Cultural Dimensions Of International Project Management

Cultural Dimensions Of International Project Management

International project management is the management of projects internationally or across borders and cultures, international project management requires a specific set of skills to ensure success when managing international projects. This article looks particularly at the importance cultural awareness plays in international projects and how the Hofstede 5-D model can be used in an international project management framework.

International project management is becoming increasingly important in todays global business world where businesses are continuing to expand into new countries and markets, either to increase their market share or to reduce costs by utilising more efficient resources of other countries. International project management requires unique tools and techniques to give international projects greater chances of success.

International Project Management Challenges

Project management is challenging at the best of times and managing international projects only compounds these complexities and increases these challenges, some of the challenges and global issues of international project management that will need to be considered will differ greatly depending on the countries your project will involve.

Differing Standards

The problem with standards in a global sense and very much so in international project management is that they are not standard… Standards differ from country to country and consideration will need to be given as to which standards will be used will multiple standards be required. Some key areas of consideration are: 

  • Political & Legal Systems
  • Accounting Standards
  • Quality Standards and Unit Of Measure
  • Language Barriers
  • Time Zone Changes
  • Economic Conditions
  • Cultural Differences

Of these international project management challenges, one of the most difficult to provide a framework of understanding is the cultural differences of each country, while some countries are well aligned, others can be completely different in their cultural and social norms, an obvious example of this is the differences between western countries like Australia or America and Asian Countries such as China and Japan. These differences can greatly impact international projects and require a specific international project management approach to solve these challenges of international projects.

If a project manager was delivering an international project across multiple countriess and did not consider these social and cultural differences, it would be difficult to gain buy-in, support and the project would be carrying significant risks of failure, or significant costs to recover. These are the additional considerations and risks that must be managed with international project management and if you are involved in an international project then I urged you to consider the cultural differences and how that might impact your project. A great tool and ideal starting point is Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions model.

Hofstede Cultural Dimensions

Hofstede identified 5 key areas of cultural differences and called these the 5 cultural dimensions or 5-D model, the model allows you to compare any 2 or more countries with each other and quickly shows what cultural differences exist, which are aligned and which are uniquely different, each of the 5 categories below are scored on a scale of 0 to 120.

  • Power Distance
  • Individualism
  • Masculinity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Long-Term Orientation

International Project Management And Cultural Dimenions

Power Distance

Power distance is that gap between equality and the acceptance of the distribution of power. A flat management structure would be seen as having a low Power Distance as their is greater enfaces on equality. In an international project management environment in a country of high Power Distance you might only engage with the most senior of stakeholders and everyone else would not be privy to the project or engaged in the process.


Measures the importance of personal achievements and needs against the needs of the group. In a culture of high individualism it might be necessary to engage closer with key personnel and allow the to provide more input and take ownership of certain parts of the project while recognising their individual skills and achievemnts.


Masculinity vs femininity is the score that measures a country’s need for competitiveness and the importance for male and female roles. In a country with high masculinity a male project manager might face less resistance than a female or at lease do not blur the boundary with male and female roles.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This is the degree as to which country’s are more acceptance of being flexible and accepting of uncertainty, scores of high Uncertainty Avoidance will generally suggest lots of rules and well documented procedures. These country’s will struggle with the uncertainty of change and may required longer times and additional costs to ensure change is managed effectively.

Long Term Orientation

Measures the preference of the long term horizon over the short term. Long Term Orientation is seen more commonly in Asian countries with their Confucius background, countries with high Long Term Orientation may see little value in the importance of sticking to short term deadlines and milestones.


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International Project Management And Cultural Dimensions

The application of Hofstede’s 5-D model was originally used for International Business and Marketing applications, because it is quite effective in understanding a country’s cultural differences and social norms and gaining insights into the subtle differences and needs of different cultures, we can quickly see the value in its application in international project management, particular from an engagement perspective.

International Project Management Uses For Cultural Dimensios

The model could be used to select the most aligned countries when evaluating and considering which countries should be involved in the project, for example if you are embarking on an international change project, it might be unwise to start with a country with a high Uncertainty Avoidance score, it might make your life as an international project manager easier and the project more successful to start in a country that is open and embraces change. Then move in some senior managers to the countries with high Uncertainty Avoidance to show confidence in the change project.

But quite often, you may not have the luxury of selecting which countries will be part of the project, in this situation analysing the country’s cultural dimensions will give you great insight into how best to manage within these culture for the greatest change of success.

From an international project management perspective, lets consider an international project that includes Australia and China. A quick comparison using the 5-D model highlights the areas of close alignment and the areas of stark difference.

International Project Management Comparing The Cultural Dimensions Of Australia And China


Close Alignment – We can see quite quickly that the Masculinity of both country’s are pretty close, masculinity is slightly more important in China than Australia, but not by much. We can infer that both country’s consider masculinity slightly important and it is probably wise to not lead with talking about your feelings and it is safe to say that males would dominate the workforce and generally competitive in nature.

Reasonable Variances – It is also clear that Uncertainty Avoidance scores differ, but not but a great amount. Interestingly we note that China has a lower score and is less concerned with uncertainty. This might suggest that there are slightly more informal business rules, possibly based more on personal relationships and in the case of China short term changes are of less concern as long as the long term strategy is the key focus. It might be wise to relate how the changes this project will help to enable the long term goals.

Key Differences

The graph highlights the key differences between to two countries being Power Distance, Individualism and Long Term Orientation with widely opposing scores. These high variances suggest these cultural differences are complete opposites between the two countries and careful consideration will need to be given as to how to effectively manage these if the project is to be successful.

Power Distance

On inspection of the graph we can see that the Power Distance between China and Australia differs considerably and that China has a much higher score for Power Distance than Australia. This usually means that Chinese company’s respect seniority and their is a strong hierarchal management chain. This is quite the opposite to Australia, with many flat management styles that empowers individuals to make decisions and work autonomously.

If you are faced with this at an international project management level it might be necessary to show respect to their management and don’t expect too much involvement from the employees down the line, even if they are directly effected by the project. Project Meetings will often be closed door and it is important that the Project Manager is equally seen to have a great deal of power and respect.


Another key differentiator between Australia and China in our international project is the level of Individualism of the 2 countries. Again these are polar opposites and each country will require a different management style to effectively engage with the project stakeholders.

In Australia, we can see a high level of Individualism, which might suggest that many team members will want to voice their opinions and have their thoughts considered in the project. They are more likely to require praise and acknowledgement for good work and a more self centred approach to work.

The opposite will be true for China, where collectivism is more important that the individual and this might mean that closer consideration needs to be given to tradition and implement change slower with a focus on the group benefits. Engage with elders in the group and respect their wisdom.

Long Term Orientation

The Long Term Orientation scores of these comparison country’s are greatly different and completely opposite and will require equally differing approaches to our international project management approach.

In Australia with their short term orientation will be looking for short term wins with rapid change expected. They would expect equality and project managers should lead by example. There will be the constant focus on the next reporting period which is usually monthly and quarterly financial reporting.

However in China their high Long Term Orientation will show more respect to their elders and an expectation that project managers are well educated with years of experience. The focus will be maintained on long term strategies (often years into the future) over short term wins. The secret is commitment and a respect for tradition and respecting age as well as position in both society and business.

Considerations And Limitations

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions are a great way to generalise about a nation or country’s cultural differences and while it is generally accurate, it does not take into account the ideals of individuals or the cultural differences of community groups and company cultures, that may be heavily influences by an international head office or management team. Use the tool first to provide a high level overview and understanding then tailor the needs to your individual stakeholders through effective stakeholder analysis.

If you have found this article useful or if you have had success in using the 5-D model in your international project management framework then please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Yours in Getting Projects Done!


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Who Wrote This Article? ...(It was: Chris O'Halloran)

I'm "Chris O". I've managed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects since the inception of my career. I love helping others figure out the intricacies of project management on any scale. Come find me on twitter or google+

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