In my previous blog post on this subject, I outlined several issues with fully integrating a remote (non-local) group of resources into an onsite (local) team of resources. On reviewing the post, it occurred to me I was falling victim to the fallacy of assumptions as I used the phrase “team” quite often without defining it. So let me start this blog post out by immediately correcting that issue by stating for the purposes of this conversation I will be using the phrase “team” to mean “any group of human resources expected to coordinate an share daily task assignments amongst the group.” So with that out of the way, I shall continue with my observations by focusing today’s post on the issues specific to integrating what are typically called offshore teams.
To put it bluntly, the three primary issues blocking full integration of the offshore team are language, culture, and time. Of these three issues, time as a function of expected office hours is the most commonly discussed and investigated in articles, books, and at conferences where the subject of offshore resourcing is the topic. Unfortunately for the industry, time is the most easily reconciled of these three issues yet it still receives the majority of debate and attention. Of the remaining two, language is sometimes raised as a barrier to team integration and culture (based on my research) is seldom raised at all. These three issues deserve some elaboration before I make suggestions on how to overcome them in the third (and final) part of this series.
Time as a function of expected office hours is (as I stated prior) the most commonly raised and discussed issue of integration not likewise attributable to any remotely located group attempting to integrate with an internal one. The issue can be summarized by simply pointing out that while it is 10:30 in the morning at the New York offices, it is 00:30 the same morning in Singapore. Any decisions, questions, designs, or updates made at 10:30 locally in New York will take a minimum of seven hours before they can be distributed to the other “team members” and vice versa. Some companies are attempting to lessen this gap in communication by utilizing so-called “near shore” resources located extra-nationally but within a more favorable time zone. The near shore strategy has proven effective, but does not address the other two integration issues I listed above.
Language barriers when directly communicating are another source of debate within the offshore resource industry, but not in the manner most pressing to most teams. With the rise of national and institutional efforts to train resources in such commonly used business languages as English and French, intrinsic language barriers are not the issue they once were a decade or more in the past. Unfortunately for teams attempting to integrate offshore resources who are not native language speakers, there is still the issue of clarity of communication. As most business analysis and quality assurance professionals can attest, the most common project issue has a root cause in mistaken assumptions or a similar breakdown in clarity of communication. As an example of the ubiquitous nature of these project issues, the agile manifesto had its genesis during a discussion on how to effectively minimize these situations as it was understood elimination was an impossible task. If we assume these to be true, then adding technical issues such as speaker phones, instant messaging systems, or video signals of differing quality will significantly multiply the encountered issues even if all parties are native speakers of the same language.
This leaves us with the most insidious of the barriers to effective offshore team integration, cultural nuances and assumptions. Cultural barriers are insidious both because they are usually unacknowledged and because they are ubiquitous. Cultural barriers are one of the reasons educational institutions offering advanced degrees in cross-cultural disciplines (ie: international finance, maritime law, etc) will usually require the candidate to spend a significant period of their study in a different culture. The thinking is a student who successfully navigates the initial “culture shock” of realizing their base assumptions about behavior and customs are not universal will successfully navigate this barrier in the future for all cultures. Unfortunately for knowledge workers the same requirement does not exist for any training or educational coursework, except in some service-oriented companies in geographic centers for international work such as Bangalore. Despite the increasingly international nature of knowledge work and information technology, students and entry level workers are still woefully ignorant of their own cultural assumptions and customs much less those foreign to them. This inadequacy creates a situation where “culture shock” (desc: A condition of confusion and anxiety affecting a person suddenly exposed to an alien culture or milieu) is both inevitable and frequent. These feelings of confusion and/or anxiety are some of the most difficult barriers to overcome when attempting to integrate a group of individuals into a cohesive team. The natural human reaction to anxiety is to either remove or run away from the perceived cause. In my personal experience this instinct usually results in the formations of cliques withing the team, with individuals sharing similar cultures banding together for comfort. The truly effective team integration then occurs within the cliques while communication outside the clique is kept to a minimum.
So now that we’ve identified some rather daunting issues with integrating individuals not c0-located in the same physical space, what next? The reality of knowledge work these days is geographic diversification. Knowledge centers are shifting from pools of talent residing in a company, institution, or region into creatively active groups brought together through shared common interests and passions. The question faced by those wishing to tap the growing creativity and talent is not whether or not to engage globally, but how to make the engagement happen efficiently. My theories and observations about how to overcome the issues and effectively engage diverse talent will be the subject of my third (and hopefully final) blog on this subject.