Broader Horizons

In the 21st Century, When So Many Teams Span Borders, Cross-Cultural Training Can Make or Break a Project


By Franciscus Suryana, PMP

Cultural savviness is a powerful skill for project managers in the 21st century, because projects frequently span countries or even continents. I learned this lesson firsthand while working abroad to manage an IT infrastructure project at my company's branch office in Jogjakarta, Indonesia.

I didn't realize I would need to recalibrate my behavior until the project was well underway. During the three-month planning and procurement process, I worked remotely from Australia, liaising with the local office manager, who was also Australian. When I arrived in Indonesia and met the office manager in person, I still wasn't aware of the challenges stemming from cultural differences I would face.

My first meeting with the technicians who would be installing the infrastructure hardware at the branch office was somewhat awkward. The technicians just nodded and did not raise questions, even when I solicited them. I did almost all the talking. At this point a light bulb came on: The technicians saw the project manager as someone with higher standing and expected me to simply tell them what to do. Rather than trying to acculturate them to the team dynamics I was used to, I immediately changed my mindset from egalitarian to authoritative and gave them specific instructions. I also stayed with them during the installation period in case they needed someone to make a decision on the fly. The project was completed on time and on budget.

In retrospect, I was fortunate that I had grown up in Indonesia and was able to quickly shift my thinking. After more than 10 years in Australia, I had grown accustomed to a work culture where everyone more or less has the same standing, regardless of job title or position in corporate hierarchy. Someone who lacked exposure to Indonesian culture probably would have needed extra time to figure it out and adjust his or her behavior.

For this reason, project managers who manage projects across multiple cultures should undertake cross-cultural education or training. This is even more necessary for those who travel to different countries to oversee implementations. Training should offer insights into different values and customs of the country and provide suggestions on how to respond to and behave in certain circumstances. Organizations with numerous international projects should consider bringing cross-cultural modules into their project management training curricula. In today's global economy, such efforts make for both more smoothly executed projects and more satisfied employees. PM

img Franciscus Suryana, PMP, is an IT project manager at Aurecon in Melbourne, Australia.
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