By Andrew J. Malanga, Hong Kong, 2014
If there is one thing I’ve learned during my nearly 10 years in Asia (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand), it’s that relationships (professional and social) have different meanings here than they do in the West. This single fact has implications across a broad range of interactions; in particular, in management and organizational structure. One particular example is found in the principles of matrix management. For many years the West has embraced matrix management as the answer to effective project management, specifically, in highly specialized and complex industries such as construction. The matrix structured organization superimposes the project organization, horizontally, over the pre-existing vertically organized functional divisions typically found in many firms.
In larger organizations a vertical structure creates barriers between departments that present a challenge for disseminating information across multiple areas. In fact, in large organizations fragmentation of resources and skills is a common occurrence and results in individual functional divisions unable to solve unique and complex problems because of their narrow focus (Verma, 1995). It is precisely for this reason that the efficient and cost-effective matrix organization structure was created. Composite teams are formed using members from various vertically organized functional areas. The illustration below shows, graphically, the lateral or “horizontal” coordination promoted through the matrix structure.
Implications for Collectivists and Relationship-orientation
But what kind of dynamics does matrix management create in a collectivist and relationship-oriented society? It’s neither a stretch nor a stereotype to say that many Asian societies tend towards collectivism and relationship-orientation. Most notably, China (including Hong Kong), Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia score highest on the often cited Hofstede individualism index (Hofstede & Bond, 1988). This is in sharp contrast to typical western societies’ proclivity towards individualistic task-orientation. So, while the majority of professionals must acknowledge the utility of matrix organization in projects, they must also recognize that there is an inherent contradiction in applying some of those principles in a cultural ambience of collectivism and relationship-orientation.
The implementation of matrix style organization in these types of cultures has implications for project management decision-making styles, and must lean towards a more consensus-based approach. A study by Lau & Rowlinson (2009) concluded that because Hong Kong construction professionals were collectivists, they were more apt to accept the situation at hand and disinclined to western conflict-based problem-solving styles; a common necessity in matrix organizations. This disinclination is mostly due to fear of expressing disagreement with superiors. Furthermore, in collectivist organizational cultures team-members stick together and form camaraderie with one another, while in individualist cultures like the US and UK, people more easily accept being moved from one group to another when in the interest of task completion (Phua & Rowlinson, 2004). This is precisely what is demanded of matrix structures: Functional team members are expected to move into project teams on a project-by-project basis. Many times the individual functional team members will not know one another but focus, instead, at the common task at hand. Matrix management is, as Kerzner (2004) explained, a “collaborative” process whereby subject-matter experts from functional areas are taken from those functional areas to work together and share information on the same tasks. Because collectivists tend to place higher value on intra-group harmony than on task-achievement, it follows that collectivists tend to be motivated more by obligations, relative role, and what is socially acceptable (Phua & Rowlinson, 2004).
This presents a bit of a paradox, because in collectivist and relationship-oriented societies such as China (including Hong Kong), Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, to name a few, the nature of the work and the relationship between leaders and functional areas fosters a directive and not supportive style of leadership. In other words – these cultures’ workers prefer to be told what to do with little ambiguity. In matrix management negotiation of resources between functional and project managers inevitably leads to disagreement further complicated by an environment with two-bosses. This has the potential to leave employees, especially those with a high tendency towards relationship-orientation, feeling trapped in the middle (Cleland, 1981; Strikwerda & Stoelhorst, 2009). Moreover, the awkwardness can be compounded when leaders are delegated responsibility but not the authority. This happens in the dual reporting or two-boss structure common to matrix organizational structures. It is clear how one can see how role ambiguity, uncertain relationships, and forced collaboration may actually discourage the relationship-oriented collectivist not “empower” him or her.
There is much to consider when deciding if a matrix style approach to organizational management is the best fit with a culture that tends towards collectivism and relationship-orientation. Clear delineation of authority within the project group with defined in-group roles would likely ease some of the cultural stresses. Moreover, clear identification of individuals’ roles and how they “fit-in” to the overall project goal may serve to harmonize the group. Project goals should be clearly outlined with tasks and sub-tasks identified delimited by clear due dates and monitored by jointly designated milestones. In the end, it is likely that matrix management can be successfully implemented, even in a collectivist and relationship-oriented culture, if done so acknowledging and adjusting to the unique challenges that collectivism and relationship-orientation present.
- Cleland, D. I. (1981). The cultural ambience of the matrix organization. Management Review (Vol. 70, p. 24). American Management Association. doi:10.1002/9780470172353.ch38
- Hofstede G. & Bond, M. H. (1988). The Confucius connection: From cultural roots to economic growth. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4), 5–21. doi:10.1016/0090-2616(88)90009-5
- Kerzner, H. (2004). Advanced project management: Best practices on implementation, 2nd edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Lau, E., & Rowlinson, S. (2009). Interpersonal trust and inter‐firm trust in construction projects. Construction Management and Economics, 27(6), 539–554. doi:10.1080/01446190903003886
- Phua, F. T. T., & Rowlinson, S. (2004). Operationalizing culture in construction management research: A social identity perspective in the Hong Kong context. Construction Management and Economics, 22(9), 913–925. doi:10.1080/01446190310001631000
- Rowlinson, S. (2001). Matrix organizational structure, culture and commitment: a Hong Kong public sector case study of change. Construction Management and Economics, 19(7), 669–673. doi:10.1080/01446190110066137
- Strikwerda, J., & Stoelhorst, J. W. (2009). The emergence and evolution of the multidimensional organization. SSRN Electronic Journal, 51(4), 11–31. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1404649
- Verma, V. K. (1995). The human aspects of project management ser. vol. 1. Newton Square: Project Management Institute, Inc. All photos and charts were accessed through open source search engine and were extracted from public accessible websites or galleries.