Case Study: Does Culture Matter? Navigating Cultural Differences

Submitted by Rachel Shackleton

Case Study: Does Culture Matter? Navigating Cultural Differences


The client is an international organisation with the main hub in Russia. IT engineers, programmers and IT architects support different client projects on installation of back office software. The nominated project team supports the client through a full project plan, regular updates on the progress, close working relations with the local IT team and on site training as and when it is required during the project life. A typical project lasts from 2-3 years depending on the size and location of the client’s business.

The project team, approximately 12 in total, has been working with the same client in different locations for a number of years already. As each project installation to date, had been a success, the client requested further locations be upgraded with the same software including Brazil, South Africa, Slovakia and Austria.

Each operation, whilst belonging to a large global organisation has autonomy for deciding to go ahead with such projects, as well as for dealing directly with my client rather than through a head office structure. This means that each project is individual, set up as if it is a new client with agreed project guidelines and stages, reporting structure and budget parameters. Every new project is in essence a new client despite the fact that it is for the same company, just in a different location.

Identified as one of the most difficult aspects of each project, is communicating with local project teams who are very often a different culture to their own. The main goal within my brief included helping the team understand how to successfully communicate across cultures taking into consideration potential barriers. Specifically focusing on the countries mentioned to build relations through understanding how a particular culture might influence the communication and behaviours in decision-making situations and hierarchical structure. Therefore, how best to address any needed decision-making to ensure decisions are made in a timely manner, without causing disrespect to the hierarchy within the local project team, and to keep the project on track in accordance with the overall project plan.

The proposed solution was a two-day workshop that looked into cross cultural diversity and how this affects communication style, decision making, building trust and influencing. The model used within the workshop to provide a framework for working effectively with and within the nominated cultures, was the well-known “Culture Map” by Erin Meyer.

During the two days, there were a number of exercises to demonstrate different aspects of cultural differences as well as several case studies analysing firstly their own culture and then looking at themselves in relation to the other cultures of interest. The goal was not to highlight the differences as differences, but rather to put emphasis on where communication, decision making and influencing might need to be adapted to be effective, and how allowances can be planned into the project time to ensure a smooth process and overall successful installation.

There are no right or wrong cultures, or cultural approaches. Each culture is unique and different. Perhaps this is the foundation for respect and working within another culture? Cultural differences are all relative, and in Erin Meyer’s words, “Relativity is crucial”.

“Cultural relativity is the key to understanding the impact of culture on human interactions. If an executive wants to build and manage global teams that can work together successfully, he needs to understand not just how people from his own culture experience people from various international cultures, but also how those international cultures perceive one another.” (Erin Meyer) It can and should be expected that things, such as communication – intrinsic or extrinsic, low context or high context, hierarchical and power structure, decision-making structure, goal or relationship driven, confrontational or not, and negotiation, to name a few, will be different.” (Erin Meyer) How we perceive those differences are always in relation to our own perspective from our own cultural programming and positioning.

When analysing cultural differences we also have to take into consideration that individuals will have their own programming on top of the cultural programming. Take for example myself? Educated in the UK, however finished the last two years of schooling in South Africa. Lived and worked in South Africa for eight years before returning to the UK as an adult. Followed this with four years in the Caribbean and then many years living and working in Russia. My individual and cultural programming is completely different to someone who has grown up in, been educated through the British university system and has had a two year work assignment in France and therefore applying any form of “cultural norms” will show a degree of distortion away from those “norms”. This clearly cannot be ignored when dealing on a one to one basis.

The workshop was two days and at the end of the two days of looking at the Culture Map model, applying this to various exercises and several case studies, participant feedback included:

“ I got a good understanding for the scope of cultural differences and potential problems.”

“Now I know what questions I should ask myself before starting a new project with a new multicultural team.”

“Motivation on how to better communicate and how to approach new people.”

“An understanding of my own culture and why we act and think in a particular way. All goes deep to the roots of our culture, social atmosphere and upbringing.”

“Before the workshop I supposed there is no big difference between nations. Now I say for sure that sometimes you have to be more flexible in order to achieve the common goals.”

Reference: The Culture Map, Erin Meyer

To learn how we can do the same for you, email Rachel directly at [email protected]

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