CIOs and managers who are responsible for international IT encounter different kinds of technical, organizational, and people issues from those who have IT responsibilities only on the home front. Yet few of these international executives get formal training on how to conduct international business before they go abroad. There are numerous issues to consider — and many are only peripherally related to technology. Here are 10 things IT leaders should consider when they take on international operations.
Different countries have different cultural values and standards. I experienced this a number of years ago when I was a CIO for an international company and I was getting ready to make a business trip to several Asian countries. I knew most of the people in the Asian offices because they had worked with me at our U.S. headquarters, and the projects had gone well. But when I looked at the organizational charts for their companies, I noticed that female managers and engineers were not accorded position titles. Instead, they were just labeled as "female" in the org charts. I also learned that I would not be accorded the respect of my position title (it was "vice president" at that time) in certain countries because I was female. It was a difficult decision, but I opted to send one of my senior male IT managers in my place to ensure that there would be no cultural impediments to the work we had to accomplish.
2: The clock
You never realize how convenient it is to work at headquarters until you are at a facility that is halfway around the word. Email and instant messaging don't change the fact that people are home asleep when you need to reach them. The clock is an adjustment factor for those who usually have time working in their favor.
3: Office hours
Also because of time differences, international offices (especially if they are affiliated with U.S. companies) tend to set up their workday hours so they at least provide some overlap with work hours in the U.S. When I visit European offices, for instance, it isn't uncommon to see office hours start around 9:30 AM, since it is at least 6:30 AM on the U.S. east coast. And it isn't unusual to see people in the European offices working until 7 or 8 PM. The workday adjustment provides more working hours overlap with the U.S.
No matter how well prepared you are, if you're on an extended international trip, it is harder to keep up with events at home. Seasoned international business people make time for communications with family and work their schedules around this.
5: Software and hardware support
Universal cloud computing has made some IT software and hardware purchases easier, but challenges remain if you are working with several different offices in different countries and you're trying to gain a consensus on a new software package to buy. I once found myself working with offices in four countries to find a new accounting package, but the office in Holland wanted one solution and the office in France wanted another. Both offices agreed that either solution was good — but the problem was vendor support. The French software had great support in France, but poor local support in Holland. The Dutch package was the reverse. Eventually, we found the right solution, but it wasn't easy.
Just as vendor support can vary across borders, the ability of a software package to meet different sets of government regulations varies, too. In accounting, for instance, there was a time when the German government required numerical fields to be spelled out to four digits to the right of the decimal point. In France, there are significantly more government reports that an accounting package must produce. Any solution you select for multiple countries must be broad enough to cover all of these scenarios.
Even if you don't know the languages of the countries you're going to, it's smart to take a few lessons and at least make an effort. I was luckier than many in this regard, because I could conduct business in French and German. This really benefitted me when I worked with our European offices. I was able to build a cooperative team project faster because people respected the effort.
8: Measured leadership
If you're the CIO in charge of worldwide operations (as I was), the tendency can be to just go into these offices around the world and tell them how things are going to be. Avoid this. You will get further with office buy-in and project advances if you work collaboratively and cooperatively with the people around you.
World War II ended nearly 70 years ago, but there are still difficult family memories that have passed down. I remember walking into one of our European offices to arrange a phone meeting with another office. The local office manager told me, "I don't want to talk to them. They killed my grandfather during the war." These situations usually don't affect work — but it's important for U.S.-based IT managers to remember that they can.
10: Different IT factors
IT infrastructure capabilities vary from country to country. In many emerging countries, telephone and Internet infrastructures are not built out, so access to these communications channels is impeded. This can also affect the ability to fail over to non-local data centers. In other countries, Internet communications are so fast, you'll find yourself wishing the same capabilities were available in the U.S. It's a smart move to understand these technology strengths and weaknesses before you go abroad.
11: Different standards
Different countries also hold up different standards for IT product quality and acceptance. Two of the most demanding environments for technology quality are in Germany and Japan. High quality acceptance standards can affect the time invested and the speed of projects — and in some cases, local IT might also have different testing methodologies for apps that are internally developed.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.