Think of cross-cultural outsourcing as a marriage. You have two companies walking into a deal with completely idealistic expectations of what the relationship will be like. Both parties go into the relationship thinking they're going to shape it a certain way and just work things out as they go along. But according to Joe Santana, Director of Organizational Development at Siemens Business Services, there are certain things that you have to have a good foundation for in the beginning.
"You don't want to enter into a relationship without having some kind of understanding of where the other person is coming from," he said. Santana, founder of a multicultural global network of IT service providers, outlines below some cross-cultural outsourcing best practices that he has gleaned from working with multicultural global companies and discussions with network members.
1. Have native members of each culture in the engagement teams. Ideally, at least one pivotal member of the buyer's engagement team should be someone who is native to the supplier’s culture and well versed in the buyer's culture. This can significantly reduce the number of surprises that may occur because of cultural differences. "If you don't do this," according to Santana, "you can run the risk of saying or doing something that is offensive or counterproductive. For example, in some cultures, when you say you want something 'right away', it means today. In other cultures, it may mean next week or next month."
If possible, there should also be a member of the buyer’s culture active in the supplier’s culture.
2. Invest in programs that broaden the cultural awareness and sensitivity of all the engagement and governance team members. This training won’t make the participants cultural experts. It will, however, provide them with what they need to build openness to other perspectives, awareness of the multiple ways that their behaviors can be interpreted, and the ability to more fully leverage their differences and commonalties as opposed to having them serve as performance "blockers." Typical programs offered by companies like PRISM International offer a broad array of awareness and sensitivity broadening tools.
"Cultural sensitivity training doesn't make you an expert in another person's culture, but it makes you aware that you're looking at the world through a filter. It makes you sensitive to other people's interpretations," Santana said. "For example, there are cultures where it is considered rude to have eye contact with a person of authority, and there is our culture where if you don't make eye contact when you explain something it's occasionally taken as a sign of not being honest or not clear or sure of what you're talking about."
Some cultural differences can result in project implementation problems. "In our culture, for example, if we ask an engineer to do something, and it's not feasible, say, because the technology just won't allow it, he will tell you that. But in other cultures, it would be rude to say that, especially to a person of authority." So the person ends up saying he'll see what he can do just to avoid a flat-out refusal. "So the project is delayed and the managers apply pressure to no avail, because that person just couldn't come right out and say what couldn't be done." If you're aware of this cultural difference, you can couch your questions in an open-ended way.
3. Employ electronic tools to emulate the type of data sharing that happens when teams are located in one place without having to resort only to travel. Web collaboration suites like Live Meeting and WebEx provide a robust array of tools that enable the creation of a meeting room environment where you can share slides, hand-outs, and/or work together on a white board.
4. Employ desktop video to emulate the face-to-face discussion without having to resort to travel. Being able to see the person we are talking to is a key component of effective communication, especially when we need more information to supplement the gaps resulting from differences in language and culture. When people see each other clearly the interactions are impacted by some of the 7,000 facial expressions that we share across cultures (Brian Bates/John Cleese, "The Human Face," BBC 2001). Face-to-face-communication is in fact known to increase understanding, especially when there are cultural differences involved. (Another point to bear in mind is that more than 50 percent of our brain is devoted to vision; see Mriganda Sur, MIT Research, Orientation Maps of Subjective Contours in Visual Cortex, December 1996. By using only the phone and e-mail, even when the team shares a culture and a language, we would be excluding one of the richest communication modalities—sight).
Avistar Communications Corporation also offers desktop video solutions that support integrating visual collaboration into daily workflow of distributed teams.
5. Budget for travel. Team management across multiple time zones will requires some amount of travel. Any expectation of no travel as a result of using technology is unrealistic. At best the above steps will enrich the communication that occurs between traveling, but it will not totally replace the need to visit and share ideas while sitting in one physical location from time to time.
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.