ASIA PACIFIC WATCH
Projects spanning cultures need more than just a good translator.
BY LYNDA BOURNE, DPM, PMP
>>There is no right or wrong in
culture. But the
ongoing debate about
projects raises several
questions. For exam-
ple, do we need to
adapt A Guide to the
Body of Knowledge
(PMBOK® Guide) to
It was a billion dollar project deal— one that I would suggest collapsed in part over a lack of cross-cultural understanding. In late 2004,
Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. and a consortium of Chinese engineering companies
announced a series of “binding agreements”
to build a new iron-ore mine, railway
and port. But the deal fell through
when discussions around an equity stake
in Fortescue broke down.
In a Western context, these were separate
negotiations and the breakdown of one
should not have impacted the other. To the
Chinese, however, the relationship is what
matters and the failure of one aspect of the
relationship damages all aspects of the
relationship. Fortescue was able to recover. Since that
initial setback, the company has successfully built its
mine, railway and port and is now Australia’s third-largest
iron-ore exporter with strong ties to Chinese markets.
Project players in China must consider guan xi, says
S.K. Khor, PMP, founder of Asia ICT Project
Management Sdn Bhd in Malaysia. The philosophy deals
with any network of relationships among various parties
who cooperate and support one another in the Chinese
business and project world. And Mr. Khor says it’s critical
to the successful delivery of any project—from bidding
through to handover—involving Chinese organizations.
“Guan xi is intensely personal. While it can be shared
and reflected onto the organization a person works for, the
individual ‘owns’ his or her guan xi and has to invest time
in developing and maintaining it,” Mr. Khor explains.
“This gives him or her a competitive advantage as well as
the ability to avoid conflict, both of which are beneficial to
the outcome of the project.”
Every culture has its own style of communication. In most
Western cultures, it is the sender’s responsibility to deliver a
clear message. But as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book
Outliers: The Story of Success [Little, Brown and Co., 2008], in
many Asian countries, the listener is charged with making
sense of what is being politely intimated—particularly if the
person sending the message is junior to the person receiving it.
Cultural understanding doesn’t just
happen along an East-West divide. I experienced two very different approaches to
human resource management during a
major project review in Pakistan, for example. The hierarchal and procedural culture
of the Indian subcontinent was quite different compared to the team culture of
the Chinese engineering company
working on the project.
Dealing effectively with project issues
such as cost and time overruns is also
culturally sensitive. In Japan, the concept of nemawashi, or pre-arrangements,
requires contentious issues to be discussed and resolved privately so there is
no public disagreement or embarrassment. Even the act of making a decision can be seen as a
failure—decisions should simply emerge. Nemawashi
makes transparencies—such as a project management
office fearlessly reporting schedule slippage or cost overruns—at a project meeting almost impossible. A totally
different, culturally sensitive approach to information
sharing is needed.
There is no right or wrong in culture. But the ongoing
debate about how cultural differences impact projects raises
several questions. For example, do we need to adapt A
Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge
(PMBOK® Guide) to different cultures? It’s currently produced in several translations, but language is only one
dimension of culture. Do the processes also need to be
adapted to reflect various cultural idiosyncrasies?
It’s an intriguing question that I’ll pick up again in a
post on the Voices on Project Management blog
( www.PMI.org/voices). Be sure to weigh in. PM
Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP, is the managing director of
Stakeholder Management pty Ltd. and direc-
tor of professional services at Mosaic Project
Services pty Ltd., both in Australia. Dr.
Bourne graduated from the Royal
Melbourne Institute of Technology as the first
professional doctor of project management.