Outsourcing software development has never been easier for companies looking to build cutting-edge technologies and launch state-of-the-art applications and platforms.
In fact, among large companies, the average percentage allocated to outsourcing in IT budgets rose in 2018. While more advanced technologies, cloud capabilities, and collaboration tools continue to evolve to make transnational software development viable, human factors may still present the greatest challenge to outsourced engagements.
PSL, a leading software development outsourcing company in Latin America, has worked with North American clients for more than 15 years. These experiences have allowed us to become familiar with the many communication and interaction nuances that come up when working with different cultures and to gather tips for overcoming cultural barriers and ensuring smooth communications in outsourced software development engagements.
Understanding Cultural Differences
It’s unwise to assume that effective intercultural communications boil down to emails or daily stand-up meetings through video calls. As one failed interaction leads to another, teams facing completely blocked communication channels or broken pipelines usually have little understanding of where misunderstandings began in the first place.
Though not entirely conscious, cross-cultural teams are set against sharp contrasts in fields spanning from hierarchy to individuality and long-term orientation. Depending on how similar or different they are in these respects, communication can be smooth or strained, which can directly affect trust among the team.
For example, when comparing the cultural values of Colombia to those of the U.S., according to Hofstede’s 6-D Model, we can see a few dimensions in which both cultures are very similar but a couple in which they vary radically.
Hofstede’s Insights National Culture Comparison between Colombia and the U.S. Adapted from Hofstede’s Country Comparison Tool.
While similar in terms of masculinity and indulgence, Colombia and the U.S. have a deep contrast in terms of individuality. This means that for Colombians, belonging to a tight-knit circle is important, while Americans prefer individuality.
However, although frameworks such as Hofstede’s may help inform country-specific traits, values held on a more personal or corporate level can vary. To understand how communication in specific outsourcing engagements can be affected, you may need to take a closer look at organizational values.
Leaders can take certain steps toward ensuring successful collaboration with their outsourced development team by keeping the following tips in mind.
1. Research Your Outsourced Team’s Cultural Nuances
When creating a highly complex, knowledge-based product, the human element is, at least, half of the challenge. Differences in values, mannerisms, and communication styles between in-house and deployed teams will undoubtedly impact the dynamics and interactions.
Differences in values, mannerisms, and communication styles between in-house and deployed teams will undoubtedly impact the dynamics and interactions.
Therefore, being aware and sensitive to these cultural aspects is essential to achieving effective cross-cultural alignment. By understanding the cultural background of a deployed team, you will be able to anticipate and mitigate risks, as well as plan better to play to their strengths.
Along with Hofstede’s model, Edward T. Hall’s Theory of Cultural Factors may offer some insights into the communication styles of high and low context cultures, as seen below.
Hall’s Cultural Factors explanation in terms of “Overtness of messages,” “Use of non-verbal communication,” “Expression of reaction,” and “Cohesion and separation of groups.” Adapted from Edward T. Hall’s Cross-Cultural Factors theory at changingminds.org.
For example, in a high-context culture, where hierarchy and protocol are highly valued, communication will often take a deductive route and include very broad or detailed explanations before arriving at a point. To a low-context culture, where conciseness and direct communication is far more valuable, this may be frustrating or even rude.
In these cases, leaders can act as bridges between a high-context deployed team and an internal one. They may also try to sensitize vendors to issues related to hierarchical structures in order to promote participation from everyone on the team, even junior professionals.
And above all, leaders must do their homework and find out what makes their outsourced team’s culture unique.
2. Find a Way of Communicating That Works for Both Teams
The next step to achieving effective outsourcing collaboration is getting to know your counterpart’s style of communication.
Even within in-house teams, communication can be difficult, and in software development, miscommunication can be costly, to say the least. Things such as gestures or a certain way of speaking can influence the way one team sees the other, which can either support or hinder cooperation. So, small things such as greetings in emails or misconstrued interpretations of deadlines can result in awkwardness or discomfort.
U.S. companies may find communication with high-context cultures, whose nature is reserved and inexpressive, awkward. For American teams, this reservation may foster feelings that their deployed team isn’t fully engaged in the project and only responding affirmatively to everything.
In these cases, establishing a set of ground rules and dynamics where every member of your team — both deployed and in-house — can and should speak up, ask questions, and take part in a healthy debate ensures decisions are made together.
Both sides can take advantage of the experience, know-how, and skills of everyone on the team.
3. Work on Developing Strong Relationships
Ultimately, good collaboration can only be achieved when the relationship between a client and an outsourced software team is based on trust. In software development, trust is expressed when one side believes in the other’s capabilities, know-how, and that they will do the right thing ethically speaking.
A way for teams to create stronger bonds is to encourage them to build rapport and learn about each other.
This can be supported by in-person visits that allow team members to meet face-to-face and get to know each other better.
At PSL, clients often visit their outsourced team or have some team members visit them onsite for a kickoff where everyone works together face-to-face, establishing a strong relationship from the start.
4. Agree on Processes and Methodology
For software development, misunderstandings can easily be avoided by having an established methodology or set of processes that both outsourced and in-house teams agree on.
Sharing a way of doing things puts everyone on the same page, establishes a roadmap for goals and expectations, and lays down some ground rules. Agile development, especially, has been shown to help build confidence through transparent and frequent progress reports.
Agile is a good starting point for teams to establish some common ground, but it’s vital for companies to first understand their deployed team’s culture and leverage this information to better manage their team.
For instance, cultures with a very high uncertainty avoidance index (like some Eastern European countries) may expect the client to make decisions faster than the client may want to. They also may not want to pivot the product mid-flight in order to feel comfortable in an engagement.
Although this may clash with agile, leaders with high intercultural intelligence (ICI) can find ways to adapt to these cultural subtleties and still get the most out of their agile process and team.
It’s important to agree on a methodology so there’s no confusion or unsatisfactory results.
5. Align Expectations on Workload and Team Dynamics
Although some cultures may accept overtime work due to a strong sense of collectivism, as explained through Hofstede’s model, an outsourcing engagement should be made to last. This means treating your outsourced team with the same level of respect you treat in-house employees.
So, valuing your outsourced team’s health and well-being, as well as respecting their religious and national holidays, will result in greater productivity in the long run.
Comprehensive planning that takes into account release schedules, product complexity and functionality, team size, and capacity and considers any challenges that may arise must come first.
Rather than counting on having a deployed team constantly burn the midnight oil, consider time employees will be taking for special holidays, vacations, and religious events from the beginning, and plan accordingly.
All these factors go into ensuring release dates are achieved and teams are meeting their objectives.
Move Forward With an Open Mind
Overall, steps to ensure that outsourced software development teams enjoy good communication with their onshore counterpart need to be grounded on empathy and respect.
Rather than focusing on the differences, it’s about finding ways to motivate teams based on their cultural values to encourage both individual and team performance.
Afterward, forming a high-performing software development team is a matter of both sides making their policies, expectations, and values clear, as well as agreeing on procedures that will enable smooth development practices.
Getting to a point of seamless collaboration between onshore and outsourced teams may take some time, but the payoff in terms of productivity, creativity, and momentum will be worth the wait.
About the Author
Camilo is Director of Business Development at PSL where he is focused on building long-term value for clients by leveraging PSL capabilities. It’s his goal to drive a sustainable, culture-first approach to growth. Prior to PSL, he was working on private/public initiatives to leverage technology in the health, infrastructure and energy sectors and in the telecommunications industry in projects in Israel, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, the US and Taiwan. Camilo has been an advisor to multiple local startups and an assistant professor at EAFIT University, and founded a video game studio in Medellin, Colombia.
Camilo is well versed in intercultural business communication and software outsourcing partnerships. He’s a systems engineer and holds a Master of International Business from EAFIT University. When he’s not working or advising, you can find him spending time with his family, reading, riding his motorcycle or jamming out on the electric bass.