By Luke Bujarski
Close cultural alignment is a big part of Latin America’s appeal to U.S. companies as a BPO and ITO destination. But cultural differences or misunderstandings still can cause problems, and need to be dealt with right off the bat. Nearshore Americas interviewed experts in language and cross-cultural training to better understand specific types of cultural gaps. We also looked at how these cultural consultants are helping clients meet their expectations for offshore partnerships.
As it turns out, gaps in cultural awareness are client-specific, and can exist across various levels of an organization, both on the offshore partner side and the on the U.S. client side. According to the experts, identifying where those gaps exist and developing strategic solutions to overcome them is a critical part of the offshoring process.
A market study commissioned by Accenture surveyed 200 executives of Fortune 500 companies and found that cross-cultural training programs where able to increase productivity of their global sourcing initiatives by 26 percent. Among the biggest challenges were bridging different communication styles, different ways of completing tasks, different attitudes toward conflict, and different decision-making styles between U.S.-based clients and their offshore partners.
Who is Accountable?
When it comes to “fixing” gaps in communication between client and provider, accountability most often sits with the offshore partner. Some see it as a one-way street where the offshore partner needs to “step up” their language and business communications skills, and adapt to the way America does business. But, for those organizations looking to maximize offshore relationships, playing the blame game might not be the best way to minimize total cost of ownership on a project.
According to Vicki Flier Hudson of High Road Global Services, one manifestation of cultural misalignment is what she dubs the “yes means no” phenomenon. Yes means no happens when the offshore partner regularly affirms a clear level of understanding when being communicated timelines, commitments, and deadlines. Only later does it become obvious that the understanding was not there, or that issues have arisen on the project. Cultural differences are often at the root of these mis-alignments.
Hudson says many communication challenges “can be reduced by having an honest conversation about accent and language, and having a team protocol around that.”
Not just about accents
Diane McGreal, regional director of Global Leadership Training at Berlitz, agrees that communication gaps often originate from cultural differences. “Culture is dynamic and not just national, so effective communication across cultures requires more than simply working on accent reduction,” she says.
Within their cultural consulting division, Berlitz works with clients to analyze cross-cultural differences on six different levels: 1) organizational 2) individual 3) team 4) national/societal 5) functional 6) and identity groups. Client-specific differences across these categories can cause the type of frustration that can later lead to costly breakdowns in communication.
So at what level of an organization do these communication gaps most often occur? According to Lu Ellen Schafer with Global Savvy, a cultural consultancy based in Palo Alto, California, cultural consultants are typically brought in at the operations stage rather than at the decision-making stage of the offshoring process. “The mid-management and associate level is where you typically find critical value for cross-cultural training, because these are the people on the front lines managing the daily relationships of the offshore partnership,” Schafer says.
Act Early, and on Both Shores
When working with clients, Hudson from High Road applies her “Divided, Ignited, United” model to assess where a company is within the offshore cycle. She notes that cultural understanding in an offshore relationship is an “evolution” in attitudes and expectations. Hence, strong communication at the early stages of the offshore cycle will most often yield the best results. “In reality, companies are typically reactive rather than proactive in addressing cross-cultural communication issues.”
McGreal at Berlitz stresses that cross-cultural gaps should be addressed on both sides of the relationship. “Clients are coming to us for a specific reason, but discovering where the issues really lay and creating a holistic, customized solution is where our expertise comes in.” This usually involves cultural training for both the offshore service provider and U.S.-based client. “We conduct seminars for the U.S. team on doing business in Mexico, and a seminar for the Mexico team on doing business in the United States. We then mediate team-building initiatives between the two sides as a way to close the gaps.”
Clearly, enhanced language capability is a major consideration when it comes to shopping around for a Nearshore partner. However, English proficiency alone does not necessarily guarantee that timelines and expectations will be met. If not addressed early on, cross-cultural gaps can deteriorate relationships and communication channels. Companies and executives with years of global sourcing experience will emphasize this point. For those new to offshoring, meeting project expectations could be as easy as having productive conversations around cultural differences.