Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Project management in an Asian context

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Since project management, as a discipline, originated in a Western culture, incompatibilities between project management values / beliefs and those of traditional Asian cultures  are to be expected. Most readers who have worked both in Western and Asian organisations will be well aware of these differences. A recent paper entitled Cultural barriers to the use of Western project management in Chinese enterprises: Some empirical evidence from Yunnan province explores these differences in the context of Chinese organisations (see reference at the end of this post). Specifically, the authors look at four contrasting value/belief pairs, which cover the major differences between the two cultures:

  1. Integration management vs. doctrine of the mean: This refers to the contrast between project management practices –  which generally emphasise integrating opinions, resolving conflicts and confronting risks –  as opposed to traditional Chinese (and dare I say, Asian) practices in which confrontations and risks are avoided as far as possible.
  2. Horizontal management vs. strong hierarchy: This refers to the incompatibility between project management, which works best in a flat (or project-oriented) hierarchy,  and the strong vertical hierarchies prevalent in Chinese organisations. The latter organisational structure tends to emphasise superior-subordinate relationships in which “questioning the boss” is not encouraged.
  3. Team consciousness vs. family consciousness Project teams are generally temporary, and tend to emphasise collaborative work across functions and merit-oriented performance evaluations. On the other hand, Chinese culture values long-term family and kinship relationships. These are not always compatible with cross-functional (or even intra-functional!) collaboration or performance-based recognition.
  4. Task orientation vs. boss orientation  In project management getting the job done is paramount, whereas in Chinese culture the emphasis is on keeping the boss happy.

The authors developed a questionnaire to explore the relative importance of each of the above value/belief pairs. Based on the questionnaire, they conducted a survey involving respondents from a wide variety of industries in Yunnan province.

The analysis of the results revealed that the major cultural barriers to project management in Chinese organisations are the last three items: i.e.  strong hierarchy, family consciousness and boss orientation. It is interesting that a majority of the respondents thought that the doctrine of the mean was consistent the integrative nature of project management.

The authors also find that the barriers tend to be larger in state owned organisations than in private or joint ventures. Further, within state-owned organisations, older ones tended to have larger barriers than younger ones.

Also interesting is the find that project management training has a critical effect on lowering cultural barriers: As more individuals in an organisation received relevant training, the organisation became more supportive of project management practices.

The authors end with the caveat that their conclusions are based on the result of a single (yet representative) survey, and must therefore be treated as a pilot study.

I  found this paper worth reading because it articulates and explores some of the contrasts I have noticed in my own work with  organisations in India, Australia and the US.  In my experience, many of the observations made regarding cultural barriers to PM practices apply to (non-Chinese) Asian cultures as well. Those of you who work with cross-cultural project teams – particularly those across Asian and Western cultures –  may find this paper a worthwhile read.


Wang, X. and Liu, L., Cultural barriers to the use of Western project management in Chinese enterprises: Some empirical evidence from Yunnan province, Project Management Journal, 38(3), 61-73 (2007).

Written by K

October 8, 2007 at 3:19 pm

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