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Culture has often been cited as one of the biggest barriers to successful offshore outsourcing. While we all know and agree that that is the case, and often talk about it, not all of us understand specifically how different cultural aspects show up in offshore projects and how the resulting barriers can be addressed.
To know more about how culture differences show up, one can either rely on research studies or on first hand observations and experience. When it comes to research, Geert Hofstede's work in identifying cross-country cultural differences based on five measures: power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and masculinity, is a good starting point.
A few examples: Western countries like U.S. and U.K. are more individualistic compared to the collective culture in Latin America and Asia; Asian countries like China and Japan score high on long term orientation while western countries are more short-term oriented. Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist, found that Easterners perceive objects holistically through a wide-angle lens whereas Westerners perceive them in isolation, through a narrow lens with sharper focus.
Another study looked at culture and mum effect, which occurs when one or more stakeholders who have information indicating a project is failing decide to remain silent and let the project continue. It indicates that the risk of mum effect is higher in Asia than in the West. Of course, there are caveats and assumptions in these studies so they should serve only as initial anchors rather than absolute truth.
First hand observations and experience bring out much more specific aspects. For example, Utkarsh Rai, author of Offshoring Secrets highlights specific aspects of the Indian culture that show up while managing offshore projects—the compare and contrast culture, the workplace socialization practices, the importance of age and seniority, the sensitivity to criticism and the difficulty in saying no. This is in stark contrast with some elements of the western culture—the directness of criticism, the slightly circumlocutory style of communication and the focus on productivity in U.K. and the informality of work culture, the direct but sometimes overbearing style of communication and the "it's all about time and money" approach in the U.S.
These cultural differences impact interactions, communication, interpretation, understanding, productivity, comfort and commitment.
So how can we address them? Companies have adopted two routes so far: cultural awareness and culturally compatible resource deployment. Cultural awareness involves conducting workshops and sessions both offshore and offshore to make both sides aware of each other's cultural practices. In fact, such sessions are now included as a freebie in many large outsourcing programs. Culturally compatible resource deployment involves having local, native onsite persons manage the onshore client relationship or even having a culturally compatible offshore workforce (example U.K. and South Africa). The two things to be kept in mind while doing this are firstly whether the cultural barrier is addressed internally within the service provider's organization and secondly if the erosion of cost advantage is worth it.
Beyond the above, obvious solutions, companies need to keep three principles in mind to fully address cultural barriers in offshore outsourcing. The first principle is that offshore outsourcing is a two-way street. A director of a leading cultural training institute in U.K. once told me of an incident where his (not yet then) client in U.K. was complaining "the Chinese don't know how to work with us. The Indians don't know how to work with us". The director retorted, "Have you ever considered that you may not know how to work with them?" So it's as much about the buyer understanding the supplier's culture as the other way round.
The second principle is that offshore outsourcing takes conscious effort, intention and patience for cultural awareness to show up in our behavior. There are two systems in our mind—System 1, the intuitive part, and System 2, the reflective part. Our native cultural factors are in System 1, and when we learn about a new culture, it gets slotted in System 2. So unless we practice and reflect about the new culture, the intuitive aspect of our own culture will still be the only driver. Scientists have also found that our childhood cultural experience plays a major role in shaping the way we think and as we grow older, the neuroplasticity of our brain actually reduces, making change much harder.
The third and most important principle is that addressing the cultural barrier in offshore outsourcing requires a shift in individual thinking. Each culture brings in its unique perspective, and that's what is required to solve today's complex problems. But we listen to other cultures through our own judgments and prejudices. We have to be willing to let them go, to accept another. How we see other people and their differences is merely a point of view. And no one point of view is the only true or correct one.