Managing IT in a global culture

One thing that is often overlooked when managing global services is the impact of local culture. Businesses tend to assume that their values will compensate for, perhaps even override, the cultural values of their people. This is a mistake.

A well known issue is with western businesses dealing with IT services provided from India. Western culture values individualism and recognises the opinions; Indian culture is much more collective in spirit. As a result we can find working together frustrating. Indian teams often struggle to give ‘bad’ news in a timely way, and western businesses often fail to hear it when it is given.

Over the years, I have learnt that any response to a request that doesn’t include the word yes probably means no. So “we will give it our best efforts”, “it should be possible”, etc., all mean “probably not”. Similarly, where western business culture seeks out dissent, or at least tolerates it, the need to build a cohesive whole makes it very unlikely that an individual team member will point out when a western manager makes an unreasonable demand.

Of course, from a European perspective this can run West as well as East. Working across the Atlantic comes with its own challenges. American business adopted IT earlier than European business, and you can sometimes hear the frustration in American voices that they still have to explain benefits to European colleagues. Europeans also feel that American teams are ignoring their requirements, mistaking American requirements for global ones.

From America looking East, there is a frustration that Europeans want to process everything to death, that nothing can be achieved without approval from multiple compliance teams, sign-off from a workers council in Germany, insistence on fully documented requirements up-front, and so on. And even then, the French and Spanish businesses only pretend to adopt the delivered solution while actually doing their own thing.

Of course, there is much generalisation here. There are lots of very productive international working relationships. I have personally benefitted from working with colleagues in Germany, France, Sweden, India, the USA and other countries. The point is not to suggest that these issues always occur and always break things. Rather, it is to point out that pretending they never happen will certainly lead to issues.

When outsourcing, customer businesses cannot simply prescribe KPIs and SLAs and assume that the providers on the other side of the world will understand the best way to achieve them. When working with colleagues in the same business, we must understand that they will see the business differently.

The solution is of course communication. While there is certainly value in video conferencing and phone calls, face-to-face communication is key. Look someone in the eyes if you really want to understand them. It’s not a ‘jolly’ (anyone who has changed at Dubai at midnight will attest to the lack of jollity), it’s not for fun, and although it can sometimes be difficult to place the value in an accounting column it definitely exists.

Do you want to spend your time misunderstanding and arguing over telepresence, or do you want to deliver value?

Nick Ellis