How to reduce risks and improve communication in multicultural construction projects

Feb 6, 2016  · by


Topics: Competencies, Project management

In my previous blog post I wrote about a nuclear power plant project in Northern Finland. I suggested that some of the delays and problems in this project arose from lack of knowledge of cultural differences between Northern and Latin Europe.

So how can we avoid similar problems in future projects and achieve better results?

The signs are there – we just do not recognise them

Big surprises are usually surprises to some and quite expected by others. Many will have seen the problems coming. For some observers it is no surprise that things get complicated in major projects.

Some well-educated technicians could see in advance that constructing a nuclear plant like this would not be an easy task. Ambitious and approved by politicians at the time of purchase – yes, but in terms of engineering it is a truly remarkable and difficult project.

Furthermore, some of us who know about cultural differences between France and Finland were a bit uneasy about this project. Would the two consortia of companies understand each other well enough when the inevitable problems arise?

Check your project management against intercultural concepts

A good starting point to analyse cross-cultural risks (and opportunities!) is a mix of classic project management and assessment of culture.

In a project you manage typically

  1. specification and content
  2. schedule, progress
  3. costs, budget, money
  4. people, HR
  5. information and stakeholders.

A minimal approach would be to run a discussion on each of these items with the project management from a cultural perspective. This typically involves an external intercultural consultant but can also be done by internal expertise: veterans of multi-cultural projects among the senior personnel who have insight, objectivity and sensitivity based on experience.

The role of HR in managing intercultural risks

The HR function has a role to play here. They may be the advocates for the importance of common working styles within their organisations. Through training and coaching programmes and increasingly through culture analytics, HR may offer understanding about the cross cultural differences and risks on organizational, team and key-individual levels. HR can also map the intercultural skills and needs of people using competency assessment tools.

Large organisations require tools for building intercultural sensitivity

Thousands of people are involved in a mega project. Some experience more international contacts and others less. But almost everyone will be in an intercultural situation where safety and operational performance can be impacted. When today everyone who has a smartphone has access to online training programmes, there are no logistical barriers to reaching all project participants with intercultural learning resources. Some innovative organization offer round-the-clock access to tools which help individual to deal with intercultural challenges.

Room for improvement

Project management in Europe is generally at a good level. Technical problems, budget overruns and delays are, however significant when they hit.

Cross cultural knowledge and expertise in project management is an area where many organisations can improve. Intercultural competence can save money and achieve faster successful project completion.

Taking active, explicit steps to build a culturally stress-tested project plan key people and involving larger numbers of project participants to build their cultural awareness minimises risks, makes for smoother operation and saves time and money.

Risk management for cultural difference in the workplace in a nutshell

  1. Recognise the risk – there is a wealth of case studies, models and benchmarks for this
  2. Measure the scale of the challenge – use cultural assessment and cultural profiling
  3. Understand and act – to mitigate the negative effects of cultural difference and build high-performing multi-cultural teams


Stress-test your project plan

  • Identify participating cultures
  • Measure cultural difference among key individuals
  • Run an analysis of identified differences
  • Include explicit intercultural training in the project initiation phase
  • Share feedback from intercultural training participants with project management
  • Review project plan from different cultural perspectives before sign-off
  • Include communication and working style in risk analysis
  • Maintain access to intercultural support/learning for project duration

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