I’ve been debating the topic with which to initiate my blog, and it’s been more difficult than I had anticipated. There are simply too many subjects about which I have an opinion backed up with experience and/or research. Fortunately one presented itself recently in a peer discussion group. I felt it was better than anything else with which I could start my semi-literate rantings as the same issue has been raised during nearly all my recent interviews for lead or management positions.
The question posed was a general one about the challenges faced when attempting to integrate a team of offshore testers. I won’t go into details about the group as the person posing the question (and a majority of the responders) have what I assume to be a vested interest in there not being any challenges to integrating an offshore team since they are currently employed with companies offering testing services primarily to extra-national companies.
I’ll first give you my short answer, and then follow up with an explanation consisting of two parts. Finally I will propose a possible solution to the challenges and issues I raise in a third and final part.
So getting started already, the first factor in answering the intent of the question negatively is geographic proximity. You cannot successfully integrate remote personnel into a local team, be they developers, testers, across the river, or across a date line. Studies conducted in human interaction have shown this to be true for teams attempting to interact either across an intranet or across the internet. This leads to the logical conclusion it is a remote team interaction issue and not an “offshore” versus “onshore” issue as typically portrayed. The reasons for this failure on the part of remote teams is alluded to in several case studies where the participants reported feeling “more satisfaction” or “bonding” with their team members when conducting face to face business. It turns out there are several reasons for this phenomenon. Loosely stated, these reasons have to do with our brains naturally being wired for responding positively to passive communication in addition to active communication like talking or writing. Even with the best instant messaging/meeting technology available, humans still report a richer experience when interacting with someone they can view in three dimensions. Remote teams also find it more difficult to bond with each other through non-productive interaction, as all group interaction must be scheduled or coordinated in advance. Remote teams cannot simply “go to lunch” or join in other spontaneous moments of interaction crucial to forming attachments. Finally teams operating remote from each other often report difficulty in consistently communicating with each other due to unexpected absences, technology failures, or other inevitable glitches. Team working in close proximity can simply look into the other’s area to see if they are otherwise engaged or even in the office currently. If the network goes down, a local team can simply adjourn to a meeting room for a white board session.
The other crucial factor to team integration/bonding is history. The longer a group of people work together on a daily basis, the more they will bond/integrate. How many times have you gone on vacation, only to feel slightly out of synch with the team on your return? The same is true of personnel being transferred around from one team to another. Even if the individual people have worked together prior, the team has not yet worked so it will take time to integrate. Remote staff are usually contract staff, not employed by the hiring agency. As such these employees are by necessity to be considered as short term team members, answering an immediate need for a particular skill or to address a resource shortfall encountered during a project. Contract staff are also ultimately subject to personnel management and hiring decisions outside the control of the team with whom they are supposed to be integrating. Contract staff are employees of a different organization and as such have different goals and promotion criteria when implementing their company vision and goals. So to summarize, remote team members are all too often third-party contractors employed as a temporary solution to a short term staffing problem and are subject to placement and reassignment from outside the team and even hiring company. These factors interfere with the continuous historical flow of work performed by the designated team. Each time a new contractor(s) joins or leaves the team, integration is hampered. It does not matter if that person is replaced or if it is always a case of a new resource being added, continuity is the key to this factor. Changes to the makeup of the team will result in hindrances to full integration.
If the above mentioned issues (ie: geographic proximity and historical continuity) are true for all remote team integration, what are the issues specific to extra-national (ie: “off shore, ” “near shore,” “on shore,” etc) team integration? I’ll continue with that topic in part two of my blog.