What Is Organizational Culture?
When working with internal and external customers on a project, it is essential to pay close attention to relationships, context, history, and the corporate culture. Corporate culture refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and values that the organization’s members share and the behaviors consistent with them (which they give rise to). Corporate culture sets one organization apart from another, and dictates how members of the organization will see you, interact with you, and sometimes judge you. Often, projects too have a specific culture, work norms, and social conventions.
Some aspects of corporate culture are easily observed; others are more difficult to discern. You can easily observe the office environment and how people dress and speak. In one company, individuals work separately in closed offices; in another, teams may work in a shared environment. The more subtle components of corporate culture, such as the values and overarching business philosophy, may not be readily apparent, but they are reflected in member behaviors, symbols, and conventions used.
There are many factors that need to be understood within your project environment (Figure 2-7). At one level, you need to think in terms of the cultural and social environments (i.e., people, demographics, and education). The international and political environment is where you need to understand about different countries’ cultural influences. Furthermore, the physical environment of the project requires you to consider the impact of time zones. Think about how your project will be executed differently whether it is just in your country or if it involves an international project team that is distributed throughout the world in five different countries.
Of all the factors, the physical ones are the easiest to understand, and it is the cultural and international factors that are often misunderstood or ignored. How we deal with clients, customers, or project members from other countries can be critical to the success of the project. For example, the culture of the United States values accomplishments and individualism. Americans tend to be informal and call each other by first names, even if having just met. Europeans tend to be more formal, using surnames instead of first names in a business setting, even if they know each other well. In addition, their communication style is more formal than in the United States, and while they tend to value individualism, they also value history, hierarchy, and loyalty. The Japanese, on the other hand, tend to communicate indirectly and consider themselves part of a group, not as individuals. The Japanese value hard work and success, as most of us do.
How a product is received can be very dependent on the international cultural differences. For example, in the 1990s, when many large American and European telecommunications companies were cultivating new markets in Asia, their customer’s cultural differences often produced unexpected situations. Western companies planned their telephone systems to work the same way in Asia as they did in Europe and the United States. But the protocol of conversation was different. Call-waiting, a popular feature in the West, is considered impolite in some parts of Asia. This cultural blunder could have been avoided had the team captured the project environment requirements and involved the customer.
It is often the simplest things that can cause trouble since, unsurprisingly, in different countries, people do things differently. One of the most notorious examples of this is also one of the simplest: date formats. What day and month is 2/8/2021? Of course, it depends where you come from: in North America, it is February 8th while in Europe (and much of the rest of the world) it is 2nd August. Clearly, when schedules and deadlines are being defined it is important that everyone is clear on the format used.
The diversity of practices and cultures and its impact on products in general and on software in particular goes well beyond the date issue. You may be managing a project to create a new website for a company that sells products worldwide. There are language and presentation style issues to take into consideration; converting the site into different languages isn’t enough. It is obvious that you need to ensure the translation is correct; however, the presentation layer will have its own set of requirements for different cultures. The left side of a website may be the first focus of attention for a Canadian; the right side would be the initial focus for anyone from the Middle East, as both Arabic and Hebrew are written from right to left. Colors also have different meanings in different cultures. White, which is a sign of purity in North America (e.g., a bride’s wedding dress), and thus would be a favored background color in North America, signifies death in Japan (e.g., a burial shroud).
|Red||Danger, stop||Happiness||Anger, danger||Death||Aristocracy|
|Blue||Sadness, melancholy||Heavens, clouds||Villainy||Virtue, faith, truth||Freedom, peace|
|Green||Novice, apprentice||Ming dynasty, heavens||Future, youth, energy||Fertility, strength||Criminality|
|Yellow||Cowardice||Birth, wealth||Grace, nobility||Happiness, prosperity||Temporary|
Table 2‑1 The meaning of colors in various cultures (Russo & Boor, 1883).
Project managers in multicultural projects must appreciate the culture dimensions and try to learn relevant customs, courtesies, and business protocols before taking responsibility for managing an international project. A project manager must take into consideration these various cultural influences and how they may affect the project’s completion, schedule, scope, and cost.
Creating a Project Culture
Project managers have a unique opportunity during the start-up of a project. They create a project culture, something organizational managers seldom have a chance to do. In most organizations, the corporate or organizational culture has developed over the life of the organization, and people associated with the organization understand what is valued, what has status, and what behaviors are expected. Edgar Schein identified three distinct levels in organizational culture.
- Artifacts and behaviours
- Espoused values
Artifacts are the visible elements in a culture and they can be recognized by people not part of the culture. Espoused values are the organization’s stated values and rules of behavior. Shared basic assumptions are the deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviors that are usually unconscious, but constitute the essence of culture.
Characteristics of Project Culture
A project culture represents the shared norms, beliefs, values, and assumptions of the project team. Understanding the unique aspects of a project culture and developing an appropriate culture to match the complexity profile of the project are important project management abilities.
Culture is developed through the communication of:
- The priority
- The given status
- The alignment of official and operational rules
Official rules are the rules that are stated, and operational rules are the rules that are enforced. Project managers who align official and operational rules are more effective in developing a clear and strong project culture because the project rules are among the first aspects of the project culture to which team members are exposed when assigned to the project.
Creating a Culture of Collaboration
A project manager met with his team prior to the beginning of an instructional design project. The team was excited about the prestigious project and the potential for career advancement involved. With this increased competitive aspect came the danger of selfishness and backstabbing. The project leadership team told stories of previous projects where people were fired for breaking down the team efforts and often shared inspirational examples of how teamwork created unprecedented successes—an example of storytelling. Every project meeting started with teambuilding exercises (a ritual) and any display of hostility or separatism was forbidden (taboo) and was quickly and strongly cut off by the project leadership if it occurred.
Culture guides behavior and communicates what is important and is useful for establishing priorities. On projects that have a strong culture of trust, team members feel free to challenge anyone who breaks a confidence, even managers. The culture of integrity is stronger than the cultural aspects of the power of management.
This chapter of Project Management is a derivative the following texts:
Essentials of Project Management by Adam Farag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.