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Is project management a standard or cultural process?

Lynda Bourne
January 11, 2012

Does the emergence of an international standard, and the internationalisation of other standards including the dozen or more translations of the PMBOK* Guide mean project management is a standard process across all cultures and societies, or do we need cultural versions of the PMBOK Guide similar to the current industry extensions?

I ask this question as the ISO committee finalises the draft of ISO 21500, A Guide to Project Management. The PMBOK Guide is produced in 12 official and several unofficial translations but language is only one dimension of culture. To effectively manage projects within a specific culture do the PMBOK’s processes need adaptation?

The original trigger for this column was the collapse of a series of ‘binding agreements’ in 2004 between Fortescue Metals Group Ltd (FMG), and some Chinese engineering companies to build a new iron ore mine, railway and port (worth billions of dollars). The deal fell through when parallel negotiations around an equity stake in Fortescue collapsed and the final appeal to the High Court over the matter is due shortly.

It is important to note that since this initial setback in 2004, FMG has successfully built its mine, railway and port, is now Australia’s third largest iron or exporter with very strong ties into the Chinese markets and has another major expansion underway, the court cases are about interpretation and understanding the agreements.

In an Australian/Western context, there were separate negotiations and the collapse of one should not have impacted the other. In a Chinese context, the relationship is what matters and the failure of one aspect of the relationship damages all aspects of the relationship. Which context applies—if either—and how much should have been disclosed to the public will be decided by the High Court later this year. What this case does highlight though, is the importance of ‘culture’ when dealing with stakeholders.

Khor Soon Kheng, founder of Asia ICT Project Management Malaysia, believes good guanxi (a philosophy dealing with any network of relationships among various parties who cooperate and support one another in the Chinese business/project world) is critically important to the successful delivery of projects involving Chinese organisations from bidding through to handover.

“Guanxi can rate as highly as technical competence and price in decision making and has a significant influence on procurement, Khor says. “Guanxi is intensely personal: while it can be shared and reflected onto the organisation a person works for, the individual ‘owns’ his/her guanxi and has to invest time in developing and maintaining it. This gives him/her a competitive advantage as well as the ability to avoid conflict, both of which are beneficial to the outcome of the project.”

Khor’s contribution to my book, Advising Upwards, focused on these issues in chapter six, ‘East meets West: Working with a Chinese Boss’.

* PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) is the registered trade mark of the Project Management Institute

Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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