Successful O&M Assessment in a Developing Country: Part 2

How to Complete a Successful O&M Assessment in a Developing Country: Part 2

by Andrew Markle, PE and Sanjeev Jolly, PE – Senior Engineers, NAES Engineering Services

Part 1 of this article, which appeared in the last issue of Technically Speaking, describes the NAES approach to conducting an O&M assessment but sets it within the contexts of technical challenges you’ll likely encounter in a developing country. Here, Markle and Jolly explain the homework you need to do to avoid cultural pitfalls that can derail the assessment.

Cross-Cultural Communication and Cultural Awareness

Leadership styles, the importance of hierarchy, collectivism versus individualism: these cultural parameters vary widely from country to country. In the following sections, we’ll identify and discuss key factors to be aware of as you navigate these complex and often confusing differences.

Some essential rules of thumb apply to almost any attempt to communicate across cultures:

  1. Before communicating for the first time, do some research on the other culture. Ask for input from colleagues or friends who have worked there. Even the most basic information on the cultural norms and practices of a particular place can help you avoid conflicts and put your best foot forward.
  2. Do not lump people together into one group or make gross generalizations. Try to approach each person as an individual.
  3. Be aware of your words and actions. What you say and do in your own culture can be perceived very differently by those in other cultures.
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  1. Think twice before you touch. The acceptability of physical contact between coworkers varies widely from culture to culture.
  2. Be patient. At least one party in the assessment will likely be speaking a second language and having a struggle communicating ideas clearly. To ensure that cultural context is not lost, take the time to let the other person explain…and to understand what they believe to be the importance of their input.
  3. Use humor to facilitate communication. Light humor – and an ability to laugh at oneself – can be very useful in these sometimes awkward interactions. However, be aware that humor varies between cultures. What may be deemed funny by one culture can be completely lost on the other.
  4. Look at issues from different perspectives. Try to evaluate problems neutrally rather than viewing them through your cultural lens.
  5. Understand what ‘yes’ means. Some cultures say ‘yes’ to show agreement, others to indicate that they heard you. In some cultures, a nod means ‘yes,’ while in others, such as India, it can mean ‘good’ or ‘I understand.’
  6. Avoid statements that express judgment. Remember that your own cultural lens endows you with biases.

Power Distance Index

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, introduced the ‘power distance index’ (PDI) based on a worldwide survey of employee values completed in 1973 (figure 1). PDI quantifies the degree to which less powerful members of society accept the unequal distribution of power. Asian and Latin countries tend to register high on the PDI, while Northern European and North American cultures tend to score lower. This can dramatically impact communication between assessor and assessee during the assessment. For example, the assessor may expect ideas to flow freely up and down the organization, while subordinate assessees may defer to superiors to provide input rather than offering their (infinitely more valuable) firsthand input.

Understand that in a hierarchical structure, you need to adjust your expectations of who will supply information. In extreme top-down structures, you may need to stage a meeting in which the subordinate is told directly by a superior to communicate freely with the assessor. It may be necessary to meet separately with each contributor to obtain open feedback.

We mention this parameter of cultural difference not in an effort to change it or pass judgment. Rather, we urge you to accept and work with it. Depending on the specific situation, either style of leadership can be more effective. Sometimes, just acknowledging this difference in the conversation can lessen any negative effect. If you come from a low-PDI culture, be aware that trying to get buy-in at lower managerial levels may be pointless; real action may not be taken until the order comes from above. The reverse may also obtain: orders coming from above in a low-PDI culture may not always be obeyed; time and effort may be needed to reach a consensus. Understanding these limitations can make it much easier to establish a productive working relationship.

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Wages and Productivity

In analyzing the feasibility of a project within a particular culture, it’s essential to gain an accurate understanding of relative cost. For example, an automation project may make sense where local labor costs are high but may not be economically justified in low-labor-cost areas. To evaluate this difference, you need to calibrate labor costs to the country in question. NAES has developed databases that estimate in-country labor costs by grouping types of laborers (plant O&M staff, local craft labor, etc.) so that a single multiplier can be used to translate labor cost

between countries (table 2).

Productivity also varies between countries. The availability of specialized services and tools, the effects of bureaucracy, the lack of infrastructure and other variables should be factored into this discussion.

Relative Value Placed on Intangibles

Each country assigns its own values to intangibles such as worker health and safety, environmental quality, family bonds and friendship. For example, if a 40-year-old laborer in Colombia is killed on the job, leaving behind a 35-year-old widow and two children, the family receives compensation of approximately US $250,000. By comparison, wrongful death suits in the U. S. have yielded settlements of over US $80 million. Exponential differences like this account for dramatically different investments in plant safety from one country to the next.

However, insurers and lenders have international reach and often require minimum liability coverage for worker accidents and environmental incidents. Further, most corporations feel a moral obligation to protect their workers by adhering to U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or International Finance Corporation (IFC) standards. Nevertheless, plants in less developed regions have to remain competitive among their domestic peers, so applying developed-world standards can be a losing proposition. For example, if its competitors are not mandated to bear the cost of environmental controls, a plant would quickly go out of business trying to take the environmental high road.


We’ve outlined our O&M assessment process here as we have applied it at plants that are geographically, linguistically and culturally separated from the developed world. We’ve tried to address the technical pitfalls you can expect and offer preemptive solutions. We’ve also offered some social tools for bridging the gaps that can seriously impede progress in developing a productive relationship with your assessee.

If you have questions or need assistance with your O&M assessment, please contact us at andrew.markle@naes. com or