Building a robust multinational programme management team

12 June 2009

Susan Mucha

The obvious news stories for this month’s column were swine flu (or whatever politically correct term one’s country wishes to name it) or the economy. However, within the EMS community, swine flu hasn’t made much of an impact. And, currently the economy is a one paragraph column because the only ‘new’ news is that no one can quite agree if the upturn is starting to happen now or will start six months from now.

So, I thought I’d address a topic that I will also be addressing in October at Surface Mount Technology International in San Diego; the challenge of building an effective, multinational programme management team.

This topic is relevant for several reasons. First, the recession is driving a lot of organisational changes in both EMS companies and their OEM partners. Resources are shrinking and there are fewer or newer, less experienced people in support functions. Communications issues or personality conflicts that were minor in better times can become far more significant in a recession environment. Hidden agendas also become popular as over-stressed employees play a real-life version of Survivor within their departments.

These trends are especially significant to the programme management function because programme management plays a huge role in driving profitability and sales growth within existing EMS accounts. Having a team that can assess issues developing within accounts and respond appropriately is more important than ever. So I’d like to highlight key points in developing a robust programme management model.

Building a strong team requires focus in five key areas:
• Consistent processes
• Acceptance of cultural differences
• Well-defined team structure
• Cross pollinating mechanisms
• Focused communications strategy

Consistent Processes
While some EMS companies take a strategic look at programme management and develop consistent processes and training/orientation methodologies, others let every facility develop their own formula. The latter option is bad for two reasons. First, programme managers in emerging countries tend to be tactical and administrative in focus. In some cases, lesser skilled people are hired as a cost control strategy and in other cases there simply are not experienced personnel available in that labour market. Second, even if outstanding people are hired, different homegrown systems will create noticeable differences in management style and support between facilities.

The fundamentals of programme management processes should be consistent throughout the company because customers working with multiple facilities want a seamless interface. While there may be slight internal differences between regions, there should be a standard programme management handbook which outlines basic processes that are common to all facilities. Special attention should be paid to documentation polices, as not all programme managers may have the same understanding of the importance of documenting project changes and getting written commitments from customers. An orientation class followed by some on-the-job shadowing also helps ensure that new team members quickly integrate into the system.

Acceptance of cultural differences
At some level we are all bigots because we are conditioned to view the societal behaviour patterns and values we grew up as the ‘right’ way to do things. Travel and expatriate assignments can broaden our acceptance of new ways of doing things, but there is still a preference for one’s home culture. Societies can be high context or low context in terms of behaviour standards. In the US, immigration patterns tend to drive a very low context culture where a wide range of behavior is considered acceptable. Comparably, a homogenous country such as Japan tends to have a very high context culture where there are very rigid rules for appropriate behaviour that are widely understood.

Diversity training is one way to address the issue of potential culture clash. A good diversity training programme will educate team members on the value of appreciating differences and also on ways to better recognise and bridge differences when working multi-nationally. This can be particularly important in negotiation strategy and account management because cultural ‘mismatch’ can drive negotiating impasses or undesired concessions. This is very true in regions where disagreeing with or disappointing a customer is considered rude. For instance, in Mexico when a programme manager says: “I’ll get that done,” the translation may really be: “I’ll try my best and if I can’t do it, I’ll have a really good reason.” Most EMS customers would prefer to have a programme manager immediately say ‘no’ to an unachievable request and offer a range of achievable alternatives, instead of that really good reason offered on the day the delivery gets missed. Diversity training is one good way to address these types of issues because it creates an open forum where programme managers can discuss why they behave in certain ways and ultimately broaden their repertoire of acceptable negotiating strategies.

Well-defined team structure
Multinational team structure needs to address organisational strengths and weaknesses, and customer preferences. In EMS, it is important that the customer’s decision team can interface with someone that is available in their time zone who speaks their language.

Some models have global account managers who support larger customers in multiple facilities. The global account manager is normally located in the same region as the customer’s decision team and is usually supported by a tactically focused programme administrator at each build site. In other cases, build-site based programme managers may work directly with their multinational customers, but work extended hours that allow overlap with the customer’s time zone. Either model works if there is a good customer service focus and a culturally fluid programme team.

Cross pollinating mechanisms
Periodic programme management strategic planning meetings and foreign short-term assignments are a good way to transfer best practices between facilities. While these activities carry a cost, they facilitate a level of assimilation and relationship-building that won’t happen through emails and conference calls alone. Another good option is industry-standard training. IPC’s EMS Programme Manager Certification Programme is one good example. In those classes, programme managers get formal training plus discussion opportunities with programme managers from different companies and different countries.

Focused communications strategy
The final area of focus is perhaps the most important. In most EMS companies, the programme manager is the central point of contact between the customer and the EMS provider. In a strong programme management relationship, the programme manager is the first person a customer calls when he or she has a concern about something happening at the company. For that reason, it is important to have well-defined communications policies so that a programme manager either has the necessary information to discuss the issue or can immediately refer the customer to a contact who can answer questions appropriately.

While I made light of the economy and swine flu at the beginning of this article, these are both issues that should be addressed in communications strategy if there is a likelihood that they will drive customer concerns. In some cases, this may be as simple as issuing likely question and answer sheets for programme managers to have as a reference file. In other cases, it may be setting-up a central point of contact for inquiries on a short-term issue like swine flu. In other cases, there may be an Intranet resource that allow a programme manager to quickly look-up a wide range of company-specific information on topics of likely customer concern. The end goal is to have customer concerns addressed rapidly, accurately, and consistently, even when those concerns are related to issues not directly associated with production status.

The end result of addressing these areas is a cohesive team capable of rapidly addressing issues and growing business globally. While it is easy to measure travel and training cost and question the value of spending that money during times of economic downturn, that cost is likely to be far less than the annualised revenue lost by even a single weak programme manager.

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