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Best Practices for Managing Global Technology Projects

Managing global-scale technology demands practices and skills beyond traditional local project management.


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ny discussion of "best practices" must first define the term. A best practice is:

  • Something that works.
  • Something that works well.
  • Something that works well on a repetitive basis.
  • Something that leads to a competitive advantage.
  • Something that can be identified in a proposal to generate business.
  • Something that keeps the company out of trouble.

This article presents some best practices in managing global technology projects gained through experience and the resources quoted in this article, and provides an introduction to the types of skills needed to handle the increasingly important interaction between technology and management.

The diversity in managing technology projects across different geographic locations requires restructuring the way people think. Globalization has caused a large and increasing demand for projects of a global or international nature. Project managers without adequate exposure to countries, cultures, and best practices try to manage these projects the same way they have successfully managed domestic projects—which can cause huge issues that result in failure and wasted funds. Instead, project managers must find a balance between cost efficiency and local responsiveness to achieve customer satisfaction (see Figure 1):

 
Figure 1. :
  • Cost efficiency: How can an organization achieve low cost while maintaining the same quality of work and efficiency? Outsourcing and offshore development are examples of this.
  • Local responsiveness: The need to be present locally, in the same region as customers, and sometimes from the same culture and language background as customer.
  • Customer satisfaction: Achieving a delicate balance, dependent on the situation plus project plus customer, between local responsiveness and cost efficiency, to result in customer satisfaction.


Here's a short jingle I wrote that sums up this section nicely:

The world is becoming flatter,
Distances don't seem to matter,
Cost efficiency vs. local responsiveness, former or latter?

A proper project management framework helps when planning with a global perspective. The framework isn't static—it must be customized according to the particular project's methodology, the type of engagements (short term vs. long term), the kind of customer, requirements, culture differences, and so forth, and it evolves with experience.

The Challenge of Cultural Differences

 
Figure 2. Working with Unknown Cultures: The figure shows guidelines for working with culture differences when a culture is unfamiliar.

Cultural differences are particularly important because they can make or break not only projects, but entire organizations. To borrow a phrase adapted from Pankaj Ghemawat's book, Redefining Global Strategy:

"Newton's law adapted to international trade: Trade between two countries will be directly related to their economic sizes and inversely related to their physical and cultural distance."

As evidence, most global projects fail due to lack of cultural understanding. Culture influences human behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs. In the book Organizational Behavior, SP Robbins writes:

"Attitude is an emotional tendency to react consistently to an object. Attitude leads to behavior. Belief is an assumed truth, while value is a broad tendency to prefer a certain state of affairs over others."

Organizational cultures offer another layer of complexity on top of international, national, and regional cultures. A project manager's goal is to acquire an understanding of these differences, and over time and with experience, make them co-exist in harmony. There is no silver bullet for becoming culturally adept, but the model in Figure 2 provides guidelines on what one can do when the differences are unknown.

Today, there are even specialized programs and even MBA degrees focused on global technology management with a focus on best practices, cultural differences, and other relevant subjects. According to leading managers, the biggest challenge today is global management. It can be useful to go through such a program if one's job is that of global project management. In the end, project managers need to be able to integrate virtual teams, handle risks and cultural failures, and integrate best practices.

In this sense, how does an organization internationalize? It's easy to use the cliché term Multi-National Corporation (MNC), for an organization, but management theory breaks that concept down into the following classifications:

 
Figure 3. Management Complexities: The figure shows some of the complexity involved in managing global projects.
  • International organization: Management views overseas operations as appendages to domestic operations.
  • Multi-Domestic (M-Domestic) organization: Management views overseas operations as a portfolio of independent businesses.
  • Global organization: Management views overseas operations as delivery pipelines to a unified global market.
  • Transnational: Management views overseas operations as an environment of shared decision making.

Each poses a different kind of challenge with global project management. As a best practice, the project manager should determine the customer's organizational type, and formulate the best management process accordingly (see Figure 3).



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