Let’s face it, outsourcing isn’t new, and IT outsourcing in particular has been on the rise since the late 90’s. There are many variables in the IT outsourcing equation, but the one most often overlooked, and in my opinion one of the most critical, is sensitivity to culture. Being from the United States, we often find ourselves to be slightly culturally isolated from the majority of the world. As a result, when we try to facilitate a productive working relationship with someone from say, India, Vietnam, Brazil, Ukraine, etc., our patience tends to get short and we oftentimes expect…no… demand that our offshore colleagues go out of their way to understand the way that we work and modify their behavior accordingly, rather than us all working together. I agree that there can be a concrete argument made for customer service, and ensuring that foreign parties in question understand our culture for the benefit of customers in customer facing roles (i.e. when you call the support line). However, in terms of outsourced software development, we must be a little more sensitive to the culture of our foreign counterparts if we wish to achieve a successful engagement.
Back in the early 2000’s there was some animosity toward the outsourced model and little willingness to be culturally sensitive, as we saw several of our colleague’s jobs go overseas. As the market has continued to evolve and diversify, this sentiment has (fortunately) largely subsided, and people have become more willing to be open to cultural differences. However, one of the main obstacles that remain for many companies is the knowledge of what to expect and how to interact with their new offshore teammates. I have seen this cause many companies to fail with their IT projects when beginning to outsource some of their work. One of the main problems here is that they don’t train their employees sufficiently to be ready for the engagement. I have seen several examples of failed projects because the outsourced partner did not understand what the US-based partner desired, which is always a problem between client and developer, however in this case, further exacerbated by cultural differences.
Additional challenges that we encounter with respect to culture revolve around our means of communication, and the fact that we are generally communicating technologically (email) and verbally and lack that personal contact where we can register facial expressions, mannerisms, and body language. This, in turn, leads to further misunderstandings between partners. The same words mean different things to different people depending on how the message is received. This is an experience that we even share with people who sit in the same city and share our same culture, whether in a business setting or not.
I’ll talk in further details about these issues and how to overcome a number of them in upcoming posts.