A responsible outsourcing provider is expected to respond to a buyer’s query with a clear and open assessment of the status of a contract, as well as the risks involved in an expanded engagement. But difficult news can be tough to deliver, and not every culture has the same approach. The key is to align cultural responses so that everyone is on the same page.
“From the start we have tried to align our culture with that in the United States,” says Leo Palacios, a delivery manager with Dextra Technologies, which is headquartered in Monterrey, Mexico. “We feel we are better aligned than other companies, particularly those from China.”
Serhiy Kharytonov, an executive vice president for consulting services at SoftServe in the Ukraine, has noted that Asian cultures are process-oriented and structured, with well-defined instructions. By comparison, North American and European cultures tend to “accept flexibility, pro-activeness and the use of Agile methodologies and direct communication.”
Nearshore cultures in Latin America are somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Though the Latin American educational system is still largely based on rote learning, and the culture has conservative elements, increased exposure to the United States has changed things. “You can see the guys who are not proactive enough,” says Palacios. “They usually have not worked with US companies in the past, and don’t want to say anything against the grain.”
A World of Culture
Anglo-Saxon culture tends to be ‘low context’ and future-oriented, with expectations spelled out, whereas many Asian and Latin cultures are ‘high context’ and present-oriented, with more weight put on maintaining the status quo via reputation and politeness, rather than clarity.
“If you look at a Chinese provider, for example, a worker will never say something,” says Palacios. “However, many Indian providers have been in this business for a long time, and the cultural gap has been reduced a lot.”
Solving the problem comes from experience, and also from taking a practical approach. Providers recommend everything from intercultural training to regular team meetings encouraging feedback. It also helps to define success with benchmarks, and to celebrate accomplishments.
“You have to make sure your employees know what the customer wants,” says Palacios. “Larger engagements will require more metrics, and that is part of the challenge. You need to improve SLAs to help them out and give them the ability to measure things.”
But Kharytonov from SoftServe says that the responsibility is not only on the provider’s side. Sometimes the client needs to step up and introduce its own company culture in order for a provider to have a better understanding of clients “values, communication methods, and other pertinent cultural information.”
This speaks to the challenge of what are called high and low ‘power distance’ societies. In many Asian and some Latin cultures, there is a high power distance, with the boss always right and never challenged. By comparison, in the United States and in many northern European cultures there is less distance, and a more collegial approach pervades.
In this regard, the delivery manager is the perfect person to help solve these challenges. “As a delivery manager, I do more than make sure that projects are executed properly to meet customer requirements,” says Palacios. “I also have to ensure that the project has the correct resources, and then manage those resources by assessing leadership and technical skills. From there I can work on organizational development, and improving technical practise, while also assessing risk.”
Those are some big boots to fill, with the delivery manager clearly taking on significant responsibility to ensure that his team is responding with more than a smile and a wave to a complex, and perhaps risky, escalation of customer demands. And this plays out in business development, too.
“I am not part of the commercial business development team,” says Palacios. “However, I have to communicate with them to ensure the correct value proposition is being communicated to the customers, and that we are seen as a viable option.”
Of course, for a company like Dextra Technologies, which has additional software development centers in Aguascalientes and Guadalajara, the deeper it engages with the customer, the greater the opportunity for a long-term relationship with shared business value. “We get into our clients’ full development process,” says Palacios. “From requirements to testing and delivery. That larger focus allows us to work with them in ensuring the entire project is on target.”
The Indian Example
Working closely with a client ensures that organizations can catch cultural misalignments before they become a major headache. For example, research has shown that some Indian outsourcers will not come forward with problems at a meeting, but will then follow up with opinions by email. The Indians perhaps think they are being polite, yet the Western client considers the communication to be dysfunctional. Other examples include Indian employees saying “yes” where a Western worker says “not sure”. In effect, the Indian workers are reluctant to give bad news.
“This is why you need to have a delivery manager on the account who owns the process,” says Palacios. “On a large project, there might be more than one manager, but they have to be confident they understand the issue and are communicating clearly.”
In effect, an outsourcing engagement can create its own reality, with the client and provider bringing their strengths to the engagement. But to get there, both have to come to the table with the processes and resources to continually, and effectively, address cultural issues.