Much of the training and advisory work we do at Global Business Culture is focused on making global outsourcing projects work more effectively. We run many cultural awareness training and global virtual team programmes for clients who have embarked on a large-scale offshoring arrangement only to find that getting people to work efficiently across the barriers of time, culture, geography and language is very challenging.
Here are a few of our thoughts on what you need to factor into the process:
Transitioning work from one country to another inevitably results in teams needing to work in an increasingly virtual environment. Tasks that used to be undertaken in one location are now passed on to another country to be performed by colleagues from a different cultural background who often have a different first language.
Working across the barriers of time zones, culture, language and technology will almost inevitably throw up a range of new and challenging situations which are going to require people to reassess the way they perform key tasks. Teams will be re-constituted, and tasks reassigned. Leaders will be asked to manage people who are located thousands of miles away, who they don’t know and probably (from a cultural perspective) don’t understand.
The issues of virtual working are not ‘soft’, and they are not peripheral to the process – they lie at the heart of how successfully you can make any outsourcing project work. If you can make virtual teams as effective as co-located teams, then half the battle is won – however if your virtual teams become malfunctioning the results can be enormously damaging and very costly.
Senior leaders need to recognise the critical nature of virtual team working and the need to give people the knowledge and skills to operate effectively in such a challenging environment. Emphasis should be placed on the following areas:
If you fail to address these issues you will regret it down the outsourcing line. Getting this right requires time, training and budget – so factor those things into you plans from the start to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Increasingly, outsourcing projects happen cross-border which inevitably results in an increased amount of cross-cultural interaction. Any international shared-service centre environment must inevitably involve a high level of complex, multi-cultural interaction and, if the bulk of your off-shore development or back office processing is India, you are likely to encounter inter-cultural challenges.
How culturally fluent are your home teams prior to any transition activities? What have you done to ensure that your new outsourced resource has a good understanding of the cultural expectations of your home teams – and more importantly of your clients? Are you even aware of what some of the key cultural challenges you are likely to encounter might be or do you prefer to pretend that everything will be fine?
In our experience, managing global cultural complexity is one of the key difficulties any major cross-border outsourcing project is likely to face. These challenges are both strategic and interpersonal but all of them can have a dramatic impact on the overall effectiveness of your operation:
Global cultural differences challenge you in a way that is complex and often concealed. Our experience is that many organisations only become fully aware of cross-cultural challenges at the point when things are starting to go badly wrong and starting to impact negatively on a host of critical metrics.
As you move work, you might find you have different parts of a process in different locations. It is always best to keep work hand-offs and feedback loops between different people in a process simple and tightly connected. Think about how the best relay teams in athletics succeed. The baton hand-offs are as important as the individual performances between hand-offs. With a change such as off-shoring you will have changed the context in which this happens for some people and they will need to develop the skills to manage a distributed process.
Here are a few considerations to bear in mind. They are important when you have a single location structure, even more so when work is distributed.
Who is the end-to-end owner of the process? Developing this role and the skills it requires are vital to bring together the different people in the process especially when there is change or improvement happening. The owner needs to have a grasp on how things are running today, a future vision of how the process should evolve and the ability to influence across functions, countries and partner organisations.
If the work hand-offs have changed then you may need to re-define what good looks like in the new context. This would cover aspects such as metrics, communication and escalation procedures and support to help implement these changes. Having people with the skills to facilitate the design of the new situation will be important.
With a distributed process and team, you might need to re-think how collaboration takes place. How will teams share simple visual performance data? How will teams carry out regular progress meetings to ensure the team is connected and working on the right topics?
When you move to a distributed process, leaders will face new challenges. It’s often the case that leaders who are already strong at delegating effectively will thrive in a distributed process. Leaders who get too involved in the work of their teams may need time and support to adjust.
The decision to outsource work to another geographic location is often predicated on the expectation of large potential cost savings and access to scalable talent pools. Whilst both goals are achievable, they can be severely impacted on by high levels of attrition at the outsourced destination (and even at home). Without wanting to sound alarmist, your approach to managing attrition could make or break your plan in the medium to long-term.
All the evidence shows that rates of attrition are higher in the outsourcing world than in other areas of business and there are a number of factors which contribute to these disappointing statistics:
Any outsourcing project needs to have the management of attrition at its core. It might sound pessimistic to start the process by assuming that many of the people you recruit will leave but unfortunately experience proves that is exactly what happens.
Ask yourselves a series of basic questions:
Unfortunately, attrition is often treated as a HR issue and fingers are pointed if attrition rates are high. The management of attrition is a whole organisation priority and senior leaders need a laser-like focus on this throughout the lifetime of the project. If fingers are to be pointed over this issue, then they should be firmly pointed at senior leaders.
We have helped dozens of organisations rise to the challenges outlined above which are inherent in any cross-border outsourcing project and would love to talk to you about how we can help your organisation become more culturally fluent.