The global project management framework: communication, collaboration, and management across borders
Many organizations struggle to reach the required levels of quality and effectiveness from global projects because their methods, tools, and practices are not adapted to a global multicultural environment, where most communication is asynchronous and involves different cultures and languages. To resolve these issues, a novel framework was proposed in Global Project Management: Communication, Collaboration and Management Across Borders (Binder, 2007), recognized by PMI as the best project management literature of 2007 with the PMI David I. Cleland Project Management Literature Award.
This paper will review the key framework concepts and present the main areas of knowledge that companies must consider to achieve a high level of efficiency on global projects and programs: global teams, global communication, global organizations, collaborative tools and techniques.
The modules in the framework must be evaluated using a holistic approach and can be applied in combination with the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – 4th Edition.
The project management profession already has a solid foundation for processes, tools, and methods. The bodies of knowledge already reached a very good level of maturity, and most companies adopted to some extent the principles from the PMBOK® Guide, PRINCE2 or IPMA. Many project managers already possess some type of formal certification in the field. Certified project managers are the ones who master the techniques required to successfully manage the project within constraints such as cost, scope, quality, and time. Is this enough for a project manager?
Take a real-world scenario: a customer located in the U.S. hiring a company based in India with high-skilled IT professionals to develop a new software tool. The specifications come from the headquarters in the U.S., the main customers are based in England and France, and some of the software modules are being developed in Israel. Can you apply the methods you learned while studying for your project management certification?
The answer is yes. You must use all the basic project management skills taught by IPMA, the PMBOK® Guide, and PRINCE2. And you better use them very effectively, as you will not have the opportunity to meet your users on a regular basis over a lunch to discuss their level of satisfaction, and you will not discover which tasks on the critical path are late during an informal chat at the coffee machine. Excellent project management skills are mandatory for the success of any global project, but you need much more to succeed.
Defining Global Projects
Global projects involve team members from various cultures and organizations, spread in locations across countries and time zones, and speaking different native languages (Exhibit 1). Each of these dimensions can contribute to the success of the team and the quality of the project deliverables, while adding challenges to project and program managers, PMOs, and the team members.
Exhibit 1: Dimensions of global projects
Multicultural teams can increase the level of innovation, when various standpoints are fostered and harvested. Experienced project managers can organize very rich brainstorming sessions to collect different ideas and to assess their risks and opportunities. Similar strategies can be applied for problem-solving situations and when identifying international strengths and weaknesses from social, economic, political, environmental, religious, and technical perspectives. However, most global project managers would have already faced some form of misunderstanding generated by conflicting views on values or behaviours. Very often, these conflicts can take precious time and energy to get under control.
Team members from different organizations can have access to a more affluent set of tools, knowledge, facilities, raw materials, intellectual properties, and equipment. They may also bring their own processes, standards, procedures, and corporate objectives, which must be perfectly aligned or synchronized for the execution of the project work packages within the time, scope, cost, and quality constraints.
Most team members are allocated to projects according to their knowledge and availability. Global projects allow these team members to work together independently of their geographical situation, without the added costs and time needed for relocation. On the other hand, meetings across locations can generate many misunderstandings, as they rely mostly on verbal communication, losing an important part of the content that could be exchanged by visual cues.
Some projects can also benefit from the “around-the-clock” effect for activities that require 24-hour support. Teams spanning various time zones can perform long sequential activities, such as executing a series of tasks that require supervision during 15 non-interrupted hours, starting with a team in Australia and handing off to a team in Spain for completion. The different time zones can also facilitate maintenance work, one example being a team in Brazil repairing during their office hours an online application used in Japan, without impact during the Japanese office hours. This requires agreements and understanding between stakeholders without a shared office time. In the last situation, the Brazilians must have some meetings at 9 p.m. with their Japanese counterparts at 9 a.m. (or vice versa), and prioritize asynchronous communication by e-mail.
And do you believe that English is the universal business language? Perhaps, but is this accepted in diverse countries such as France, Italy, Russia, and China? This is often a controversial discussion, but assuming that you get a common agreement that English (or any other language) is the “official” project language during meetings and for documentations, what are the levels of understanding from stakeholders around the globe in that language? Can they understand technical terms, measurement units, jargon, and slang? Are they able to have informal discussions—very important for teambuilding activities—outside their native language? Only a few projects can benefit from having multilingual team members to translate requirements and communication in order to increase the commitment from specific stakeholders.
Global projects have clear advantages, and also challenges. It is very important to consider them carefully during project initiation, and put in place a set of good practices that will guarantee effective implementation.
A Framework of Good Practices for Global Project Management
Many studies and textbooks cover specific practices that can increase collaboration over distance, helping the management of virtual and multicultural teams. These practices are grouped on the Global Project Management Framework® (Exhibit 2) for a holistic analysis of your requirements. This does not mean that you must apply all 25 knowledge areas to meet the challenges of any global project. However, it will be helpful to consider all of them when evaluating what can go wrong, and to consider the most relevant to your situation, when preparing your project plan and risk assessment. During the project executing, monitoring, and controlling activities, the framework is also a valuable reference to help the project team during conflicts and problem solving in critical periods. Before closing the project, you might also refer to the framework to complete your lessons learned session, writing recommendations for future situations.
Exhibit 2: Global project management framework
To be successful, global project management implies changes for the organizations (to understand the different characteristics and requirements of global projects), for the program and project managers’ attitudes, for PMO practices and services, and for the way team members collaborate and communicate over distance. To facilitate this process, the practices in the framework are grouped into five main categories, each representing an element from the organization change theories: Global team management, Global communication, Global organizations, Collaborative tools, and Collaborative techniques. We will now review the main challenges and take a brief look into each of the best practices in the framework.
Global Team Management
Global project managers must have good strategies to coordinate multicultural and virtual teams (Exhibit 3), by understanding and taking into consideration the differences in culture, language skills, and time zones. A good starting point is to have a solid understanding on the cultural dimensions and different leadership theories. Using this knowledge, a trusted relationship can be developed with different stakeholders, and coaching can be a valuable tool. Finally, conflicting situations are inevitable: in many situations, they can bring innovation. A good project manager must be ready to resolve them and build from the differences.
Exhibit 3: Global teams category and knowledge areas
- Cross-cultural collaboration—Fons Trompenaars says that culture is like water to a fish. Geert Hofstede adds that culture has visible and invisible elements. These two authors defined different dimensions to the cultural differences, which allow the understanding of diverse standpoints—potential sources of innovation and conflict. Using the dimensions, global project managers can recognize the invisible elements of the national cultures present in the project team, accepting the different mindsets and respecting them, and assigning people to the roles and activities that fit their communication style. The dimensions can also be a rich source for risk identification and mitigation, when evaluated in early project stages.
- Global team leadership—Global leaders must adapt their leadership, communication, and management styles to the different cultures they work with. They must develop an understanding of how to obtain commitment and improve the motivation level of the project team members when having most of the meetings over a distance and outside office hours.
- Trust building—Some communication channels (between team members) are more likely to require a high level of trust when they cross country borders or involve people who have never worked together before. Project managers must identify the weak communication channels and work to resolve this, beginning with project initiation, in order to build trust. The project planning phase is often a very good opportunity to bring the team together (or around a virtual table, over web or video-conferencing) and build trusted relationships, which must last until the project completion and which form solid links for future ventures.
- Conflict resolution—Project managers must pay special attention to the potential sources of conflict that are specific to global projects, identifying different techniques to act as a mediator, assess the situation, and resolve the conflict in the best interests of the project objectives.
- Coaching—Project managers can use coaching as a powerful tool to develop trust and learn about the cultural differences. A good coaching process starts with a clear definition of goals, continues with a periodic review of the achievements, and stops with a structured review of the learning and next steps.
Project managers spend most of their time communicating. Collecting information from team members, compiling project status and reports, distributing essential information to key stakeholders, all are part of the daily tasks in any project. Global projects bring the challenges of distance and skewed time zones, requiring different techniques to excel in the same daily tasks. Add to these the multi-language and cross-cultural barriers to understanding, and the communication activities are far from being simple. Global project managers must involve their team members to identify the stakeholders and understand the communication channels between the team members. With this in mind, a good communication strategy must be defined, together with techniques, rules, and templates to communicate and brainstorm effectively over distance (Exhibit 4).
Exhibit 4: Global communication category and knowledge areas
- Stakeholders and communication channels—The identification, analysis, and management of global stakeholders involves the team members, who are best placed to understand and influence the stakeholders in their geographical area. The project managers must lead this task, and provide coaching and support for this process to be effective. On the other hand, the communication channels that span geographical and cultural borders must be identified and receive special attention.
- Rules and templates—Global project teams must together define the basic rules to select the best communication media for each meeting type. They must also agree upfront on the templates to be deployed throughout the project, keeping in mind that the documents will be prepared and reviewed using synchronous and asynchronous electronic media.
- Global communication strategy—The main members of the global project team must define the most frequent types of project information, and identify the stakeholders’ requirements. A good communication strategy for a global project specifies the relationship between each key stakeholder and the main information types, defining the best media and manner for the communication to take place.
- Global communication techniques—Global project managers and project office members must master the techniques to collecting information from geographically distributed team members, exchanging project information with the main team members, and distributing the project status and reports to key stakeholders.
- Global creativity—The uniqueness of project deliverables requires the global team members to unite their creative minds. Brainstorming sessions are widely used around whiteboards and flip charts. Global project managers must use a different set of tools and techniques to foster creative ideas and capture fuzzy knowledge in online meetings.
When organizations start coalitions, programs, or projects that span country borders, they must think about the impact on their organizational cultures and structures. The program and project structures must be carefully designed in order to respect the geographical dispersion of the human resources while allowing the optimal communication between the team members. Global program offices (PMO) have a key role in interviewing the international experts and providing coaching and organizational support to the global program and project managers. (Exhibit 5).
Exhibit 5: Global organizations category and knowledge areas
- Global project structures—International projects can be structured in different ways: project managers communicate directly to all key team members in centralized structures. In distributed structures, project coordinators are nominated to monitor the planning and execution of a group of team members in the same geographical location, organization, or knowledge area.
- Selection of international human resources—Project managers and team members must have specific skills to work effectively in global projects. Global thinking, culture awareness, self-motivation, and openness are examples of skills that can be required from candidates during the selection process or developed with training programs. Special skills also help to conduct interviews over a distance, and good preparation of questions and the communication media are key factors for a successful selection process.
- Global PMOs—Program or project management offices can provide various services to improve the success rate of global projects. Knowledge management services allow standard practices during the collection and distribution of project information. Portfolio management services make sure that consistent rules are deployed across departmental and geographical borders in the project selection, prioritization, and allocation of resources. Health checks, coaching, and training services can help program and project managers across the globe to use the same processes, methods, and templates, and to master the communication and leadership techniques essential to international initiatives.
- Organizational support—Global organizations, alliances, and partnerships must adapt their processes and policies to provide support to global project team members. Senior executives and HR departments must understand the differences across corporate and country borders, to determine what elements can influence the motivation of the international working force. Emotional intelligence, work-life balance, and international performance appraisal systems are some examples of motivational factors to be carefully evaluated.
- Global collaborative networks—Organizations are evolving from multinational enterprises to international networks that aggregate the main suppliers, producers, and customers with their sub-contractors and service providers. These alliances and partnerships are often sealed around a group of programs and projects. Senior executives must understand the different challenges faced by the global teams in order to define collaboration strategies during early stages. Examples of these challenges are the different corporate cultures and maturity levels in project management, processes, and procedures.
Collaborative Tools and Techniques
The two last categories of the framework (Exhibit 6) deal with different technology areas that organizations can implement to foster collaboration on global projects. The first step is to evaluate the requirements, investigate different solutions to satisfy these needs, and then select, implement, and provide basic training on the chosen technologies. Usually this is not enough to obtain adoption of the new tools by global project managers and team members. Organizations must use creative techniques to make the tools known and loved by employees across the globe. When “loved” is too strong a word, at least the project teams must see the benefits of the technologies in their daily tasks, such as reduced time required to moderate meetings and prepare reporting, fewer misunderstandings, electronic flows for document review and approval, automatic handling of basic project management and communication tasks, and fewer and shorter business trips.
Exhibit 6: Global tools and techniques categories and knowledge areas
- Basic tools and techniques—Simple tools are the foundation for collaboration across team members. We can take for granted the availability of telephones, e-mail, and remote access to corporate systems. Are they used efficiently? Are people following simple “etiquette” when exchanging messages? Other simple solutions might also provide a great help, such as shareable spreadsheets, websites dealing with meeting times in various time zones, and tools that help organize meetings between people from different companies.
- Audio and video tools and techniques—Audio-conferences and video-conferences are essential for any project team working in different locations. The main barriers are the technical difficulties to start the calls—mainly when connecting equipment from different companies—and the quality of sound and video. These elements must be taken into consideration when evaluating the technical solutions and preparing training and documentation to help the meeting coordinators.
- Text and image tools, used during online meetings—Online meetings are usually the best option, sharing images to improve the meeting effectiveness, while using straightforward technologies. The principle is simple: establish (at the same time) an audio-conferencing call and a web-conferencing session, then share spreadsheets, mindmapping software, or presentations. While ideas are gathered or the project status is reviewed, the discussions are captured on the fly in a computer screen. The meeting participants can visualize what is being captured and react (when they disagree) or add more information. This reduces the probability of misunderstanding and eliminates the need for late nights of writing meeting minutes, and long delays to have them approved by the meeting participants.
- Knowledge-sharing tools and techniques—There is a variety of tools that allow knowledge sharing, many of them coming from the open source community. The most common for business environments are content management systems (CMS) that allow publishing project news, the collaborating on documents, and sharing online tables to capture the risks, opportunities, issues, changes, and stakeholders. More recently, project wikis allow the collaborative writing of project documentation and online tutorials, and status reports can be published and reviewed by different members using blogs. Creative project teams are using these and other technologies in a variety of ways to improve the quality of asynchronous communication (mainly across time zones) and remote collaboration.
- Collaborative project management software—There are technology platforms that allow project team members to create and maintain the project management plan, to monitor the execution of the deliverables, to share the project logs, and to obtain approval from key stakeholders on documentation, business cases, and closing reports. In global projects, the implementation of these platforms is essential for all processes that require effective collaboration across borders, such as defining activities, identifying and analyzing risks, directing and managing project execution, monitoring progress, and controlling project work.
Global project managers must be ready to face the challenges of cross-cultural communication, different organizations, skewed time zones, multiple languages, and collaboration across locations. There are at least 25 areas to be considered when planning a global project. The Global Project Management Framework provides a comprehensive set of practices and recommendations on these areas, aligned with organizational change variables.
Global organizations can use the framework as a starting point to detect which areas must be addressed before starting a global project. An organizational change program can be put in place to implement best practices in the main areas, improving the effectiveness of communication, collaboration, and management across borders.
Binder, J. (2007). Global project management: Communication, collaboration and management across borders. Aldershot, UK: Gower
Binder, J. (2008). Distributed programs, virtual projects and global projects. Retrieved May 16, 2008 from http://Framework.GlobalProjectManagement.org
Levin, G. (2008). Cover to cover – Global project management: Communication, collaboration and management across borders. Project Management Journal, 39(4), 115.
© 2009, Jean Binder
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands