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To get started quickly with a remote virtual dedicated development team, it is important to define effective communication processes and take cultural differences on-board. In this report we discuss best practices for working with a remote virtual team, based on more than 18 years’ experience in India.
Some companies have an in-house software development team but need to strengthen this with additional development or test resources. This may be on a temporary or permanent basis. Other companies have no software development resources of their own and let a subcontractor manage their entire development. A third case is when a company asks a vendor to develop a full project, either by writing the requirements themselves or letting the vendor do it. If consultants from the vendor prepare the requirements using expert input from the client’s country, or have extensive experience of international projects, this may not significantly deviate from outsourcing the work to a local company hence we will not cover that case in this report.
It is common to hear of failed outsourcing and, although we have more than 18 years’ experience of working in India for clients in Europe, we aren’t familiar with this outcome. That said, of course there are challenges to be aware of but, according to our experience, it is possible to be successful in global software development by applying relatively simple and logical principles and methods.
This report covers the factors to consider in order to succeed with outsourcing to a development team in India.
Our suggestion as to how to start is based on solid, practical experience, from working with many clients. Rather than suggesting a specific process, we will suggest what kind of framework is required to succeed. The initial and most important step is to create a strong relationship with the virtual team, and to establish early on exactly what expectations the client has.
“Rather than suggesting a specific process, we will suggest what kind of framework that is required to succeed.”
Even though we always suggest that it is best to meet face-to-face when starting any business relationship, we know this is not always practical or possible. In those cases, we suggest using Skype or another video conferencing tool and share screens .
We suggest starting with an introduction of all team members on both sides (ideally over video). After this, the client can show a presentation of their company, with focus on describing the context of the tasks to be developed. The importance of need for the development team to understand the context for the project cannot be exaggerated. It is obviously difficult to try and understand things which are taken for granted in the customers’ society sitting on the other side of the globe with a different world view.
The next meeting could be a demonstration of the product, or an overview of the different aspects of the product to be developed. Screens and graphics are preferred to text or bullet points.
A third online meeting could be an open discussion to clarify input from the earlier meetings and to start to frame the task. It is also important at this stage to define the project and decide different roles and processes to be used – from communication processes to how to check in source code. We suggest two or three working sessions for this to avoid, overload information.
We normally record these meetings to be able to use them later if other employees would later be added to the team and circulate the working notes for client agreement and approval.
If a product already exists, it is advisable to let the team install this locally or, if it is a web-based solution, to get access and play around with the environment. Also, the developers may need to install the relevant development tools, get VPN licenses, decide which communication tools and which version control tools will be used. We have found Skype to be one of the best universal solutions since it works with text, voice and video and allows screen sharing. But it is also essential to use some kind of Issue or Bug Tracker  to get a better structure on which tasks should be used or which bugs should be resolved.
If the developers have never worked with people from another culture before, it is essential to give them cultural training and frameworks to help them understand the cultural differences between them and the client. We also describe specific challenges which may occur. Ideally, we want to discuss these challenges openly with the team so that the best result is achieved when both parties meet halfway. It is also good when the different participants have an open relationship, so they can discuss and work on resolving cultural challenges as and when they occur.
Indian society is more hierarchical than most Western
Regular communication and follow up is essential. This is required due to cultural differences, geographical distance and the limitations of electronic communication channels. It is much easier to misunderstand things when communicating over these distances. Follow up can be done in different ways. It can be daily SCRUM-meetings over Skype and Indian staff can, at regular intervals, show their work via sharing screens. It is also essential with high level follow up at management level to ensure that expectations are fulfilled. Also, the management will have an overview of the special skills available with the company; they can support the virtual team with additional specialists, if and when required.
We believe it is dangerous to generalise too much, as there are always differences between people from the same country or group of people. Sometimes such internal variations can be much larger than the differences between people from different countries. Having said that we still want to mention some theories and frameworks, which are useful to an understanding of some key differentiators. The reader should however avoid stereotyping people from different countries.
Leaders of global organisations must take cultural differences into consideration. Culture is hard to understand since it includes language, traditions, values, humour and much more [3, 4]. Geert Hofstede is one of the main authorities on cultural differences in particular within IT. He defined five cultural dimensions: Power Distance (PDI), Collectivism/Individualism (IND), Femininity/masculinity (MAS), Uncertainty avoidance (UAI) and Long/Short time orientation (LTO) .
We are aware of and agree with some of the criticism above, but as per our understanding the framework itself can still be used to create awareness. We strongly advise against using it to create blunt generalisations or expectations that a particular Indian will behave in any particular way, but when, the framework is used to increase understanding when certain phenomena are observed it can be helpful. A word of warning is however required; we believe that South India of today, where most of the IT companies are located, deviates from the national Indices Hofstede presents on his web page .
In the survey we made, the respondents were decision-makers from our Western clients and Indian vendors, we found that power distance, uncertainty avoidance and time orientation were the most important challenges when working together . Here is a concrete example which shows how complex a certain phenomenon can be, such as when an Indian has a hard time to say ‘No’, this can be explained by the following 3 dimensions:
Just to illustrate that westerners can also act cryptically from an Indian perspective, I will give an example of how a Swede may act. We would often avoid criticism the first few times something happens, but when the same thing happens over and over again, we may either lose our temper or, to avoid a conflict, just request to terminate the collaboration without giving reasons. The Indian staff, being used to more direct reaction, may never even understand that we reacted to the issue.
This reaction can be understood with extremely low uncertainty avoidance in Sweden. In India with higher uncertainty avoidance, it is more acceptable to show reaction early, even with emotions. Indians want feedback positive or negative as often as possible, since it reduces uncertainty, while Swedes have a tendency to give neither negative nor positive feedback.
While Swedes need to give more critical and positive feedback, Indians need to learn to say no. But to learn to work together it is essential to be aware, meet halfway and understand the other party. A westerner can help an Indian by asking open questions, avoiding ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers, or ask the Indian staff to get back with his or her answer after proper analysis. When both parties are fully aware of the cultural differences it is much easier to overcome them.
“Meet cultural differences without a judgemental attitude, but don’t accept unprofessional behaviour.”
Apart from Hofstede we would like to mention Hall, who also defined a number of cultural differences. One we have found very useful is High/Low Context dimension. We find this dimension useful since the Indian culture is very high context, which means that a lot is read between the lines, context is important, body language is more important. Since electronic media is bad for high context communication, this becomes a big issue. In face-to-face meetings and when video conferencing is used, it is normally easier to see when the other party misunderstands something. On the other hand, emails and specifications are often very low context in nature and the risk of misunderstanding is higher. In a table later in this paper we will give some examples of differences we have experienced which may have relevance for global development teams.
It is essential to meet cultural differences without a judgemental attitude, however this does not mean that unprofessional behaviour should be accepted. We recommend walking the extra mile to create such awareness with all participants involved in the outsourcing process that problems and challenges are always communicated as early as possible and that hurdles are resolved. This is not a one-sided process; there is something here for everyone to learn.
Everyone involved can be trained in cultural understanding and by reading suitable books and articles dealing with this subject. Since aspects of cultural differences may be sensitive, it may be good to start slowly and coach and train all participants over time.
To meet and get to know each other creates a good foundation for avoiding cultural misunderstandings. In our experience, social interaction helps to improve the professional relationship. We have also found it very fruitful when differences in culture and understanding are discussed openly.
Regular follow up using daily reports, and/or SCRUM meetings over Skype can help the client to better understand what is happening and avoid unexpected surprises.
When using video or telephone conferences, it’s recommended that one of the team takes notes and writes the minutes. This gives the western customer a chance to read and assess if the team has understood the context right.
Examples of cultural differences
The following list is written as a guideline on what to be careful with. It is of course a generalisation and should only be understood as that.
“Tacit knowledge can never be transferred via text or through simple explanations. It always includes an element of experience.”
Even though cultural differences are one of the main reasons for problems with IT outsourcing, there are others. One is linked to what is called ’tacit knowledge’ (silent knowledge, the knowledge that we cannot document, communicate or transfer in any simple way) .
This can be a problem even when outsourcing to people from the same country and culture. The opposite of tacit knowledge is explicit knowledge. But since all explicit knowledge requires some amount of tacit knowledge to be meaningful, this distinction is problematic. Even if it cannot be directly transferred it can be experienced. Pictures, diagrams, photos, examples can be used to communicate tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge includes things like context, experience and assumptions. Surprisingly often when we say, everyone would know, this includes tacit knowledge and may not be obvious at all to someone who does not have the same context in mind.
Mostly people are not aware of the tacit knowledge they possess and how it can be valuable to others. Knowledge which is taken for granted is often very valuable, if it can be made concrete. Effective transfer normally requires a long personal relationship and trust . Tacit knowledge can, in principle, never be transferred via text or through simple explanations in the way we can transfer explicit knowledge. It always includes an element of experience .
Tacit knowledge is a generic problem and in no way specific to cross-cultural communication. But the transfer of tacit knowledge can get more complex, when the parties are from different cultures and in different locations and, since most communication is done via electronic media, it is essential that all participants avoid any assumptions about the other participants’ situation and limitations. Instead it is essential to ask for clarifications and give fast feedback to avoid any form of misunderstanding .
To map and document tacit knowledge is essential in every kind of successful IT project implementation. But there are no standard methods to transfer this knowledge. It is possible by using concrete methods based on the situation. We have had onsite monthly meetings, where key personal have met and gone through last months delivery and discussed what is to be included in the next months. Other examples include photographing the environment the system will be used in, visits to the venue, video, prototypes, mock-ups etc. .
In this report we have discussed challenges and solutions as to how to be able to work together effectively. It is essential from the beginning that the Indian team gets a good overview and that roles and processes are well defined. Continued follow up and on-line meetings are also essential. Finally, we would like to refer to a study , which shows the most common reasons why outsourcing projects fail. Note that these are in no way specific to outsourcing across cultures and are valid for more or less any long-term relationship between parties