by James McCormick, Adjunct Instructor, Rasmussen College Online
Competing in today’s business environment requires organizations to not only compete well in the country they reside in but to also compete internationally with other companies that deliver products or services in their particular niche or arena. As Thomas L. Friedman points out in his book, "The World is Flat", many forces have combined to level the playing field for companies around the globe. As a result, many companies are engaging in projects internationally to take advantage of this explosion of capitalism and potential revenues. While this involvement in foreign countries can be exciting and profitable, certain steps must be taken to ensure success of endeavors overseas, particularly those that involve employees that reside in the country where the work or business is being conducted.
Last year, I worked on an international project that involved a number of our employees that resided in Southwest Asia. While conducting business overseas, there are some guiding principles I discovered that need to be followed in order to achieve success with geographically diverse teams. These points that I cover in more detail below include the following: communication, delegation, understanding of roles, and analysis of in-country customs/work environment.
1. Communication: Emailing can only get so much information across. The "sense of urgency" or many details that need to be followed by your out-of-country team can get lost in translation, especially through digital mediums. Though the majority of communication will be done over a computer, attempt to have at least one in-person meeting with your out-of-country staff. I trained the group on the procedures and knowledge needed to work our database system where important information from the workshops was to be stored in person. Without this "hands-on" approach, our success rate for entering our data would have been much lower. I believe our accuracy rate and speed was much better with the in-person training and practice sessions we conducted vs. what a Microsoft™ Word document or web-based training session would have achieved.
2. Delegation of Duties: As the "originating" team with a project or process, there can be a hesitance in letting out-of-country employees become intimately involved in the steps or roles for particular projects. However, failure to do this can leave team members in the foreign office feeling out of the loop on what is occurring. Also, this can put undue stress on the visiting team members who will try and do too much in order to keep the project on-track and meet various deadlines.
Delegate as many tasks as needed and stay in touch with the in-country team members on a regular basis. They will love the sense of responsibility this gives them and also make them feel that they are truly equal members of the team and function at a much higher level. We delegated many tasks to our in-country group (set up of equipment, primary data entry, working with professors to resolve issues on information being stored, etc). This ownership given to them made them actively engaged in the project from start to finish, and allowed us to have a successful outcome.
3. Understanding Roles: This ties in closely with the previous point on delegation of duties. In the initial week that I was in country doing the training with our team members, we also spent time carefully reviewing what steps needed to be accomplished in the ensuing weeks, and which team members would be responsible for each task. By spending this time up front letting people know what their specific roles were (data input, graphics creation, arranging facilities/transportation, etc) each person operated with a good sense of purpose and we didn’t have any tasks slip through the cracks.
4. Analysis of In-country Customs/Work Environment: As a project manager for bi-country teams, you need to understand how people tend to work in various situations and account accordingly. In the country where the "caste" system was very much still engrained a culture, when people referred to someone as "superior" to others in the group the words from the superior person were typically followed. It was important to have a "U.S." person involved to see if what was being said was correct, and if not we had to adroitly steer things back in the right direction to get the results the team wanted.
In addition, many countries tend to take more breaks (and longer ones) then typical U.S. companies, so this needs to be factored in as project work is scheduled from day to day. Indeed, tea breaks are common in many parts of the world in the morning and afternoon, and these can extend to 30 minutes or more if you allow them.
Also, the work day starts later for many people (9:00 a.m. is a normal start time) so this needs to be factored in when scheduling time with in-country workers and those that don’t work directly for your organization. As a project planner it can be important to schedule in some extra hours/days if possible to help absorb what is lost during the course of a normal work day in another country.
These are just some of the issues to be cognizant of when working on projects in another country. While not all inclusive, if you follow these suggestions you can have a successful international project take place and get some important work accomplished and a nice revenue stream as well.