Managing Remote, Cross-Cultural Teamwork

Over the course of the past few years an increasing number of U.S. companies have been drawn toward offshore outsourcing primarily by the huge opportunities for cost reductions.

Back in 2003, according to Gartner, between 150,000 and 200,000 call center and business center jobs were offshored and this figure did not include the software development jobs.

While there are some clear benefits to offshore outsourcing that have resulted in the explosive growth of this market, those with some experience under their belts know that there are also big challenges to being part of a global partnership.

A few of the challenges faced by companies engaged in “remote multi-cultural partnerships,” include:

Staying In Sync: Project management is a series of small mid-course corrections needed to stay on track and deal with the little questions and tradeoffs that always come up.

If the product development team is 5000 miles away, it’s much harder to communicate and to notice when things may be drifting off course. Small errors may go unnoticed without lots of interactions. You can’t just walk over to the next building and talk to your programmers or engineers while showing them an example of the code in question.

Because of this, a problem can take two to three times longer to solve.

The lack of face-to-face communication will also reduce the desire for remote partners to help each other.

Overcoming cultural filters that prevent the early identification and attention to problems: Cultural barriers can result in offshore project managers not communicating openly and effectively.

In the U.S. workers are expected to flag and anticipate problems before they occur in the interest of clear communications. In some cultures, however, flagging a potential problem is considered a measure of failure.

Overcoming communication barriers that can exist even when both parties are speaking the same language: Idiomatic expressions that most U.S. citizens understand and take for granted such as “let’s hit a home run,” can be literally meaningless to others or the interpretation of requests such as, “I need this right away” may be different.

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.

Responses to questions, such as “do you think we should move forward?” can be met by a head tilt to the side by a partner from say India, which means yes, but is meaningless to the US inquirer.

In essence, many of the communications that are key to effective teaming, project management, knowledge management and working together become more difficult when we are dealing across cultures, language, geographies and time zones.

The question then is what can we do about it? How can companies today prepare to be more effective in their global partnerships?

Setting the Foundation

The answer is to take steps toward making your company “global-partnership ready.”

Here are four specific things you can do:

Secure native members of your partner’s culture as members of your local team. Whether you hire someone directly into your organization or you secure a consultant to play this role, does not really matter.

The important thing is to have someone with your partners perspective engaged in your local team. This can significantly reduce the number of surprises that may occur because of cultural differences.