The Internet and Global Project Management: It's Complicated
The cheapest available resources no longer necessarily come from the business next door. Any product or service that can be outsourced is more than likely being offered in some other region of the world for a competitive price, and it's up to consumers to decide where to spend their dollars. This means that any given mom-and-pop store may be competing against a megastore in Los Angeles, a Web startup in Santiago, Chile, and a multigenerational family business in Naples, Italy. This was not the case 20 years ago.
Geography no longer presents an insurmountable obstacle to business. Distance barriers have been all but eliminated, with information flowing freely around the world and products doing the same at just a hair more in cost. Location, which once had the power to determine futures -- right down to the jobs individuals would settle into and the persons they would marry -- has been all but removed from the equation.
We have the Internet to thank for making this world a reality. The introduction of email, weblogging, VoIP, social media, video sharing, and collaborative Web projects such as Wikipedia have changed the way in which people interact the world over.
Sites like Amazon and eBay have also revolutionized the way we do business, opening up the world to all sizes of manufacturers and purchasers alike. Though we're still only seeing the beginnings of this world transformation, business is driving the Internet world toward greater interconnectedness.
Outsourcing is nothing new, but what the Internet has done for the business world is to make instantaneous global collaboration possible. Organizations increasingly deal with resources spread across the planet, complete projects across different time zones, and conduct collaborative projects with teams of people sprinkled across different continents. The same organization may have locations in each hemisphere, with collaborative teams working around the clock to get work done.
Where does this current level of interconnectedness leave the modern global project manager, who has no choice but to interact with people of dissimilar cultures and business tactics? The Internet and globalization are still too young to have expunged key differences; yet they have mandated constant collaboration. To effectively manage a global effort, one must accommodate persisting differences to achieve the highest results. Let's examine some of the greatest challenges to the global project manager, along with a few ways to work around differences.
Tackling Cultural Differences
This is the big one. Whether you're heading off to manage a project in another region of the world or you're involved in managing a team spread across multiple locations, you're going to be responsible for dealing with people of cultures different from your own.
The first crucial step toward achieving a positive leadership role is to wipe clear any notions of superiority that you may hold: Your approach to business and life are not inherently better than any other; not everyone functions as you do; and your method isn't necessarily the best method for accomplishing a task. Remain cognizant of these facts.
Before initiating a project, research the region you'll be entering or the backgrounds of those who will be in your group. Attempt to understand their subtle differences in operation, cultural distinctions that may set them apart from you, and the way they work in collaborative settings.
Americans, for instance, are known for being individualist and confrontational, while the Japanese are often more collaborative and tend to avoid conflict. Understanding these subtle differences can help facilitate collaborative efforts and give you the tools to drive a project forward.
If you're heading to a new location for a lengthy period of time, hire a cultural or community involvement specialist to show you around. These aids will help you adjust to the new location and teach you how to behave according to regional customs. Only by embracing differences and working together will you be able to manage a project successfully.
Establishing a Work Culture
While understanding key cultural differences is crucial, it's also wise to establish standards as to meeting conventions, status updates and work expectations.
Don't assume that your team approaches these in the same manner; establish guidelines early on and get your team to collaborate effectively. Vocalize your expectations to remove tension and to get everyone on the same page.
The Importance of Meetings
Though project management tools, email and video chat make communication simple, it's important to periodically bring your team together in a communal setting. Your team members need this opportunity to interact with one another and to boost their sense of teamwork and collaboration.
Meeting can be a challenge when your team is spread across the globe, but the potential costs of a failed project or late delivery can vastly outweigh simple travel expenses. Communication is crucial to project success, and no amount of emailing or chatting can compare to a successful meeting.
Crossing the Language Barrier
With teams consisting of all nationalities and ethnicities, you may find it difficult to establish a common language. Though English may be spoken by a majority of your team members, you simply cannot expect everyone that you're working with to be proficient communicators. This is where technology really comes in handy.
If you can't communicate by phone or video conferencing, you may need to rely on the written word. Oftentimes, individuals with little speaking proficiency can get by in writing. Using limited grammar knowledge and online translation services, these team members will be able to write and interpret emails, chats, and texts for simple collaboration. These tools will help you converse with all members of your group and also provide you with written documentation of everything being said.
This is also an effective way to bring shyer team members out of their shells. People will be much more open to speaking up through email or in chats than they may be in a meeting, especially when a language barrier is involved. Though face-time is always important, sometimes the easiest communication is achieved through new technologies.
Dealing With Time Zones
When organizing group conferences, time zones can be a killer. If you've got a development engineer in China, an engineer in Atlanta, and a programmer in the United Kingdom, then finding a time that works for everyone will never be achieved. The simplest solution is just to buck up and let everyone have a turn at the short straw. Rotate the inconvenience so that nobody is consistently pinned with the worst meeting time.
By having some of your team come in early, and some stay late, you should be able to accommodate most time zones and project members. Occasionally, a member of your team may need to meet late at night or early in the morning, but as long as you shift the meeting hours and lay this burden on everyone fairly, you should be able to pull it off without upsetting too many of your team members.
As with any project management issue, it's vital to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team in order to complete the project without complications. Understanding the mix of your team's skills, experiences and personalities allows you to adapt your project to the team's DNA. Different cultures may complement one another, but it's also possible that they will butt heads. Plan accordingly, and you should be capable of smoothing over these differences without ruffling too many feathers.
The Internet has facilitated a level of collaboration previously unimaginable, yet its relative freshness has not yet smoothed over all the cracks it has helped to create. As long as you keep an open mind, remain willing to adapt to new situations, and use all the tools at your disposal, a good project manager should be able to handle all the new projects that the Internet has enabled.