Thursday, November 20, 2008

7th Interview: Finger on the spot the major difference between the West and the Middle East

1st order: My 7th interview was with the executive director of a local owned program management office in Dubai. He is from origin Iraqi lived 20 years in London and has probably the same amount of years experience in project management.
Cultural differences in management
I have been told that bottom line the most striking difference is in delivery. While the Middle Eastern attitude is to get the things done, the West has a process orientation. That means in the Middle East you have a launch date, which has to be fulfilled no matter what comes around. Radically speaking it doesn’t matter how just that. The Western approach is to a 180 degree different. The focus is on multiple phases: initiate, plan, execute, evaluate. Each phase is processed one after another. Assuring efficiency and quality is the major goal. Additionally, scope and change management is of importance to set the framework.
Cultural differences in relationship
The second point to be recognized is that business in the Middle East is based on interpersonal relationships, not on professional relationships like in the West. Personal relationship builds trust and trust is considered to be the most important property (see also 6th Interview, section: challenges for triple-C PM in Dubai >>>)
Where to go from here? Merging the best of two worlds
According to my interview partner the importance of a proper project management has recently been appreciated in Dubai. This is the result of a deep learning effect in terms of money squandering and a deficit in operations. Therefore he had the mission to set-up a program management office (PMO), alleviating these weaknesses but still being adaptable to the cultural circumstances. Knowing the differences in culture he had the vision and focus to merge the best of two worlds: “the can-do-attitude” of the East and the process-orientation of the West. He took the in detail elaborated Western project management approach and distilled it to the maximum, extracting the essence in reference to the Middle Eastern culture, which is milestones and budget. The PMO was set-up with the objective to “deliver in time and budget”. This development follows two phases: plan and operate. Heart of the PMO is a communication framework upwards to the Executive Committee and downwards the project managers. Additionally a project management toolkit including coaching, mentoring, trainings, etc. was brought to life. The setup is not affiliated to a specific sector. In fact the projects come from very diverging sectors such as real-estate, IT, finance and banking, insurance, telecommunication, etc. Currently the second phase of operation has been started with the launch of Project Management Lite: a set of processes and a supportive infrastructure.
The difficulty of the whole endeavor lies in a successful cultural change from the “old” schemes of Middle Eastern dealing with projects to the new ‘best-of-two-worlds model”, I have been told.
In terms of complexity the projects are enormous by scope, number of suppliers, quantity, etc. According to my interview partener, clear communication is the nuts and bolts to manage this complexity. However interestingly when referring to last interviewee’s remark on decreasing in complexity, I have been told that the project initiation phase is less complex than compared to the West (argumentation see 6th Interview, section: decreasing complexity >>>), while the project execution phase is by far more complex.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

6th Interview: about constructive paranoia and decreasing complexity

1st order: the 6th interview was held with the managing director of an executive leadership consultancy.
Challenges for Triple-C PM in Dubai
According to him the challenge of project management in Dubai lies primarily in communication. Challenge in two ways, first in terms of scope for confusion and second in terms of wrong assumptions. Confusion stems from a different understanding of commitment, e.g. you will someone with a Middle Eastern background never hear saying 'no' to his superior. This would be considered as a weakness and a loss of face. A second barrier is the language. Although English is the business working language you have to consider that many people are not native speakers. This can lead to absurd misunderstandings in alignment. For example for some reason Asians mean with behind the building beside the building. It is important to assure making yourself clear, simple language as lowest common denominator. Second, confusion out of wrong assumptions increases uncertainty. For someone coming from a Western background it might be confusing that what is correct today might not necessarily be correct tomorrow. And perhaps the most important thing to understand is that business in the Middle East is relationship-orientated and based. It goes that far that what Westerners consider as nepotism Arabs consider as duty.
Management by “constructive paranoia”
One thing that is very important when doing business no matter in which emerging market you act is to consider eventualities, I have been told. That is, the environment is more variable, which leads to a greater uncertainty. Don’t rely on just one plan. Play with eventualities and make a plan B, C, D. Things change often in theses countries and than you should be prepared, that needs sort of creativity.
Cultural change in local business
From his work as a recruiter and head-hunter the interviewee observed a change in local business culture. More and more local corporations recognize that they have to professionalize their business in terms of getting the best people for an executive job, not someone who is part of the family. Along with that goes also the cultural shift implemented by the next generation of leaders, who were send for their studies abroad. This generation is now often a sponsor for change.
When asked about obstacles I have been told that the obvious are the infrastructure. Traffic is difficult (see article: Getting a taxi or survival of the fittest >>>). However more serious are the lack of transparency and critical thinking. This leads in the long term to a lack of confidence, which might backslash especially in the times of a financial crisis. However there are improvements on the way as the current investigations of local personalities might indicate.
Decreasing complexity
In terms of complexity I was introduced to an interesting perspective. Due to the fact that developer, land owner, regulative authority, ruling family are one and the same entity the complexity rather decreases than increases. That’s why it is possible to accomplish such amazing endeavors as the palm, Burj Dubai, the metro in such a short time span.

Monday, November 17, 2008

5th Interview: some guiding distinctions

1st order: I hold the fifth interview with a professional recruiter. He was living for more than 20 years in Asia, having a British background now being in Dubai since one and a half years. I would like to start this documentation a bit different than the other interviews. My interview partner brought up a lot of sense-making by himself. Following the why-question he provided me a couple of guiding distinctions, which I am going to introduce in the following.
Professional Expatriates ׀ Cosmopolitans
The professional expat is an individual experienced and senior in working abroad, most probably even in different countries or regions. Although living and working for some years abroad (s)he lives in a “bubble” together with others of his/her kind., searching for places and activities which they affiliate with home. My interviewee referred to this as “ghettoization”, that is mini-Britain in Dubai for example. (For this argument see also interview two including comments)
Organizational culture: mono culture ׀ multi national culture
In terms of organizational culture I have been provided with an interesting distinction between mono culture [wording by JSL] and “multi national culture organizations”. They differ in terms of management style, decision-making capacity, staff empowerment, responsibilities take-over, etc. The local culture refers to a mostly, but not necessarily owner or family driven corporation. They will make the important decisions and decision-making capacity for the individual manager is rather limited. Another indicator is the executive board which in a local culture organization is homogeneous consisting of rather one dominant nationality (depending where it was founded). Management style is characterized by command and control, as well as top-down leadership approaches rather than participatory modes of interaction. Carrier opportunities do exist but are not as good developed as in comparable multi national culture organizations. The difference might correspond to the size of the respective organization, but not necessarily.When asked about how to detect the culture from outside, my interview partner proposed three categories that should be explored when talking to people from the respective organizations:
(1) What is great in the organization?
(2) What are the current and general challenges?
(3) How does the senior staff deal with its staff?
Local culture ׀ organizational culture
When starting business abroad organizations will always face the challenge to balance the local culture and the organizational culture. “For the operations you have to rely on the organizational culture” I’ve been told. Local culture will always influence the behavior of the people working in the organization, but are rather idiosyncrasies. To put it in another rather radical way: “culture has nothing to do with the business”. According to my interviewee 99.9 percent of human beings are the same in terms of wants, which account for desires, children, house, living, etc. “Culture is used as an excuse not to do things!” This is his key learning being abroad for more than a decade, he said. To make one point clear the one culture is not better than the other. It is rather the question, who is going to work well in your organizational culture.
Educational system: learn-by-rote ׀ learn-by-apply
When it comes to the why-question my interviewee identified as the main discriminator the educational system. He distinguished two types of educational systems following two different approaches: the “learn-by-rote” and the learn-by-apply [wording by JSL] (or learn-to-learn approach). The approach you have been raised up with affects your behavioral patterns in all interactions. To give an example according to his experinece when problems occur, people trained by a learn-by-rote approach will wait until someone tells them what to do, most reasonably this is their superior. This accounts for people from Indian, the Philippines, Thailand, but also the Arabic peninsula. On the other hand the learn-to-apply approach mostly taught in the West encourages you to take initiative when problems occur. Analytical models and frameworks are applied to different situations in order to explain them and find solutions. This difference in how the people are trained and raised results in different behaviors of every day business. In fact the educational system in combination with the hierarchical society leads at the end of the causality to a lot of micromanagement when it comes to business operations. At least this is what I have been told.
Working on projects in Dubai
When working on projects in Dubai there are a couple of idiosyncrasies one has to consider. First the informal hierarchy in terms of national background (1) Emirati, (2) GCC, (3) Whites, (4) Indians, Pilipinos, etc. Second Islam is influencing daily life, which especially come into account at times of Ramadan, but also in terms of daily prayer, women clothing and dealing with, etc. But with a certain amount of awareness there shouldn’t be much barriers.