traveling expenses and monthly telephone bills can be reduced by using a videoconference program such as Skype to host a meeting. These savings can be reallocated to other departments or projects within the company.

In addition, social media can serve as a cornerstone of best practices and organizational knowledge. During a lengthy project, teams gather a fair amount of data, which need to be handed over to the operational team at the end, when the project team is disbanded. A Wiki - an online documentation platform that allows the creation and editing of interlinked websites - captures this data in a structured way as the project progresses. Wikis can also be used at a PMO level for gathering lessons learned throughout the course of various projects. Since Wikis are easy to search, project managers have fast access to information relevant to their work and can update that information with knowledge that could lead to future improvements.

Mitigating Social Media Risks

While advocates of project-related social media use believe that it improves the way they manage projects, IT departments are faced with a different side of social media: The risk.

This is an immediate problem for many organizations, particularly since a large number of those who use social media tools for work -- according to Harrin's survey, more than 40 percent -- are not officially sanctioned to do so. Software that is installed outside of the official remits could be a security risk, and proprietary company data could potentially be exposed through channels that are not sufficiently controlled.

In order to leverage the benefits of social media without exposing your organization to unnecessary risk, follow these guidelines:

  1. Be proactive, not reactive. Chances are high that your project managers are already active social media users. Proactively define your social media policy, along with acceptable tools and their use, and share it with your employees. That way, when your project managers turn to social media, they have guidelines to follow that will ensure that the organization's best interests are protected.
  2. Establish rules of engagement. Define how you want social media to be used by project managers within your organization. Will it be used for training, to manage projects, as a means for research, or all of the above? Defining its purpose will enable you to select the right social media tools for your team. Also, protect your intellectual property by ensuring that your team knows and understands what can and cannot be shared via social media channels.
  3. Know your business. Evaluate the business and communication needs within your organization to determine who should have access to social media tools at every level - project, program, portfolio and stakeholder. Grant and restrict access as necessary.
  4. Respect the firewall. As often as possible, implement Web 2.0 and appropriate social media tools behind your firewall to increase security. This may be a challenge for virtual teams, so establish access rules and policies for remote users.
  5. Assign a monitor. This could be one person to monitor your social media sites overall or, more likely, one person -- probably the project manager -- to monitor social media use for each individual project. While over-policing social media use can dilute its benefits, assigning a project-related monitor can help protect proprietary data and prevent potential human resource issues.

Establishing policies, processes, and standards for your team's social media use can help ensure that it brings tangible value to your organization -- not just within the context of evolving business conditions, but also according to the definition of good project management: projects that are completed on time, on budget, within scope, and of the highest possible quality to enable the realization of organizational goals.

About the Authors

Frank Schettini is VP Information Technology for the Project Management Institute. Brian Weiss is VP Product Management for the Project Management Institute.