Project management in an Asian context

Murray Gough
February 24, 2011

This article focuses on organisational training and development in Malaysia and Thailand.

The Malaysian experience involved transfer of skills and knowledge in project management within the Malaysian Department of Public Works. The initial impetus and continuing drive came from executive level government officials committed to best practice. The Implementation Group comprised internal professional staff with a genuine preparedness to seek new ways to effect change within their organisation, focus on their key customers’ needs, and increase the effectiveness and efficiency of project outcomes.

There are unique challenges working in a cross-cultural environment. The Malaysian bureaucracy is compartmentalised and has a centralist approach to management. Its historical management pathways are hierarchical and the position of senior officers is well respected. As such, decision-making is undertaken at the senior level within each unit, whether related to planning, design, procurement or implementation. This required ongoing consultation and negotiation by the consultants to secure ‘buy-in’, thus ensuring stakeholder needs were being met.

Constant feedback from all levels of the organisation was crucial and, importantly, this was undertaken by the internal staff to hone their skills in the project management of the training and development program.

The most significant cultural issue experienced was the different approach to the concept of a project manager. In Australia, the general tendency is for an individual to have major responsibility to drive a project forward, negotiate a path through administrative requirements, and produce effective and efficient outcomes. The project manager is integral to satisfying both organisational and sponsor objectives, which may be related to specific political imperatives, as well as ensuring a high degree of end-user satisfaction.

Assessing maturity

As with many Australian service-based public institutions, the Malaysian Department of Public Works has realised its role in providing services to customers who increasingly require consideration of alternative service delivery options, such as external private sector expertise. The work undertaken by BPPM sought to address this issue through specially targeted competency development in risk and contract management.

Australian project management standards have subsequently been adopted and internal (within the Malaysian Department of Public Works) and external (AIPM) certification is underway. The real test will be the ability of the certified project managers to apply the skills and knowledge gained through this program so that they become the norm in facilitating projects into the future.

In the Thai private sector, there are varying levels of project management expertise within firms largely dependent upon the degree of the firm’s exposure to project management concepts and expertise. Organisations with expatriate staff or staff who have studied and/or worked overseas, project management methodologies and techniques are more likely to have been adopted.

In Thai companies, project management expertise usually resides with executive level management and on-site management is generally technically skills based. In the public sector, project management expertise is increasing, however bureaucracy is still large and resource intensive and outcomes could be achieved with greater efficiency. As such, the potential for the application of project management concepts and principles and the concomitant efficiency gains for both sectors are significant.

Managing by the rules

In undertaking these two initiatives in South East Asia, it was paramount to maintain the cultural hierarchical and social rules. In contrast to the western approach, which focuses on the performance of an individual project manager in a matrix environment, the Malaysian or Thai project managers operate within cultures where relationships tend to be determined through power distribution, hierarchical rights, and reward systems based on age, rank, status, title, and seniority. In addition, within the private sector, personal associations and long standing business relationships tend to override the consideration and application of externally applied methodologies.

These South East Asian project environments are based around cooperative, non-confrontational consensus decision-making approaches, which can be at times frustratingly slow for a western consultant. Similarly, working with a project manager who does not carry influence and decision-making powers within the organisation can also be a challenge.

While there may be cultural changes to these project environments into the future, western models of project management may need to be flexible to facilitate the adoption of these concepts and principles by South East Asian firms and organisations. This will require ‘adopted’ methodologies to be customised to the business context and performance measured against agreed indicators. Also, a major change was the conduct of soft skills and behavioural interventions for portfolio, program and project level managers.

Thus, a project manager in a South East Asian project environment may initially experience some level of discomfort as part of the cultural realignment necessary for integration into the working environment and accomplishing project objectives. This includes working with partners whose approach will not always be linear or clear cut but through a matrix of relationships.

Of particular benefit will be a degree of pragmatism and an appreciation that projects can be successfully executed in a paradigm different to that which may be regarded as usual project management practices.

—With Brian Franklin, senior consultant of Best Practice Project Management (BPPM)

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Murray Gough
Murray Gough is the CEO and director of Best Practice Project Management (BPPM), a Canberra-based enterprise focused on business improvement through project management.
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