A few days ago I was listening to a radio talk show that was discussing the role of learning a foreign language in the US.  One of the arguments that a participant was making was that it is very difficult to understand a foreign culture without at least having a basic acumen of that culture’s language.  A few years ago I would have disagreed with that argument.  After all, when I was with IBM many of the projects that I managed were composed of team members from at least half a dozen countries.  They were multi cultural teams that mostly resided in the US.  On a few occasions I was involved in projects that stretched across 3 continents and 5 different countries.  At the time, the team members based in the US did not treat the interactions any differently from those interactions with US-based team members.

As I reflect on these experiences I can not help but wonder if I underplayed the importance of cross cultural interaction on those projects.  After all, a “yes” answer to one culture may mean “I understand you” not “I agree with you.” Having had more direct experience now outside the US, I am fairly certain that even though business is conducted in English, team member perception and cultural background plays a huge role in synthesizing information and reacting to situations.

One experience, in particular, comes to mind where I was helping to resolve an issue between a US based team and an Arab speaking team out of Dubai. During the discussions I realized quickly that the two sides were speaking at each other instead of with each other.  It became apparent that while all the Arab speakers had a firm grasp of the English language, they were approaching the problem with a Middle Eastern context.  If I did not understand Arabic, I would not have even seen the problem in the first place.  So yes, I agree that understanding the language is critical to understanding culture, even if it is not a requirement to conducting business.

Having established this thought process, I now wonder if effort of undertaking projects should be tailored based on the specific culture that we operate within? More specifically, are standards such as the PMBOK Guide applicable at the framework level regardless of the culture that one operates within?  Can a project manager be successful if they simply work on deploying the principles of a standard without making major adjustments to account for culture?  Can methodologies that were developed in the UK work in China for example?

The answer to these questions is YES and NO.  Let me elaborate.

I have always held the opinion that that project management is both science and art.  There are subjective elements to the way we plan and execute projects as well as objective details that demand hard data.  If that is indeed the case, then we can establish a separation in standards between the technical aspects and the soft skills aspects of project management.

In looking at the project management process, creating a schedule or building a budget for the project is a relatively technical activity.  However, the process that a PM might go through in collecting the data and communicating with the team to ultimately build a schedule or budget is very much set within the confines of a culture.  Similarly, creating a communication plan is a process that should be culturally driven. However, the elements of communication that need to be taken into consideration need to be based on communication technique.

Let’s take an example from construction.  If a contractor is asked to build a house, the engineering aspects of the project are the same as they are based on science. However, the building code and the layout of the house will have to take into account the country specifications along with cultural norms.

Multicultural and cross-country teams have to ensure that they include professionals who are able to bridge across cultural divides to ensure that the team is prepared to overcome barriers.

If you’ve had experience in this arena, please write and share your thoughts.