Project Management Institute

Managing client and workforce culture

the real diversity issue for project managers

Forget the simplistic race-and-gender definitions of diversity: when your project team hails from Kalamazoo, Bangalore, Sao Paulo and Auckland, you've got bigger problems to worry about.

by David L. Sears

DIVERSITY REMAINS A work in progress, according to statistics. For example, Computerworld's 1997 survey of the “100 Best Places to Work in IS” seems to indicate that IS/IT workforce diversity— the inclusion and development of minority and female IS/IT professionals—remains an elusive goal. In that survey (which covered Fortune 1000 companies plus 40 top IT consulting firms) two-thirds of the elite 100 had minority employment/development results that ranked them among the bottom 20 percent of firms surveyed. The results for women professionals were better, but by no means spectacular.

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These numbers seem to imply that, for most IT organizations, the full meaning, impact and implications of diversity are still ahead. Yet IT project managers—and other types of project managers—are already experiencing impacts of workforce diversity that are real and dazzlingly complex.

Business realities such as the shortage of U.S. IT talent that has drawn immigrant professionals, the Y2K issue and the increasing reliance on overseas coding talent, global IT projects and project teams, often upend traditional assumptions about how to manage work and people. The two-dimensional diversity of race and gender is being supplanted by the almost infinite dimensions of culture. The arguments supporting the goal of diversity are that a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and genderneutral workforce will fuel organization resourcefulness and productivity. Employees will bring new perspectives to business issues and new insights to product development, marketing, sales and customer service.

This idealized perspective on the power of cultural diversity may be achievable in the long term. But to achieve it—and in the meantime to deal effectively with the huge potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication that can heat the melting pot to boiling point—IS/IT leaders must understand and adapt to the very real differences that culture can bring to their business environment.

This is a very complex topic; let's deal with it in this very short space by laying out the essentials as outlined in Fons Trompenaars’ remarkable book Riding the Waves of Culture ( 1994, Irwin Professional Publishing). Trompenaars believes that:

Western management methods stressing numerical and rational approaches to human motivation are based on cultural rather than scientific beliefs. These cultural beliefs are not universal.

Culture is the way in which a group solves problems. Cultures distinguish themselves dramatically in the ways they handle relationships with people, attitudes toward time, and attitudes toward the environment (see Exhibit 1).

These are only a few of the infinite cultural combinations and permutations that face project managers responsible for multicultural project teams or for supporting a multicultural client base. To focus on adapting to one is almost certainly to run the risk of ignoring or misunderstanding others. (Adapted from the work of Fons Trompenaars in Riding the Waves of Culture.)

Exhibit 1. These are only a few of the infinite cultural combinations and permutations that face project managers responsible for multicultural project teams or for supporting a multicultural client base. To focus on adapting to one is almost certainly to run the risk of ignoring or misunderstanding others. (Adapted from the work of Fons Trompenaars in Riding the Waves of Culture.)

Organizations and their practices have different meanings to people in different cultures. These meanings can display the strength of gravity—undermining even the most logical of centralized practices.

In a multicultural environment project managers must develop skills in recognizing and understanding the impact of cultural differences both within their organizations and between their organizations and partners/ clients/vendors.

Managing the Impact of Culture. The data in Exhibit 1 reveals only a few of the infinite cultural combinations and permutations that can face the project managers responsible for multicultural project teams or for supporting a multicultural client base. To focus on adapting to one is almost certainly to run the risk of ignoring or misunderstanding others. Rather than trying to classify and master all the combinations, the most benefit can be drawn from heeding some basic guidelines.

Understand the importance of relationships in Particularistic cultures. North American and Northern European managers are most often Universalistic, ready to plunge ahead with rational decisions and action plans. Particularistic cultures—many Asians, Southern Europeans and Latin Americans— get suspicious when hurried. To Universalists delaying action to build relationships may seem a waste of time—relationships are built during task accomplishments. To Particularists, however, the time taken to build relationships is saved in the avoidance of future trouble—relationships are built before agreements and task accomplishments. These differing orientations are illustrated in Exhibit 2.

Avoid “one size fits all” approaches to such issues as management by objectives, pay for performance and matrixed organizations. Management-by-objectives is apt to fail in Particularistic cultures because of a reluctance to conform to abstract policy guidelines. Matrixed organizations may also fail in Particularistic and Collective cultures because participants can't reconcile having two different reporting relationships. Separating work performance evaluation from personal evaluation may be difficult for employees from Diffuse cultures.

Use cultural skills and viewpoints to advantage in making project assignments and advancing client relationships. We warn here about not wading too deeply into multicultural complexity. That being said, understanding cultural preferences can enhance the effectiveness and reduce the costs of managing people. For example, people from Controlling cultures may find it awkward and difficult to seek colleague/client input and feedback. By contrast, people from Adaptive cultures (Asians, for example) may find it second nature. The lesson? Consider using the skills of Adaptives in project planning and when seeking user project input.

Understand the importance of time perspectives when scheduling meetings, planning projects and setting deadlines for deliverables. Time is the arena where culture differences can be particularly irksome. For example, most IT projects run in tight Sequential time with critical paths, roll-ups, deadlines and deliverables. In Synchronic cultures, however, punctuality vies with other, sometimes stronger cultural values. Attending to relationships with valued associates may take priority over punctual meeting attendance. Many projects and commitments running in parallel may also result in missed meetings or deliverables. Synchronic people assume, however, that others have lots of balls in the air as well. Lateness may actually be seen as a convenience to others.

To Universalists delaying action to build relationships may seem a waste of time—relationships are built during task accomplishments. To Particularists, however, the time taken to build relationships is saved in the avoidance of future trouble—relationships are built before agreements and task accomplishments

Exhibit 2. To Universalists delaying action to build relationships may seem a waste of time—relationships are built during task accomplishments. To Particularists, however, the time taken to build relationships is saved in the avoidance of future trouble—relationships are built before agreements and task accomplishments.

Be prepared to reconcile the legal requirement of the U.S. workplace with potentially conflicting cultural requirements. Trompenaars describes the dilemma of dispatching a young, achievement-oriented, female, U.S. manager overseas to manage staff in a culture where status by Ascription (age, sex) is the persistent norm. Refusal to send her is probably illegal, yet to send her is to confront her with difficulties she may not be able to overcome. A better tactic, he suggests, might be to pair her as an assistant to an indigenous leader (providing her equivalent pay and career status) so that she can bring her skills to bear while using local authority to get things done.

ABOVE ALL, RECOGNIZE that cultural factors have an increasing impact in the multicultural workforce of the ever-more-global economy. As leaders, it's important to understand and leverage rather than battle or dismiss the values and behaviors that are the essence of this ultimate diversity. ■

David Sears (dlsears@iteamtalent.com) is president of D.L.Sears & Associates Inc., a consulting firm with expertise and focus in meeting the staffing, compensation, measurement and leadership needs of IS/IT organizations. Through its ITeam Talent Website (www.iteamtalent) D.L.Sears & Associates provides Web-based resources guides for recruiting and retaining IT project talent.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • November 1998

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