The Role of Communication in the
Management of International Projects
Kevin E. Ready, Toshiba America Electronic Components.
2007 IEEE International Engineering Conference. (IEMC 2007)
addition, control of such projects is usually an ongoing process
Abstract— What kind of communications problems exist in an of negotiation by the contributing parties, rather than the
international project environment, and how do they impact the traditional “top-down” arrangement common to a corporation’s
execution of work? internal projects.
Extensive interviews show that there is often a lack of
Over the last 3 years, the author of this article has
standards, and often no well-defined approach managers use to
offset communications issues on international projects. Further, interviewed a significant number of engineers and managers
when effective strategies are found, they tend not to become with experiences working in various international contexts,
institutional knowledge. After giving an overview of likely looking for the most significant challenges that arise from
communication issues, the author evaluates specific tactics used working with different cultures, and documenting the best
by international project managers, and reviews how those tactics strategies for dealing with them. As one manager related about
ultimately impact project performance.
managing international issues on a $1B semiconductor project,
"It feels like a no-win situation. It never feels like enough.”
Indeed, the challenges that arise in managing international
I nternational engineering projects are common now, but will
become more critical and commonplace in the future. In a
teams are daunting. However, given the business mandate to
outsource, collaborate, and pursue emerging markets, these
problems must be overcome in order to be successful in the
speech in Singapore (May of 2007), Samuel Palmisano, IBM’s modern engineering landscape.
chairman, observed that "From [a] R&D perspective, I think International projects bring with them many types of
more and more of what's going to happen in the future is one of challenge. Prominent among them are:
collaboration."  He went on to explain that the financial 1) New legal and regulatory requirements. (export control
burden of research and development is so great that it must be laws, labor laws and working standards from multiple
shared among multiple companies, usually crossing countries, visas, patents, etc.)
international borders. Mr. Palmisano’s assertions are borne out 2) Time-shifting (time zone differences) and physical distance
by current trends towards internationalization at every level in 3) Cultural differences
the engineering world. This trend is particularly clear in the 4) Language differences
semiconductor, software, and consumer electronics fields. 5) Distributed teams
While internationalization has been common over the past
several decades, Mr. Palmisano suggests that a new kind of While all of these issues (and many more) await the
collaborative environment is beginning to emerge. The engineering manager on an international project, I will discuss
historical model of internationalization has a successful the often-neglected ‘soft science’ of communication in this
corporation exporting ‘its way of doing business’ overseas. In paper. I will first outline some of the challenges and
this scenario, that company’s core culture, business processes, communication problems likely to occur in a Multi-National
and infrastructure are extended into new regions. The resulting Project (MNP), and then discuss some practical strategies for
business unit is usually relatively ‘subservient’ to the parent dealing with them. It is a truism of international project
company, and control is rather direct. management that the specifics of each project are unique. My
In the collaborative model, a much more complicated objective in writing this discourse is not to attempt to provide
process of internationalization is required. In this kind of you a detailed catalog of specifics such as “when ending a
project, entirely new teams are assembled from resources conference call with Korean managers, be sure so say ‘x’ “, but
brought in from multiple companies. The resultant new teams rather to help you pencil-in the outlines, a map of the territory
are commonly subject to significant stresses and difficulties ahead. On this map, I hope to be able to show you where some
because they are usually created as an amalgam of several of the difficult traveling, mountains, rivers, (and land mines?)
different business cultures, international cultures, and native are likely to be found with regards to how your team will share
languages. The collaborative international team requires a information.
management effort that recognizes the distinct challenges
presented by this dynamic mix of international elements. In A Call to Action
As of 2007, English is the default language for international project have 3 main components:
communication in international projects. Despite this, or
perhaps because of this fact, I assert that it is imperative for 1) Distance / time – Bringing people together for real-time
native English-speaking engineers and managers learn to meet communication over great distance requires technology
their international teammates at some middle point of the (teleconferencing, video-conferencing, air travel), and
language divide. In that effort, it is the engineering manager sacrifice of time (‘getting on the phone at 10:00 P.M. for the
that will need to lead by example, and apply strategies and China call’, ‘travel to Berlin for the face-to-face design
policies that will create efficiency, and help to circumvent review.’)
unnecessary problems in the execution of their MNPs. 2) Culture – ‘Yes’ does not always mean ‘Yes’. Beyond
the words, how are messages encoded and decoded? This
II. COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS varies significantly from culture to culture. Great differences
in culture can even be seen between different organizations
When international teams work together, it is highly likely within the same country.
that a subset of the team will be forced conduct their work in a 3) Language – Bringing Indian, Chinese, German, and
non-native language. Your Chinese team members will be British engineers into the same room for an efficient and
expected to use English clearly and effectively. Your Japanese meaningful discussion on the proposed 65nm production
design office will be expected to quickly and effectively process for your new processor presents obvious
correspond with your team by email. Your Russian marketing communication challenges.
team will be expected to seamlessly understand the
documentation that the American software engineers prepare This is rich and varied topic for discussion, but I will
for the new product line. Will these expectations be satisfied generally restrict my discussion to language issues, but will
100%? If the English speaking team treats these international touch on some cultural aspects as I move along.
communications like ‘business as usual’ and does not
compensate in some manner for their foreign teammates’ III. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE LANGUAGE
non-native-speaker status, the chances are very slim. BARRIER
Misunderstandings will arise, errors will occur (which may or
A. It takes longer to communicate
may not be quickly recognized and corrected), frustration will
mount, and eventually the fabric of the team’s relationship will Simply put, people don’t talk as fast when they have to use a
become stretched taut and may fray or rip. Is this series of 2nd language. When foreign team members cross the language
events inevitable? Many of the managers that I interviewed say divide to do their work, they will be less efficient.
yes, this kind of issue is ‘built in’ to international projects. It is B. Less information is shared
clear, however that this kind of issue can be minimized by When MNP team members are involved in a discussion can
‘knowing the terrain’ ahead of time (knowing where to expect they fully express their thoughts? It is likely that in many cases,
problems), and preparing all sides of the project team with team members will not try to fully vocalize because of language
standards to follow which are well thought out and represent concerns and thus find that their contribution to the team is
the best practices of other successful international projects. gated by the language problem. When MNP team members
One way to visualize the impact of communication problems communicate, is the information encoded in such a way that the
on a project is to take the analogy of a transportation network. other team members will understand and accurately take their
Let us stop and visualize the roads and highways of a major intended meaning? This is often compounded by the myriad
city. It is clear that there are many kinds of roads – from cultural considerations that may be at play on a MNP.
winding rural paths to paved suburban streets and interstate Especially in highly technical groups, it can be embarrassing
highways. We know from experience how our morning for members to say out loud that they do not understand what is
commute can be affected by even a small accident on a major happening in a conversation. They may fear that the question
route. We can easily find ourselves an hour late to the office will be construed as their being technically incompetent. The
because someone had a flat tire, or other accident on the road result is that they do not ask for clarification or for a slowing
ahead of us. To carry the metaphor into our discussion of down and toning down of the conversation so that they can
engineering, often international projects find themselves understand more completely.
plagued with ‘fender benders’ – meeting details not
understood, phone conferences where silence reigns because C. Non-understanding
one team does not have the confidence to speak up, emails not Sometimes communication comes to a halt when a team
properly responded-to because of lack of understanding. These member does not know a word or loses track of a conversation.
types of every-day mishaps can add up over time and It is hard work for an engineer to engage in a discussion in a
cumulatively degrade the performance of everyone involved on foreign language. When meetings are too long, too fast-paced,
your project. or change context suddenly, team members who are not native
Generally speaking, communication challenges on an language speakers will frequently “fall off the boat.” The
conversation moves forward, but they are no longer on board, A. Put experienced people in charge.
left swirling in the current several miles back. International projects should have culturally experienced
It will be assumed by the native speakers that everyone is ‘on and fluent team members in management positions on the
the same page’, but it is often not the case. This manifests itself project. These people will be responsible for interpreting the
later in not-so-subtle ways when the execution of work takes every-day events of the project and relaying them to the home
place and different team members have different ideas about offices. In addition, they will be responsible for directing the
what to do and how to do it. This is a source of inefficiency. way in which their people interact within the shared
D. Incorrect understanding international environment. As such, they will be required to
have a good ear and the capacity for expressing themselves to
It is one thing for a team member to not understand – and
each of the groups involved in the project. Usually, successful
recognize that he is lost. It is much worse when a team member
projects will require the team leaders from each participating
that ‘fell overboard’ does not realize that it happened. When
company to be near-natively fluent in the language and culture
team members leave the meeting with a different understanding
nuances of the other team(s).
of the conclusions, requirements, or instructions discussed, will
it be noticed? If it is noticed, how much time will it take to B. Choose your team well.
realize it? How much damage will occur? Will it delay the While foreign language experience is a plus, it is not always
delivery of work product? Many managers bemoaned the possible to pick a team of language-capable members for your
consequences of this insidious and very common dilemma. project. More important is to screen your employees for good
E. Relationships are Impacted “people skills” and flexibility. The reality is that the pool of
available engineers for any given project is usually (but not
Relationships are the foundation of any project team. When
always) limited to the staff of engineers already working in
communication is impaired in any way (often by language,
your company before the international project arises. This
culture, or distance) relationships are more difficult to
suggests to us then, that when companies do their initial hiring
establish. Once established, relationships can be damaged by
of employees, they would be well served to add language and
problems in communication. Especially when cultural
cultural experience to their list of desired employee attributes.
expectations are not met in communications, frustrations can
mount to the point where team members even begin to question C. Hire a Consultant
the basic human decency of their coworkers. I have seen simple As your project begins, bring in a trainer from the outside. A
cultural faux pas, or misunderstandings explode into problems number of consulting companies specialize in training
that threatened to derail an entire team because of the ways in international organizations to work effectively, and they can
which the human relationships of the group were damaged. provide good advice for even experienced team members.
As a deliverable, these consultants should provide your team
IV. STRATEGIES FOR MANAGING COMMUNICATION with a set of best practices and advice that will serve as the
In my research, it is surprisingly common for organizations basis of training future members of the project. Keep these
to have no strategy at all for managing the special challenges training materials in your project database, and have project
staff members revisit them at least once a year as your project
that arise from the international aspect of their projects.
Looking back at their projects, managers often express regret
that they did not anticipate the degree of ‘differentness’ that D. Set Standards
comes from working with a team that is international at its core. Leverage the experiences of your most experienced team
Typically this happens because of the assumption that the members, and set standards for communication, email style,
foreign team members will ‘be enough like us’ that the normal dispute handling, and other communication areas on your
project management approaches will be sufficient. This illusion project. Train your people on how to apply the standards, and
often comes about because during the negotiation phase, both expect them to follow through for the long term on the project.
organizations put forward their most seasoned and E. The Non-Native Team Should Employ Native Team
internationally fluent representatives. Confidence is built as Members.
these high-functioning executives hash out the working
It can be remarkably refreshing (for both sides) for
agreements for the project. Reality hits, however as the less
non-native teams to have natively fluent bilingual speakers
internationally savvy ‘rank and file’ staff members begin to
available to clarify questions, conduct negotiations, and
assemble into a new project team and issues begin to surface.
provide confirmation of comprehension on critical issues. For
While there is no ‘magic bullet’ for rooting out all
example, a joint project between Americans and Chinese
communication issues in an international project, the following
should see the American firm hiring several native Chinese as
list of strategies taken together can help you to minimize them
team members. Such employees can often handle complex
when they occur, and avoid some of them entirely
misunderstandings with just a brief intervention. Particularly
when negotiating, native speakers can be very valuable.
Part I : Executive Level Managers
Negotiations require articulation, and rapid processing of
information along with knowledge of cultural expectations and
norms. Native speakers can be valuable assets to have at the the relevant meeting participants one-to-one afterward. This
table with you. It can be a mistake, however, for a project to can be a timesaving and face-saving exercise. Work-pairs can
depend too heavily on a few fluent bilingual members (a also help out, if they are seated near one another during the
communications bottleneck). meeting – a discrete side-bar can keep people on track without
derailing the general pace of the meeting as a whole.
F. Put someone who is bilingual in charge of handling the
Work to include everyone. Look for strategies to pull silent
language / cultural divide
observers into the conversation. Often international team
When you have a large project, or have a number of smaller members will remain close-mouthed for every meeting that
projects it may serve you well to dedicate a manager to the task they attend. They will often even resist speaking when
of monitoring and managing the cultural issues. specifically called-out to do so. In these cases, set the
One interviewee said: “For a project this size [several expectation that they will participate beforehand so that they
hundred engineers from multiple countries], we need someone can prepare in advance. Try giving such team members a report
dedicated to managing the cultural issue, and to keep on top of subject that they need to speak to on a regular basis as a strategy
it. Take lessons learned each week and propagate them to the for ‘opening them up’ and getting them involved.
team. Interview project members on all sides and collect info
and feed it back to the whole team.” C. Provide multiple layers of communication
This person would ideally be able to speak the major This is a critical piece of advice. Always provide more than
languages of the project, and educated in the very specific one opportunity for sharing critical information. Providing
nuances of the cultures involved. In some cases, a mini multiple layers of communication serves as a lifeline for team
‘committee’ of such people – one from each group can fulfill members that are challenged by the pace and complexity of
this role. This group would participate in meetings, keep tabs verbal communications on an international project.
on team members, and report to managers on what they find. It
would actively work to smooth over individual issues as they a) Send well-notated agendas out before your meetings
occur – meeting one-on-one with the team members who are so that people can prepare beforehand.
experiencing problems. The results of the many small
interventions are then fed back to the team as a whole on a b) Immediately after meetings, have one-on-one sessions
continuing basis. This iterative approach is designed to with those that seemed to have a difficult time
following the meeting discussions.
improve the cultural I.Q. of the team over time, resulting in a
decrease of issues and increase in efficiency.
c) Send out “meeting minutes” by email after meetings.
Summarize the conclusions and main points of the
Part II: Line Managers meeting so that understanding of critical points is
A. Work Pairs enhanced.
Pair foreign team members with individual native team
d) Use project databases for sharing schedules and
members. Work to establish one-to-one human ties between the
related groups. The natural tendency on MNPs is for cultural
groups to stick together at the detriment of cross-cultural ties.
e) Always provide written documentation when possible.
To minimize this, early in the project deliberately assign work Non-native team members can take as much time as
that will require pairs of people from unrelated backgrounds to they need to read documents and understand what is
work together. The intended purpose of this is to create happening in a project, where verbal communication
informal trust, influence and information networks that will is fleeting – if the information is not captured
naturally minimize the full spectrum of communication immediately when it is spoken, it is lost.
problems that you would usually expect on an international
project. By creating these bonds of trust through shared work, This strategy does increase the workload on team members,
you are creating the groundwork to help the team to solve its as the volume of documentation and writing increases
own problems as they arise. substantially as compared to a ‘normal’ project environment.
As such, it may meet with resistance or a slow tapering-off of
B. Set Meeting Rules
compliance by team members over time. Line managers will
Meetings are the front lines of cultural conflict on projects. It need to clearly support these efforts in order for them to be
is in the meeting room, or the conference call that a great effective over the long term.
number of the communication challenges of international
projects come to light. In meetings, encourage participants to
Part III: Executives AND Line Managers
immediately indicate if they missed a word or sentence when
the group is sized at four members or less. In larger meetings, in A. Assume Differences Exist
order to avoid slowing down the discourse for the whole group, The entire organization should assume from the start that
non-native team members may choose to take notes about areas differences exist between the various cultures assembled on the
that they were not clear on and confer with each other or with MNP.  This needs to be an explicit institutional
understanding. By starting with this point of view, the new Americans communicated with the international team members
team can move forward and find commonality. When in the same way that they did with their native colleagues.
‘sameness’ is assumed, you have more fertile ground for Having agreed-upon communication standards, and a dedicated
misinterpreting communications. When you assume manager for resolving this kind of issue could have also helped.
‘difference’, your interpretation of messages is more open and
you will pursue clarification more readily. This strategy will 2) An American company outsourced a team to China:
benefit not only communications, but all aspects of the project Ongoing coordination of tasks- After training 15 Chinese
in which culture plays a part. workers how to do their tasks, the American team had most of
its members transferred to other groups or fired, leaving only 3
B. Manage Team Culture.
original members to continue handling the American side of the
Organizational culture is a ‘top down’ phenomenon, and work. The remaining 3 members were then given the
requires a clear vision from executives and daily application by uncomfortable burden of daily 10:00 PM phone conferences
line managers. It may be very difficult to realize, but creating a with the Chinese team.
culture of openness and free communication is a worthy goal During the phone conferences, there was frequent
for an international team. Strive for cultural norms that reward uncomfortable silence. On the Chinese side, there was only 1
and accept open admission of mistakes, and team member who had enough confidence, or English skill to
misunderstandings. While national cultural norms may stand in try to talk to the Americans. The Americans complained to
the way of such open acknowledgements, a team that feels free themselves that they could only barely understand the one
and unthreatened by such communication is ideal. Respect for engineer who would speak, and did not have confidence that he
cultural differences is also critical on an international project. was relaying appropriately complete information to the rest of
his team. The Americans would talk for 5 minutes, and then the
V. COMMUNICATION SCENARIOS one Chinese engineer would speak in Chinese for 10 – 15
seconds to the rest of his team. The result of this
Having described many aspects of communication in MNPs, communication bottleneck, (and other technical issues) was
I will now sketch out the basic outlines of a small number of that the 3 American team members had to pick up most of the
scenarios in which communication problems and solutions are work themselves, and got minimal work output from the
presented in context. Chinese team.
Analysis: This communication problem needed more
1) A multinational team in the United States: An engineer English speakers on the Chinese side, or a fluent Chinese
requests a work assignment: On this team, a Japanese engineer speaker on the American side. Given the small size of the team,
was getting increasingly frustrated with his American manager. however, this kind of HR resource was out-of-budget.
He sent repeated formal emails to the manager requesting Ultimately, executive management is responsible for providing
action, but did not get any ‘appropriate’ response. After weeks the resources necessary for the team to be successful.
of such frustration, he became so upset that he began
questioning the personal qualities and worthiness of the 3) A multinational team in the United States- Conducting
American manager. meetings with non-native speakers: Many of the foreign team
Analysis: What had happened was that the Japanese engineer members on the project will not substantially participate in
was using a formal Japanese writing style (in English) when meetings, and are hesitant to speak up. On occasion, some of
communicating with his American manager. He formatted his the foreign team will even fall asleep during meetings. The
rather long messages with a ‘hello, how are you doing’ effect of this was a growing sense that the foreign team
introduction, and then a general purpose middle section, and members were marginalized as a group, and not fully able to
only at the very end of the letter did he make his actual request contribute to the project.
for action. This is very polite in Japanese terms, but was clearly
misunderstood by the American manager. Analysis: One cause of this is probably that the verbal
The American manager had the mindset that any email discourse in the meeting was happening too fast. In addition,
coming in would have the most important information at the top the meetings would often last too long. It is taxing to actively
of the text, if not in the subject line. When the long emails listen to a foreign language for a long time. To compensate for
would arrive from the Japanese, he scanned top-down and not this, the team distributed meeting minutes after each meeting
seeing any call to action, often would not respond. When he did that detailed all action items and conclusions. Also, relevant
respond, his messages were terse (consistent with his documents were stored in a central database so foreign
company’s style), and did not address the unnoticed request participants who could not follow the conversation could pick
that was sent by the Japanese engineer. up the details after returning to their desks. Another aspect of
The Japanese engineer quietly got angrier and angrier, but this was that some of the foreign participants felt that the
did not openly address the issue with the American manager. meeting contents were not relevant to their tasks—they were
When the American manager finally found out (through a third often invited to the meetings for reasons that they did not
party intervention), he was completely surprised and understand.
In this case an awareness of cultural norms by both parties 4) A multinational team in the United States: Communicating
could have helped. No training was given to the team, so the with the client overseas: When a semiconductor company
found a problem on one of their projects, a mid-level engineer States to complete a list of tasks for his organization, he was
immediately sent an email message to their Japanese client careful to keep management updated. He did not know what the
company (who was paying for the work), telling them of the culture of the company he was visiting (and more generally
issue. The response from the Japanese company was swift and American culture) did not have this behavioral norm. He was
indignant: They were very upset, and American executives shocked to learn that cc’ing another person’s manager on a
spent a great deal of time trying to repair the damage. routine issue is a very strong gesture of dissatisfaction with the
Analysis: The American engineer who sent the mail was subordinate’s performance.
concerned about the issue and thought that it was good A ‘boundary spanner’ engineer who knew both cultures and
diligence to immediately inform the client of the problem. From noticed the problem as it occurred resolved the issue. He gently
the Japanese side, they were reacted negatively to being informed the Japanese engineer of what had happened, and the
informed: 1) by email, and 2) by a mid-level engineer. Japanese engineer corrected the situation by affirming to the
The Japanese company expected at the very least a phone American’s manager that he was receiving excellent support.
call from a senior executive in the case of such significant news.
This problem could have been avoided if cultural training had VI. CONCLUSION
been conducted, and clear standards of communication had The question of communication is central to any project, but
been set. After this incident, the company instituted a ‘no can be particularly difficult in the context of an international
contact’ policy between non-executive engineers and the team. Effective communication is a requirement if teams are to
Japanese client. fully realize the benefits of cooperation across international
5) An American team, seeking a partnership with a Canadian As a direct consequence of organizations continuing to move
firm: Presenting a proposal. The American team put a great in the direction of international teams, it is inevitable that the
deal of time and effort into preparing a proposal for a Canadian ease and fluency with which such efforts are executed will
company that they wanted to partner with. The executives improve. The current state of the industry is such that
packed up their proposal materials and flew up to Canada to engineers on international projects are often experiencing their
give the presentation. Although they were confident that the first taste of such challenges as we have discussed in this paper.
Canadians would meet their proposal warmly, they were It is this author’s opinion that such sensation of novelty and
shocked and disappointed when their pitch received pointed unfamiliarity will decrease significantly over time, as more and
and direct criticism. They quickly concluded that they had more engineers find themselves exposed to the challenges of
misread the intentions of the Canadian company, and began to international projects, and recognize that differences do exist,
think about alternative partners to approach. and learn to respond accordingly.
Analysis: The American executives returned home. The deal
looked like it was finished. Fortunately, they contacted an REFERENCES
international business consultant, who put their experience into
context for them. He told them that the criticism from the  IBM: Future of research lies in collaboration
Canadians was very likely a positive sign of sincere interest, Lynn Tan, ZDNet Asia
and intention to consider the proposal. The chagrined American http://www.zdnetasia.com/news/business/0,39044229,62011661,00.
team contacted the Canadians, and was able to conclude the htm
deal with little problem. The Americans had mistakenly
[2,3] Ken Price, Ph.D. , Director of Global Learning and Consulting
assumed that the Canadians would communicate with the same
Solutions, TMC Corporation
norms and mechanisms as them. Perhaps they had thought that
since the Canadians were geographically close and spoke
English, they were practically ‘American’ in their
communication style. This “assumption of similarity” was a
critical mistake. 
6) A multinational team in the United States: Routine email
communication: An American engineer is worried and upset
because his counterpart, who just arrived from Japan, has cc’ed
his manager, and the project director on routine email
discussing his work. His American manager had come to his
desk to verify that he was adequately supporting the visiting
engineer, and had to quickly explain that everything was fine.
The American was shocked that the Japanese engineer could be
dissatisfied with his help, because he was dedicated almost
100% of his time to him.
Analysis: The Japanese engineer has been trained since he
first entered his company that he should keep managers
informed of even minor adjustments of project status.
Especially since he was on a temporary junket to the United