Understanding Culture for International Projects

Understanding Culture for International Projects

Introduction
With the initiation of global economy comes an increased interaction between people of different countries and an increase in the need to deal with cultural differences. Thus, there must be an understanding of how the international project will affect people and how people will affect the project. This requires an understanding of economic, demographic, educational, ethical, ethnic, religious, and other characteristic of the people for whom the project affects or who have an interest in the project (Egeland, 2011).
Today’s projects have dramatically increased in complexity, which requires a culturally and functionally diverse mix of individuals who must be assimilated into an effective unit – a project team. In order for the project to succeed it will be predicated upon the effectiveness of teamwork during all phases of the project life cycle (Knutson, J, 2001).
Therefore, it is critical that organizations involved in international projects take into consideration “cultural risk”, which, if not consciously recognized may lead to ineffectiveness and in some cases prove to be very costly (Sennara & Hartman, 2002). Therefore, it must be understood that the most crucial element in international projects is “culture” (PM Hut, 2012).
What is Culture?
“Culture” refers to a way of life for a group or community that practices and shares values and common experiences that shapes the way in which the group or community understands the world. These values and practices are learnt through social interactions and distinguish a group or community from each other. It is a learned way of life that is shared by a group of people, which includes their language, norms, values, religion and beliefs, social collectives, status, role in society, cultural integration, traditions, artistic expressions, the arts, sports, government, etc. It is the single most powerful influence on how we perceive the world and everything in it (“What is culture?.”)
Why is Culture Important?
Its importance—it is a strong part of people’s lives. It is what influences their views, values, humor, hopes, loyalties, worries, and fears (Axner, 2013). It gives an individual a unique identity and shapes the personality of a community. It influences one’s way of living and thus impacts their social life (Oak, 2008).
To fully understand any culture one must understand that it is based on the attitude of open-mindedness, response, and flexibility. One’s culture should not be considered more superior than another. Customs, behaviors and habits are the things that a supportive project culture allows one to focus on. Cultural understanding supports the achievement of a given task and functions as a common reference for communication to all parties involved in the international project (Rosetti, 2012).
Understanding Cultural Differences
In understand the culture of another; one must first become aware of his own culture. To do this, one must allow himself to understand how his culture might affect someone else and why it might be of importance to them. Gaining an understanding of their own cultural affect upon others and its importance will assists in treating those from another country with sensitivity. It will allow one to approach those from another country with the same demeanor found in their own country. For example, if collaborating with Hungarians, “act Hungarian”; if collaborating with the Japanese, “act Japanese.” To develop a sense of what ‘acting Hungarian’ or ‘acting Japanese’ might entail Dr. Geert Hofstede conducted research on the multinational company IBM, which involved 72 countries and 116,000 respondents. Through his ground-breaking contribution on intercultural cooperation, he discovered that the respondents all had the same five basic problems in social life and was able to develop a numerical value for certain elements or “dimensions” which make up “Culture” (Trellas-Duckett, 2012).
Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory
Cultural differences can interfere with the successful completion of an international project. However, to achieve the project’s goal and avoid cultural misunderstandings, project managers must be sensitive to one’s cultural differences and promote creativity and motivation through flexible leadership. Success and failure in international, multicultural projects can only be accomplished through culturally-aware leadership, cross-cultural communication, and mutual respect. Without these components the project is destined to fail (Anbari, Khilkhanova, Romanova & Umpleby, 2003).
The leading study of cross-cultural management conducted by Dr. Hofstede became a framework for cross-cultural communication. It is the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members and how these values relate to behavior, using a structure derived from factor analysis. Dr. Hofstede’s theory identified five cultural dimensions: power distance (PDI), uncertainty avoidance (UAI), individualism (IDV) vs. collectivism, masculinity (MAS) vs. femininity, and long term orientation (LTO), which allows one to compare any two or more countries with each other and quickly illustrates what cultural differences exist, which are aligned, and which are uniquely different. Each of the five cultural dimensions are nationally scored on a scale from 1 to 120 and allows for international comparison between cultures, which can be utilized to select the most aligned countries when evaluating and considering which countries should be involved in the project. Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions model listed below is a great tool and starting point when considering cultural differences and how those differences might impact the project (“Hofstede’s cultural dimensions,”).
(O'Halloran, 2013)
Power Distance (PDI)
Power distance deals with how power is distributed. It is the gap between equality; and, the extent to which less powerful employees accept and expect power to be distributed unequally.
For instance, in low power distance cultures, such as the Mediterranean countries, employees desire a consultative style of decision-making in which the employer consults with the assistants prior to reaching a decision. However, this is not necessarily the case in high power distance cultures, such as the United States, Sweden and Denmark. The employees of this culture are afraid of disagreeing with their employer; therefore, they reject the consultative employer for one that decides dictatorially (Altinkaya, 2006).
The list below illustrates the key variances between low and high power distance cultures (Altinkaya, 2006).
Low power distance
There should be and there is to some extent interdependence between less and more powerful people
Decentralization is popular
Subordinates expect to be consulted
The ideal boss is a resourceful democrat
Privileges and status symbols are frowned upon High power distance
Less powerful people should be dependent on the more powerful polarized people
Centralization is popular
Subordinates expect to be told what to do
The ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat or good father
Privileges and status symbols for managers are both expected and popular
Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
“These country’s will struggle with the uncertainty of change and may require a longer time and additional costs to ensure change is managed effectively” (O’Halloran, 2013).
High uncertainty avoidance vs. Weak uncertainty avoidance: people in cultures with “high” uncertainty avoidance tend to be more emotional and anxious, while people in cultures with “weak” uncertainty avoidance tend to have relatively low anxiety levels.
High uncertainty avoidance members tend to believe what is different is dangerous and feel threatened by uncertain and unknown situations. They expect the worse of themselves and others making them suspicious of everyone. This culture has a preference for structured situations, which generally includes lots of rules and well-documented procedures. They have a tendency to be more verbal and well-organized as well as somewhat loud and emotional. It is important to understand high uncertainty avoidance members’ cultures and norms prior to initiating communication with them. However, once communication has been more understood and accepted, a greater trust will develop.
Weak uncertainty avoidance members, on the other hand, are not supposes to show aggression and emotions. Those members that do behave emotionally and noisily are socially disapproved (Altinkaya, 2006).
Below are the key differences between weak and strong uncertainty avoidance societies (Altinkaya, 2006).
Weak uncertainty avoidance
Low stress; subjective feeling of well-being
Aggression and emotions should not be shown
What is different, is curious
Teachers may say “I don’t know”
There should not be more rules than is strictly necessary Strong uncertainty avoidance
High stress; subjective feeling of anxiety
Aggression and emotions may at proper times and places be ventilated
What is different, is dangerous
Teachers supposed to have all the answers
Emotional need for rules, even if these will never work
Individualism (IDV) vs. Collectivism
Individualism thinks in the term of “I”; whereas, collectivism thinks in the term of “We”. The importance of personal fulfillment, independence and self-reliance are measured against group harmony and team recognition. People in these societies relate to themselves and the rest of society differently depending on their cultural values.
Below are key differences between individualism and collectivism societies (Altinkaya, 2006).
Individualist
Everyone grows up to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family only
Children learn to think in terms of “I”
Trespassing leads to guild and loss of self-respect
Management is management of individuals
Low-context communication Collectivist
People are born into extended families or other in-groups which continue to protect them in exchange for loyalty
Children learn to think in terms of “We”
Trespassing leads to shame and loss of face for self and group
Management is management of groups
High-context communication
Masculinity (MAS) vs. Femininity
This dimension measures a country’s need for competitiveness and the importance for male and female roles.
Masculine societies place an emphasis on ambition and competitiveness. They admire the strong and popularize fictional heroes, such as Superman. People from this culture place emphasis on having an opportunity for high earnings, on getting recognition for a job well done, on having an opportunity for advancement to a higher level job, and on having challenging work to do (Altinkaya, 2006).
Feminine societies place an emphasis on being unassertive and meek as well as having sympathy for the loser and the anti-hero. People from this culture emphasize to having a good working relationship with one’s direct superior, work well with others who cooperate well with each other, live in a desirable area for them and their family, and have employment security (Altinkaya, 2006).
Below are the key differences between masculine and feminine societies (Altinkaya, 2006).
Masculine
Money and things are important
In the family, fathers deal with facts and mothers with feelings
Sympathy for the strong
Failing in school is a disaster
Stress on equity, competition among colleagues, and performance
Resolution of conflict by fighting them out Feminine
People and warm relationships are important
In the family, both fathers and mothers deal with facts and feelings
Sympathy for the weak
Failing in school is a minor accident
Stress on equity, solidarity and quality of work life
Resolution of conflict by compromise and negotiation
Long-Term Orientation (LTO)
This dimension measures the long term orientation versus the short term orientation. Long term orientation attaches more importance on the future. Its members foster logical values that focus on rewards, including perseverance, saving and capacity for adaptation. Short term orientation attach more importance to the past and the present, which includes stability, respect for tradition, preservation of one’s face, reciprocation and fulfilling social needs to be curbed and regulated by strict norms (Hofstede’s cultural dimension,”).
Impact of Cultural Differences in International Project Management
The challenges of cultural differences of each country in international project management are one of the most difficult to provide a framework of understanding. While some countries are well aligned, others are completely different in their cultural and social norms. These differences can greatly impact international projects and require a specific international project management approach to solve the challenges of international projects (O’Halloran, 2013).
Abundant cultural differences vary between people from various countries and the method and timing of project communication can impact preferred modes of international project management communication. As shown below, country preferences can be exhibited in four categories with common preferences on frequency and type of communications for each group (Elena, 2010).
Country Group Preferences
Japan, Taiwan and Brazil Face-to-face, analytical at milestones
Hungary and India Written status reports, fixed intervals
The Netherlands and Germany Detailed progress reports, fixed intervals
Australia, United States, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Sweden Continuous phone updates with written backup
A project manager who does not consider the abundant cultural and social differences when delivering an international project across multiple countries will find it difficult to gain support. As a result, the project will carry significant risks of failure, or significant costs to recover. Hence, a project manager involved in an international project must take into consideration the risks involved and consider the cultural differences and how they might impact the project (O’Halloran, 2013).
Cultural Gap Analysis
Ranf Diana Elena in Cultural Differences in Project Management outlines the impact and importance of cultural differences aspects in project management. In support of her position, she utilized Kathrin K√∂ster’s Cultural gap tool, which “serves as a proxy to become sensitized towards cultural differences…and, if not managed well, will lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and ultimately to project failure” (Elena, 2010).
The figure below illustrates where differences manifest themselves in international project management. The list of bi-polar cultural dimensions with their relevance to project management areas is the so-called cultural gap analysis or culture gap tool (Elena, 2010).
Equality Managing risk and uncertainty
Defining & planning the project
Organizing the project
Leading and managing the team
Communicating. Co-operating Hierarchy
Embracing Risk Defining the project
Managing risk and uncertainty
Planning the project
Organizing the project
Implementing & Controlling Avoiding
Risk
Individual Managing risk
Organizing project
Implementing & Controlling
Motivating and leading the team
Learning Group
Universal Matching strategy with projects
Defining the project
Planning the project
Implementing & Controlling
Learning Circumstantial
Task Managing stakeholders
Planning the project
Implementing & controlling
Leading and managing the team
Learning Relationship
Achievement Planning the project
Organizing the project
Implementing & controlling
Motivating and leading the team Standing
Status
Sequential Defining the project
Planning the project
Implementing & controlling Synchronic
Conflict Defining the scope
Leading and managing the team
Communicating. Co-operating Consensus
Theoretical Planning the project
Executing & controlling the project
Learning Pragmatic
This culture gap tool, if utilized properly, can highlight the biggest cultural differences between major stakeholders such as the project manager, the customer and the project team. It is utilized to raise awareness of the project manager regarding the materialization of cultural differences in his or her project and can help the project management team and project members identify differences and deal with them appropriately (Elena, 2010).
Conclusion
Cultural differences exist and affects how people act and perceive the world. As such, the best way to handle cultural differences is to be aware of them without judging them.
To ensure the success of an international project both the project manager and the stakeholders must have the understanding that people from different countries may perceive the project differently than those who initiated the project. As such, the difference between the actual needs of the people and that perceived by those initiating the project is sometimes too great to ignore and may be the reason why the project fails. Therefore, prior to attempting to do business in another country the following must be done to guarantee the success of the project:
A. Legal/Political Aspects – The project manager/stakeholders will need to operate within the laws and regulation of another country. Political stability and local laws strongly influence how a project will be implemented. As such, it is strongly advised that they learn the legal and political aspects of the host country. In doing so, the project will have more of a chance to succeed.
B. National and local laws – These laws need to be identified and adhered to as this will assist in the utilization of the workers in that country. If, in the beginning these laws are identified and adhered to, the project manager will have a greater understanding of the people’s work ethics and will be able to circumvent any complications he might encounter.
C. Geography – Planning and implementation of an international project must be taken into account as it could affect the success of the project. Careful analysis of the unique characteristics of the country will need to be studied prior to initiation of the project.
D. Economics – The manner in which business is conducted in another country can influence the success of the project. Therefore, extensive research will need to be conducted to ascertain the country’s needs.
E. Infrastructure – The project manager must take into account the needs and infrastructure of the host country as the project is dependent on the host country or its community’s ability to provide the services required for the project.
F. Culture – Another country’s customs, values, philosophies, and social standards are factors which the project manager and stakeholders must accept and respect in order for the project to be a success. The project manager must have the ability to understanding how the people from another country works and possess the ability to speak their language. In possessing these unique qualities this is a sure way to guarantee the materialization of the project.
A project manager that is better prepared for life in another country can be assured he/she will experience minimal or no problems as they will have done their homework and learned people from another country’s culture (Larson & Gray, 2011).
When one chooses to work on an international project it is necessary to know the people’s way of life, how they were educated, how their minds work and give respect to each culture. There must be an ultimate understanding that developing a project in one country is different when developing a project in another country, as there are differences in values and culture.  

Comments