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Tackling the issues of cross-border projects

This is the last in a 3-part series about managing cross-cultural and international teams. Missed the earlier posts? Read the first bit here, and the second bit here.

The biggest issues for international projects are cultural understanding and communication. The former isn’t something that can be neatly tackled by a software package. It relies on the emotional intelligence of the project manager, his or her leadership skills, adaptability and ability to inform and train the teams. Successful communication also relies on the soft skills that a project manager brings to the table.

These are the ability to listen, hear the unspoken concerns and messages, and respond clearly in a way that the other person can understand.

Being able to put those soft communication skills into practice is something that can be helped by technology. People need to be able to hear and speak to each other in some format before the project manger’s emotional intelligence can be put to good use. Technology can at least alleviate the difficulties of cross-border working, even if we have to accept its limitations with regards to the interpretation of messages communicated using it.

The technologies available to project managers are wide-ranging. Instant messaging (IM) gives project teams the ability to connect informally when their status is shown as online. This can promote collaborative working as team members can quickly and easily ask questions of their colleagues instead of waiting for a scheduled formal meeting. In general, the more communication the greater the bonds and understanding between team members, so provided this facility is not abused, it can help improve working relationships. In practice, it only works when all users are in similar time zones where the difference is only a few hours.

The next step up from one-to-one messaging is web conferencing, where multiple users join the same online conference. Packages such as WebEx or Sametime Unyte allow you to hold a virtual meeting with the team. Web conferencing means you can make changes to documents in real time or show product demonstrations to the rest of the team without having everyone in the same room. Some packages also allow the functionality to record presentations or meetings so they can be played back afterwards: useful for colleagues in time zones that don’t allow them to participate, or for people who are participating in a meeting not held in their native language, so they have another chance to go over any details they missed later.

IM and web conferencing allow synchronous communication, but asynchronous communication also has its place in building a successful international team. You could opt for something as simple as a shared Microsoft Outlook calendar, where team meetings and project milestones are recorded for everyone to see. When you connect from a PC configured to a different timezone, Outlook will automatically show the meeting at the correct time where you are.

Investment in project-specific software like @task will offer something more comprehensive. For fully online projects, packages like Primavera include collaborative working options. An online project team workspace where you can store documents, list tasks and progress and even post photos of team members can help a team work more efficiently, if everyone appreciates the ‘rules’ and abides by them. It will be up to the project manager to establish how the site should be used, and to ensure the team understands that.

Whatever software you choose to use to manage your cross-border projects, you will quickly realise its limitations. A bad workman blames his tools, but a good project manager knows when to use the tools, and when to set the tools aside and lead with understanding and instinct. In a shrinking world, projects are expanding, and the keys to success in international projects are shrewd use of the available technologies and excellent cultural awareness.

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