Over the past number of years the majority of projects I’ve been involved with have included working with consultants offshore in India. The success or otherwise of onshore/offshore teams is related to effective communication, and fostering an environment of trust and respect amongst team members.
Consultants in India are no more or less qualified or experienced than onshore consultants. However, they have an extra difficultly in that they often don’t have a direct channel of communication with the client. Also, they may not have been involved in the blueprinting phase of a project, and as such their understanding of requirements is second hand and based on project documentation. Nevertheless, working offshore should not be considered an impediment to understanding, or delivering on client requirements.
It’s important not to view off-shoring as good or bad; but rather as a fact of life. I’m currently working with consultants based in Bangalore and Kolkata. Based on my current project, and also recent experience, I’ve gathered a number of tips on how best to work with offshore consultants during the Realization and Go-live phases of a project.
1) Use Social software tools for effective communication and collaboration
The use of conventional enterprise technology to interact and collaborate with offshore consultants no longer has the same impact, and indeed can be highly inefficient and counter-productive. The traditional use of email to facilitate communication, coordination and cooperation between onshore and offshore teams is time intensive and unsuitable for group collaboration. While email does not necessarily need to be replaced, it must be used only for the distinct purpose for which it was intended i.e. the communication of private information between one or two people. Project information on tasks, deadlines etc. should not be cc’d to numerous onshore/offshore colleagues, but rather located on an accessible platform in which everyone on a project can interact e.g. a wiki.
Social software tools can facilitate new models of interaction, co-creation, collective intelligence and networking. Tools such as instant messaging, microblogging and wikis can provide an easy and effective means of communication between disparate teams onshore and offshore. These can supplement and supplant tradition face-to-face, telephone and email communications.
One of the most effective tools I use to communicate with offshore colleagues is instant messaging. A tool such as Microsoft Communicator allows for instant chat, the sharing of desktops and applications and also video conferencing. This can result in a more productive working environment, more effective and efficient collaboration and in turn lead to faster decision-making and greater productivity.
2) Create trusting relationships
Fostering a cooperative and trusting relationship between onshore and offshore teams will determine the type and characteristics of interactions. Before working with new people it’s useful to try to get to know them and their previous experiences and technical capabilities.
Sustaining effective collaboration requires trust. In order to gain this trust, there must be an alignment of behavior, relationships and culture. Knowing the background of colleagues can enable a more trusting relationship to be established early on. Also, interacting with members of their internal social network can enable a greater appreciation of their abilities. This will often provide a more insightful and honest account of someone’s abilities than a project review or managers opinion.
For new colleagues it’s often difficult to understand their background and experience. More and more SAP consultants, however, have Linkedin accounts, blogs or SDN profiles in which it’s possible to understand their backgrounds, experience, interests etc. from. This can allow for an appreciation of an individual’s strengths, and an understanding of their weaknesses. Knowing this early on can save a lot of time and effort as tasks can be more suitably allocated to those with the necessary experience.
A trusting relationship can foster a direct and candid dialog. Indians, and people from cultures that tend to avoid conflict, often find it hard to say “no” or raise problematic issues effectively. Confidence in raising issues, and saying “I don’t know” can come from building a supportive and understanding relationship, that is appreciative of the views and opinions of others.
3) Ensure plans and deliverables are coordinated
In order to ensure adherence to time commitments and deadlines, it’s necessary to fully engage and communicate plans amongst all onshore and offshore team members. Delays in one appointment or deliverable can have ripple effects on colleagues and consequent deliverables. Given the time differences between different countries/continents it can sometimes be difficult to understand the exact deadlines of specific tasks. Close of business on a particular day can mean a different time in the UK versus India. The time difference must be utilized to the advantage of the team and project e.g. At 3.30 AM GMT while the UK team is sleeping, colleagues in Bangalore will be arriving to work at 9 AM. Therefore any dependencies for development work may need to be completed the previous day before development can start in India.
Good coordination and processes need to be exercised to ensure valuable hours are not lost because of time differences. This type of effective coordination is often more difficult to realize than might be expected. Nevertheless, creating a process that works effectively can allow you to leverage the time differential for your advantage.
Using a wiki, or appropriate project management software is necessary to enable the clear and transparent coordination of deadlines and tasks. These must be outlined and assigned to individuals in a manner that ensures tasks can be worked on during all the time available. Once these are then completed, further elements of the project plan can be assigned.
In Indian business culture, following the rules and implementing correct processes is highly valued. In other countries results are what is important, often over and above following predefined processes. There may then be differences in emphasis between following established processes and achieving the desired goals. The emphasis on adhering to process or achieving results (if there is an either or), therefore must be communicated so there is an understanding of which carries most importance.
I’ve often heard criticisms of offshore being that it is not obvious what exactly they’re doing at any moment in time. This is a result of poor communication and a lack of transparency of individuals and tasks. If the status of work and tasks can be made more visible, then the coordination of time, deadlines and tasks between distributed teams can succeed more efficiently.
4) Document everything
It can sometimes be difficult to understand different accents between countries. As such, in order to remove any ambiguity it is useful to document all requirements and tasks using clear and simple english. Everyday expressions in one country, do not always translate into something understandable when heard by a foreign ear. You should not assume everything you are saying – in a conference/telephone call – is being immediately understood. Often members of an offshore team may wait until a conversation is over to analyse and try to understand what exactly was said.
When you’re on opposite sides of the globe, face-to-face meetings – where minutes are taken – are just are not going to happen, at least not very often. This is something you will just need to get used to. Working with offshore colleagues means most communication will be enabled by technology and will be through text, rather than voice or video. Documenting these communications can ensure there is no misunderstandings between how tasks/requirements are expected to be delivered.
5) Understand the culture
Culture acts as a social ‘glue’ and helps inform behavioural norms, etiquette and protocol within an organisation. There are various differences in business culture between the UK and India. These include cross-cultural differences in mindset, values and approaches to business interactions. To sustain high performing teams, it is necessary to recognise these differences and create the circumstances in which they don’t negatively impact an efficient and productive working environment.
It is important to be aware of, and to adapt to, other cultures’ way of doing things. Often people tend to take their own cultural ways of doing things for granted, and to assume their traditions are self-evident to others. The attitudes, thought patterns and behavior norms associated with a western way of working sometimes needs to be explained to others offshore. Correspondingly, offshore ways of working and behavioral norms sometimes need to be communicated to those onshore, in order to ensure a productive and efficient working relationship.
Jerry Loza outlines the following example:
“Yes” is a word you are likely hear quite a bit. If you ask your offshore counterparts if they can have a task completed by the end of business tomorrow, and they say “Yes,” you may not have received the response you think. While you think you heard “Yes, it will be done,” they are more likely saying “Yes, I understand” or “Yes, I’ll do my best.” Understand this subtly of communication, and things will go much smoother.
Another example of cultural differences relates to the rank and title of employees. In India, these are sometimes thought of as far more important than in the UK. Subordinates in western countries are expected to speak up, offer suggestions, push back and take the initiative, rather than just do what they’re told. It is important to emphasise these points to offshore colleagues i.e. that they can question designs, milestones and plans; indeed that their advice and input are critical and are respected, appreicated and required.
Good communication is the most important area to focus on for productive onshore/offshore working. It is – in my opinion – the critical success factor to enabling high-performing teams and fostering an effective and trusting relationship between disparate team members.