Global Project Management
In the 21st century, the modus operandi of work has been completely transformed. Where we work, when we work, how we handle data, and how we communicate with each other have all undergone a total revolution.
It is a “seamless” labyrinth with an integration of email, voicemail, cell phones, laptops, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Bring Your Own Devices (BYODs), video conferencing, cloud technology, databases, mainframe computers, and more. The list is endless and so are our work methods. Workers navigate from one to the other in a harmonious fashion as they move their work-related tasks from office to home and then back again to the workplace in an unbroken cycle.
This ‘one-piece’ approach has helped break down geographic and logistical borders leading to a new paradigm of work “work that follows the sun.” This eliminates the need for collocation and makes mobility the norm, which means workers will toil in real space and/or in cyberspace and work is carried out non-stop around the clock.
For many employers, the way of life is employees operating remotely from each other and away from their managers. All indications lead to this trend becoming more and more prevalent in the future. This will cause a further dramatic change in how work is done across the globe, presenting newer complications for all, including project managers.
Project management is a professional walk of life where face-to-face interaction with stakeholders goes a long way towards the success of a project. In a virtual office, team members may never “meet” in the traditional sense and interaction is mainly electronic. This physical separation of the worker bee from management and from their peers, sometimes across oceans, is the greatest hurdle many project managers grapple with these days.
Work-life balance options such as telecommuting, flexible work hours, employee rights and job-sharing, complicate things further in addition to time zone differences and local holidays. “How do I manage a team (in essence, the project) effectively when I don’t see them at all?” is one of the foremost questions in the mind of a PM managing a global effort.
Nearly 85% of communication is non-verbal; this lack of physical interaction can disrupt team dynamics. Synergies that come with face-to-face communication are totally absent in such teams. Consequently, there is a tremendous need for a forceful leader in a virtual team, a leader who can cement relationships among team members and other participants so there is continuity between the different stages of the project.
It then falls on the project manager to become the compass for the team providing orientation, direction, and feedback across topographical and geographic boundaries.
The second concern is effective communication across borders. It is important not to rely on a single mode & use various modes such as email, voicemail, video conferencing, interactive white boards, instant messaging and others in combination to transfer information seamlessly and successfully to all parties interested in the project. Blogs and wikis can aid in asynchronous working situations. Presentations, podcasts and recording of meetings can be made available for absentee team members.
While using variety of tools for communicating, leaders of virtual teams should realize the importance of combining these channels with the human element. Onsite visits by the leadership team at least once a quarter and teams co-locating on a regular basis help bring about the much-needed face-to-face interaction. Informal conversations, celebrating special occasions and recognizing hard work go a long way in creating a feeling that team members are not working in isolation.
The third wrinkle when dealing with global projects is the cultural difference among team members and business etiquettes varying from country to country. Frequently, people from diverse backgrounds within a country or from various nations are brought together quickly without having enough time to vet, which can create a feeling of being disconnected. In some cultures, building relationships is a pre-requisite for professional interactions. Others like to conduct a deal in person while some are comfortable holding a business meeting over the phone the very first time.
Similarly, decision-making processes are divergent and so are the practices of interacting with key stakeholders. Whatever it is, building trust is essential in a cross-border project as there is a positive correlation between trust and productivity.
Another hurdle when project teams work across country lines is the likelihood that not all team members speak a common language. In such cases the language spoken by most of the team can be used as the “team” dialect. Team members who are not fluent in the “team” language can use online translation tools or get a crash course.
An added challenge for the project manager is that team members from different backgrounds have their own perception of the role a project manager plays.
In some nations, PMs are very well respected; however, in cultures with hierarchical structures, the allegiance will be to the functional manager and the team prefers not to take direction from the project manager; so, it is best to have candid conversations with the entire team so that expectations are set at the very beginning of the project life cycle. The project manager can consult with colleagues or managers within their organization who have dealt with such situations for suggestions.
The PM should appreciate local diversity and use it to strengthen the working of the project. Many times, having a local manager at each geographical location helps to move the project along smoothly as physical distance often causes difficulties in communication leading to oversensitivity and underperformance. In addition, across cultures the understanding of project deadlines and constraints vary.
It is prudent for the PM to do his/her homework into familiarizing themselves with these adaptations and have a local single point of contact. This person will facilitate and manage tasks at an insular level, thereby keeping the overall project/program under control. The PM should also take extra effort to make sure everything is written down clearly, leaving no room for assumptions or interpretations.
Because of the digital revolution, the world has shrunk significantly in the last few decades and it is now very common for projects (small or big) to have overseas partners. Managing international projects is not a piece of cake; the project manager should put in a ton of effort to ensure every sub-team in every country is in sync with the overall goals and objectives of the project. But the experience of learning about diverse cultures and working with people who are not like oneself is the icing on the cake!