By Linky van der Merwe
The story from a project manager, Thania Olivier, is about the development of a new Forecasting system for the international Shipping giant, Maersk. It was undertaken by Safmarine Computer Services who merged with IBM later on.
The complexity lay in the fact that the project spanned across different continents, different time zones, different cultures and on top of that the added dimensions of harbour sizes and schedules of various cargo’s, resulting in a complex logistical solution.
All about forecasting
All the shipping and container loading processes were already in place, however, it was based on a manual process on Excel spreadsheets which required many man hours, no clear visibility of information and could easily become outdated due to decentralized users of information in a dynamic environment.
The project goal was to provide an electronic system to forecast and plan Maersk’s shipping schedules and cargo loading. The development team needed to understand a myriad of information for the cube to be developed. This included international port laws, time-zones, currencies, and the algorithms required behind the scene to create system intelligence that would enable Logistics Managers to accurately forecast, plan and schedule.
The project achieved its objective within two years of reducing the time spent on forecasting and making it more accurate. A centralised system, called Forecast, could be accessed from different countries and ports to streamline all forecasting processes in a fairly complex world.
What worked well
Project stakeholders were distributed globally and were located in Cape Town, South Africa, London and Copenhagen, with Copenhagen being where the Head office of Maersk as well as all project Business- and Process Owners.
The project went through a thorough analysis phase which took over a year. Good communication practices were followed by having daily communications by means of teleconferences with the London office and also stand-up meetings for the Cape Town team’s internal coordination. This consistent communication helped to align the teams, to provide clear visibility into what is being planned, to be aware of the challenges and to agree the strategies on how to deal with them.
The project manager travelled frequently to have face-to-face meetings with key stakeholders. There were good relationships between Cape Town and London. The London team consisted of English, Australian, and Indian team members who were more socially oriented and with whom it was easy to build a social structure.
There was no regular communications with the stakeholders at Copenhagen. They were not part of the key tactical team and consisted mostly of business and process owners who funded the new system and were only required on an ad-hoc basis.
The Danish culture leans towards the Germanic way – somewhat devoid of emotion, focussed on efficiency and not readily forthcoming with information. They were busy people in high demand, which made it difficult to get time in their schedules and additionally often meant waiting for uncomfortably long periods before responses to critical queries would be forthcoming. A daily stand-up would not have solved this problem due to the nature of the Danish working environment.
Problems emerged when the e-Learning component of the project fell behind due to information required for training material not being received in time from the process owners. In turn, this delayed progress with Marketing’s planned schedule of distributing and on-boarding e-Learning modules across global Training Centres and jeopardized associated classroom training schedules for learners in these different countries.
Multi-cultural Management Skills
Members of the project team had to travel to Denmark to obtain the information in onsite sessions with Process Owners and other stakeholders. The project manager applied multi-cultural management skills to identify an important difference in communication styles between the Danish and the South African stakeholders, i.e. the Danes had a preference for structured, focused communication that limited its scope to the factually intact, whereas Cape Town based project team generally had a story-telling approach and had a preference for acknowledging the individual within the working environment. Understanding this difference enabled the project manager to open up styles of communication acceptable to both teams and resolving the matter of congested information sharing. The e-Learning component was able to move along and be completed in time for training sessions across the various global locations to kick off on scheduled dates.
Trust was only built between stakeholders when individuals felt comfortable with the non-verbal language aka style of communication being close to what was known to them in their respective cultures.
The project team had to adopt and compromise their way of working and communication style for the sake of achieving due dates on the project.
It is important not to make assumptions about personalities and readiness of stakeholders to collaborate without understanding the culture; culture influences personalities and behaviour and could account for a major win in interpersonal communications.
Project Managers could benefit from stepping up their soft skills and emotional intelligence. Wherever people are involved, healthy communication could have a tremendously beneficial effect on project progress. Important to note that a minimum level of trust is essential if people are expected to collaborate and contribute effectively.
As a project manager in a new environment, it’s better to hover and observe at first to get a feel for the type of person they will be working with, rather than demand and force their presence into an existing setup to which people became accustomed. Once common ground has been found and connections have been established with members in an existing environment, people generally feel respected and trust is built between people.
On projects with globally distributed stakeholder teams, regular communication are imperative for visibility into project activities and expectations. Relationship building benefit from a keen awareness of cultural differences; accommodating and complying with different ways of behaviour undoubtedly create respect, and individuals who feel respected are generally more willing to cooperate and are motivated to perform well in the work place.
Thania Olivier’s IT experience includes computer programming, business- and systems analysis, project- and programme management and operations strategy formulation. When she realised she wanted more of the big picture she engaged with the University of Liverpool to complete a Master of Science in International Management. The high value she intuitively places on interpersonal relationships and dynamics inspired her dissertation topic, ‘The effect of employee morale on organisational success’.
Thania may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org