As we all know, outsourcing off-shore is a complex decision to make for a company. The reasons for doing so are generally cost saving of course, but also the hope to get the development happen faster due to a bigger and more readily available team.

When you have at last made the decision to do it, comes the difficult question of where to do it. By where I mean of course what company to use but I also mean where geographically. I’ll put myself in the shoes of a UK company as this is where I am working. So, you are based in UK and you want to use the services of people living in a remote cheaper country. Will you go in India as many have done? Will you go in Russia? Will you prefer to get closer with Eastern Europe? What about China? Then come more elements in the equation: language, time difference, reputation, process certification, etc. These are difficult parameters and indeed having 2h difference with the off-shore team surely needs a different logistic than having 8 or 10. Some argue that a big difference allows a team to work when the other is not and some will say that having a small difference allows better communication. All these questions and answers are valid, of course. But I would like to add one that is rarely taken into account: how will we get on with the local culture?

I was recently delivering a Cross-Cultural Communication Workshop for a customer which has decided to outsource in Romania. This workshop was part of a longer seminar designed to get both British and Romanian team acquire the same understanding of the project along a proper team building. This seminar happened about 20km from Dracula’s castle. By the way, for those who would not know, Dracula has indeed existed. He named was Vlad III, prince of Valachy (today Romania), but although he was incredibly violent and probably sadistic, he was not a vampire. I recommend reading his biography as I did if you are curious. Back to my topic, I have to say that it is the first time that I am working on a project that is started with so much care and energy, a real good start, but that is another story. So I had to prepare a specific workshop related to culture. And by culture, here I do not mean sharing the same movies, music or even type of clothes. Even sharing the same language is not relevant. I mean what is making a people a people; what is giving in individuals this feeling of belonging to a specific group of human beings on this planet.

I cannot really present the whole content of the workshop I delivered but I can still present some elements of it.

First of all, I shall introduce the concept of cultural dimension. There are many schools of thought regarding what elements are really describing a culture. Some like Edward T. Hall in his series of books started with Beyond Culture will emphasise on things such as time and space management. For instance, some cultures will have a more linear way to deal with time like the Germans (one task at a time) and some will have more a multi-task approach like South American countries or even France. For space, you will have also big difference like for instance simple but important things such as open and closed space. Americans will feel better in open spaces and open doors when Germans (T. Hall worked extensively on Americans and Germans) will prefer closed doors.
Some others like Geert and Gert Hofstede in Cultures and Organizations will describe a culture along 5 dimensions:

1/ Power Distance, or the way the society is dealing with power, equality and inequality.

2/ Individualism/Collectivism, or how the society is dealing with individuality inside the group.

3/ Masculinity/Feminity, or how the society is dealing with gender and their roles within the group.

4/ Uncertainty Avoidance, or: is the unknown and unexpected dangerous?

5/ Long/Short Term orientation, or what do you value best: now or tomorrow?

Each of these dimension deserve a whole article if not a book like the Hofstedes did. But if you take my word for a moment that these are indeed valuable ways of describing a culture, then you might be interested in knowing where you stand on these compared to your offshore selected service provider. That’s what I did for my customer and I can present the result and discuss it in here.

The following diagram presents the relative positioning of UK and Romania on 4 of the 5 dimensions (the studies have not included Romania in the Short/Long term Orientation but it is likely to be comparable with UK and the rest of Europe). This is the result of different studies presented in Cultures and Organisations. I have to insist on an important point: these studies have been conducted on 74 countries and the results are relative to each country included in the study. The maximum scores in each dimension is around the 100 mark; sometimes below, sometimes above. You need to check the next diagram to get the full picture.


The following diagram presents the rank within the study of UK and Romania for each dimension. The number of countries included in the study is 74. Therefore, for each dimension there is a number 1 and a number 74 which represent the min and max. Once again, this position is therefore relative and it is perfectly possible to find a country outside of the study which would score far above or even below in a dimension. But 74 countries is not a bad panel considering that the number of countries in the world is about 195 (open to debate as it seems but out of the scope of this article).

I hope that my explanations about the diagrams and dimensions are clear enough. I am here summarising hundreds of pages of studies and books. If you find it confusing, let me know and I’ll try to clarify. If you have only one thing to check in these diagrams, it is the difference between the red and the blue on each dimension. The bigger the difference the bigger …well the difference in culture.

What do we learn from this diagram? Beyond the details of each dimension, we learn that British and Romanian cultures stand quite far from each other on 4 of the 5 dimensions. We learn that misunderstanding is very likely to happen at different levels. In short, we learn that if Romania is closed geographically to UK both people are not so close. Several types of misunderstanding can happen on the project and we’d rather know beforehand then improvise during the course of the project.

I’ll take one dimension to illustrate what it means in real life terms for a project. If you consider the Power Distance Index (PDI) we see that Great Britain scores 35 in 63rd position, and Romania scores 90 in 7th position. If we understand that Power index, within a company could be related to the level of power the boss has on the subordinates, then you understand that a British manager will expect his staff to speak their mind. On the other side, the Romanian manager is used to get respect and his authority is not something to consider lightly. Then, one day, you have a member of the UK “basic” staff talking to the Romanian manager as he/she does with the British one: openly. And for some reasons the dialogue from that day has not worked very well and became more formal and cold. Nobody knows exactly why. After a while, the UK team starts to think that “these lot other there” are difficult to work with and quite incapable of proper communication. On their side the Romanian team suffers as well from the poor communication and think that the British are a bunch of difficult people, showing no respect for hard work and valuing the Romanian team work far under its real worth. In a word, both sides start to believe the other one is kind of crazy and at the minimum impossible.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? I’m afraid nobody is! You are not right or wrong because you behave like you have been taught to. You are not guilty of respecting the rules. The thing is: the rules are different. But worse: the rules are not written, they are invisible and worst of all, we are not even aware of the rules we are applying. They are the rules and that’s it. We apply them without knowing.

Of course, my scenario is not guaranteed to happen. Of course, individuals do not necessarily comply 100% with the “typical” behaviour of their country. Of course, the British in here could have travelled and be more prepared. Yes the Romanians do not have to be typical either. But whole in whole we all know in our guts that what I have described is possible if not likely. We know that this level of misunderstanding is not a crazy scenario and we also know that the consequences on a project can be dramatic.

How do I answer the initial question I used as a title: Where on earth will we outsource offshore? I’ll suggest the following: integrate in the equation the cultural challenges of the situation! Do not overlook the problem and certainly do not consider that sharing American movies on TV will make us all Americans. This is a doomed approach and also a costly one. Prepare your staff. Prepare the offshore staff. Use the services of someone experienced in such matter. Always always keep an open mind when you are in trouble and start thinking the other side is impossible. What about you? Are you impossible to work with?

I could carry on and I probably will in a future article.

Meanwhile, let’s think about IT!