Managing Remote, Cross-Cultural Teamwork

By Joe Santana

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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.Invest in training that broadens your team's multi-cultural awareness. Effective multi-cultural training will help give your team the openness to other perspectives and awareness of their own cultural filters needed to work more effectively in a diverse environment.

Not long ago, I attended one of these programs, facilitated by PRISM International where participants from the two partnering cultures made incredible discoveries about how they actually perceived each other and how this impacted their work.

Everyone who attended this program walked away with a deeper understanding of their own filters and the views of their partner's culture. It was truly an eye-opening experience for all.

Invest in desktop electronic collaboration tools. Web collaboration suites such as Live Meeting and WebEx provide a robust array of tools that enable the creation of a meeting room environment where you can share slides, handouts, and/or work together on a white board.

I would also suggest employing knowledge management tools that lend themselves to participation by global partners. Sun shared with me the example of a firm by the name of Compex Inc., a global software development company that has captured some incredible innovations on a regular basis by using a project-based, open system that allows every employee in the world access. Any individual can chime in with their thoughts and recommendations from anywhere in the world.

Invest in desktop video. To increase the frequency of face-to-face communication without increasing your air travel expenses, desktop video is clearly your best option.

Companies like Avistar Communications regularly help their clients' distributed teams emulate rich face-to-face communications by offering desktop video solutions that support integrating visual collaboration into their daily workflow.

Clearly these investments in cultural awareness and technology do not remove the need for old-fashion live face-to-face communication from time-to-time. They will, however, enrich the communication that occurs between trips and help strengthen partner relationships.

As we survey the analyst's predictions, it appears that global business partnerships are a mega-trend that is here to stay. According to a recent Meta Group report, the offshore outsourcing market currently exceeds $10 billion and they predict it will enjoy a sustained growth factor of 20% through 2008.

With the globalization of IT teams at the forefront of this revolution, IT leaders today are challenged with building the foundation for effective worldwide partnerships. Those who accept that challenge and address it will be building the strategy that results in both direct benefits today as well as in long term rewards for their companies.

Joe Santana is an IT organizational development specialist and thought-leader and co-author of "Manage IT." He can be reached at joesantana2003@cs.com or via his Web site joesantana.com.