Let’s face it. Just about every educational technology job advert has stakeholder skills as a key selection criteria. If it’s not just about making clients happy, what is it then and why is it so important?
Let’s tackle the basic stakeholder theory and definitions first. Then we can see how it plays out in the real world projects.
NB: this post covers the period 2008-2010 – the time I worked at 2and2. I cannot speak for the current practices of 2and2 today, in 2019.
Stakeholders are any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of an organization’ s objectives (Freeman 2010, 208).
The balancing of multiple (and at least partially conflicting) stakeholder interests (Freeman 2010, 98). It is proactive, regular and defensive (Jeffery 2009).
Stakeholder communication planning
- Identify driving forces that motivate the choice to develop a project.
- Be aware of governance structures relevant to the project and stakeholders.
- Identify and engage relevant stakeholders – those who make decisions, those who implement decisions and those who are affected by decisions (Freeman 2010, p188).
According to Yosie and Herbst (1998, p643), managing stakeholder communications successfully requires:
- Principles and operating procedures
- Best practices (specific to given stakeholders, based on past experience)
- Goals for stakeholder processes
- Tracking processes to assess effectiveness
- Maintaining accountability of participants throughout the process
- Defining obstacles and strategies to overcome them
- Identifying options for designing and managing the stakeholder process
- Procedures for decision making
- Ensuring transparency and communication throughout the process
- Comparing results against original goals
So what? Why is this so important?
Businesses want people with excellent stakeholder engagement skills because it’s a common characteristic of high performing companies. The best salient business decisions considers the interests of all major stakeholders: evaluating power, legitimacy, and urgency (Freeman 2010, p100).
So enough with the basic theory: how does this play out in real life?
2and2 and The Learning Federation Project
Commencing in 2001, The Learning Federation (TLF) project spanned 9 years and cost A$123 million dollars. The TLF contracted many multimedia production companies, of which included 2and2. I joined 2and2 in 2008 as producer, in teh earl-mid stages of the project. The 2and2 team produced some cool, high quality educational learning resources:
With the complexity of 13 series and 90 learning objects – where a series took 1 year to complete.
2and2’s need for Stakeholder Management
Given the scale of the TLF project, they required and demanded a high levels of governance. Similarly, the volume and production process made for project management complex: multiple client project managers, multiple subcontractors, and multiple internal teams:
- Project Processes: Prototyping, Design Specification, Functional Spec development, Media development and Coding
- Client (TLF): Management, Project Managers, Reviewers, Subject Matter Experts), Contractors (Accessibility)
- Contractor (2and2): management, Employees (Programmers, Producers)
- Sub-contractors: Instructional Designers, Graphic Designers, Audio Engineers, Video Production
- A Digital Workplace: the “workplace” was effectively online as the collaborators locations included Melbourne, Sydney, N.S.W. Mid-north coast and Blue Mountains so much of the communication had to be online.
The project was very formal and legalistic. Contractors were not allowed to slip deadlines and there were provisions for liquidated damages. All substantive changes need to be authorised, documented and paid for. Given the highly structured and transactional nature of the TLF project, strong stakeholder management and communication skills by all was critical to the project success.
NB: this covers the period 2008-2010. I cannot speak for the current practices of 2and2 today, in 2019.
Stakeholder management in practice
How my Producer stakeholder management skills played out in the TLF Project is illustrated using Yosie and Herbst’s stakeholder management practice framework:
Practice 1: Principles and operating procedures;
These were formally established by the client through the contract before I joined 2and2. However I referred to these in the role to ensure my actions were in line with client expectations: eg delivery of work, quality expectations, learning object specifications and communication protocols.
Practice 2: Best practices
Best practices were negotiated with the TLF Project Manager, and internally escalated if necessary. Project document editing and file naming conventions were established. Changes in TLF practices were communicated through their Project Managers.
Illustrating a best practice change process initiated by 2and2in was Drag and drop accessibility – a very common interaction. This was prototyped by a very talented 2and2 coder. Evaluated by the TLF, it was adopted as the best-practice standard to be adopted by all multimedia development firms contracted to the TLF.
Practice 3: Goals for stakeholder processes
Each series had it’s own set of goals that fitted within and were aligned to the overall Practice 1: Principles and operating procedures.
Practice 4: Tracking processes to assess effectiveness;
The project was tracked using Excel. Elements of that tracking included:
- Milestone tracking
- Slip Tracking
- Project Plan
- Production time costs
- Sub-contractor costs
- Invoice tracking
- Status reporting
- Production Status
- Series Status
- Budget Status
Practice 5: Maintaining accountability of participants throughout the process;
Internally, the project administrative accountability was tracked by regular scheduling and budget reporting. This had a dual-purpose to hold the client as a stakeholder to account too for any late deliveries.
Similarly, content development accountability was maintained through common document management practice, using MS Word track changes and file-naming conventions. All unilateral and agreed changes had to be documented and annotated in each functional specification that were passed between the stakeholders.
Project milestones were acceptance checkpoints before production could proceed to the next stage.
Practice 6: Defining obstacles and strategies to overcome them;
Obstacles that could not be independently resolved were always best managed through open and honest conversations. The more serious or complex issue, the more consultative and cautious approach was adopted: evaluating impact and resolution strategies before entering into stakeholder dialogue.
Practice 7: Identifying options for designing and managing the stakeholder process;
This aspect was established and working well upon entering the project so was kept unchanged.
Practice 8: Procedures for decision making
Change in scope of the interactive had to be formally requested by the client and go through an scoping and estimation process by the Executive Producer in consultation with the TLF Project Manager.
Expenditure was based on project budgets. For example, if re-recording audio was required then this required authorisation by the Executive Producer.
Practice 9: Ensuring transparency and communication throughout the process
Transparency requires value judgements. Simple production issues and decisions relating to production affect the flow is managed between collaborators. However, communication and decisions that affect the project business, scope or relationships norms were escalated to the Executive Producer before engaging with stakeholders.
The project documentation processes embodied this transparency. For example, the TLF Functional Spec provided procedural instructions for transparent communication:
Practice 10: Comparing results against original goals
The external stakeholders were really pleased with quality and integrity of the series and learning objects. The client was to evaluate the usage of the Learning Objects by teachers and students.
From the internal stakeholder perspective, the project came in on budget and with the required profit margin. The team members involved achieved their own personal-professional goals in the work they did.
Stakeholder consultation and communication is fundamental part of successful project management. This post was a light touch on stakeholder management and communication theory and how it was applied in a project between 2008 and 2010. It is a skill transportable to any industry and to just about any job.
The TLF project was an exciting project to be a part of – working with amazing professionals, in a well-structured way, with a budget that enabled a quality result. The good 2and2 stakeholder management and oversight was reflected in the success of the project as suggested by the theory. Success through strong Stakeholder Consultation was real for the client, the company – and for teachers and students too.
Going further: Stakeholder engagement
A very accessible description of stakeholder engagement with pragmatic models and strategies: https://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/research/doughty/CRStakeholder.pdf
Stakeholder engagement basics
In contrast to Stakeholder Management, Stakeholder Engagement is interactive, encouraging, inclusive with a preparedness to change (Jeffery 2009). The elements of the Stakeholder Engagement Cycle are:
- Prepare internally to engage
- Build trust
- Fairness to all stakeholders.
- Responsiveness: sharing and appreciating objectives and activities.
- Contextualise information so fair conclusions to be made
- Realistic negotiation trade-offs of expectations, needs and objectives.
- Methodology appropriate to stakeholder.
- Respond and implement agreed Course of Action
- Monitor, evaluate and document to capture learnings. Knowledge management practices required.
Freeman, R. Edward E., Andrew C. C. Wicks, Bidhan S. Parmar, Simone De Colle, and Jeffrey S. Harrison. (2010). Stakeholder Theory: The State of the Art. Cambridge UP, 2010. Web.
Jeffery, N. (2009). Stakeholder Engagement: A Road Map to Meaningful Engagement. Retrieved from https://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/research/doughty/CRStakeholder.pdf
The Learning Federation. (2008). LEARNING OBJECT FUNCTIONAL SPECIFICATION, Mathematics & numeracy (Maths 6), ma_006_mass_202, Timetable: music festival, The Learning Federation.
Yolandi, S. and Barker, R. (2014). Towards a New Model to Describe the Organisation–stakeholder Relationship-building Process: A Strategic Corporate Communication Perspective. Communicatio 40.1 (2014): 69-97. Web.