Project Management in Thailand is still in its infancy!
This was the headline of an article published in an earlier edition of a special report on project management across the Asia Pacific. Few companies in Thailand recognize the importance of a centralized Project Management Office (PMO) managing and controlling project-related activities. Given the size of Thai companies and their limited project portfolios, existing functional departments separately handle project management activities without any centralized standard for management or control. This also leads to reduced authority and influence for the assigned project manager. While introducing a PMO within Thai companies is crucial, adapting standard processes and practices should consider differing customs, business practices, organizational cultures, and relationships that exist among project stakeholders.
There are specifically two categories of project managers working in the context of Thai companies:
- Those who work with local Thai staff only.
- Those who work with local as well as foreign staff.
My focus in this post is on the second.
Before we delve into project management and specifically its application in the context of the Thai industry, it is noteworthy to mention any study conducted on project management in western societies may have limited significance in a country where business structures, customs, and cultures differ. Many researchers stress the need to conduct research on how management techniques, practices, and models differ across national boundaries. Put differently, any “recipe for appropriate project management techniques” in a western culture may not necessarily apply in an eastern culture or among stakeholders with varying cultures. Having said that, all recommendations in this article are derived from experience and call for further scientific research for confirmation.
A Conflict Prevention Technique
Expatriate Project Managers should focus on reducing conflicts. Many Thai managers (with international exposure) perceive expat PMs as wanting to force down external business practices onto their environments. This belief, if misinterpreted, can further propagate to local subordinates leading to unnecessary communication barriers. Expat PMs should make sure stakeholders and specifically functional managers have mutual understanding of project expectations to prevent conflicts. Meeting with local managers regularly provides assurance that their comments are valid and their experience is valuable. Expat PMs should emphasize the role of the local team as the primary driver for project success.
In the Thai community, functional managers become quite acquainted with their subordinates. They do so by organizing social activities such as joint meals, social outings and workshops, and other team building activities. This surely helps build a spirit of collaboration within the firm. Expat PMs working on Thai projects should do their best to join, where possible and when invited, locals in such activities. This will also help the locals learn about the project manager in a non-working environment, which helps build ‘relationships’ and underscores the prevailing culture.
Dealing with ‘Change’
As with every project, changes are bound to happen. Oftentimes such changes lead to budget overruns and schedule delays. Naturally, PMs are expected to control such changes specifically during the execution phase. Following a standard project management methodology, a Project Manager establishes a ‘Change Control Board’ at the onset of the project to deal with change requests. There are times when local customer requests for changes are declined without adequate explanation.
Given the context of the Thai environment, it is crucial that all stakeholders involved are familiar with ‘Change Control’. Senior Managers may at times request changes in key product features verbally without any written notice. By declining such requests without adequate explanation, a foreign project manager may offend the customer. Even when the Project Manager knows the request is beyond project scope, it is important they accept the request, put in written form, and ask the customer to sign it off before processing it through change control. After careful consideration by the CCB, the Project Manager should visit with the customer and kindly explain the result. Remember, the word “NO” does not fit within the Thai context; rather, the response should always be – “let’s see what we can do to help you. We will do our best.”
Go to See Them Physically!
Sometimes I wonder if e-mail is the ONLY tool a project manager uses. In the Thai context and specifically when dealing with ‘seniors’, it is important that expat PMs underscore ‘physical’ meetings. It is not uncommon for a PM to send a written request to a local manager without receiving any acknowledgment or response to it. Go to see them! This adds value and is a good sign of respect to ‘authority’.
While it is crucial to introduce standard PM processes and standards into Thai companies, it
is more important that PMs contextualize the application of these principles given the varying culture, business structures, and practices. Stay tuned for more!