Pardon My French (Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Lyon)

His name is French, but he’s as Irish as the Old Sod itself. He’s published three adventure novels and a science-fiction screenplay, but his day job is something else entirely – CIO of the Canadian arm of a major pharmaceutical firm. And, oh yes, he’s got several more novels in the works, along with another screenplay – this one, for a change of pace, a comedy.

If you’re thinking Roy French is one of those guys who marches to the beat of a different drummer, you’d be right. And if you’re wondering how on earth he finds the time to be a CIO and do all this other stuff, we’ll let you in on his secret – he takes a lot of plane trips. That’s where he gets much of his writing done.

Based in Toronto, French is CIO of the Canadian operations of Aventis Pasteur (formerly Pasteur Merieux Connaught), the largest company in the growing US$5 billion world market for vaccines. With global headquarters in Strasbourg, France, trips across the pond are a routine part of his work schedule. In fact not so long ago, France was something of a second home to him. And thereby hangs a tale that will be instructive to CIOs in charge of large IT projects, and especially those in charge of projects spanning different countries and cultures.

The ERP Project

French was called upon to head up an ERP project that at the time was the largest software project in the company’s history. Dubbed IS2000, the SAP implementation was earmarked for all three Aventis Pasteur manufacturing sites worldwide (Toronto, Swift Water, Pa., and Lyon, France), each of which had been running very different types of manufacturing software, running on very different hardware platforms. The project turned out to be a four-year journey, and it proved an eye-opener for French in many ways.

The ERP project had four phases:

1. defining of the objectives;

2. development of global processes, selection of the software, and project planning;

3. development of the global prototype; and,

4. local configuration and roll-out.

It is the third phase – development of the global prototype – that this article focuses on.

Said French, “When we started, the plan was to have the team based in Toronto for the duration of the core system development. On the day the decision was made, my boss came out of the steering committee meeting and said to me, ‘You might want to learn French. They decided to base the project in Lyon.'”

A rather nonplussed French was consoled by the fact that Lyon is one of the gastronomic centres of France: fine wine, fine food, and plenty of atmosphere to enjoy them in.

Cultural Awareness

As project manager, French would head a team of 65 people, including 26 from Canada and the United States and about 20 from France; the rest were CAP Gemini consultants.

To prepare for the overseas project, he took his boss’s advice and spent two months with Berlitz doing French immersion. This would equip him with a fairly good ability to understand the language, and a modest ability to speak it, albeit with an Irish accent. Fortunately, his counterpart with CAP Gemini was fluently bilingual, greatly facilitating communications with team members who were uncomfortable working in English.

French believes that learning the language, even to a limited degree, was well worth the effort. “It made for an easier process,” he said. “And it helped that the person leading the team had at least made the effort. That goes a long way, too.”

The implications of this overseas posting were not lost on French. “The challenge you face when you put a team together from three distinct cultures is how people will react to one another, especially when much of the team is relocating to a foreign environment. When you land in that new country, you just can’t walk in the door and start working. There are cultural traits and sensitivities you have to be aware of.”

How to deal with the problem? French insisted that the Canadian and American team members undertake cultural awareness training before going to France. The French team also took awareness training in North American culture.

French described a number of potential misunderstandings that might have cropped up due to differences in culture:

The first example may remind Seinfeld fans of the “close-talker” episode. “North Americans like a little personal space, whereas the French tend to stand very close to you when they speak,” he said. “The first time I met my counterpart, he was about a foot away when he talked to me. Usually that’s a sign of aggression, but this was not the case at all. When you understand that this is part of the culture, it makes things a lot less difficult.”

The second example deals with meetings etiquette. In North America it is common for people to get up and refill their coffee during a presentation. In France this isn’t done and would be considered offensive. It’s assumed the person should be totally focused on the presentation.

The third example has to do with styles of personal interaction. French children are taught to challenge things, and so the culture is much more structured towards debate. North Americans giving presentations can find that they are being questioned constantly. If they’re not aware that this is part of the culture they may incorrectly feel that they are being attacked.

To help surmount such cultural hurdles, French had everyone take part in team-building training at the beginning of the project. “We did some exercises together and some group activities where we tried to alert each other to cultural differences – explain how things work in our respective cultures.” This prevented cultural differences from becoming unnecessary flash points.

Most companies today have very good human resources departments that can facilitate team-building activities. French believes project managers should take advantage of them. “You’ve got to understand the people you’re going to work with. The cultural stuff can kill you,” he said. “It all comes down to relationships.”

Choosing the Team

As the success of such large projects depends so much on the team members themselves, French recommends going after the best people you can get.

“This is not an opportunity for various departments to get rid of the driftwood. Don’t send people with one or two years’ experience into something this size. You have to send your brightest and your best,” he said. “Consensus is something that comes faster to mature, seasoned business people, both from the business and from the IT side.”

And having team members assigned to the project on a part-time basis isn’t a good idea. “You need a dedicated team of people, 100 per cent of the time – that’s all they do,” he said. “And don’t be afraid to use outside facilitators. We had facilitators on call. If we ran into difficulty in any of the teams, they’d come in and help us locate the problem, get all the issues out on the table, and work with the people towards a resolution.”

Another important piece of the puzzle is to have a very well-defined and timely escalation process. If the team can’t resolve an issue, it is passed to project management. If project management can’t resolve it, it is passed to senior management. “We had 24-hour turnaround on issues that were raised to our [project management] level,” said French. “Fortunately, we never had to take any issues up to senior management.”

The Working Environment

Aventis built a facility at its manufacturing site in Marcy L’Etoile near Lyon for the core team to work in, consisting of a group of trailers, with a separate trailer for each project team. But the facility didn’t work very well, according to French. “We were trying to create an integrated system,” he said, “but all we were doing was replicating what we had in each of the sites – functional silos.”

Locally, some sites went with an open-plan concept, others went with modular design, and others used the team room or “war room” concept, in which business people, IT people and consultants work side by side. The latter approach is not one that French recommends. “The noise is deafening,” he said. “You can’t concentrate.”

Having experience with all three types of working environments, he recommends the modular concept, with team members housed in cubicles.

Dealing with Team Stress

Even at the best of times, large, demanding IT projects can put a tremendous strain on team members, their families, relationships, and even their health. Many hours must be worked, with little free time to unwind. The stress can be unrelenting, especially towards the end of such projects. Add in the overseas component and the situation can be even more volatile.

French was quite sensitive to the problem, and tried several means of countering it. One was celebrating the completion of milestones, a practice not usually done in France. French managed to find an Irish pub in Lyon, appropriately named L’Antidote, where he gathered the team for a party at the completion of each of the four Conference Room Pilots (CRPs).

“We’d all get together there for pizza, wings and Guinness. No wine. At the first one attendance wasn’t that good from our French counterparts, but those who came had such fun that word got round and the next three were packed.”

French gave everyone a small memento to mark the occasion – a shooter glass with “I survived CRP 1” on it. The intent was that everyone would have a collection of four of these at the completion of the CRPs, although it didn’t quite work out that way. When the entire project was finished French presented everyone with a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, so the shooter glasses could actually be put to use.

Living at a distance from the work site proved something of a boon to the team. Rather than have people rent cars and drive themselves to work, French decided to rent a bus that would pick everyone up in the morning and bring them back to the hotel at the end of the day. Interestingly, the bus ride home turned out to be something that was helpful to the team – an informal place for people to talk with each other, blow off steam, and plan their evening.

North American team members were put on a schedule of three weeks on and one week off, so they could travel back to North America to see their families. They were also provided assistance if they wanted to travel on weekends, so many of them got the opportunity to travel throughout Europe. As a further incentive, the project shut down for two weeks in August, and everyone’s family was flown to France for a two-week vacation.

But even with a variety of incentives in place, the strains and stresses took their toll. And this is where the skills of the project manager are really put to the test.

Role of the Project Manager

Heading a large multicultural IT project is the Swiss army knife of project management jobs. Not only do you have a wide range of technical and organizational problems to deal with, you also have to be coach, referee, and father confessor to your team members, especially those that have relocated to a new and very different place.

Said French, “If you fall apart, the team will fall apart. It’s like the Chevy ad says: you’ve got to be ‘Like a rock’. You’ve got to be able to move the team forward, and deal with all the conflicts and complaints. It’s important to keep a close eye on the stress levels of the team. People deal with stress differently. One of the first things I learned was to have a box of tissues in my office – writing paper isn’t much help for tears.”

In Lyon, Canadian and American team members, along with French himself, were housed in a suites hotel about 20 miles from the manufacturing facility. Everyone had a living room, dining room, and kitchen, which made the accommodations feel more like a home. And with everyone living in close proximity, team members could lean on each other for support. Inevitably, for project manager French, that meant that the job didn’t stop at the end of the working day.

“You deal with the technical stuff during the day and the emotional stuff in the evening. I didn’t realize how much of my time the emotional side of it would take. People are concerned about their families, or they’re lonely, or they have other issues to deal with – sometimes issues that are right off the wall,” he said. “You’d never know what it would be when the knock came at the door in the evening. You have to be prepared for a lot of surprises – just take things as they come.”

A few traits that he says are advantageous for the job: an accessible nature, a calm temperament, and a sense of humour. The latter, he said, is very important in diffusing potentially explosive situations.

Doesn’t hurt to have a bottle of Bushmills handy, either.


Use “scenarios” during the software selection process. Present your most complex scenarios (e.g. for manufacturing or quality control) to the competing companies, along with the necessary data, then take a business team in to watch how each firm deals with them.

Finance and Control are two separate modules within SAP. You need to create discrete teams for each of them. Don’t try to handle them with on project team. You can get badly burned by trying to combine everything together.

The fit of the consulting partner is critically important. Nothing will kill the project faster than not having good consultants. Put all your consultants through a rigorous interview process, as if you were hiring them for a senior position.

Because of the integrated nature of these projects, everyone has to cross the finish line at the same time. Unfortunately, you can’t tell how good people are until you start working with them. If they don’t work out, you must remove them very quickly. It sounds harsh, but the alternative is even worse.

Data migration will haunt you for months if you don’t do it right. You’re dealing with new concepts, especially when implementing a system like SAP. Because of the integrated nature of the system, the data will go everywhere, almost like a virus. So don’t delay in initiating a data migration team. It should be done right at the beginning of the project.

Change management is a key element of the project. The system touches every part of the organization, and the user community will have to endure considerable alterations to their culture. You must get a good champion from the business side who will go out and talk to people – sell the project to them and explain to them how their lives are going to change.

Roy French, the Author

Roy French’s three published thrillers are “A Sense of Honour”, “The Raven Reborn” and “Whispers on the Wind”, which chronicle the continuing adventures of an ex-paramilitary enforcer known as the Raven. Published by Hounslow Press, the books can be found on The Crime Writers of Canada named his first book, “A Sense of Honour”, runner-up for best first novel.

David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is managing editor of CIO Canada.