Organizational Structure Effects On Project Management Activities With The 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB)

In February of 2014 Russian forces invaded portions of Ukraine massively disrupting the politically tenuous balance of Eastern European states.  Heads of state and state departments issued harsh words and strong positions (news.com.au, 2014).  The US Forces in Europe began partnered operations with NATO allies in the Baltic States and Poland.  Moving from their home stations to locations without a US authorized communication infrastructure required the deployment of the theater’s tactical communications assets.  The sole tactical signal battalion in the Europe is the 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion.

Having worked at the unit since October of 2013 I am familiar with its organizational structure and the stresses caused by executing multiple projects.  It is my intent in this paper to discuss the formal organizational structure, informal structure, formal and informal team formations and management as well as the positive and negative effects of this structure on its ability to execute and manage projects.  

Some might argue that because it is the military’s job to deploy in support of strategic operations that the activities of the military aren’t considered projects.  It is the opinion of this author that military operations are often projects merely wrapped in non standard doctrine.  According to the PMBOK “a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (Institute, 2013)  In the case of the 44th ESB each team level deployment is a project as it creates a temporary service that is unique in the time and space of that operation.

The formal organization structure of the 44th ESB is hierarchical.  The organization has elements of being a weak-matrix organization, functional organization and project based resulting in its classification as a hybrid.  Depending on the required effort it adjusts to a hybrid of these organizational structures with greater emphasis on certain aspects in response to mission requirements.  One of the biggest indicators of the 44th being a weak matrix organization is a lack of budgeting control at the organizational level.  Whereas the PMBOK discusses budgeting control being with the project manager, 44th ESB’s budget is controlled by a functional staff member two echelons above.  Project budgets are controlled one echelon above that but with functional managers, not project managers.  

44th also operates as a functional organization in many regards.  When Soldiers aren’t actively preparing to deploy, on deployment, or returning from deployment, they are training for it.  This training is intended to be done on a routine basis with six weeks of predictability at a time.  In addition to training, the administrative overhead required by law and military regulation supplies ample evidence of a functional organization.  Simply moving a vehicle requires upwards of six sheets of paperwork.  Full medical physicals are required for each Soldier each year.  Asking questions about pay issues requires two levels of permission slips.  There’s enough self inflicted work to do without additional projects.

The organization also contains some elements of being project based.  For each project the organization assigns a project manager (action officer) who is appointed with the same authority as the organizational head.  This delegation of responsibility and empowerment authority allows the organization to function as a project based organization even though the project manager lacks the budgeting control at their level.

Despite the doctrinally demanded hierarchy, informal structures have developed as Marchewka put it “over time as a result of the inevitable relationships and internetworking of people within the organization” (Marchewka, 2015).  With upwards of 38% annual organizational turnover due to internal and external moves, one of the quickest ways the informal structures get built is through communications among peers.  This communication among peers is reinforced through the organization’s training program where various peer group levels will be addressed regardless of hierarchical orientation.  These peer based informal relationships encourage leaders to share products and ideas across the hierarchical boundaries.  Many of the deliverables generated for efforts at team levels are shared across the organization increasing efficiency and creating a defacto standard for the deliverable.

Teams that deploy are sometimes on assignment for as little as one week or as long as several months.  On the longer deployments the customers receiving the support have been known to transition out while the initial group of Soldiers often remains.  Bona fide group theory (Droge, 2004) discusses how group member communication can be used as evidence of group formation and functionality.  While the training prior to a deployment and assignment to the established team structure certainly helps, the communication evidence for a bona fide group sometimes don’t appear until after several weeks of shared experiences during deployment (project execution).  

The individuals functioning in the rear echelons conducting monitor and control process group are generally drawn from several different functional areas.  The experience of project management and execution gives them several communicative opportunities and eventually their dynamic would qualify as a group under bona fide group theory.  Bona fide group theory provides an excellent framework for identifying informal structures and relationships within the organization.  Although I’ve only mentioned a couple of applications of the theory there are certainly more within an organization the size of the 44th ESB.  

Teams within the 44th ESB are formed formally, informally, and deliberately.  Individuals are assigned to formal teams upon arrival to the organization.  These formal teams are approved by centralized planned equipment oriented manning requirements.  These centralized plans are easily dated as equipment and customer requirements change.  Therefore many Soldiers find themselves working in informally created teams based upon current best practices for deployment.  The third team assignment method is deliberate.  Often orders will be published assigning requiring a particular combination of skillsets for a given project.  This local ordered team is deliberately created for a deployment or unit project.

Teams are managed using the military’s hierarchical rank structure.  The senior ranking person takes charge of the team.  This does not omit certain member’s influence within the team, but officially the person with the highest rank is the one in charge.  In reality the military informally recognizes five different types of leadership influence.  These five types of leadership influence are commonly referred to as the five types of power.  They are legitimate, reward, expert, coercive and reverent.  While the senior ranking person is able to exercise the ultimate legitimate power for the team, other team members with seniority can also exercise it amongst subordinates.  Reward, coercive, reverent, and expert power can be exercised by various team members regardless of ranking hierarchy.

I feel that the most powerful way to improve team management and project performance within the 44th ESB is through its internal communication.  Because the typical deployable element is a team and the unit has 30 teams to track and manage.  When 80% of its assets were deployed they needed to be managed in some degree as twenty-four separate projects.  As Senscu et al demonstrated in their 2013 article, project complexity affects communication (Senescu, 2013).  Subordinate leaders to a good job managing their portion of each of these projects, but being able to get specific information relevant to a project often involves interrupting intermediate managers to pull information that could otherwise be readily available to all stakeholders.  

With the management requirements caused by geographical dispersement and diversity of projects, improvements to internal communication aren’t easy.  Many times we focus on the processes required by regulation instead of the customer to whom we’re supporting.  One measure of a good project is its ability at the end to capture lessons learned and publish those lessons to improve future efforts.  At the moment lessons learned aren’t efficiently captured and are often so heavily filtered that significant information that ought to get to high level decision makers doesn’t make it to that level.

Leveraging a centralized data repository that can customize information for stakeholders would be a vast improvement over the current management thought email.  Outside of the military civilian communication technology has evolved to allow a wide variety of communications tools.  Due to security, bureaucracy, and technical ignorance the unit still manages much of its efforts using Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft SharePoint 2010.  

The Department of Defense has taken a more aggressive approach in adapting new communication to methods for military use.  It has created a suite of applications called MilSuite by porting over and actively developing open source projects.  MediaWiki, the same technology that powers Wikipedia is part of the suite as well as WordPress and Jive (MilSuite, 2015).  Although there is currently not a Slack equivalent MilSuite’s active development and feedback mechanisms gives the possibility that MatterMost (an open source Slack equivalent) could be included in future iterations.  I believe that leveraging an adaptive tool set based upon open source tools can help to improve the internal communications issues that reduce communications effectiveness.  I believe that by making these strides we can improve team management and project performance.  

References:

Droge, D. (2004). Small group communication: Theory and practice (8th ed.); New directions in group communication; Group communication in context: Studies of bona fide groups (2nd ed.). Communication Education, 53(4), 365-369. doi:10.1080/0363452032000305977

Institute, P. M. (2013). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) (PMBOK Guide). Project Management Institute.

Marchewka, J. T. (2015). Information Technology Project Management, 5th Edition. John Wiley & Sons.

MilSuite. (2015, June 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:39, June 12, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=MilSuite&oldid=665237400

News.com.au. (2014, March 03). Russian troop invasion encircles Crimea’s capital as Ukraine PM declares the nation to be on ‘brink of disaster’. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from http://www.news.com.au/world/russian-troop-invasion-encircles-crimeas-capital-as-ukraine-pm-declares-the-nation-to-be-on-brink-of-disaster/story-fndir2ev-1226843109609

Senescu, R. R., Aranda-Mena, G., & Haymaker, J. R. (2013). Relationships between Project Complexity and Communication. Journal Of Management In Engineering, 29(2), 183-197. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)ME.1943-5479.0000121

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