How to bridge cultural gaps

4 November 2008

”Excuse us, but may we drive 55,000 lorry loads of stones through your town?” That question was asked countless times of the residents in a number of small fishing villages, when we were handling a major coastal protection project in Sri Lanka in 2004. And had it not been for Ferguson, our local foreman, we would never have managed to get all the stones transported to the piers. Ferguson knew the language, the people and the unwritten rules, and he had the patience to speak for half the morning in each village to – literally – pave the way for the projects. So naturally Ferguson was the man to send in advance when we were going to dig up 33,000 back gardens, in addition to lots of mountain paths and roads in connection with a large drinking water project in Kandy.

A drinking water project worth DKK 300 million

The project in Kandy is our third drinking water project in Sri Lanka. In Kandy, which is the island's second largest city with 350,000 inhabitants, only one third of the population has drinking water, supplied via an outdated system. The rest collect water in their own well. So constructing a new drinking water system including a river dam, 17 water reservoirs and 350 km of pipes, one can safely call meaningful work. When the system is completed, 33,000 households will have running water installed, thanks to support from Danida, which sees clean drinking water as the path to growth and welfare.

1,200 Sri Lankan MT Højgaard people

Ferguson is just one of the 1,200 Sri Lankans we have affiliated over the five years where we have worked in the country and implemented 13 civil engineering projects. Many of them have continued from project to project and have over time been trained to be MT Højgaard people. To treat Sri Lankan engineers, contractors, foremen and workers as colleagues is not something on which MT Højgaard has a patent. Fortunately. What is unusual however is that we use local labour to such a great extent. Furthermore we have a clear policy of making as much as possible ourselves because then we can control both quality and time. As area manager Per Vinter Larsen expresses it: ”I believe that in order to survive in another country you need to employ many local people, for one thing because they are better at getting things through. It is really our Sri Lankan colleagues who pull things through when time is pressurised. They know the local legislation, norms, standards and rules – also the unwritten rules. And then they know everybody and know how to conduct themselves.”

Local knowledge is crucial – also globally

Local knowledge is not only vital when you want to get on speaking terms with the many people who will be affected by large civil engineering projects, but also when it comes to areas such as local experts, norms and rules – also the unwritten rules. Even in a small country like Denmark it is important to be locally based in order to bridge cultural gaps, and since we have local offices across the whole country, we know who to talk to in order to get the project carried out in the best possible way, at the same time as drawing on our expertise ’globally’.

Excuse the mess

In Denmark, it can also be necessary to send someone like Ferguson in advance to create dialogue and understanding among those who will be affected by our construction and civil engineering projects. We have actually systematised the dialogue, with printed local information which, under the heading ’Excuse the mess’, is distributed to neighbours and others who are affected. We experience time after time that information and dialogue nip lots of misunderstandings in the bud. And that the tolerance level is a lot higher if the neighbours know when and for how long they can expect nuisances such as noise, dust and mess.

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