OBEDIENCE. Having been born and raised in Asia, I know how much the culture values obedience. Asian construction management typically mimics that of a well-trained military. Just as a good soldier strives to follow a general's order, so too "successful" construction managers in Asia often try to outguess their clients' wishes. Wielding so much power, clients frequently demand the replacement of project managers for "insubordination." Consequently in recent years in Asia, there have been several major structural collapses linked to owner-forced modifications. To regain public confidence, Asian owners have resorted increasingly to hiring neutral advisors from abroad to provide quality assurance.
We knew that our job not only included introducing the latest construction methods, but also, although not explicitly spelled out, eliminating any "sweeping under the carpet" of construction problems. According to our visa applications, "construction technology transfer" was the official reason for our stay. How proud and excited we were at first! But in a few weeks, we realized a harsh reality.
Never mind what our visa application said. Never mind what our contract read. Our quality assurance and construction technology comments were heard as useless advice. In this era of instant global communication, there was not much that we knew that they didn't when it came to construction. The more that we mentioned "QA and technology transfer," the worse our relationship got, leaving us segregated when we were supposed to be partners.
The language barrier did not help either. Our written suggestions in English were considered too difficult to be understood. And our hosts didn't ask for clarifications because of communication difficulties or personal egos. As the construction picked up speed, they wanted us to help perform the work rather than "advise" and create more work for their local staff.
Needless to say, we seemed superfluous. Or were we? How could we convince our hosts to give us repeat business? Having worked for four years in Asia, I have five suggestions for others in similar circumstances:
- Provide help in negotiating for construction products. Many Asians struggle with English. And with imported products used so frequently in construction, English-speaking expatriates can help Asians obtain better deals from foreign manufacturers. Merely asking the right questions of a sales representative can impress your hosts.
- Provide training. The old saying that "knowledge is power" must have come from Asia, where many hesitate to share knowledge for fear of losing power. Construction supervisors simply instruct workers to perform certain tasks, without explaining why. They fear making themselves superfluous and unemployed if they explain the details, and the Asian culture of strict obedience enables this behavior. This unwillingness to share knowledge is everywhere. You ask a simple question, and the usual answer is "why do you need to know?" So when an expatriate offers an occasional training session to share some of the most basic construction knowledge, that promotes a great deal of respect.
- Provide backup support from your home office overseas, so that the client feels a connection with a corporation rather than with mere individuals. The perceived value of maintaining lines of communication between expatriates and their main office is tremendous.
- Provide research. Although access to the Internet is widely available, most of the useful information on the Web is in English. Merely by sharing some simple product information or some tidbits of construction history about well-known projects, English-speaking expatriates can impress their hosts. Before presenting an argument, a typical Asian manager likes to obtain countless backup data, even if it goes unread.
- Provide a certain cachet. While it seems the least important benefit, the visibility of expatriates in the Asian workplace plays a significant advertising role. Prominently displayed at a job site, the well-known logo of a foreign construction firm can be seen as an advertisement for a "quality" project.
Granted, not all of these suggestions may translate into monetary value. Even so, I think that they are essential ingredients of a successful foreign contractor's involvement in Asia. "Transferring knowledge" is no longer a selling point when it comes to construction in Asia. To make a profit and win repeat business, expatriates in Asia ought to focus on offering "value," whether real or perceived.