I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine. ― Peter Ustinov
Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Language is the key to the heart of people. ― Ahmed Deedat
Can you erase the cultural barriers to outsourcing? Or is that simply asking for trouble? But before I get deep into this topic, here is a quick definition of culture from my daughter’s high school Sociology text book:
“Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” – Samovar and Porter (1994).
Say what? These experts insist on making a simple thing as complicated as possible, don’t they? So let’s try another definition:
“Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.” – Gudy Kunst and Kim
Sociologists explain culture as knowledge or practices shared by a group that is relatively tougher for outsiders to access, understand or accept. Bingo!
In the outsourcing world, this is the explanation that leaps to the eye when we refer to cultural barriers to outsourcing. This is also an excuse (yes, only an excuse) used by most managers when they explore the outsourcing option. However, whether you are outsourcing to a team in another country or working closely with your own team remotely, cultural barriers do apply.
According to a Harvard Business Review study, cultural barriers can be broken down into these four categories. Since HBR knows how to say it best, please refer to the original article for in-depth analysis under each category. But here’s a quick look:
From the above categories, the one area that is certainly the most problematic is communication. In this blog, I will be focusing exclusively on how communication is the single-most critical factor for outsourcing success. While the other three areas are important, it is easier to combat them than the communication issue.
Here are three reasons why communication is by far the most difficult cultural barrier to overcome, and what we can do to well, overcome it!
1. “When I said 3 PM, I actually meant 3 PM IST” – On time zones and physical limitations to communication.
Let’s face it. Communication is difficult; especially when we are separated by continents and are speaking into that ludicrous microphone. Even when we say what we want to, the chances of it cutting through the static and making it across intact is pretty remote. Add to this mix the additional fact that it is well past bed time for either you or the person on the other end of the line—a sure recipe for disastrous communication! So how can you overcome time zone and other physical limitations to communication?
2. You say potato, I say tomato – Actual versus implied meaning when communicating
Now that we have got the physical limitations out of the way, how do we get past the next critical challenge – actual versus implied meaning? I would not define this as cultural – more of a work ethic issue on both ends. How do we overcome this?
3. No news is good news? – The need for precise expectations setting and frequent communication
The client wants status updates; and he wants it, like, yesterday! But you had sent one last week, and nothing much has changed since then. So why would you send it again? Unless something has turned critical, there is not much need to communicate, right? Wrong.
As Edward T Hall puts it finely, Culture is communication, communication is culture. Cultural barriers to outsourcing do exist. You cannot do away with them 100%. But with precise and frequent communication, you can just about afford to ignore the “cultural” part of outsourcing, while boosting efficiency, innovation and team morale.
Image Credits: BRG