Tips for Successful Project Delivery: Customer Engagement, Respect and Communication

What if a professional athlete set a standard where winning was not enough? Instead, they had to achieve a personal best or break a previous record year after year.

What if a new theme park opened on schedule, with no delays, and offered tickets to the first one million visitors to return at any time and bring up to 100 guests at no additional charge?

Welcome to my world. As an IT provider, I face the similar challenge: that is, delivering a project experience to customers that will not only achieve all project goals, but also blow them away.

I have delivered on hundreds of projects for customers in my career and I have seen projects go smoothly and poorly. I have seen projects end with both the customer and the provider feeling a sense of accomplishment, and I have seen projects drag on for months, even years and then dwindle out almost as if customer and provider conceded defeat for any of the following reasons:

  • lofty project goals
  • misjudged budgets
  • technology that couldn’t be wrangled in

Sound familiar to anyone? These are some of the reasons why PMI (pmi.org) reports that 89 percent of projects at high-performing organizations meet their original goals and business intent, compared with just 36 percent at low-performing organizations.

The Cost of Poor Performance

Those low-performing organizations also lose 12 times more money than high-performers.

My customers include professionals in all aspects of IT service delivery. Their business and IT needs are great because so much depends on the success of these projects-their budgets, their revenue goals, their own staffing decisions, their perceptions to upper management, and the perceptions of other customers.

But what many people don’t realize is the poorly performing projects hurt both customers and providers equally. Obviously the customer is frustrated and perhaps feels slighted in what they are getting versus what they are paying for. These kinds of projects severely impact the provider as well. The provider’s number one priority is to deliver on the scope of the project to the customer. That has to be the most important principle for a provider, held above all else, because a project that ends with an unsatisfied customer is a complete waste of everyone’s time. However, a very close second priority is delivering a project quickly and efficiently, even when there is no time pressure from the customer.

Long-running projects incur overhead in several forms. As projects run late, the provider may now have more concurrent active projects. Their engineers have to split their time and attention between two or more projects which can result in lower quality. The longer the project goes on, the more disconnected the team can become, momentum slips, and decisions made early on can start to be questioned. Changes in direction often delay the project even longer and more meetings are likely to occur. For a typical small project with just five resources, a two-month delay can easily incur 50 hours of additional time.

I have found that successful projects that avoid these pitfalls and end in mutual accomplishment always require both parties to be fully engaged and invested. Since the nature of project delivery is a client/merchant one, it is up to us as IT service providers to ensure that engagement happens and to drive mutual investment in the outcome.

Customer Engagement

First, let me expand on the benefits of customer’s remaining actively invested in their projects. When a customer signs a statement of work (SOW) for a project, they agree to pay some amount to have work done. Whenever money changes hands like this, a sense of entitlement on the customer’s part can sometimes emerge that often goes like this: “I did my part by paying you, now you go deliver on what I paid for”.

I want to be clear and say this is perfectly understandable and not completely unreasonable. However, as providers striving to fully deliver on customer needs and goals, we need the customer to remain engaged and part of the process. I call it everyone in the boat and the metaphor is interesting to me because you can think of it as the project team bringing the customer to the goals rather than bringing the goals to the customer. In the boat, the provider is the captain and crew of a private cruise liner and the customer is the pampered passenger with input on where the yacht goes.

In the end, however you conceptualize it, a customer that is engaged in a project is less likely to be critical of decisions made about direction and design and more likely to feel some ownership in the outcome. A customer who is part of the process is less likely to criticize than one who remains distant as an observer. In my experience, projects with high customer involvement always end smoothly with a sense of mutual accomplishment. They often build lasting business relationships between provider and customer.

Let’s examine some tactics to improve customer engagement and buy-in. The following two main methods get customers engaged in projects, help keep them engaged, and improve efficiency as you work.

Method 1: Build Trust and Respect Between Project Team and Customer at the Start

Building mutual respect is a key to smooth projects. Mutual respect means that decisions can be made about the project constructively and without dissent. There are several aspects to building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

First Impressions: The old cliché is true; there’s only one chance at a first impression. Moreover, a good first impression only lasts as long as you live up to it. The minute you falter, the good first impression is gone, so it is critical that you stay consistent in your positive interactions. Do your homework and make sure all project team members know the project inside and out and are ready to speak authoritatively on their parts before engaging the customer’s team.

Mutual Decision Making: Next opportunity for building trust and respect is the experience you bring the customer in mutual decision making. As the provider, it’s important to take the time to lead them through the decision process. Where there are no customer opinions, backfill with yours. When a customer has a strong opinion on a topic try to yield to their desires. When the customer desires are not aligned with your agenda (best practices or efficient execution) then you must engage them in dialogue. That dialogue must always be grounded in respect for the customer’s point of view and focused on a mutually beneficial resolution focused on the goal not the execution (the what, and not the how).

Respect for Time: While keeping the customer involved, we never want to waste their time. Guide them to focus their attention on the important parts of the project and not the mundane details. Customer’s should be engaged in decisions about whether or not to do something but not necessarily about how exactly to do that thing. Customer’s should be appraised of the how, but in more of a review format to build buy-in for execution.

Execution: One sure-fire way to lose respect of the customer is to fail to execute. Always do what you say will you do, when you say you will do it. As mentioned above, mess this up once and you’ve lost the game. For that reason, it is very important that you are realistic about what you say you will do and when you will do it. Set yourself up for this, you are in control of the expectation and the execution. If you have a perfect track record of execution, the customer won’t have a reason to question your plan.

Method 2: Communication

The what, when, and how of communication can really make a difference in projects. Separate customers will react in different ways to your communication methods. For example, one might prefer a regular status update in e-mail while another one expects to view a milestone report with a summary of weekly achievements.

Goals: The very first communication engagement should be about establishing project goals. This may or may not be adequately defined in the presales process so it’s the first opportunity to interact. If the goals have already been adequately defined, then the provider’s role here is to articulate these goals back to the customer to make sure customer and provider share the same vision of the goals. If they are not the same vision, or the goals have not been adequately defined, this engagement is the first opportunity for customer and provider to collaborate and build mutual trust/respect.

Level of Detail: Meaningful ongoing communication should be tailored to the individual customer. There is no right way to go about it. Too much can be a turnoff for customers and will result in them disconnecting, too little and they’re wondering if you’re making any progress at all. I personally like the more frequent informal contact with periodic formal updates. Keeping with respecting the customers time concept, the updates must be meaningful and relate back to their business needs, not related to gory details of execution. Consider a daily dashboard with a series of weekly reports.

Creativity vs. Execution:

Good project delivery creates a line between creativity (design) and execution (plan). Customers lose faith if you are months into a project and need to redesign some work item every week. Attempt to get all design details done and communicate about those design decisions up front. As a provider, walk through the whole execution conceptually and figure out all the questions that need answering first. Engage the customer in a high-level walkthrough of the project and derive answer to those questions. During the design stage, gather information and understanding from sessions with the customer but organize the designs into work plans away from them to save time (yours and theirs). Present and review for final approval. Once you both agree on all design elements, close the design discussion, and begin executing to a plan/timeline. For large projects, break this cycle up into chunks if appropriate.

Cloud Computing!

Cloud computing has revolutionized the way technology is used to share information and resources to achieve coherence, relevance and economy of scale. These three factors are hugely important today when individuals and businesses require being in the forefront of their activities and achieving profits and revenues while reigning in expenditure.

This kind of computing is the method or model of internet-based computing that provides on demand, processing capabilities as well as data to computers and other devices on a network through a shared pool of resources such as applications and services, networks, servers and storage devices, which can be requested and used with minimal effort. Cloud computing enables businesses and users with capabilities to store and process vital data in third-party data centers.

In simple terms, cloud computing means the storing and accessing of information and applications over the internet instead of leaving them on local hard drives or in-house servers. The information accessed is not ‘physically close’ and the metaphor ‘cloud’ relates back to the days of flowcharts, graphs and presentations where the server infrastructure was depicted as a ‘puffy, white cumulus cloud’ that stores and doles out information.

Cloud computing or ‘the cloud’ as it is commonly known enables a ‘pay as you go model’. The availability of low-cost computers and devices, high-capacity networks and storage devices as well as complementing factors like service-oriented architecture, adoption of hardware visualization and utility computing have contributed to the success of cloud computing in a very big way.

Cloud Computing Architecture

The five specific factors that define cloud computing are:

• Broad network access
• On-demand self service
• Resource pooling
• Measured service
• Rapid elasticity or expansion

Broadly, that sums the essence of this kind of computing. However, there are several loosely coupled components and sub-components that are essential to make computing work. These are divided into two sections – the front end and the back end which connect to each other via the Internet.

The Front End is the physically visible interfaces that clients encounter when using their web-enabled devices. Not all computing systems use the same interfaces.

The Back End comprises all the resources that deliver cloud computing services. These are essentially virtual machines, data storage facilities, security mechanisms etc. that together provide a deployment model and are responsible for providing the ‘cloud’ part of the computing service.

Benefits

Exponents of computing are quick to praise it citing the many advantages and benefits it provides. Among the many benefits, the prime ones are:

• Enables scale up and scale down of computing needs
• Enables businesses to avoid infrastructure costs
• Allows companies to get applications running quicker and faster
• Improves manageability and adjustability of IT resources to meet fluctuating business demands
• Reduces maintenance

The high demand for cloud computing is further enhanced by the advantages of cheap service costs, high computing power, higher performance and scalability and easier accessibility and availability.

Teaching Through VR Technology

Virtual Reality , VR in short is a very advanced technology, which is an integration of computer science, robotics, instrumentation, multimedia, sensors, optics, 3-D technology, etc. Each technology, which converges to form VR, in itself, is very sophisticated and hi-tech. VR is a powerful user interface technology. This current technology doesn’t even require physical presence of a person. Information is important and this promising technology provides the best way to visualize it, enabling directly interaction for the user.

VR has full-blown applications in industries like automobile and aviation. Its implementations are now being expanded to fields like education and medicine. In education, Mutual Telexistence (convergence of VR and robotics), Virtual Rooms and Distributed VR have emerged. In medicine, very advanced softwares have been developed to treat growing number of painful procedures. Some of the examples include:

a. Wound care of burn patients

b. Endoscopic therapy after Single Event Multilevel Surgery (SEMLS) for cerebral palsy

c. Dental pain and anxiety

d. Pain/anxiety during injections

e. Overcome phobias like spider phobias

f. Treat various anxiety disorders like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

g. In artificial limb development

Virtual Environments (VE) for education have been discussed in various ways. While advanced multi-user educational VEs are still a speculation, simpler VEs based on standard technologies have been in existence for some time.

For distance education purposes, distributed VR is useful. Virtual Reality system can be networked to support multiple-user immersion environments joined over long distances. The sites implementing VR technology must be networked using low band modem-to-modem over telephone lines, the Internet, and high bandwidth telecommunications. The emergence of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) as a standard method of modeling virtual reality objects and worlds coupled with the wide spread deployment of WWW browsers that support VRML allows the creation of such distributed virtual environments, which can be accessed through Internet. This paves the way for participation of more geographically dispersed users in multi-user virtual reality interface systems.

Applications of VR

The fields in which VR has been implemented are summarized below-

Education and conferencing.

Civilian and military training simulators.

Business and scientific visualization.

Architecture, design, prototyping (Research and Industry).

Art and leisure.

Surgery and rehabilitation.

Telexistence, tele-immersion and Immersive 3D virtual environments (IVR).

SnowWorld, SpiderWorld, ChocolateWorld, SuperSnowWorld.

VR in Education

Virtual Reality technology offers educators a truly new and innovative way to teach and engage students. It is a cutting-edge technology that allows students to step through the computer screen into a 3D interactive environment. Using a special headset and glove, it places students inside of a simulated virtual environment that looks and feels like the real world. Integrating virtual reality into everyday learning has revolutionized teaching and learning processes.

A helpful analogy to better understand the nature of the virtual environment is that of a student exploring a forest for the first time. A student will best learn about the forest not from reading about it or listening to someone talk about it, but by walking into it – becoming a part of it. The student is free to explore the forest any way he/she likes. The biology class where students are learning cell structure is supplemented by a trip to the Virtual Reality Lab where students enter and explore a human cell. Discovery and experience become the best teacher.

Virtual reality is created by an impressive, exciting technology that engages the student. It draws its power from three principles: visual, experiential, and self-directed learning, the most effective ways to teach students. Virtual reality allows students to be fully involved in their education, instead of merely passive observers, focusing first and foremost on the learning needs of students. The age-old problem educators face is how to better involve students in their studies. Traditional teaching methods have sometimes not been effective in the goal of seizing students attention, relegating students to a passive role in the classroom.

Understanding virtual reality-based learning means understanding the shift from text-based education to multi-sensory, experiential learning. Virtual reality copies the way people have always learned – by interacting with the world. It allows hands-on activities to facilitate active learning.

I hear and I forget. I see and I understand. I do and I remember , said Confucius, the wise Chinese Philosopher. Thus, Learning is most effective when it is an active discovery process and realistic learning is more effective as a learning device. VR is learning without boundaries.

Steve

Virtual Reality can bring simulation-based learning environments closer to real-life experience. Instead of watching the simulated world through a desktop window, students are immersed in a 3D computer simulation of their work environment, where they can improve their skills through practice on realistic tasks. VR simulation environments are essentially valuable in domains where real life training is expensive or hazardous such as surgery, air combat and control of complex equipment. In addition using networked virtual reality systems, multiple students (possible at different work sites) can learn to perform collaborative or competitive tasks together.

Immersive virtual environments also allow the computer tutor to inhabit the virtual world with the student. To explore the use of intelligent tutoring systems in virtual reality, a pedagogical agent , Steve (Soar Training Expert for Virtual Environments) has been developed which physically collaborates with students, enabling new types of interaction.

Steve s Capabilities

Each student s interface to the virtual world is provided by special-purpose hardware and Lockheed Martin s Vista Viewer software. Students get a 3D immersive view of the world through a head-mounted display (HMD). Vista uses data from a position and orientation sensor on the HMD to update the student s view as they move around. Students interact with the virtual world using a 3D mouse or data gloves. Sensors on the mouse and gloves keep track of the student s hands, and Vista software sends out messages when the student touches virtual objects. These messages are received and handled by the RIDES software which controls the behaviour of the virtual world.

Steve requires two capabilities Steve must be able to demonstrate and explain tasks, and he must be able to monitor students performing tasks, providing assistance when needed. When demonstrating, Steve performs and explains each step of the task. Steve is currently represented by a head and a hand that can manipulate and point at objects.

Steve inhabits the virtual world along with students. To provide a collaborative style of interaction with the student, Steve can gracefully shift between demonstrating a task and monitoring the student s performance of the task. During Steve s demonstrations, the student can interrupt and ask to finish the task, in which case Steve shifts to monitoring. When monitoring a student, the student can always ask Steve to demonstrate a recommended action. Thus, VR supports a natural and flexible collaboration between student and tutor.

Distributed VR and VRML

The idea behind distributed VR is very simple; a simulated world runs not on one computer system, but on several. The computers are connected over a network (possibly the global Internet) and people using those computers are able to interact in real time, sharing the same virtual world. In theory, people may be stationed anywhere in world at different locations, all interacting in a meaningful way in VR. There may be a number of obstacles in establishing such type of an environment, like limited-bandwidth links, latency in delivery of update information and heterogeneous platforms.

The environment in which a distributed VR user is immersed is three-dimensional to the eye and ear. Moving in the environment changes the user s visual and auditory perspective. Unlike a video conferencing system (where an attendee s screen shows other attendees in their own videoconferencing rooms), distributed VR users assemble in a virtual world – they are all seen, for example, seated together around a conference table in one room, or walking together in a virtual building. Every user of a distributed VR appears in the computer environment as an avatar – either a customized graphical representation, a video of the user, or some combination of both – which he or she controls. The user, besides interacting with one another, also deals with one or more computer simulations.

This idea of distributed VR can possibly be implemented using the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) that aims to aid Internet with 3D spaces. These 3D spaces in VRML are known as worlds. These worlds can be environments or single objects with the file suffix as.wrl. VRML defines a set of objects and functions for modeling simple 3D graphics. These are known as nodes, which are arranged in hierarchies called scene graphs. There is a top-down arrangement in which nodes that are described earlier in a scene affect later ones, but this can be limited by the use of separator nodes. A VRML file is an ASCII file which is interpreted by the browser and converted into a 3D display of the described world. VRML is designed to fit into the existing infrastructure of the Internet and the WWW. It uses existing standards wherever possible, even if those standards have some shortcomings when used with VRML.

In one of the versions of VRML, also known as Moving Worlds, either object in the world can act and react to each other under program control, or they can respond to the user s actions in some way. The features that Moving Worlds currently include are:

I. International character sets for text can be displayed using UTF-8 encoding

ii. A set of new nodes has been added to increase the realism in models that are intended to represent the outdoor world around

iii. Sound generating nodes will also enhance the sense of realism

iv. New sensor nodes will set off certain events when one enters specific areas, or click on certain objects. So, for example, as the viewer approaches an object it can be triggered to start some action or make a noise

v. Collision detection ensures that objects can act as if solid. That is, the user, will not go through walls and floors

vi. Script nodes allow for the animation of objects in the world and the interaction of the world with other applications, for example databases

vii. Multi-user environments. There are many approaches to creating multi-user worlds, and the Moving Worlds aims to provide the functionality required for these, but without dictating which approach is to be used

Virtual Environment based on distributed VR

All the concepts of VR technology highlighted above can be combined in an effective manner to create a virtual environment, just like Steve s room on top of a network. Concept can be implemented on an intranet; and using VRML as the remedial technology along with the existing standards for Internet and World Wide Web it can be further extended to operate in a globalized environment like Internet. VRML produces a hyperspace (or a world), a 3-dimensional space that appears on the display screen. Users can figuratively move within this space by pressing keys to turn left, right, up or down, or go forwards or backwards. The images on the screen will change to create a feel of actual movement through a real space.

The user must access the remote VR server and select the service they require. The remote server then downloads the necessary executable code into the local server from where the student can interact with the virtual environment. It is envisaged that the future educational establishments will want to make their VR based educational programmes available to others. Anyone with appropriate hardware will be able to access these systems for a subscription fee. The main advantage of this approach is that organizations will be able to access appropriate VR based educational material without having to develop material themselves. It is highly likely that it will be possible to gain access to a very wide variety of educational material in this manner. However, there are a number of issues such as copyright and how much capability will be required in the local system.

Conclusion

Within the higher education community there has been an increase in the use of information technology such as multi-media with considerable success. Multi-media based systems provide the student with a very rich source of educational material in a form that makes learning exciting. VR has extremely wide application across a whole range of disciplines and the enabling technology has reached a sufficient level of maturity for it to be seriously applied to education, training and research in higher education. The costs associated with a VR system have been prohibitive for educational establishments (this is still true for fully immersive VR systems) but recent technological developments in computer hardware and software now make it feasible to look at VR as an important aid.

Though VR technology proves to be excellent in any field, yet it is not very popular. The reason being that fully immersive VR setup is still very expensive. The prohibitive costs and inaccessibility of VR technologies, coupled with issues of usability, educator training, operation and maintenance, present important drawbacks for the educational use of VR making it difficult to incorporate in dwindling educational budgets. In spite of these concerns and objections regarding the appropriateness and educational efficacy of virtual reality, there remain compelling reasons for believing that VR learning environments for students warrant serious investigation and can provide strong tools for learning.

Why Technology Should Be Used in the Classroom

We are faced today with the younger generation that uses gadgets are their means of entertainment and source of fun. No matter how we try to do away with it and let our children experience the childhood we had, it has become a fact that we really have to face.

With this, a lot of professionals in the field of education have come to realize that Technology could be a perfect tool for learning. Children as young as 3 or 4 years old are capable of handling these gadgets thus are expected to be knowledgeable in operating one.

However, teachers must be sure that their students would not be so soaked with stressful learning alone but must have time for fun – allowing them to explore their imaginations. Integrating Technology in the classroom would allow these young individuals to develop their technical skills. These skills are all valuable for them to survive their generation.

A specific example to this is the use of iPads. Here are a few of what can be done:

  1. Documentation needs for student research can be made so easy with the camera.
  2. On higher education and when it comes to art or architecture, 3D models can be created with a 3D creator app, linked to a 3D printer.
  3. Find quiz apps online such as those that allow teachers to create flash cards or other types of interesting types of quizzes.
  4. An iPad could be a game show, applications for this are available too.
  5. Get linked online and play a lot of songs in the classroom that would usher to a more fun while learning. This is essential for the younger ones, especially.
  6. Recording a discussion on audio or video would be a lot helpful for students who would love to review before their exams.
  7. Install game apps that are also tools for learning, especially for the younger ones

As the classroom would have digital learning tools, it does not only benefit the students but the teachers as well. As children would engage more in the classroom discussions, teachers will not have hard time getting their attention for each subject. While it’s normal that children do have different interests, certain applications when used can also make a not so interesting subject become interesting and even fun.

There may still be schools today that are not into the use of Technology. Thus, allow me to share a few points below about why you must make use of technology in the classroom:

  1. With the use of such tools and wireless technology, it would be easy for students to determine their future career as they get a fast discovery of their line of interests.
  2. Learning styles can be diverse. Teachers can combine both the traditional way of teaching while using new applications.
  3. Being tech-savvy allows students to be more aware about their environment, not only in their local area but about world events and social awareness.
  4. Students would love to engage in the classroom activities, naturally because they love technology.
  5. Using tools for the day to day discussions allows the students to be excited about what’s next and would be more apt to learn.
  6. Research won’t be an issue at all, as students may have full, yet disciplined access to the internet.
  7. Teachers and students both can have access to digital textbooks and get more updated versions online.
  8. Teachers and students get the chance to discover more learning apps.

There has to be no debating whether to use technology in the classroom or not. Truth of the fact is, we all need technology today and everyone must accept it.