OMD/Culture PM

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Chapter 12: Culture & Project Management

What is Organizational Culture?

At culture’s most global level, Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary (2005) provides the following definition: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations; b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company or corporation.

When working with internal and external customers on a project, it is essential to pay close attention to the relationships, context, history and the organizational culture. Corporate culture refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and values that the organization's members share and to the behaviors consistent with them (/that 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 others teams may work in shared environments. 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.

Theoretical Foundations

Kilman, Saxton, and Serpa (1985b) provide an apt analogy that helps to illuminate the nature of organizational culture: “Culture is to the organization what personality is to the individual – a hidden, yet unifying theme that provides meaning, direction, and mobilization” (p. ix). As such, it is emotional and intangible (Connor & Lake, 1988), individually and socially constructed (Hall & Hord, 2001; Rousseau, 1990), and evolves over a period of years (Wilkins & Patterson, 1985), especially as organizations find acceptable and unacceptable solutions to internal and external problems or threats and attempt to integrate more effectively internally (Schein, 1985a, 1992). This culture can also be developed and learned by organizational members through the connection of behaviors and consequences and through multiple reinforcement mechanisms and agents (Thompson & Luthans, 1990). It can be learned through the reduction of anxiety and pain or through positive rewards and reinforcements (Schein, 1985a).

A fairly common, simplistic definition of organizational culture is “The way we do things around here.” Although this statement appears in many books and articles, the earliest of such entries found by this author was by Deal (1993, p. 6). Deeper discussions expand this definition to cover such issues as the basic assumptions and beliefs shared by members of the organization regarding the nature of reality, truth, time, space, human nature, human activity, and human relationships (Schein, 1985a; 1985b). It also consists of the philosophies, ideologies, concepts, ceremonies, rituals, values, and norms shared by members of the organization that help shape their behaviors (Connor & Lake, 1988; Kilman, Saxton, & Serpa, 1985b; Owens, 2004; Rousseau, 1990). Among the norms it includes are task support norms, task innovation norms, social relationship norms, and personal freedom norms. Among the rituals are such issues as passage, degradation, enhancement, renewal, conflict resolution, and integration (Connor & Lake, 1988). Organizational culture embraces such organizational needs as common language, shared concepts, defined organizational boundaries, methods for selecting members for the organization, methods of allocating authority, power, status, and resources, norms for handling intimacy and interpersonal relationships, criteria for rewards and punishments, and ways of coping with unpredictable and stressful events (Schein, 1985a). This shared culture helps to create solidarity and meaning and inspire commitment and productivity (Deal, 1985).

Tagiuri’s systemic model (as cited in Owens, 2004) presents culture as one of four components of organizational climate, along with ecology, milieu, and organization or structure. He included assumptions, values, norms, beliefs, ways of thinking, behavior patterns, and artifacts; this definition seems to parallel closely many of the prominent authorities in the field. Within the sub-component of ecology, he included buildings and facilities, technology, and pedagogical interventions. His organization or structure construct includes communication and decision-making patterns within the organization, the organizational hierarchy and formal structures, and the level of bureaucratization.

Culture may operate both consciously and sub-consciously in the organization and the project (Rousseau, 1990; Schein, 1984, 1985a, 1985b; Wilkins & Patterson, 1985). At the surface level, culture can be observed through examination of behaviors and artifacts, including such things as the physical setting, rituals, languages, and stories. At a slightly deeper, less conscious level, organizational culture is defined by the unwritten rules and norms of behavior, often conveyed by stories, rituals, language, and symbols. At the deepest levels, often totally sub-conscious, lie such things as the fundamental assumptions and core values of individuals, groups, and the organization (Connor & Lake, 1988). It is at this deepest level that the organizational culture can be most tenacious and most powerful (Wilkins & Patterson, 1985).

Culture is experienced differently by members of the organization (Rousseau, 1990). Sub-cultures may arise within an organization as small groups share values, perceptions, norms, or even ceremonies that differ from those of the wider organization (Cooper, 1988; Louis, 1985; Thompson & Luthans, 1990). Context is also important: for example, project team members who have worked together on a previous project can bring their previous culture into the work environment, that is in some ways beneficial and problematic.

Project Manager's Checklist: Adapting to a different organizational culture

Once the the corporate culture has been identified, members should try to adapt to the frequency, formality, and type of communication customary in that culture. This adaptation will strongly affect project members' productivity and satisfaction internally, as well as with the client-organization.

  • Which stakeholders will make the decision in this organization on this issue? Will your project decisions and documentation have to go up through several layers to get approval? If so, what are the criteria and values that may affect acceptance there? For example, is being on schedule the most important consideration? Cost? Quality?
  • What type of communication among and between stakeholders is preferred? Do they want lengthy documents (“bet your company” or “bureaucratic” culture)? Is “short and sweet” the typical standard?
  • What medium of communication is preferred? What kind of medium is usually chosen for this type of situation? Check the files to see what others have done.
  • What vocabulary and format are used? What colors and designs are used? (i.e.,at Hewlett-Packard (HP), all rectangles have curved corners)

Project Team Challenges

Today’s globally-distributed organizations (and projects) consist of people who have (experienced) a different “worldview”. Worldview is a looking glass through which [people] see the world (Dodd, 1995. p. 105), as quoted by Bob Shebib (Shebib, 2003. p. 296): "[It is] is a belief system about the nature of the universe, its perceived effect on human behavior, and one's place in the universe. Worldview is a fundamental core set of assumptions explaining cultural forces, the nature of humankind, the nature of good and evil, luck, fate, spirits, the power of significant others, the role of time, and the nature of our physical and natural resources."

If, for example, a US manager is sent to India to manage an R&D team or a joint-venture, s/he is likely to have to “[cope] with eco-shock or the physiological, psychological, and social reaction to a new assignment ecology”. (Fontaine, 2000, 2005). Hanging one’s shingle in a fluid and culturally-diverse organization, project team and work culture; new working relationships and hidden challenges has significant implications for performance and knowledge exchange – for the manager and his/her colleagues at home and in the host country.

In most situations there is simply NO substitute for having a well-placed person from the host culture to guide the Newbie through the cultural nuances of getting things done. In fact, if this 'intervention' isn't present, it is likely to affect the person's motivation or desire to continue trying to break through the cultural (and other) barriers. Indeed, "optimal effectiveness in such situations requires learning or developing third cultures or international microcultures, shared perceptions among the culturally diverse task participants on how to get things done." (Casmir, 2008; Fontaine, 2000; et al). Project leaders require sensitivity and awareness of multicultural preferences. The following broad areas should be considered:” (Shebib, 2003. p. 300)

  • Individual identity and role within project vs. family-of-origina and community
  • Verbal and emotional expressiveness
  • Relationship expectations
  • Style of communication
  • Language
  • Personal priorities, values and beliefs
  • Time Orientation

There are many interpersonal dynamics and intra-project challenges faced by a globally-distributed team. Individual members and the team itself requires important social supports to mitigate uncertainty, conflict, motivational challenges, culture shock and the more-encompassing eco-shock (Fontaine, 2005) – that comes from facing head-on the unfamiliar and diverse situations consistent with a different cultural and distributed context.

Diverse and globally distributed project teams (i.e., different ethnic cultures, genders, age, and functional capabilities) often working on complex projects spanning multiple time zones, geography and history, operating with tight deadlines in cost-conscious organizations, need to make time and resources available to physically meet each other, and connect (at the very least) at a formal ‘kick-off’ meeting. Especially when working with team members from high-context cultures (Hall, 1959), it is essential to meet face-to-face, and discover member's individual identities, cultural preferences and share professional knowledge and personal stories; observe critical verbal and non-verbal cues (that may not easily be observed online, or on the telephone. This is key to establishing a safer climate and building trust for stronger relationships among both team members and management).

Dealing with Conflict

The question isn’t whether, when or what will create conflict among intercultural team members — or with what frequency it will occur. If a team wants to overcome (or harness) conflict for effectiveness and productivity, the question is how to navigate and resolve the conflicts. While conflict that springs from diversity can actually assist the team in completing complex problem-solving. However, if not navigated successfully, it can create relationship strain and derail achievement due to increased difficulties in communication and coordination (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

As the global marketplace continues its rapid expansion, researchers are increasingly turning their attention to the issue of conflict management. Differing social and cultural values don’t necessarily increase the number of conflicts a team will experience, but they can have an impact on how conflicts get managed and resolved. Cultural awareness is needed for understanding and appreciating others’ values and behavioral norms. Without that, Global Holdings’ foreign assignments will become an overwhelming challenge (Baruch, 2001). Self-awareness and skill development can aid in resolving the problematic conflict arising from cultural differences to help the team maintain good relations and remain productive.

Critical Relational Dynamics

Getting things done also requires knowing who to trust so that one can share information and knowledge without being undermined or sabotaged in tricky organizational politics. Factoring in Parson's Five (Cultural) Relational Orientations (as referenced in Trompenaars' book (p. 8), the dynamics become even more complex.

  • Universalism versus Particularism (rules versus relationships)
  • Communitarianism versus Individualism (the group versus the individual)
  • Neutral versus Emotional (the range of feelings expressed)
  • Diffuse versus Specific (the range of involvement)
  • Achievement versus Ascription (how status is accorded)

When a manager from an achievement-oriented oriented culture is sent to work in an Ascriptive culture, s/he is going to have specific challenges in actually receiving the appropriate information, because the Ascriptive work culture (as antithesis to the Achievement culture) is likely not to trust the incoming individual (even if everyone works for the same company!), nor operate by rules familiar to the Achievement-oriented manager. (Still, such an assignment posting may be really exciting (over the long-term) for expats who are genuinely into the "flow" of the culture and have a high level of motivation (Fontaine, 2005). In addition, such assignments may also generate unanticipated (and unpredictable) consequences which can rally folks within a team or organization to communicate at a deeper level or not. Indeed, when we change our world view (or facilitate someone else to do so) through knowledge-sharing or direct experience, many things are possible. Clearly, culture and complexity are intertwined.

Addressing Cultural Gaps

There are a variety of strategies for dealing with cultural impacts in projects. At the top of the list, is cultivating close personal bonds with one's hosts, so that they provide the insight and information as to what's really going on. Whether in high-context or low-context, polychronic or monochronic cultures (Hall, 1959), this can be accomplished by engaging in side conversations with one's peers, colleagues and managers.

There is considerable merit in establishing mentoring relationships by professionals within a given company, across a sector, or even within a similar industry. Resources for developing and managing these relationships can be found through an industry association, country-to-country business / trade councils. It also makes sense to add a cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness component to corporate leadership and training programs.

Technology can play a role here as well - through various aspects of data capture, search and knowledge management. A company may add a reporting requirement for managers to provide insights about "cross-cultural challenges & strategies" to inform their peers and organizational masters. This can facilitate intra-corporate awareness; give the company a heads-up on potential difficulties; and contribute to greater employee engagement throughout the organization. Moreover, an open environment will generate more opportunities for knowledge sharing, learning and development, and a potential shift in the organization's own culture.

Another strategy is to brief and debrief employees (pre- and post-project), possibly taking the form of entry and exit interviews, and some protocol for capturing the informational essence (not word-for-word transcribing). Trip reports (as above) are useful, and so are presentations for other staff with Q&A sessions. This can be enhanced electronically with confidential discussion boards, blogs or wikis, so that colleagues can learn from each other before travelling, in situ, or even managing from a distance, developing greater means of social support too.

Reading is an important means of understanding another person's culture and setting the stage for informed knowledge exchange - whether it is stems from The Economist's Country Profiles (; Berlitz series for managers; Robert Young Pelton's tongue-in-cheekly-readable but dangerously-serious The World's Most Dangerous Places ( Pelton's links are useful:

Getting to know the leading authors of a given country or regions is worthwhile too. In fact, the latter will go along way to helping transplanted managers understand what the issues are in a given locale, and 'what's really going on'. Asking one's in-country colleagues for the names of leading authors shows considerable curiosity and interest, cultural respect and sensitivity which can pay significant dividends for quality knowledge exchange, relationship- and trust-building.


Casmir, Michael J. (2008). Culture and the Changing Environment.

Connor, P. E., & Lake, L. K. (1988). Managing organizational change. New York: Praeger.

Deal, T. E. (1985). Cultural change: Opportunity, silent killer, or metamorphosis? In R. Retrieved October 28, 2011 from

Dodd, C.H. (1995). Dynamics of Intercultural Communication, 4th ed., Duguque, 1A, Brown and Benchmark.

Lindahl, Robert. The Role of Organizational Climate and Culture in the School Improvement Process: A Review of the Knowledge Base, in Connexions. Retrieved October 28, 2011 from

Fontaine, G. (2005). A Self-Organization Perspective on the Impact of Local verses Global Assignment Strategies and Knowledge Building. International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, 5(1), 57-66.

Fontaine, Gary (2005). Motivations for Going International: Profiles of Asian and American Foreign Study Students, Cross-Cultural Management Students and Global Managers, International Journal of Management.

Hall, Edward T. (orginally published 1959; 1973). The Silent Language. Anchor.

Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2001). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2005). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills, Ninth Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2011). Culture. Retrieved on October 28, 2011 from

Owens, R. G. (2004). Organizational behavior in education: Adaptive leadership and school reform (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Pelton, Robert Young (2003). The World's Most Dangerous Places, Collins; 5th Rev edition.

Rousseau, D. M. (1990). Assessing organizational culture: The case for multiple methods. In B. Schneider (Ed.), Organizational climate and culture (pp. 153 - 192). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. H. (1984, Summer). Suppose we took culture seriously. Academy of Management OD Newsletter, 2ff.

Schein, E. H. (1985a). How culture forms, develops, and changes. In R. H. Kilman, M.J.

Saxton, & R. Serpa (Eds)., Gaining control of the corporate culture (pp. 17-43). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. H. (1985b). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E.H. (1999). The corporate culture survival guide: Sense and nonsense about culture change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shebib, Bob (2003). Bob. Choices: Interviewing and Counselling Skills for Canadians, 2nd edition, Pearson Education Canada Inc.

Thompson, K. R., & Luthans, F. (1990). Organizational culture: A behavioral perspective. In B. Schneider (Ed.), Organizational climate and culture (pp. 319-344). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Global Business. Irwin.

The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. Connexions. Retrieved October 28, 2011 from

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler

Wilkins, A. L., & Patterson, K. J. (1985). You can’t get there from here: What will make culture-change projects fail. In R. H. Kilman, M. J. Saxton, & R. Serpa (Eds)., Gaining control of the corporate culture (pp. 262-291). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About Randy Fisher, BA, BJ, MA

Version 1

Mr. Fisher is Manager, Community Service Learning at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Global and Community Engagement. He has extensive experience in stakeholder and community engagement, organization development, change management, project management, facilitation and performance. As ‘WikiRandy’, he has demonstrated leadership in e-learning, blended learning and Open Education Resources (OERs) through his facilitation and community-building efforts for Community College Consortium for Open Education Resources; the Commonwealth of Learning, the OER Foundation and WikiEducator (18,000+ educators in 120 countries); and the design and development of sustainable communities-of-practice for community media and public health professionals in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Professionally-trained as a journalist, his competencies also include marketing, market research, communications, outreach and collaboration using Web 2.0 social networking tools for the public and private sectors and academia. He holds an MA in Organization Management and Development; a post-graduate degree in journalism; and certifications in advanced technology management, and instructional design for adults.

Version 2

Mr. Fisher is Acting Manager, Community Service Learning at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Global and Community Engagement. He has extensive experience in organization development, change/transition management and stakeholder engagement. He has conducted needs assessments for open and distance learning projects; interviewing students, professors, administrators and external partners for their feedback, objectives and workflow; and designed and implemented designed cost-effective performance interventions to increase participation and interaction in online and hybrid courses and communities.

He has supported various programs at the Commonwealth of Learning and other leading agencies in the education sector to facilitate learning and development and knowledge sharing, and to evaluate strengths and gaps and share best practices. He also has expertise in marketing, market research, communications, outreach and Web 2.0 social collaboration. He holds an MA in Organization Management and Development from Fielding Graduate University; post-graduate degree in journalism (University of King's College); a Train-the-Trainer certification and a diploma in Instructional Design.