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Author: Ilias Korkondilas

Managing International Teams: The Importance of Cultural Management and Communications

During the last decades, large projects tend to involve people from all around the world, extending the breadth of skills that a Project Manager should possess. Multi country project teams and virtual project team composition seems to be the norm in today’s globalized economy. Making the transition from managing projects where the complete team is local, to managing projects with teams covering various time zones and nationalities becomes increasingly challenging. It should thus be one of the areas that Project Managers managing such projects allocate additional planning time, to avoid any pitfalls that might create tensions and lead to overall problems. In the end it all comes down to managing culture.

Managing Culture is as important as managing any Technical side

One of the most important factors in today’s multinational teams seems to be cultural management. As highlighted among others by Sheriff (2001), Kloppenborg and Petrick (1999) and Ely and Thomas (2001) culturally diverse teams have an inherent extensive dynamic that calls for the appropriate cultural management. Managing culture is not simply a question for adding one more item to the project risk register, but rather the conscious effort by the Project Manager to encompass a whole philosophy of promoting equality and positive team spirit, no matter the origins and the mix of the team.

Managing culture is not an easy treat. There are a lot of different factors to be taken under consideration and a lot of decisions can be directly affected by them. A successful Project Manager should try to identify any such issues from the very beginning of the project and be prepared, so that no such issues could cause delays or any other problems. The following steps could be followed:

1.      Outline the diversity from the beginning of the project

As with most issues, the key element in solving any problem is actually identifying the problem. A successful Project Manager should identify cultural diversity and outline it from the very beginning of the project. By having in mind that team members are human beings who may not share common background, both work-wise and society-wise is the first step in eliminating possible threats to the team performance.

2.      Study the culture of the people and organization with which you are planning to work and take this into account during your project preparations.

In today’s world, cultural information is widely available through sources as the internet and there are many specialized consultants that can provide helpful insight into such matters. In the case where a company has ventured into multi-country projects in the past, cultural information should be readily available.

3.      Plan Communications

With the advance of internet technology one would assume that communications should be made easy with these diverse teams. This might not always be the case when working with a multinational project team. Working across different time zones, with different hierarchical structures and quite possibly multiple reporting lines for the various team members, having a proper communication plan in place is of the utmost importance. Furthermore the actual means of delivering the communication should not always be considered as something trivial. While email, telephone and online meeting are widely available across the world, it may be the case that in some countries (and quite possibly in some organizations) such facilities are restricted. Ideally the best way to avoid any such issues would be to take the following steps:

  • Investigate the means of communication delivery that would be available to all team members, regardless of their status within the team and place of work
  • Plan to have a number of sessions with all team members concurrently. A short 10 minute teleconference or web conference where all team members are available can strengthen team dynamics and provide for much better and cohesive team morale.
  • Be careful of the way information is communicated throughout the team. It may be the case that only the higher echelons of the team receive some of the information, according to the project communication plan. However, it is in the Project Manager’s best interest to try to confirm delivery of all information to the project team.

4.      Promote relationship building, transparency and trust amongst the members

One of the most important parts in aiming for success when working within any team is to promote a culture of transparency and trust among the individual team members. All the individual members should be made to feel a part of the team, irrespective of the amount of time that they will personally contribute to the project and/or their organizational position. Needless to say that a culture of trust is not something that is imposed on team members by management, instead it is something that should be instilled within the very fabric of each corporation.

5.      Introduce a culture of interactivity and transmission of knowledge and skills

One of the most beneficial tools that the Project Manager has in his arsenal is interactivity. By enforcing the need for transmission of knowledge and skills, the Project Manager is promoting a subconscious bonding environment within the team. It may be that even a simple mention of something new (a new technology used by a team member, a new piece of hardware) can ignite a discussion that can only make the team bonds stronger. However it must be mentioned that the transmission of knowledge and skills does not just involve a vertical implementation that is limited to just within the project team. It should be extended horizontally in order to encompass the whole of the corporation. For example if this is the first time that your company is moving into this territory then it would be beneficial if such information could be made available to the next person who might take over such tasks of leading international and diverse teams. This is yet another case where the role of the PMO becomes very useful.

6.      Judge and be ready to adapt as the team or the environment changes

A Project Manager should always be prepared for change. It is very rare that the encompassing environment in any project remains constant. More often the overall situation changes and so is the case when multinational teams are involved, both in the sense of a change of team resources, but also due to other reasons, such as political and environmental. The Project Manager should be able to take into account any such issues and have contingency plans ready. One should never forget that the team members are humans and their performance can be affected by areas beyond the restrictive confines of the actual project. In such cases where issues beyond the control of the Project Manager affect individual team members, while project performance is key, the personal side of things should be examined.

In conclusion, what must be stressed is that the need to plan for cultural management and communications is becoming more and more important in today’s globalized marketplace. As projects increase in complexity over time, project teams become more extended, both in terms of national diversity as well as ethnic diversity. It is up to the successful project manager to integrate all team members, irrespective of their origins into one cohesive unit that will ultimately contribute to the overall project success.

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  • Sherif, M. H., Diversity, “Culture and Technical Project Management”, IAMOT Paper Archive, 13 January 2001
  • Kloppenborg T. J. and Petrick J. A., “Leadership in project life cycle and team character development”, Project Management Journal, 30 (2): 8-13, June 1999.
    • Ely R. J. and Thomas D. A., Cultural Diversity at Work: The Effects of Diversity Perspectives on Work Group Processes and Outcomes, Administrative Science Quarterly Vol. 46, No. 2 (Jun., 2001), pp. 229-273
      Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University

Ilias Korkondilas (MSc, PMP, MIET) is a seasoned professional with a long experience in IT, Telecommunications and Project Management. Ilias has successfully led large international teams focusing on providing results while ensuring consistency with company strategy, commitments and goals. Currently he is working as a Project Manager for Olympic Air, Greece’s premier airline.