What is culture and what does it mean to be a foreigner? Don’t worry; I will not give a detailed answer to these two questions; that would need 100s of pages to do so. These 2 questions, I had to ask them to myself when I married a foreigner and when I moved to live in London-UK. In fact, it is crucial to be able to answer, at least in part, to these questions to live happily with different cultures.

In short, and I’ll come back to that, living in harmony with a different culture than yours is difficult and there are so many good reasons for that that you should not feel bad about it. At the same time, we have seen in the recent years enthusiasm for off-shore outsourcing. Depending on what country you are based in, the elected off-shore country is always one which is more or less speaking your language. I’ll take two examples: United Kingdom will outsource in India due to their English heritage. France will outsource in North Africa for the same reason. Of course, other parts of the world are heavily used, like Russia, Eastern Europe, China, etc. But anyway, for at least UK and France, I can say that common language is seen as the way to work together.

Now what happens? Every day, we hear more and more about disappointed companies regarding the success of their off-shore outsourcing. And most of the time, the complains are the same and turn about inability to understand each other, deliveries that have not much to do with expectations and in the end, some managers recognise they would be far happier if they could stop dealing with “this lot over there”. In a word: misunderstanding!

The point is: communication is not about using common words and common grammar. Culture is not about TV programmes or football results (another topic for a next article regarding off-shore and call-centres). Until we acknowledge the real complexity of culture, the real meaning of belonging to a people, the serious complexity of human communication we will end-up in misunderstanding. This misunderstanding can be very costly indeed when a company is injecting huge amount of money off-shore with the expectation to get things faster and better.

Remote CommunicationIn “Beyond Culture”, Edward T. Hall, explains that whatever the domain, there is something universal in communication: the message received by a target is always composed of the message, history (previous communications), internal context (pre-programmed reactions from the receiver) and the external context. If the external and internal contexts are supposed to play an important part in the decoding of the information, we are in a “rich context”. If the message contains all the information needed for the decoding, then we say the context is “poor”. Of course we permanently adapt to the situation but there is one element we hardly adapt to: the culture and all the things that we are all supposed to know. The problem is that during a cross-cultural communication both sides of the channel will make the wrong assumptions by considering a common ground for this context. This is precisely how we end-up with reactions such as:

  • “How could they convert what we said into this?”
  • “It was quite obvious that we would not want that!”
  • “We have to tell them everything like children!”
  • And so on…

In fact, yes, when we are dealing with a different culture, just like children, we have to learn again the basics. So, I hear you say, what do we do?

First of all, we need to recognise that fact that whoever we are dealing with, as soon as they are from a different culture (and you do not have to go far from home to find that) there will be misunderstanding. It is the nature of the relationship we are creating in the first place. It will then become far easier to fail than be successful. Then we need to understand that being ISO or CMMI compliant will not solve that, it will just guarantee that the misunderstanding is following the agreed process! You will get high quality rubbish! Then we need to take action to tackle what the real problem is: a cross-cultural communication challenge.

I will not detail here all the steps you need to take to improve the communication in the context of an off-shore project bur I can mention a few:

  • Produce less plain English documentation;
  • Increase the use of modelling languages such as UML which convey the poorest context you can think of and therefore maximises your chances to share the same identical understanding;
  • Agree on the framework/process you will use and incorporate in this process steps that will identify risks, potential misunderstandings and errors as soon as possible;
  • Use a risk driven approach to your development;
  • Use an iterative development cycle with short iterations (I mean short!);
  • Increase the human to human relationship and do not trust that what you have sent in writing will happen fine. Follow-up, talk, meet and remain calm on both sides as everybody is probably trying his best;
  • Run workshops on cross-cultural communication so that everyone understands the nature of the problem to come;
  • Stop thinking you are going to change the other side. That will not happen!

In the end, in these times of globalisation, I believe it is futile to try to avoid these problems. Off-shore or not off-shore, companies are international and very often the off-shoring is in fact using another part of the same company. Belonging to the same company is a plus but not a guarantee to be understood. I strongly believe as I have experienced it myself, that working on the matter with the firm intention to remain intellectually honest and true is going to make a difference and drastically increase the likelihood of success in your projects!

Let’s think about IT!