A Critical Analysis of the Application of Western Project Management Theories in the Middle East
In her book International dimensions of organizational behavior, Adler (1991) prefaces with the words “The world of organizations is no longer limited by national boundaries” (p. ix) Thirteen years after this assertion was made, globalization continues to evolve into a major influence in world and business economies. Global business growth implies growth in the requirements for effective global management, including project management.
Adler (1991) observed that most of the models and theories in organizational and managerial behavior were developed from American and other Western research. Similarly, project management theories—such as those described by Forsberg, Mooz, and Cotterman (2000), are based on North American, and primarily United States (US) American, research and experience. From my experience and the experience of other managers in the Middle East, it is evident that Western project management theories do not easily translate into practice within the Middle East region.
This paper presents a review of present project management processes and illustrates the discrepancies between Western management and Middle East practices. For the purpose of my research, I define the industrialized Middle East as the major oil-producing countries of the region, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, also known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Selected literature on international organizational behavior and socio-cultural issues provides some empirical measures for cultural comparisons. Interviews with Western expatriate managers and project managers provide examples on the present difficulties faced by project managers working in the Arab culture of the GCC countries. I conclude with observations and recommendations on possible future usage of project management theories in the region.
Review of project management
The Project Management Institute (2000) defines project management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements” (p. 6). My review of project management literature identified several key elements—or critical success factors—needed for the successful management of projects (Finch, 2003; Pinto & Slevin, 1987). Other literature considers the requirement for order and organization in successful project management (Mooz & Forsberg, 2002, Project Management Institute, 2000; Thomas & Tjäder, 2000).
Almost 100 years ago, Fayol outlined five elements for effective general management (Forsberg, et al., 2000, p. 19):
Forsberg et al. (2000) declare that while these elements continue to be used by project managers today, they are not sufficient for good project management. They define their own model for project management as consisting of four essentials:
- Common vocabulary
- Project cycle
- Project management elements
Both models require a map and specific processes that lead the project from start to finish. Projects do not just happen; they are designed and navigated. Design is the building of a plan, the organizing of tasks, and the following of a project cycle. Navigation is progression through the plan from start to finish. Tasks are coordinated, work assigned, orders given, and results monitored. Communication must occur and be understood. Labor is gathered together into teams so that work is completed. Through all this, leadership is required to ensure that the objective is reached.
But are these Western project management techniques the only means by which modern projects can be successful? Non-Western cultures have existed successfully for thousands of years. Certainly they could not have survived if they were incapable of managing a project. Is it therefore necessary for Arab management styles to change to ours in order to succeed in today's global economy?
Does culture affect management?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary (http://www.m-w.com) defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”. Effective management involves people, both collectively and individually. Alder (1991) sees the expression of culture as a self-sustaining circle containing four elements: values, attitudes, behavior and culture (p. 15). Culture influences the values of an individual. These values in turn act to formulate the attitudes projected by the person; these values also influence the behaviors of the individual and the group to which they belong. Behavioral actions subsequently return to help define the culture. Therefore, culture acts to define the actions or behaviors that are acceptable within the societal group. A manager cannot manage effectively when their actions contravene conventions acceptable to the group they are managing. Deductive reasoning concludes that culture affects management.
Culture and organizational behavior
Since culture affects the ability to manage, it is reasonable to assume that culture also affects the organizations in which management is occurring. Adler (1991) makes considerable reference to Hofstede's research on the differences in work behaviors across cultures. Hofstede's research found that differences in work-related values and attitudes were more effectively explained by national culture than other characteristics such as age, gender, or position within the organization (Adler, 1991, p. 46).
Hofstede (1982, 2000; Hofstede & Bond, 2001) describes four dimensions of cultural difference:
- Individualism/collectivism – A measure of the level of emotional dependence members have to other in their organizational groups
- Power distance – The power or influence a superior has over an employee, as rated from the perspective of the employee
- Uncertainty avoidance – Tolerance of the individual to the unknown and the society's methods for coping with uncertainty
- Masculinity/femininity – Measure of importance of assertiveness versus nurturing in the society.
(Appendix A plots these dimensions against each other on a grid). Hofstede's (1982) first publication studied data collected from 40 countries. His more recent research (Hofstede, 2000; Hofstede & Bond, 2001) uses an expanded data set from 50 countries and 3 regions; one, the Arab Countries, includes the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The key element is not where a culture lies on the grid, but how its position relates to others.
Previously in this paper I stated that organizational behavior and management theories originate from Western cultures, primarily the United States. Appendix A shows Hofstede's (Hofstede & Bond, 2001) graph of power distance versus individualism. This shows the United States as possessing a low power distance and individualistic reading, while Arab Countries have a higher power distance and much greater social collectivism reading. Similarly, a comparison of power distance to uncertainty avoidance shows Western cultures having a much smaller power distance and weaker uncertainty avoidance than Islamic nations. Based on these observations, it can be hypothesized that Arabs have very different approaches to management than their Western counterparts.
The Arab manager
While the number of studies into Arab management style is limited, those documented show considerable differences from the expectations and mores of Western cultures. Adler (1991) refers to a survey reported in The Arab Executive, where two-thirds of Arab executives thought employee loyalty was more important than efficiency (p. 47). Weir (2000) reports that Arab managers “believe relatives and friends are more important than market mechanisms in decision outcomes” (p. 70). Findlay (1994) writes that “Muslims are required to give allegiance to the state only if the state is judged to be faithful to the holy books of Islam” (p. 18). And Kavoossi (2000) observes that “In Islam, management is a derivative of leadership, which must be based on Islamic principles” (p. 54), thereby allowing a worker to reject his manager if that manager is seen as not following Islamic traditions. In practice, outright rejection is unlikely to occur; however, many indirect forms of protest can be taken, making success difficult for non-Muslim managers or managers using non-Islamic philosophies. Definition of non-Islamic management practices is left in the eyes of the beholder. For many Islamic believers, any style that is unfamiliar is rated as non-Islamic. Based on these observations, the leadership and decision-making processes of the Arab manager are influenced by a myriad of different influences not considered by Western management theory.
Expanding on the management theme, Weir (2000) proposes four paradigms of management (Exhibit 1). Key points between the American and Arab styles are the private versus familial organization and an individualistic versus networked culture. Weir (2000) and Kavoossi (2000) also describe Arab culture as context dependent, whereby culture itself affects decisions and management styles. Not only is the culture context dependent, it is seen as a high context culture, one where relationships and behaviors are perceived as an important vehicle for doing business. Effective management therefore becomes not only an issue of skills, but also one of relationships and behavior patterns. Western management practices are not always viewed as appropriate behavior, thereby reducing managerial effectiveness.
Exhibit 1: Four paradigms of management (Weir, 2000)
What then are the characteristics of the Arab manager? Elgamal (2000) proposes an Arab Management model that balances four principles: Islamic religion, Arab culture, westernization, and the political, economic, and social systems of the country or region involved. The manager must to show adherence to Islamic beliefs, follow Arab cultural traditions, acknowledge the systems of the country, and act as Westernized as necessary, an action that is heavily related to the level of interaction between his position and any Western representatives. The manager's style may actually change from person to person, dependent upon position and nationality. For a Westerner, this can be distracting and a cause for concern, as we are raised to expect equality of treatment, regardless of race, religion, creed, or gender.
Project management in the Middle East
Differences in management styles, religion, and culture all act to create complexity for project management in the Middle East. Added to these are two other challenges, diversity of the work force and employment expectations of local citizens. The oil-rich GCC countries have seen rapid economic expansion in the past 20 to 30 years, built mostly using expatriate labor. In the United Arab Emirates, nationals (local citizens of the country) comprise only 27 percent of the population (Gill, 1999, p. 9) and hold only 23 percent of the jobs. In the expatriate population, twelve percent are non-UAE Arab; a further 59 percent are Asian. The majority are from Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Less than two percent are European. Added to this is a local population that expects promotions based on nationality rather than on qualifications (Al-Khalifa & Aspinwall, 2000). It is therefore no surprise that Western project management theories struggle to survive in the Middle East.
Regardless of the project or where it is located in the world, a common vocabulary is important for project success. Clear communication is paramount for any project to succeed. This requirement is the same in the West as in the Middle East, though the methodologies for achieving success are different. While English is the common language, most projects will see at least 3 languages in common use (English, Arabic, Urdu) and often five or six more. At the Saudi Chevron Petrochemical project, completed in Saudi Arabia in 1999, the project employed contractors and workers from 15 different nations with at least six distinct languages being spoken (Walker & Maune, 2000). It is not unusual to see a work crew with two or three supervisors. From a Western perspective, we would consider this as excessive overhead, yet in the Middle East, it is seen as simple necessity as instructions are translated down and up the chain of command.
In business meetings, conversations will often carry on in more than one language, frequently with more than one conversation on-going at the same time. Project ownership will always, or at least partially, lie with Nationals, since whole foreign ownership is not permitted. Arab businessmen believe in hands-on control, therefore it is common for owners to attend meetings along with their senior representatives. Fluency in English is mixed, though it is a loss of face to admit a lack of understanding. Other attendees may also have a first language that is not English or Arabic. Combined together with dialects, strong accents and the nuances of British versus Canadian versus American English, the potential for missed communications is huge.
From the Western viewpoint, we would encourage written reporting as a means to reduce communication risks. Arab culture, however, is a verbal tradition; any written report must be accompanied by a verbal one, thus continuing the difficulties listed previously. In the end, communication is achieved; the project manager, however, is recommended to fortify himself with large doses of patience.
No matter what the culture, all projects require teamwork to achieve project success. Projects without teamwork are bound for failure. In Western management circles, team building often involves cross-functional and cross-cultural components. Human rights laws in Western countries require that the inclusion or exclusion of persons cannot be based on conditions such as race, color, creed, or gender. Such restrictions do not apply on Middle Eastern projects. In fact, it is often standard practice to form teams based solely on these criteria.
Dadfar and Gustavsson (1992), in their case study of international construction projects, observed that the arrangement of work groups was most successful when culture, language, religion, and tribal nationality were considered in team formulation. Their research found that 70% of site managers believed that manager/supervisors were less effective when managing a work group composed of several nationalities. Reasons given for avoiding multi-national teams included:
- Language was a major obstacle to effective communication among workers of different nationalities.
- In less educated workers, there was a tendency to bias for their traditions, religion, etc., which leads to conflict within the team.
- Tribal conflict exists, especially between Arab workers. “Conflict is an integral element of Arab culture; perhaps it is rooted in tribal traditions and intertribal conflicts” (Dadfar & Gustavsson, 1992, p. 89).
Dadfar and Gustavsson (1992) also found that the existence of multiple homogeneous teams from different nations provided a number of benefits to performance. Within each team, language and cultural commonality provided a stable, familiar atmosphere. Teams become an extended, self-managed family. Work groups that paralleled each other generated a competitive rivalry between teams. Workers are proud of their national heritage, working extra hard to perform better than teams of other national heritages who are also working on the project.
Where culturally mixed teams are unavoidable, it is important to find and emphasize common or shared elements, and minimize differences. Multi-national team building is difficult in the Middle East due to salary and position inequalities that are based on gender, race, and nationality of passport. Male nationals always rate highest on the positional scales, followed by Western and expatriate Arab male professionals. Indians are next, then Pakistani. Other Asian groups follow, though natural selection and the known racial equalities within the region tend to keep these groups away. Even when an Arab has lesser qualifications than his Indian counterpart, the Arab is likely to receive the position with higher responsibility and greater salary. A National would never take a subservient position to an Indian or Pakistani without orders of magnitude difference in professional qualifications.
A second challenge is familial ranking. Family, friendships, relationships, and even graduation dates can all determine a person's position on a team or within an organizational structure. Relating to an incident early in his career, a 30-year veteran of management in The Gulf said that the first organizational chart he developed was returned to him as unacceptable. Considering only skills and position requirements, he placed a more recent national graduate in charge of an older national graduate. Reflecting Arab culture's high power distance and low individualism (high collectivism), age and family rank carries greater importance than qualifications or knowledge; the older graduate should have been placed above the younger man. An incorrect assignment may create loss of face, embarrassment, or insult. The adroit manager carefully reviews all the variables before team assignments are made.
The status of women in teams is even more difficult, as their position in working society is still developing. While women managers do exist in today's business organizations, they are most numerous in Western companies, in roles such as marketing and sales. It is a fact of life in the Middle East that a woman manager does not receive the same acknowledgement as a man in a similar position, nor the same salary. Female nationals in management are even more unique; their position in the pecking order is currently undetermined. While women are respected, their place in society is generally viewed as one subservient to men. Consequently, mixed gender teams are unusual and fraught with social and cultural landmines.
Once teams are established, their efforts for team building remain the same, though colored by local expectations. It is the team leader's responsibility to develop team spirit and common goals. Team leaders are expected to exhibit leadership in everything they do. This includes control, a much greater level of control than found in North American teams. While tasks are delegated, control and responsibility tend to remain at the top. The history of the region is one of a rigid hierarchical and authoritative structure. In their study of the introduction of TQM into Qatar business, Al-Khalifa and Aspinwall (2000) observed that “difficulties associated with empowerment at lower employee levels” and the prevalence of a “bureaucratic culture”. Effective team leadership is perceived as strong involvement of the manager in all team activities; including centralized authority. Empowerment is a Western concept not easily translatable to Arab culture. Neither is the concept of self-managed teams. Arab managers do not lead by doing, but by managing. Attempts to change this style tend to create more confusion than the changes resolve, resulting in a dysfunctional team and lower productivity because members do not understand their new roles. As globalization continues, effective team building and new team paradigms continue to challenge managers in the region.
The project cycle envelops the idea of a predefined set of events that guide the project from start to finish. Research literature proposes various frameworks, each providing a sequential management approach that is orderly, methodical, and disciplined (Bryne, 1998; Forsberg et al., 2000, 77; Mooz & Forsberg, 2002; Pinto & Slevin, 1987). While I am sure these criteria exist in projects underway in the Middle East, one is often hard pressed to easily identify these frameworks.
This seeming lack of framework begins with the contract. In North America, we view the signing of a contract as the end of negotiations and the beginning of work to satisfy the agreement. Interviews with long time engineers in the Middle East describe different experiences. One, a Swedish petrochemical engineer observed that “When the contract is signed, the Middle Eastern manager expects the work to be done yesterday” (Anonymous 1, December 2001) The second, a British civil engineer with 26 years experience in The Gulf, describes contract signing as “the point at which negotiations begin” (Anonymous 2, May 2003). A third, a Canadian, states that “A business manager can take six weeks to negotiate the purchase of a critical piece of equipment that must be ordered from the United States with a known four week delivery delay, yet expects the project to remain on schedule and cannot understand why the project is six weeks late” (Anonymous 3, January 2004). Our western view of the project cycle assumes a fixed starting point, such as a contract or signed agreement. From the Middle East view, the fixed point may not be fixed, unless of course, it is to the Arab owner's advantage that it is fixed.
This nebulous definition of project activity flows throughout the project cycle. Rather than following the simple Vee model (Forsberg et al., 2000, Mooz & Forsberg, 2002), projects in the Middle East tend to meander their way from start to finish. Elgamal (2000) describes one of the major problems faced by Arab management as, “…managerial development plans suffer from discontinuity. There are no well designed articulated plans that have clear objectives for the short, medium and long terms” (p. 111). For many years, the Arab people led a nomadic existence. This has been followed by extraordinary wealth. They have not yet developed the skills for long-term planning, nor found the reasons for its necessity. Therefore, projects are often approached as a package of little projects. Each project is carried out in turn, each with some measure of success. At the end, the bigger project is completed; though not necessarily on time or within budget, yet it is still seen as a success.
Arab organizations are recognizing that process is important if they are to succeed in a globally competitive marketplace. Evidence of this awareness is found in the number of organizations in The Gulf seeking ISO 9000 and TQM certifications, processes that are founded upon project management. For example, the number of ISO 9000 certified companies in the UAE has grown ten-fold to 1,004 in the years between 1995 and 2000 (Castillo, 2001). The introduction of TQM has required organizations to “develop a mind set of process orientation” (Thawani, 2001, p. 12) so that they “manage the business as a set of interacting processes, rather than managing departments” (Thawani, 2001, p. 12). Unfortunately, many of these same organizations have yet to comprehend the managerial benefits of ISO 9000 and TQM. Rather, they see these systems as marketing tools (Al-Khalifa & Aspinwall, 2000). Al-Khalifa and Aspinwall (2000) observe that “The region is a long way from maturity in terms of total quality practices and organizational culture and climate” (p. 196). This observation similarly applies to the application of project management techniques. Until maturity is reached, managers can expect a continuation of the haphazard processes presently common in the region.
Project management elements
Forsberg et al. (2000) describe ten elements as the team's toolbox for successful project management:
|• Project requirements||• Organization options|
|• Project team||• Project planning|
|• Opportunities and risks||• Project control|
|• Project visibility||• Project status|
|• Corrective action||• Leadership|
This same set of elements can be found in successful projects in the Middle East, though oftentimes the emphasis between the elements carries a different balance. As previously identified, planning is identified as an area of weakness in present Arab management (Elgamal, 2000). Western companies bidding on projects in the region tend to develop their requirements and plans while the contracting process is still underway. Once the contract is signed, the Arab businessman expects to see the work begin. Planning is an afterthought. It is also not unusual to see large projects sitting idle for weeks or months, preceded and followed by days of rapid progress. While unable to present evidence, it is likely that weak planning at the beginning of the project has resulted in resource shortages or conflicts later in the project, warranting a break in work while the necessary materials are found and allocated. The 2001 on-time, on-budget completion of the Ruwais petrochemical cracking plant, a 3-year US$1.2 billion project is credited by Swedish engineers on the site to the management skills of the Danish partner, not the UAE majority owner. This is not an unusual observation. Even Middle Eastern managers recognize the weakness of their project management skills and their dependence upon the skills of Western project managers for project success. An informal survey of management acquaintances suggests that the average project runs 25% to 50% over budget and six months to one year late.
Opportunity and risk assessment also suffers from the lack of sufficient advance planning. Middle Eastern managers have great practice at thinking on their feet. Opportunities and risks are handled as they occur. In the information technology field, this practice is termed fighting fires. Frowned upon in the West as an inefficient method of management, it often seems quite successful in the Middle East. This may be credited to the local attitude of Insha'la – that is, Allah willing. Since Allah controls everything, it is He who will cause the project to either succeed or fail. Therefore, it is not the place for a ‘mere human’ to concern himself or interfere. Added to this is the fact that labor is extremely cheap in this part of the world. If the project is behind schedule, simply pour more labor into it. The axiom more labor, less progress just does not seem to apply, or at least it is not acknowledged.
Lack of planning extends to budgeting and cost control. One expatriate manager suggested resistance to planning was the Arab manager's way to provide flexibility and avoid accountability. The expatriate managers that I interviewed believed that few projects were planned with detailed budgets. When cost overruns occurred, small changes of scope are made along with large increases in money to cover the variances. Lacking a detailed plan and starting budget, it is easy for plans and budgets to change. Empirical evidence is difficult to locate. However, two studies from projects in Kuwait provide some samples. In the first case (Kartam, Al-Daihani, & Al-Bahar, 2000) the Amiri Diwan project was completed four years late—the planned project duration was three and one-half years—and 63% over budget. The second case study involved a large Kuwait institution and an IT software project (Khalfan, 2003). Three years after design began, the contracted company withdrew having never passed the initial analysis phase. These examples, unfortunately, are not rare incidents; few cases, however, are documented due to the lack of formal plans.
Lack of planning in the early stages can affect control in the later stages of the project. Without a good benchmark, project managers will find it difficult to identify where control points are required. Ad hoc insertion of controls into the process provides project managers with important feedback, but these only tell managers what the conditions are, instead of conveying what conditions should be. Once again, the project process seems to flow from one crisis to another, yet surprisingly, it is successful in the end.
A difficult condition for many managers in the region is the issue of control authority. Ultimate control on any project rests with the national owner, not the expatriate. For project managers working for Western companies, this is not a problem as it is the senior management that must handle any control issues between the foreign company and their national sponsor. Managers working for local companies face a more difficult challenge. Though the project manager may be told he has complete control, it is quite common for senior management to make decisions directly affecting the project without the project manager's knowledge. The expatriate manager may also face the problem of making a decision, then having that decision reversed by the Arab management. The challenge for these expatriate managers is to determine exactly how much authority they really have and to report all of their decisions to senior management, no matter how trivial. As previously noted, empowerment is a practice not common in the Middle East. It is little wonder that many project managers return home with stories of “sociocultural mishaps that had resulted from misinterpretations, frustrations, and conflicts” (Dadfar & Gustavsson, 1992, p. 81).
In the end, it is the project manager's ability to lead that holds the project together. Leadership is a valued commodity in Middle Eastern cultures. There are many great leaders within the Arab community, and many expatriate managers find long and satisfying careers in the region. The greatest challenge is coping with the cultural conditions, so many of which seem to act counter to all Western theories of management. Expatriate managers must be culturally sensitive to those working for them and the organizations that employ them. Many Western beliefs of right and wrong must be left behind. Arab management do not recognize them, and Arab and Asian workers become confused by them. It is therefore an ongoing process to find the correct balance between cultures.
Returning to the original question, it is my opinion that Western project management theories do not translate effectively into the industrialized Middle East. At this point in time, the Middle East has too many cultural and religious differences, which include differences in human rights practices and nationalistic issues. These prevent the acceptance of Western theories of management. However, there are components of the project management process that are translatable and will succeed.
My recommendations and observations are:
- Project managers should strive to develop a common vocabulary. English is the common language of business, and should therefore be considered the common language for the project. Great effort should be taken, however, to ensure that project terminology is translated into all the major languages on the project. While a written document is recommended by Western theories, managers must also concentrate on preparing an oral dictionary and encourage its verbal distribution to all team members and workers.
- The creation of teams must occur with sensitivity for the cultural, religious, and nationality makeup of the persons involved. Creation of cross-cultural and mixed gender teams must be carefully considered before execution. Western expectations such as equality and empowerment are not part of the present social fabric of the Middle East and cannot be expected to be successful. Tradition team building uses homogeneous groups. A successful project will use a similar approach.
- Arab management does not yet have the knowledge and skills necessary for a truly Western-style project cycle. Project managers need to accept that medium and long-term planning are areas of weakness for the region. The concept of Insha'la will remain a planning issue that can only be combated by flexibility and a preparedness to think on one's feet.
- Individual loyalties dominate. The Arab culture is one of networks and families. As observed by Elgamal (2000), “Individual loyalties and relationships have a greater impact on organizational behavior” (p. 111). One must accept that decisions may occur based on these relationships rather than simple facts.
- Promotions are often based on nationality. It is a fact of business in the Middle East that nationals may be promoted into positions beyond their qualifications. Project managers must compensate through additional and judicious hiring of skilled workers.
- Patience. The situation in the Middle East is changing, as evidenced by their increasing interest in quality management programs such as ISO 9000 and TQM. These programs create a force that impels businesses towards the project management techniques expounded by Western organizations. Although conditions are changing, change must occur within the bounds of the religion and culture of the region. Rapid change carries the risk of rejection and should therefore be avoided.
My paper has examined the relationship between traditional Western project management theories and the present business environment found in the industrialized Middle East. The study began with a review of project management theories developed by Fayol (as presented by Forsberg et al. (1987)), Pinto and Slevin (1987), and Forsberg et al. (2000). It also discussed the organizational behavior theories of Laurent and Hofstede, as presented by Adler (1991). Examples based on books, journal articles, and personal observations of managers working in the Middle East demonstrate that there is considerable distance between Western project management theories and present project management practices in the Middle East. Project managers should not expect to use Western practices in a carte blanc fashion; however, changes are occurring and project management practices will continue to evolve as the region matures.
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Appendix A: Hofstede's four dimensions of culture
.SOURCE: Hofstede, G., & Bond, M. H. (2001). The Confucius connection: From cultural roots to economic growth. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4), 4-21.
Author contact information:
Johnathon Douglas Chapman, MBA-ITM, B.C.S.
Manager, Information Technology Services
American University in Dubai
P.O. Box 28282
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Tele: +971 50 785-7297
Fax: +971 4 399-8899