Best Practices for Managing Global Technology Projects

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).

Planning, Organizing, Leading, Controlling

A robust project management methodology is important for global projects. Planning, organizing, leading, and controlling with a global perspective are important. Setting up a team that has knowledge about geographic regions relevant to the project can be helpful. Project managers must also know how to operate in those geographic areas. It is also essential that all project team members are trained and understand the same overall project management methodology.

As a manager of a global project, one needs to:

 
Figure 4. Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development: As teams mature, they move from a formative stage to a performing stage.
  1. Set and meet expectations of the customer on time, scope, and cost.
  2. Hire and train the right mix of global resources for the team. When team members are new to working with each other, bring the team quickly from a formative stage to a performing stage with the right leadership (see Figure 4).
  3. Establish clear metrics for success and review them on a recurring basis with the global team to take controlled decisions.
  4. Ensure on-time delivery of artifacts, documentation, creating and deploying lessons learned along the way.
  5. Coach and mentor team on the importance of responsiveness to email, conference call etiquette, and acknowledgement of tasks.
  6. Use web conferencing facilities, wherever germane. These can be quite handy when handling large audience presentations.

Using English as a Communications Medium

Culture sensitization, as highlighted before, plays a critical role. English is the de-facto language in most global businesses, yet even senior managers overlook the key factor of “global English.” While language is a subject in its own right, here are a few tips when dealing with team members that are not native English speakers:

Speaking

  • Speak slowly; this helps to mitigate accents.
  • Show respect and empathy to non-native speakers.
  • Avoid being vocally animated; prefer clear elucidation.
  • Speak positively.
  • State facts than reading between the lines, if at all possible.
  • Repeat, whenever required, without showing signs of frustration.
  • Use simple English. Avoid using slang or idioms wherever possible.
  • Use pictures, they convey a thousand words.

Listening

  • Be attentive.
  • Ask questions if required, but with patience.
  • Repeat if required, without showing signs of frustration.
  • Focus on facts than interpretations.

Writing

  • Use formal words if you do not know someone personally.
  • Use simple English. Avoid using slang, idioms, phrases, wherever possible.
  • Review before you send.
  • Collaborate when appropriate.

Using Technology

  • Assign a designated note taker.
  • Become aware of the cultures of people in a videoconference before the meeting if possible.
  • Prepare agendas in advance, and follow up with action items.

Suggested Project Management Models

This section introduces two project management models suitable for different global project management situations.

Cross-Functional Model:

This applies typically to product-based companies. Imagine Zulu Inc., which has offices across both Europe and India. Zulu’s consulting arm works with its customers to deploy solutions for their customers. These project engagements typically last for 100 hours; Zulu’s consultants can be engaged on more than one project at a time.

A suggested example setup is to have a local project management in the customer’s region who is from the same culture, and to have a team of delivery consultants in India. This provides a team of diverse project managers in the Zulu offices in Sweden, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy who can meet and interact with customers, while a technically competent team of pooled delivery consultants in India work with the local project managers. Note that there can be more than one delivery consultant per region, but only one project manager. This achieves a balance between cost efficiency and local responsiveness, thereby allowing the project manager to focus on customer satisfaction by giving them local presence, and to maximize cost efficiency by having delivery done remotely.

The key challenges in this framework are that Zulu needs to respond quickly, the projects have short turnaround time, and the need to be available for consultation. Any delay in responding can cause the loss of a complete day. Some best practices to overcome this and other challenges in this framework are:

  1. When the team is created, the team leader should arrange for a kickoff call.
  2. Before having the kickoff call, send a kickoff email sharing business jargon and other useful information that all team members should be aware of.
  3. During the kickoff call, introduce everyone to build up the foundation for a good working relationship. Then, describe the project, the team organizational structure, and briefly take questions on the information shared via email.
  4. State the vision and goals of the project clearly, and over-communicate at every point of the project if needed. Over-communication can be overdone, but that’s a good problem to have when working across geographies.
  5. Respond to email before leaving for the day and first thing in the morning. On both ends, this improves responsiveness and helps keep the other party aware that work is in progress, so they aren’t left wondering what’s going on.
  6. Be sensitive to time zones. Wake up early, or extend hours a bit in the evening on a rolling basis.
  7. In all meetings, set agendas before the call, send action items after the call, and place both and all other shared documentation in a centrally accessible location, such as on the intranet. Assume you will spend one third of the total meeting time preparing for the call, one third for the actual call, and the last third on following up the call.
  8. Schedule one-on-one meetings with important stakeholders to be in proper control of the project management.

Offshoring Model

Project: Hula Inc. is a services company. It has a large office in India for offshore development. It undertakes large-scale projects that typically last for a year, where one person is dedicated to one project. For one two-year project, Hula was hired to create a B2C application for Waldart Inc.

The suggested setup is to place an experienced local delivery manager from Hula on-premise at Waldart’s IT office. This person maintains relationships with the Waldart’s IT department management. The development team is located in India, while the project manager visits Waldart as needed to gather requirements and perform analysis. This setup works, because it provides the large team based in India maintains technical competence while providing cost benefits, yet maintains local responsiveness because the delivery manager and project manager are available locally to work with the customer.

To make this model successful over the long term, it’s useful to:

  • Have a well defined project methodology framework
  • Implement integrated systems and metrics for governance and control
  • For large projects, identify certifications that provide a mechanism to assess skill levels, and enable personnel to develop skill sets to meet expected qualifications
  • Focus on metrics to document progress and uncover problems
  • Have domain expertise
  • Get commitment from senior management
  • Implement a strategy for knowledge management

In short, learning is a permanent change in behavior that occurs over time. Successful global managers will actively adopt these best practices rather than only reading about them, and focus on learning during projects.

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