Everything is about time. Has it the same meaning all over the world?

 

Abstract

All projects need an organized management of the time to reflect and implement their projects plans. Larger projects may have multiple schedules requiring a formal scheduling system. But even the smallest of projects needs to have at least, a one-page project master schedule to guide it.

In an ever-increasing globalized world, perception of time remains something deeply entrenched in culture and traditions.

What happen when the project involves different cultural groups?

How reliable will the activity duration estimation be?

Differences over time can play out in painful and dramatic ways in the negotiation or conflict resolution processes, and might make communications challenging. In addition, cultural approaches to time may not always be applied in good faith.

What we experienced during our extensive practice working as part of international teams, are the problems that can occur if members have different attitudes towards time; for example, someone with a monochronic attitude to time may feel that a colleague displaying polychronic behaviors seems disorganized and may feel frustrated; in contrast the person with a polichronic attitude to time may get frustrated with colleagues displaying monochromic behavior, particularly when they seem reluctant to take time-out on an ad-hoc basis to discuss pressing issues.

Introduction

With increased globalization, understanding the various cultures and people's attitudes and behaviors is crucial for business and product success. Differences in time perception have been cited for a many years but have gained prominence only in the recent past. People from different cultures organize their time and behavior in different ways: North-American, Northern and Central European nationals are said to have a monochronic perception of time, whereas Mediterranean, South-American, African and Asian nationals are seen as polychronic individuals. The two extreme types of behavior can have important implications in projects when people take the chance to work together. This paper introduces the concept of time perception and has the objective to show possible differences between monochrons and polychrons, while explaining issues happening among people from different cultures when they come together to work hand-in-hand on projects.

Perception of the Time

One's own culture provides the “lens” through which we view the world

(Kevin Avruch, Peter Black – Anthropologists)

Cultural Differences in Time Monochronism and Polychronism

Monochronism

Doing one thing at a time (U.S., England, Germany). Time is tangible, valuable. Schedules are more important than people or tasks but time is also a commodity, and this values time itself, rather than satisfaction, good work, and relationships. As a result, this view of time may be stressful.

Hall's (1982) notion of monochronism and polychronism can be understood as follows. Monochronic time is linear. Events are scheduled one at a time, one event following another. To a monochronic culture, this type of schedule is valued over interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, polychronic time is characterized by many things happening simultaneously. In addition, interpersonal relationships are highly valued in polychronic cultures.

Hall's theory is that monochronic time can be found primarily in North American and Northern European cultures.

These cultures emphasize schedules, punctuality, and preciseness. They also emphasize “doing” things. They are cultures that value productivity, that value getting things done “on time.” They view time as something that can be lost, killed, or wasted—or, conversely, they view time as something that can, or should, be managed, planned, and used efficiently.

Polychronism

Engage in several activities at once (Arab cultures, American Indians, Mexicans). Time is less tangible. Stresses involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than schedules. Multi-tasking. Polychronic time, on the other hand, can be found primarily in Latin American, African, and Native American cultures. Their perception of time is more connected to natural rhythms. It is connected to the earth, to the seasons. This makes sense when we consider that natural events can occur spontaneously, sporadically, or concurrently.

Polychronic cultures view time as being somewhat flexible. Because life isn't so predictable, scheduling and being precise simply isn't that important. In addition, relationships with people are valued more than making schedules. There is more value placed on “being” than on “doing.” Different cultural perceptions of time can lead to conflict, especially in the business world. The idea of being late versus on time for a meeting, for example, might differ widely between an American businessperson and a Brazilian; the American businessperson might be far less tolerant of a Brazilian's late arrival. However, the Brazilian businessperson might be offended by an American's insistence on punctuality or on getting right down to business; the Brazilian would generally prefer to finish talking with colleagues first, and would not want to cut a conversation short in order to make an appointment.

Polychronism versus Monochronism

A British businessman in Saudi Arabia is keen to secure an important deal. He has a tight schedule and cannot afford to waste time. His frustration increases because he has to wait for ages for an appointment with his Saudi partner. Meetings never start on time, and when they do, there are frequent interruptions, with people coming in to get papers signed. The Saudi partner even takes phone calls when his visitor is in the room.

From these examples we see that the notion of waiting, linked to the perception of time, varies from one culture to the next and this may cause cultural misunderstandings. These examples show a clash between a polychronic and monochronic culture.

What is worse, polychronic people keeping an appointment does not have the same importance as in monochromic terms. They can be changed anytime and most important projects can undergo important changes until the last minute. On the contrary, in western civilization and monochronic time, everything is organized and dominated by a very rigid conception of time: man's social, professional, and even sexual life can be dominated by his or her time perception. The conception of time is linear: it can be saved, spent, wasted, lost; it can hurry by or slow down, etc. Not respecting the right time for and activity and using inconsiderately of someone else's time means that you are selfish, narcissist and ill-behaved. The advantage is that you can be accurate to the problem you are dealing with, but the context is never taken into account.

Monochronism versus Polychronism

Monochronic find it very difficult to work with polychronic and vice-versa. Some examples will make this very clear. Eskimos working in a factory in Alaska could not cope with the factory's whistle that alerted them to breaktimes, etc. In their culture, human activities are determined by the sea-tides, how long they will last and when they will take place. High tide defines certain types of activities, low tide defines other ones.

Germans employed in Honduras complained that the factory workers came to work half an hour late every day. The answer was: yes, but they COME every day, which is in itself, exceptional. They should not complain.

Aboriginal and Native Americans have typical polychronic cultures, where “talking stick” meetings can go on for as long as somebody has something to say.

People across cultures have different conceptions of time. It can be linear, cyclical or event related. In Malaysia, as well as in Latin America for example, time is flexible and an appointment can take place before or after the agreed time. For example, there's a story of a British visitor who had a meeting scheduled for ten in the morning; however, his Malaysian driver called at 8:30 because the weather was sunny, and decided to get an earlier start to the day.

Cyclical: based on the daily routines of agricultural time. It is taken for granted that people should adapt to natural cycles.

Event related: time is when something happens. Action is taken when something happens: the roof starts leaking. It is not the result of conscious planning, but of something happening. The bus does not leave when the timetable says it should, but instead when it is full. Time cannot be saved or wasted.

Attitudes Vary Across Cultures

Perception of Time & Priorities: Polychronic versus Monochronic

Exhibit 1 – Perception of Time & Priorities: Polychronic versus Monochronic

Project Management

Perception of time is one of the most central differences that separate cultures and cultural ways of doing things. Project managers must cope with the diversity of mental software among members of an international project team. This diversity is likely to include widely divergent assumptions about the importance of meeting project deadlines.

Monochronic versus polychronic time conception is one culturally programmed difference of great importance for project managers. In monochronic business cultures, time is money and lost profit is usually the greatest cost of project delay. In polychronic business cultures, there is a tradeoff between human relationship issues such as, quality of time and traditional cost priority issues. In practice, international project managers use a variety of strategies to cope with these opposing models of effectiveness.

Does that mean that project managers are bound to accept extensive project delays as inevitable, simply because the project team is international?

Or is it always best to enforce project deadlines regardless of culture when the cost of delay is enormous?

In North Europe and the United States, for example, it is extremely important to meet project deadlines. Projects that fall behind schedule may justify drastic action. These business cultures are known as monochronic in the international business literature. Here are some of the major components of monochronic thinking, described for Latin American business people (polychronic) trying to understand monochronic business:

  1. Time is money, so every decision, every activity, every commitment is controlled by the clock;
  2. A project manager is under constant pressure to meet deadlines, and much of one's personal life is thereby sacrificed;
  3. Lack of punctuality is considered almost a disgrace, and excuses are seldom accepted;
  4. Life moves by the clock, and any disrespect for time has serious repercussions;
  5. In every day work life to succeed you must stay on time, if you step off, you are lost.

Many other business cultures, however, are not so obsessed with meeting deadlines. Polychronic temporal conception, which is an alternative mental algorithm for scheduling time, places greater emphasis on personal interaction than on schedules. In polychronic cultures, a task is usually completed even if it is necessary to go beyond the time scheduled for doing so. The delay, in turn, forces the next task off schedule. Still, the people who have the next appointment are not expected to be offended or irritated by the delay, because they know that in time, their projects will also be handled completely.

Scheduling is approximate rather than specific. For example, an appointment guarantees that an individual will be seen; it may not guarantee when. Polychronic time runs on several tracks simultaneously. Tasks run on one time track. Personal relationships run on another track with equal urgency. Polychronic business people switch back and forth between these varieties of mental time.

Even in monochronic culture, people have an idea of this second track when they are exhorted to spend quality time with their families. Quality time means they are thinking about relationships, not business. In monochronic culture, enforcing project deadlines is accepted as legitimate if the stakes are high enough. People become accustomed to putting family needs on the back burner. When duty calls, we explain to friends and family that we have no choice but to give first priority to our work. We expect them to understand. They usually do.

Nevertheless, most of the world operates on polychronic time, so the assumptions made in the monochronic culture about respecting project deadlines are not shared in many other business cultures.

The PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004) describes Time Management processes in a monochronic manner, but what happens when, in multi-cultural projects, time is understood in different way?

The project schedule is likely the best tool available for managing the day-to-day communication on any project. And further, one of the best ways to control a project plan is to monitor performance regularly with the use of a formal scheduling methodology.

(Q.W. Fleming, J.M. Koppleman - Earned Value)

References

Hall, E. T. (1983). The dance of life: The other dimension of time. New York: Anchor Press.

Hall, E. T. (1989). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor Press.

Hall, E. T. (1990). The hidden dimension. New York: Anchor Press.

Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Kaufman, C. F., Lane, P. M., & Lindquist, J. D. (1991). Exploring more than 24 hours a day: A preliminary investigation of polychronic time use. Journal of Consumer Research, 18(3), 392-401.

Kvassov, V., & Tetard, F. (2000). Impacts of information technology on temporal dimensions of managerial work and its productivity. Proceedings of 5-th AIM conference. Montpellier, France.

Kras, E. (1995). Management in two cultures: Bridging the gap between US and Mexican managers. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Morosini, P., Shane, S., & Singh, H. (1998). National cultural distance and cross-border acquisition performance. Journal of International Business Studies, 29 (1), 137-158.

Morrison, T., Conaway, W., & Borden, G. (1994). Kiss, bow, or shake hands: How to do business in sixty countries. Holbrook, MA: Adams Publishing.

Burgar, Paul (1999) Proceedings of the Academy of Information and Management Sciences, 3 (2) Las Vegas, Nevada

Victor, D. (1992). International business communication. New York: HarperCollins.

© 2008, Giancarlo Duranti
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – St. Julians, Malta

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