Managing complex IT projects in China

the cultural lessons learned



The author (SK) has amassed more than 14 years of hands-on experience in managing complex information technology projects. SK's specialisation's are in areas of software integration and mission critical system deployment. Among the major projects/systems that have been successfully completed and made operational, with SK's professional consultancy inputs are:

  • ❑    Total Airport Management Systems (TAMS) for Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia
  • ❑    Integrated Information System for Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China
  • ❑    Terminal Expansion Program, Beijing Capital International Airport, China
  • ❑    System Re-integration and Service Optimization for Inchon International Airport Corporation, Korea
  • ❑    Independent audit on the Operational Readiness Evaluation of Inchon International Airport Corporation, Korea
  • ❑    System Integration Architecture Development Project for Government of Malaysia and
  • ❑    New Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, China

Over the five years managing mega projects in China, SK has gathered priceless experiences and he will endeavour to share with you some of the unforgettable stories, which carry invaluable lessons.

The examples stated are taken from SK's experiences with actual situations that arose during his work on various airport projects in China.

This paper is a good read for those who are in the midst of, or about to engage on IT projects in China.

Project Background

The traditional airport has been operated in an environment where an airport IT system is not integrated. Information created by the different departments such as the Baggage Handling System, Security System, Airlines Reservations System or the Departure Control System at the check-in counters, is shared or exchanged through conventional means. For example, calling a meeting, telephone, fax or sending a memo, exchanging computer diskettes, etcetera. Obviously, such methods are counter productive as it is prone to errors and is not real time. The ultimate consequence of such a standalone system is the airport loses its competitiveness and weakens the bottom line.

Alternatively the International Airport in China adopted the concepts of the Airport Operational Database (AODB) and System Integration of the above mentioned disintegrated IT systems. This integrated system allows the different departments or functional areas within an airport environment to communicate and exchange information seamlessly. The similar concept of an integrated airport system, which is also used at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, had helped to ease the exchange of information among departments improving efficiency, competitiveness and strengthen the bottom line.

Roles played by SK in these International Airport projects ranging from Project Manager, Chief Engineer and System Integration Manager of the System Integrator Team, was to oversee the design, implementation and management of the fully integrated IT subsystems as a Project Advisor to the Airport Authorities.

Section 1 Knowledge Area: Project Communication

Project Management theory advocates project communication to be one of the most important contributors towards the success of a project. More significantly however, during one of my recent project in Korea, project communication is in fact identified as being one of the high-risk areas even prior to the commencement of the project.

Thereby, the most challenging tasks faced by a System Integration Manager for any project of this magnitude, are not only the formation and management of the Virtual System Integration project team but also the responsibility of managing this risk.

In this particular instance, taking into consideration the importance placed upon project communication, when a team consists of representatives from over 40 standalone systems, and each project member descended from diverse cultures of more than 15 nationalities, with different beliefs, languages, and levels of social interaction, a breakdown in communication becomes an inevitable problem.

What action was taken in order to mitigate this risk factor?

Interesting Meetings

Establishing Chinese Mandarin as the official language and English as the international language did alleviate the immediate problems of communication but not entirely solving it. Other problems soon arose.


I have established how a Virtual System's Integration Team for a project like the International Airport in China consists of members from diverse nationalities. This poses acute problems of language and communication. As mentioned, in an attempt to combat this problem we implemented the solution of establishing an official and international language. In addition, we employed respective translators for each engineer. Despite these endeavours, it was discovered that although this addressed the immediate problem, it created a different set of problems which then called for a different solution.

For example, meetings took longer than scheduled due to the processes of interpretations. I have witnessed countless times where non-Chinese foreign experts have sat in a meeting for 30 minutes with little comprehension of what was being said until the interpreter spoke.

Another problem found is that often during the processes of translation, where critical information may either be lost or distorted, engineers will apply their own understanding of what was translated.

For example, the Chinese Technical specification stated ‘Advance User Interface System’. An engineer translated the term to become ‘Intelligent User Interface System with virtual reality and 3D capabilities or its equivalent.’

In another incident an English Technical Specification stated ‘The module should consist of Features 1, 2, 3 and 4’. Once translated into Japanese, which in turn was then translated into Chinese became ‘The sub-system should consist of Features 1, 2, etc capabilities’. It is very obvious information was distorted; module specified by the English Technical Specification became a sub-system with not just 4 features but infinite capabilities!

It became clear that a more innovative and proactive solution was needed. A possible solution directs to the employment of multi-lingual personnel with a resumé boasting of a solid working history in a similar role or experience in a multicultural environment. Multi-lingual personnel are found in abundance in countries such as Malaysia.


Thus far the most immediate issues of national, cultural and language diversity has been attended to. However, there are other less pressing, yet no less crucial, issues the System's Integration Manager must address. It has to be done with equal application of diplomacy and efficiency if a united team and consequently a successful project was to be found.

Smoking is a universally acceptable social habit. However, wherever it may be, society is divided into two groups regarding ‘smoking’: those who smoke and those who do not.

It is vital to consider the needs of both non-smoking and smoking members of the team. There are two effective ways in handling this issue.

First, limit the meeting to duration of between thirty to forty five minutes and incorporating frequent recesses to accommodate for the smoker's crave. Secondly, allocate an unofficial pre-meeting corner for smoking members.

Singling out a non-smoking team member to assist in drawing the non-smoking crowd is a tactful manner to divert the non-smoking from smoking members. I often make the request in this manner. “Those of you who want to enjoy some fresh air please follow Miss Li.”

We are glad that we didn't repeat mistakes made by others, such as trying to enforce a ‘Smoke Free Environment’ as part of the project rules! We decided against adopting this hard line rule because we believe smoking or non-smoking is a strictly personal lifestyle decision. Our rule of thumb for this kind of issue is ‘each to their own’ if it doesn't directly impede upon the project's progression.

However if it does, the matter needs to be handled diplomatically on an individual basis. This situation is similar to another I have encountered in a different project where a team member refused to remove his shoes before entering the computer room.

Section 2 :Knowledge Area : Project Human Resource Management

Tricky Doors

The Trouble Door

Entering without ‘Tot…Tot..may I come in?’

My System Integration Virtual Team consists of members from both local and foreign companies. These members have different respective cultural, social and business ethos, which proved to be potentially disruptive and counter-productive. Even the simple and mundane became issues of contention.

For example, the etiquette of privacy, knocking before entering a room has evolved into a controversial issue.

The local Chinese team member subscribes to the etiquette of knocking on the door before entering the room as do the foreign team members. However the point of conflict arises when one of the local Chinese team member does not realise he is meant to wait for an acknowledgement from within, following foreign etiquette, before entering.

I received complaints regarding this minor etiquette discrepancy from some foreign team members. Their concern was over the issue of confidentiality. I did not think too much of it, informing the foreigners that no harm was intended for it is just the Chinese culture.

What seems to be a storm in a tea cup broke loose one day. A local engineer ‘knocked’ and immediately entered the room. He found himself unwittingly amidst foreign team members reviewing their software product design documents, including source codes on a screen.

“Don't you Chinese understand the basics of professional behaviour?” The foreign expert rebuked the local engineer. The local engineer thinking himself unjustifiably insulted, left the room.

Soon, news about this unwarranted incident spread quickly among the team members. As a result the whole System Integration Team was divided along cultural alignments: the local experts and foreign experts and ccommunication was strained between the two groups. Unfortunately, the Project Manager was the last person to learn of the internal conflict amongst the team members.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? How did I resolve this internal conflict? The solution was resolved via the popular Chinese story about the White and Black Cats.

The Sincere Door

The new project manager is appointed to head a troubled project.

The first immediate task in any troubled project is to restore the TRUST between the customer and contractor. To restore trust, he must show his sincerity. The new project manager had attempted on numerous occasions to engage the customer outside work hours i.e. for a drink, a round of golf, etc. However the customer was cautious and had declined his advancement point blank.

He proceeded to place himself strategically where the customer would notice his ‘show’ of sincerity. He purposely chose an office next to the Customer Project Manager's room. Putting in the long hours, arriving early and leaving late, volunteering for graveyard shifts that no one else wanted.

Two months later, he got his first private outing.

The Closed Door

Software development.

I have learned a very productive strategy while in China: Closed Door Software Development.

Closed Door Software Development typically runs from 1 to 2 weeks. It entails putting the relevant people entrusted in developing the software in a hotel or an apartment. All necessities such as food, drinks and maids to cook and clean are made available hence allowing them to focus on the mission of working around the clock without distractions. The only communication they were allowed to make with the outside world was via the Internet.

The effectiveness of this technique among software developers in your country depends largely on what kind of approach to work and lifestyle they subscribe to. This Closed Door technique might sound good but do remember not to overuse it if you decide to adopt this technique. The critical success factors in implementing this technique are to announce a good reward scheme upfront and emplace Project Managers with proven track records under normal project periods. Otherwise this Closed Door Software Development initiative leaves much to be desired.

Knowing Your Project : Knowing Your People

The role of the Project Manager also encompasses motivating the team. Planning an unexpected holiday for the team to reward their effort in completing certain critical task is one way to maintain team morale and motivation. As are Karaoke sessions, always enthusiastically welcomed among the female members. Likewise a round of golf would be greeted with ecstatic delight from the foreign members of the team. Learning how to play Table Tennis (also called Ping Pong) and Chinese Chess would definitely delight the locals. It is a clear indication that you are striving to blend into the Chinese culture. In return you earn their respect and foster a closer rapport with the locals.

Social drinking is another popular activity in China, as it is anywhere else in the world. I must give warning of the comparatively higher alcohol content in their standard drink than those you can find in my homeland Malaysia.

Caution must be exercised when choosing to begin the night with a Chinese liqueur called ‘Mao Tai’ which contains 55% alcohol. Otherwise, consumed recklessly will find yourself out before second rounds, most embarrassing! According to Chinese culture, it is the highest-ranking official who foots the bill at the end of such an outing. That individual could be you, the ‘Cash Rich’ Project Manager. The term ‘cash rich’ refers to real ‘physical’ cash or notes in hand. In this case, the Chinese RMB are still preferred in majority of places in China rather than electronic transactions or otherwise known as ‘plastic’ which you might have taken for granted elsewhere.

Through such activities the Project Manager has the opportunity to interact with team members in a more relaxed environment, hence able to unearth each team member's strengths, weaknesses and concerns.

My role as the System Integration specialist also entails helping team members to be aware of the significance of their duty in relation to the entire project. For example, helping them understand the hundreds of crucial aviation data messages being transmitted from one end of the airport to the other in order to facilitate a normal routine aircraft landing. Therefore the team members must understand a software glitch, however seemingly minute to them, has the potential of proving disastrous for the entire airport operation. Considering an airport system is a mission critical system, it is of utmost importance team members realise and meet their social obligations and responsibilities

It is also advisable to constantly lead your team in visualising the end result. In the context of this project, visualising the first aircraft landing on the runway of the biggest fully integrated airport IT system in China. My job was to show them, inspire them as to how their efforts and contributions towards the team will help realise this dream for modern China. The timely opening of the International Airport in China was vital for China's admission as a member to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The airport is a showcase of China's potential and ability to be another world economic super power.

A VCD can destroy your career!!

Take nothing for granted in China. A Director of a company produced a video CD with excerpts from the International Airport in China project together with some references made to his/her personal background. The Director was relieved of his/her duties 12 months later during a tussle for a senior project position promotion. A rival colleague accused him/her of using the Video CD to lend credentials to his/her personal profile.

The moral behind this story is, don't ever take things for granted in China. Your actions today may hold you at ransom even 12 months later.

Office politics is a common experience for many of us who are in the workforce, regardless in which industry or country. However, a multicultural environment of a mega scale project provides for a completely new and unique experience. The above Director could be said to be a victim of such ‘project politics’.

Be acutely aware and mindful of business cultures and protocols.

During my acquired experiences working in Multinational Companies and on mega projects I have heard of and been subjected to enough office or project politics to ensure I was prepared before embarking upon my appointment in China. My preparation involved investing in books addressing Office Politics in China or direct social interaction with the Chinese themselves or anyone who would be privy to the inner workings of the Chinese people and society. Above all, be extra sensitive and try to understand the Chinese society, their way of thinking and its taboos.

Keeping a low profile and reducing the ego can also keep you out of trouble. This is another important insight I have arrived upon after years in project management similar in scale. Alas, such is human nature which makes avoiding office politics impossible with the exception of “a one man project team”, a senior PM Guru wittingly declared.

When dealing in China you should always remember the hierarchy protocol and it's ‘Quan Xi’ (relationship) driven society. This is because you can't choose what you like or not like about China. You have to accept, understand and adapt.

Now, when I look back on how SK managed to ‘survive’ the entire project life cycle, I have concluded that:

“To know China, you must begin by knowing the culture.
To know how to manage a project in China,
you must begin by knowing the ‘Quan Xi’.”

For example, a Project Manager for a Multinational Company operated in China often find themselves caught up in the task of striking that fine balance between managing the project driven by contractual obligations and managing the project driven by the ‘Quan Xi’. Currently there are sources you can refer to that may help you equip yourself with knowledge on how to effectively manage ‘Quan Xi’.

How to dismiss the Contractor PM !!!

Across the entire S.I. Virtual Team, I have observed the following 5 Project Managers.


PM A was one of the major players in the bidding team and was the first PM appointed to head this major project. He had made himself quite popular having established good relations within the organisation. Everybody is eager to associate themselves with a mega project as it brings opportunities. Not withstanding, PM A along with his counterpart in the customer organisation were both summarily removed by their respective senior management. They have proven to unable to work together.


PM B grew up outside of China. PM B possessed all necessary experiences and qualifications in the IT industry and had a background in structured project methodologies. Once appointed to the position of Project Manager, PM B discovered his company had over committed themselves in the project, consequently was under-resourced and encumbered by bad contracts.

He engaged the legal department in an effort to investigate and assess the liabilities the company was to incur if it ever decided to terminate the contract or suspend the project. It followed that the legal department had to report back to senior management about the task PM B has entrusted to them in order for their fees to be covered by the project funds.

PM B's bosses have sensed the lull before the storm. To save their positions they decided to terminate PM B and, as a result, end the probing. PM C was thus recruited.


PM C came to the project extensively qualified and experienced having been employed for 18 years in China and another 18 years in the USA. His people management skills, business acumen, conflict resolution, crisis management and negotiation skills were all exceptional and highly regarded.

PM C was also valued for his excellent communication skills. Being a superb communicator he employed his communication skills with flair and subtlety. Applying unorthodox means he was able to diffuse explosive project conditions when all else failed, intuitively knowing what needs to be said to whom and when.

It is just fitting that such a shrewd and able person as PM C would recognise a business opportunity when there is ever one to come along. As expected, PM C removed himself from the project in pursuit of his own business during the period of the Internet Boom.

However, SK has to pay high respect to PM C, especially how he managed to transform the course of a troubled project in an unconventional ways.


PM D, a senior Manager was appointed to replace PM C. PM D was fully aware of how trouble beleaguered the project had become. He especially took note of the fate which befell his two predecessors, PM A and PM B. Meanwhile, PM D was also in wait to pursue his own “dot com” dream.

Needless to say, PM D followed his immediate predecessor PM C and left the project 3 months later.

I found this situation to be a very complicated and interesting one. The question now became: Was it possible to find a harmonious balance between project, company and the individual? Ideally, there should be some synergy among these three however in reality it maybe near impossible to accomplish.


In the face of such a crisis where the project was floundering; short of resources, and without stable management, its future looked to be dubious. Nobody from the PM E's company, it seems, was willing to associate themselves with such a beleaguered project, its infamous reputation having preceded itself. The first and foremost pressing priority was to complete the project. The PM E'S instruction upon appointment was succinct and short.

“Do whatever necessary.”

Regardless of the fate these 5 individuals have met in the end, within the project Management Community, they still remain my best mentors and most importantly friends.


These are the lessons I have learnt from my exposure as a Project Manager in modern China. Although many of these lessons have come to me too late, I am glad to be able to impart my knowledge and experiences to you, the one who wishes to or will be embarking on future projects in China. Having read this white paper, I hope you have gleaned wisdom from my experiences walking the path before you and therefore avoid the same pitfalls I was unable to elude myself.


1. SoonKheng Khor and Lee Nan Phin, 2002, Managing Complex Information Technologies Projects™,

© 2003 Executive Computers Sdn. Bhd
All rights reserved. Proprietary and Confidential

PMI Global Congress 2003 Europe
Managing Complex IT Projects in China: The Cultural Lessons Learned



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